The feature length Fashion Reimagined charts Powney’s journey to more sustainable fashion, as she develops a new collection for Mother of Pearl comprising clothing made as transparently, sustainably and ethically as possible, only from fabrics certified as Global Organic Textile Standard – the worldwide textile processing standard for organic fibres – such as cotton and lyocell, which is made from wood pulp and other cellulose fibres.
The film, directed by Becky Hutner, throws into stark relief the myriad, complex challenges to this – from trying to keep sight of long, winding supply chains, to deliberations over the use of wool and the amount of water required to make cotton.
Powney, 38, grew up with her sister and parents on an off-grid Lancashire farm – an experience that has driven her focus on sustainability. After leaving home in 2002 to study fashion design at London’s Kingston University, she started working at Mother of Pearl in 2006, sweeping the cutting room floor as an assistant.
From there, Powney worked her way up to studio manager, eventually taking over the helm as creative director in 2015 – placing sustainability at its heart, working to reduce its impact on the environment, by using as many organic and best-practice natural fibres, with minimal chemicals as possible, increasing the traceability of its garments (details are listed on its website), using cruelty free wool, and working closely with factories to ensure ethical practices and social responsibility.
Mother of Pearl sells direct-to-consumer online and ships internationally, and global stockists include Net-a-Porter, Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue. It has also collaborated with the likes of John Lewis on sustainable collections.
In 2017, Powney won the British Fashion Council and Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, with which she launched the No Frills collection of sweatshirts, T-shirts, jeans and denim jackets – with director Hutner stepping in to film the process of sourcing materials and creating the garments.
Released in cinemas on 3 March, Powney speaks to Drapers about her sustainability mission and what she hopes the Fashion Reimagined documentary will achieve.
What are the key challenges to building a sustainable brand?
There have been so many challenges to get Mother of Pearl to where it is today. Fashion Reimagined, by the incredible Becky Hutner, reflects some of them. From sourcing the best possible fabrics such as organic cotton and mulesing [a practice in which strips of skin are cut from a lamb’s breech and the tail are cut off, to reduce the risk of flies laying eggs in the area] free wool, to tracking and connecting supply chains, reducing carbon footprint, reducing chemical usage, reducing water usage – the list goes on, and every single part of that took considerable research.
We had to get down onto the ground [the documentary shows Powney and a Mother of Pearl colleague embark on a trip to South America to meet wool suppliers] for ourselves and see first-hand what it takes to piece this huge puzzle together.
The fashion industry is a system that simply does not allow itself to be naturally transparent and so we had to do that on our own through sheer determination and hard work. We often hit roadblocks but I was adamant that if I could not make Mother of Pearl a sustainable brand that was grounded in its ethics and offered full transparency, then I would not do it.
What are the biggest challenges you see in the future?
Now I think one of the biggest challenges is greenwashing; it is endemic in the system today and brands use this to confuse the customer and over-exaggerate their sustainability credentials.
The consumer doesn’t necessarily understand what it really takes to make a brand sustainably and with full transparency, and so can easily be blindsided by big brands and how they are marketing around this.
How can the industry support brands to be more sustainable?
Brands and businesses that are truly trying to work in green and ethically sound ways should be given support at a business level, and incentives to continue to do what they are doing.
This should not just be particular to the fashion industry but across all creative and manufacturing industries. Businesses need to be encouraged to make the right choices and that comes from a legislative and government policy approach.
What would you say to someone starting a brand now?
You can be the person that makes a difference. We’re a small brand [Mother of Pearl] and if we can do it, anyone can do it.
Put ethics, sustainability and transparency at the heart of your business and stay true to who you are.
What impact do you hope the new film will have on the industry?
For me the impact is hopefully two-fold. I hope it opens the eyes of the consumer and encourages them to ask questions, to demand more from the brands they shop from, across all areas from fashion, to furniture, to food. I hope that they are inspired to make better and more informed choices.
If I can change one person’s mindset, then the work we do and the film has succeeded.
Secondly, I hope it is the starting point on a very long road to change at a legislative level. I’m fully aware that what we have done and one film is not going to change an entire industry but we’re at a point, with the climate crisis, that change may come too late.
Difficult decisions need to be made now to ensure we are regulating the industry to take into account its impact on the planet and its people. The EU and the US seem to be making some good steps forward [such as extended producer responsibility legislation in France, Germany and Spain, requiring the separate collection of textile waste and placing responsibility for this on its original producers, leading to the establishment of nationwide textile recycling programmes] but the UK is falling behind.