This story is taken from Issue 18 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
Kaleidoscopic London-based menswear label Ahluwalia Studio wants consumers and fashion industry leaders to rethink the way they purchase and discard clothing. Founder Priya Ahluwalia has a point — with nearly three-fifths of all fashion ending up in incinerators or landfills within a year of production, our unsustainable consumption patterns are in desperate need of disruption. Thankfully, consumers are increasingly demanding that brands act more responsibly, and Ahluwalia is leading the charge, one upcycled garment at a time.
Mass consumerism has reached an all-time high. Between 2000 and 2014, global clothing production doubled, with the number of items purchased each year increasing by 60 percent according to a report by management consultancy McKinsey & Company. Fashion has become disposable and a rise in consumer spending, clothing becoming more affordable, and operations being more efficient are all to blame.
There’s an ugly truth in the fashion industry: consumers discard clothing after just seven or eight wears. Fast fashion companies in particular are taking advantage of that fact by churning out up to 25 collections per year. Luxury houses, too, have upped their production cycles as lead times have shortened.
But change is afoot. While excessive consumption is an ongoing cultural issue and consumers remain largely disconnected from the negative effects their buying habits have on the environment, a new generation of shoppers is increasingly urging companies to be more transparent about who makes their clothing and how it is made.
Brands wanting to connect with Gen Z and millennials need to align themselves with the values of their clientele and find sustainable, even circular, solutions to reduce their carbon footprint across the supply chain. The most successful companies of the future will be driven by purpose, not just growing profit margins.
Smaller brands might not have the same scale of impact as multi-billion-dollar businesses, but they can certainly set the right example for generations to come. Among the flock of fashion startups putting sustainability at their core — without making it the centerpiece of their brand marketing — is Ahluwalia Studio, founded by Priya Ahluwalia, winner of the H&M Design Award 2019.
Born in the UK to Indian and Nigerian parents, Ahluwalia had just one goal growing up in Southwest London. “I’ve wanted to do fashion for as long as I can remember,” she recalls. “I’ve always been very academic, getting straight As, so my parents were hoping I would become a doctor or something. My mom told me that if I was going to get into fashion, I had to be the best at it and work my ass off.”
Obtaining her BA at the University for the Creative Arts in Epsom, she did a stint at IVY PARK — the activewear brand co-founded by Beyoncé — where she was among the first six employees. “Within six weeks, there were 30 of us,” says Ahluwalia, who within a year had moved to Wales Bonner, where she learned the importance of protecting your brand identity.
“Grace [Wales Bonner] really showed me how amazing it is to develop a world for your clothes to live in,” Ahluwalia explains. “What’s so good about her is that you could spot a Wales Bonner man walking down the street even if he wasn’t in her clothes.”
After a year, Ahluwalia enrolled in the University of Westminster’s prestigious MA Menswear course. The school’s alumni include Vivienne Westwood, Christopher Bailey, and Coach’s Stuart Vevers. Course tutors regularly challenged Ahluwalia and her peers to come up with inventive ways to tackle fashion’s sustainability conundrum.
She was confronted with big piles of surplus garments during a visit to her father in Lagos, Nigeria. A later trip to Panipat, India — known as the global recycling capital of secondhand clothing — with her grandmother added to her revulsion at the industry’s excessive waste.
“It was mad,” she says. “Bear in mind that one of the [recycling] companies I visited said they were only at 30 percent capacity and that was just one of 500 companies in Panipat.” Ahluwalia documented her journeys in a photo-book titled Sweet Lassi. “This factory in particular recycles old clothing into new yarn and relief blankets. If it wasn’t for places like this, it would be even more horrendous.”
As well as inspiring the book, her experiences became the main point of reference for Ahluwalia’s Spring/Summer 2019 graduate collection. Her work includes patchwork trench coats, oversized denim jackets, and vintage football jerseys, an homage to the designer’s love of the sport that includes beading developed with Indian women’s union SEWA Delhi, which supports artisans and textile workers.
All items were produced using secondhand clothing donated to Ahluwalia or found in charity shops. It’s her way of contributing to a new, socially responsible fashion ecosystem that is as environmentally conscious as it is business-driven. We spoke to Ahluwalia to get her thoughts on how fashion can change and what inspires her work.
When did you start thinking about sustainable fashion?
I’m Indian and Nigerian, so it’s already in my DNA to not be wasteful — ask anyone from those cultures. You use every last bit of everything.
[However], it was during a project in my first year at Westminster. We got an online design project about working internationally. The brief was about the world in 2043 and it stated the world was almost in a post-apocalyptic state. It made me really think about how I would design if the world’s resources were depleted and certain trades were being wiped out. It made me think about using waste and working with communities and their traditional local textile trades.
In a micro-scale, you already see it happening in some places. But it’s not booming like it could be because with globalization you can get everything cheaper somewhere else.
What made you go to the University of Westminster? What did you learn there?
I sort of knew that in fashion design you always did better if you had done a masters, and me living in London with my mom put me in a position where I didn’t have to pay for loads of outgoings, so I took the chance while I had the opportunity.
My classmates were great. It was a very international course — people from New Zealand, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Denmark, Ireland, everywhere. We really bonded and learned from each other. The teachers were great as well. We had Simon Foxton, Charles Jeffrey, Eugene Reeder from Neil Barrett.
Loads of people who finish the BA go on to work for [companies like] Louis Vuitton, Dior, and KENZO. It’s a really good school to teach you to actually work, as well as being concept-led.
What do you think is the biggest threat currently facing the fashion industry?
It’s people’s insatiable need for something new all the time. Everyone’s always looking for the next thing instead of enjoying the current thing. This means things get thrown away and people’s work gets copied.
The speed is what’s bad in a lot of ways. You can work your ass off for a collection and then six weeks later it’s in ZARA. That’s not good for anyone or for the planet. It creates a culture where people think they can’t wear something again. That needs to slow down and change.
Yet things are so expensive because of the wholesale model. You pay for your fabrics, that goes times two, then that goes times 2.8 when it goes through the stores. The price goes up so high. And then I know people ask why things are so expensive, but if everyone’s paid fairly along the way and you’re getting good materials, it does end up like that.
Are consumers or the companies producing fashion driving that speed? And who’s ultimately responsible?
I think everyone is responsible on some level. Big fashion businesses are responsible for the constant advertising and slashing of prices, which encourage people to buy things they never even thought they wanted. For example, Black Friday sales get people buying three pairs of trainers just because they can. What they’ve done marketing-wise is something to be admired, but the fallout isn’t so great and the big companies need to be on the right side of history.
I also think consumers are responsible because I know it’s easy to turn a blind eye, but if you do that, you’re culpable. When someone buys something for £5, you must not have thought about how the fabric got spun, cut and dyed, and who designed it, who sewed it, and who shipped it, all for £5. It’s easy to get caught up in buying a bargain because it feels good, rather than thinking about the implications of the purchase.
[Today], if you don’t have something to wear, you can get it on the same day. That’s absolutely mad. If you want something that’s so easy to get, you don’t even think about it. The gratification is so fast. It’s easy not to think about people as people when they’re far away, but being fair to people is something the fashion industry could do with.
Sixty-six percent of consumers are willing to spend more on brands that are sustainable, but then they don’t shop this way. The deciding factors are still price and product availability. What is driving this gap?
I do agree that the accessibility of sustainability isn’t good. I know that I’m working on a collection that’s made responsibly and I’m using waste, but it can be off-putting to people because sustainability doesn’t have a good rep aesthetically and it means different things to different people.
From a designer’s point of view, it’s costly to produce products with an aim to be sustainable. The fabrics, components, and production methods cost more, and all of this needs to be passed on to the consumer through prices. I think the expensive price tag can put people off. But such spending should be thought about deeply and seen as an investment.
Luxury fashion brands are now speeding up their delivery cycles and increasingly adopting the drop system popularized by streetwear brands and fast fashion. How sustainable is that?
It seems the opposite. It’s extremely expensive fast fashion. A part of the allure of luxury is the time put into it — you look forward to it.
My friends and I call it “image gang.” Everyone wants to be part of the image gang today. You want to go somewhere to be seen in something. That’s what it’s like with labels and logomania. That kind of stuff can make people buy stuff just for the picture, and then they don’t really care after that. Even though I hate the resell market, at least luxury can be resold, but it’s turning instant gratification with certain brands and it’s turning too fast in a very expensive way.
The press and consumers often like to put labels on young designers. How have you experienced that?
I feel like the word sustainability has been thrust upon me, rather than me saying it. Which is fine, but I feel that if you would be really sustainable, you wouldn’t do anything: just sit in your house, do nothing, grow vegetables, and that’s it. All I can say is that I’m trying my best to work positively and not make my impact on the planet horrendous.
In the past, societal values and company values didn’t mix. Now businesses are forced to take a stance on social and environmental issues or risk losing credibility among the younger demographic.
I definitely think fashion will become more democratic this way. People’s voices will be heard more because they’ve now got a platform to say it. Now if you want to cause a stir, you can do that on the internet. I hope consumers become more enlightened.
But not everyone’s the same. For example, if you look at what happened with Brexit [in the UK], we live in a London bubble and can sometimes think that everyone thinks like this, but do they? So, in comparison, I do hope this drive for sustainability is happening around the country, but I haven’t gone and asked someone in Liverpool or Rochdale. I can’t speak for everyone, but I hope it tremors out and it’s a slow revolution.
When it comes to the big companies, I do believe they’re doing great things. I think [Balenciaga’s] World Food Programme initiative is a great idea and it brings millennials who are concerned about certain things into this other stuff. I do wonder if they’re still overproducing, which is the big problem.
Overproducing has never made sense to me. Surely brands would want to create a limited supply, as that’s what drives scarcity and gives a brand its allure.
Exactly. That would make it more luxurious and things wouldn’t have to go on sale. If you can create a brand that does that, you’ve arguably won. I just don’t get it. If it’s all going on sale, surely it doesn’t make sense to have so much stock.
I feel like the wholesale model might become redundant. In a way, wholesale is good because you sell product to a store so you don’t have stock sitting there. But that’s what really drives up the pricing and stores end up buying too much. But then if I would sell it [directly], I could produce too much. Unless you sell it made-to-order, but you can’t scale that business.
So how do you grow a business that remains appealing to consumers without overproducing?
I source my materials from different places. Most of it’s in the UK and some of it I got in India when I was there. Each piece is unique. Every pair of trousers that gets ordered will be made with the same lines and shapes, but the patches might be different. So if I can’t find enough of a certain fabric, it might be a different fabric or shade. Each piece will be different than anyone else’s — it will be unique to you. Logistically, it’s hard work, but the H&M Prize will really help me with that.
The production is time-consuming, because when someone invests in a made-to-order piece, it’s the only one in the world like it, so I’ll cut the materials only for them and it will make someone keep it forever. That’s something I want to look at as well. I like stories around stuff, and if you can make someone sentimental about something, they’re less likely to throw it away.
When you visited your father in Lagos in 2017, and later went to Panipat, you saw the amount of waste the fashion industry produces. The images you took during these trips became the subject of your book Sweet Lassi. Tell me what you saw.
My dad moved to Nigeria about 10 years ago, so I went to see him with my Jamaican stepdad. I’ve always seen the waste when I travelled, but at the time of this trip I was in the middle of my masters, so I might have had a critical eye.
The traders there are so fashionable. They walked through traffic jams impeccably dressed, but they were wearing weird stuff like community “mud run” T-shirts and I didn’t get where the hell they were getting this. They said there’s this market for secondhand clothing, so I went there.
That’s when I found out that secondhand clothing gets sold and it doesn’t get given. I don’t know what’s worse, as it means the local textile industry suffers. In Lagos and in India there are these traditions of going to your local tailor, but because of this resale, the clothes end up getting dumped and people buy it because it’s cheaper than going to your local tailor.
India has banned the import of resale because it destroys the local industry. So before it crosses the border, it has to be slashed, twisted, or warped in some way. I started photographing it.
To what extent did these trips inspire your debut graduate collection?
In a way, the collection was a regurgitation of everything I’m interested in. When I was in my BA, everyone would put me in a sportswear bracket. But it doesn’t have to be just sportswear, it can be more of a streetwear thing. For the collection, I was thinking about how things can travel around the world and this idea of globalized dressing, while using traditional textile techniques.
It was about looking at what people in these countries were wearing. I saw little kids playing football wearing massive T-shirts like dresses because when secondhand clothing goes to these countries, they’re often too big, as people in the US, UK, and Canada are bigger than them.
So I started playing around with changing the sizes of stuff, making things bigger by putting fabrics from sports jackets in between denim. You would see people in Lagos figuring out ways to change the size of their clothes in interesting ways, as well as customize it.
In both [Nigeria and India], people move very fast. People are always hustling for something and I like that — being in charge of who you are, more than here. People here are more on a rat race from nine to five. I wanted to use that spirit for my graduate collection.
Will that same ethos be the foundation for your Fall/Winter 2019 collection?
Yes. The next collection is a carry-on, as there was so much stuff I didn’t get to explore with this one.
When I was in India, I looked at family photos of my uncle and mom in the 1980s and 1990s. For this collection, I’m looking at these ritualistic ways of passing things on through families. My nan gave me three bangles that she got when she was married at 18. I would never take them off, as they have a lot of meaning. I also have shirts of hers and jumpers from my grandad when he passed away. If you’re going to have things that have that much meaning, it’s a really nice thing.
The context of how one person would have worn something that’s passed on compared with someone else is interesting. I wear my stepdad’s shirts a lot. Obviously he wears them to business meetings. I wear them tied up like a hoochie mama to go clubbing.
What can we learn about changing our consumption habits when it comes to fashion?
I would say take your time with purchasing stuff. You don’t need to feel the pressure to wear something new all the time. I’m not saying don’t buy anything new, but buy your wardrobe really well. My friends and I also swap stuff, for example. Also, question who made your clothes. If you really love something, you’ll keep it. Buy something that you love rather than buying two for £10 because it’s cheap.
How should fashion houses evolve when it comes to their interaction with shoppers?
Luxury needs to stay luxury, but it also needs to become accessible in the right ways. Not accessible because of a sale, but accessible by letting people into their world by showing how it’s created. That’s what gets people really interested.
High-end brands need to remember that people love their products because of the story and the craft behind their brands. These “how it’s made” Dior videos or Burberry’s Makers House, for example, show what happens behind the scenes and make people fall in love with the product.
That’s what people like Charles Jeffrey do so well. He’s great on his Instagram — he asks people questions and talks to them. He becomes accessible, so people then want to become part of that world without negating or lowering any standards. He just opens the doors a little bit. That’s really what high-end brands should concentrate on. Let people in in a way without telling them your secrets.
Who is working the industry in the right way?
I think Stella McCartney does amazingly well. Her label is made responsibly but also beautifully. The desirability is still there while she’s responsible, and you need that desirability to be there if you want people to buy into you. You need to sell a garment, not the idea of a garment just being sustainable.
I also think Martine Rose is phenomenal. I admire people like her. She’s so smart and does things on her own terms. She’s not a slave to the system. The fact that she sold her Nike collaboration on Craigslist is amazing. She’s genius and makes everyone so excited about her and her world.
Can fashion ever reach a place where its operations are fully sustainable?
No, that’s utopian nonsense. Because of the internet, people can read up on things — you can’t just feed them shit and think they’ll believe it. Just look at this plastic straw debate. Everyone is against it because people on Instagram and Twitter went crazy about it. People will become more educated and push for change. We will never be fully sustainable, but we’ll get better.
Highsnobiety magazine Issue 18 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.
- Styling: Sophie Casha
- Hair & Make-Up: Anne Timper using NARS and Lessismore
- Casting: Sarah Bunter @Buntercasting
- Photo Assistant: Andy Price
- Styling Assistant: Matthew Lee
- Model: Shane Guyher @Models 1
- Shoes & Accessories: Stella McCartney