Bianca Spender on sustainable fashion: 'There’s always a way to weave in something beautiful'

The Australian designer on her latest resort collection, being inspired by the end of corsets and making better clothes

The #MeToo movement, the 19th-century designer Emilie Flöge and the water stewardship council of Australia may seem to be unlikely inspirations for a fashion show but these are all part of the backstory for Bianca Spender’s latest collection.

On Monday the designer launched her resort collection at Australian fashion week. In a show staged in a cavernous warehouse with bare-brick walls, she sent a parade of young women down the runway in draped dresses, sculptural tops and tailored pants.

The collection was filled with glorious but unexpected combinations of mint green, terracotta, buttery yellow, royal blue and white, with a splash of fluoro orange. Even the most casual observer would have appreciated that the clothes looked both elegant and wearable.

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But there’s much more to the design of these clothes than their expertly draped finish. Firstly, Spender didn’t start off thinking about the latest trends or the hottest colours; she began by thinking about the emancipation of women. “[I was] trying to think about the role that fashion has and the role that fashion has had in our lives in giving us power and freedom and equality.”

Bianca Spender in her studio three days before her fashion week 2018 show
Bianca Spender in her studio: ‘I think [being sustainable] means being careful and respectful. That sounds really simple but it’s really complex in a creative world to be careful with your resources.’ Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

She spent hours researching the Victorian dress reform movement, which brought about the abandonment of corsets, the push for women to wear pants in the mid 19th century, and the aesthetic dress movement, to which Flöge belonged. “[The aesthetics] were like it’s not beautiful to distort women’s bodies, why are we doing this?”

The dress-reform movement also shifted the emphasis of women’s clothes away from the waist and up to the shoulders – an idea that has changed Spender’s approach to design. “It’s really interesting when your anchor point changes, how you come about designing and what you’re allowed to hold off – for me, it’s a major shift.”

In her work, she’s also attempting to untangle some of the sustainability conundrums inherent in the fashion industry. The industry is one of the most polluting in the world and is often linked to worker exploitation, but Spender is looking for solutions.

“I think [being sustainable] means being careful and respectful. That sounds really simple but it’s really complex in a creative world to be careful with your resources, to be really respectful of every metre of fabric you use.”

She has used dead-stock fabrics – those end-of-run fabrics usually discarded by manufacturers – since she started her label almost 10 ten years ago. And she has now made a commitment to increase the use of those fabrics from 23% to 50% of her production.

A model at Bianca Spender's fashion show
Spender’s Australian-made clothes are accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia. Photograph: Matt Jelonek/WireImage

In this collection, the fluoro orange, mint, butter and graphic blue print fabrics were all dead-stock fabrics. Using these fabrics makes her more creative: “I had to find ways to weave them in because they are so beautiful and compelling. There’s always a way to weave in something beautiful.”

She has worked with the same makers for many years, and her Australian-made clothes are accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia. She’s also working with a company that makes recycled polyesters and recycled fabrics, she has got rid of most of the plastic in her packaging and she has worked with The Social Outfit on a capsule collection made by refugee and new-migrant sewing technicians. Her next challenge is working with Water Stewardship Australia to look at the Chinese companies that make her silks, addressing how they can improve their water usage.

Spender also believes sustainability is about creating clothes that last and she says she has worn many of her own clothes for about 10 years. “[My collections are] always designed to not be out of fashion next season, so that is also intrinsic in it.”

She’s not alone in her push to increase fashion sustainability: other Australian high-end brands including Lee Matthews, Ginger & Smart, Arnsdorf and KitX are trying to improve things, while smaller ethical brands including Vege Threads, Pure Pods and Good Day Girl are breaking through. There’s also an industry push with initiatives including the Australian Circular Fashion conference, and online retailers including Well Made Clothes.

Spender believes change is happening: “Australians are compelled to be sustainable because we are connected to the environment in a way that you aren’t in big cities,” she says. “We’re a smaller size so we can be a bit more dynamic in how we manage it.”

But she knows there is much more to be done, individually and collectively. “I’m not going to solve it on my own, but I’m just trying to work with anyone who’s interested in working with it and look at all of these different layers to see what version I can do.”


Alexandra Spring

The GuardianTramp

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