London’s City Hall is perhaps the least likely venue for an exhibition on sustainable fashion, however it was the setting for the recent ‘Second Skin,’ an exhibition that first opened in Ireland and came to London for a week in late March. It was part of the Irish Design 2015 programme and posed a challenge to four Irish fashion labels to source and create a garment totally within Ireland.
The exhibition, nestled right at the bottom of the round glass building, displayed the finished garments, as well as photographs from the process of their manufacture. Starting with a series of fairly shocking facts about the fashion industry, such as ‘the Chinese textile industry creates about three billion tons of soot each year,’ and ‘in the UK 1.4 million tons of clothing is dumped onto landfills annually,’ it highlighted the ethical issues caused by the production and consumption of clothing. In the past three decades, one third of the planet’s natural resources have been consumed, and therefore it is vital that the fashion industry adapts its practices. There are, of course, also the humanitarian concerns that the production of clothing creates, such as the sweatshop conditions that many people, often young children, must work in to make the garments that we buy. It is often easy to overlook the ethical and environmental issues posed by the fashion industry, so displaying them so starkly is an important wake up call for many people. The objects on display in ‘Second Skin’ address these issues, as they are created using purely locally sourced materials and by Irish workers who were paid a fair wage.
Curator Louise Allen writes that ‘today we have become used to fast fashion [however] we don’t tend to consider the collective impact of our individual buying patterns.’ This desire for cheap clothing that is not made to last is a fairly new phenomenon. For most of the twentieth century, the emphasis was on high quality clothing that could be worn for a long period of time. Our contemporary throwaway attitude is one of the main problems facing, and indeed caused by, the fashion industry, and something that the designers in ‘Second Skin’ seek to address.
The garments created by brands Natalie B Coleman, Joanne Hynes, Lennon Courtney and Jennifer Rothwell for the exhibition are the opposite of cheap, convenience clothes. They are handmade and unique garments, all inspired by aspects of Ireland. Natalie B Coleman, for example, was inspired by books from her childhood, such as ‘The Enchanted Wood’ series by Enid Blyton, and worked with textile artist Caroline Schofield to create objects both dark and whimsical. Jennifer Rothwell drew her inspiration from folklore and mythology, working with artist Harry Clarke to create a dress that resembled stained glass windows. She used vivid purples, blues, oranges and reds to depict the Eve of St Agnes. She claims to want to reignite the Celtic revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries today.
Sonya Lennon, of Lennon Courtney, worked with a local furniture designer to create the wooden shoulder pads that adorn her dress. She says that ‘the real value of producing in Ireland is in developing collaborative relationships.’ This intimate working relationship, that used to be so important in homemade and handmade clothes, is lost when garments are made by many different people who are part of a large system. Joanne Hynes also worked with local craftsmen to create her knitted garment, however, her use of 3D printing is aspirational and looks towards the future of textile production.
This exhibition served to highlight the importance of sustainability in fashion, especially in the years to come. It also showed how unique and beautiful clothing can be when created by local craftsmen and using locally sourced materials. It also provided an interesting insight into the contemporary fashion manufacturing process. The one shame is that it was on display in London for such a limited period, and in such an unheard of and little advertised exhibition space.