Oscar dresses are usually associated with metres of tulle or swathes of silk, but this season some unexpected fabrics are stepping into the spotlight. When Livia Firth, eco-fashion campaigner and wife of actor Colin Firth, appeared at the Golden Globes in January, she wore an Armani gown partly made from recycled plastic bottles: the label’s first sustainable gown. The following month she attended the Baftas wearing a Paul Smith tuxedo made from ethically sourced, organic New Zealand wool and silk. At the same award ceremony nominee Viola Davis, one of the stars of The Help, stepped out in an eco-gown by Valentino made partly from recycled plastic bottles.
At the Oscars on Sunday Livia Firth will unveil another look from a yet-to-be named designer and promises to “drag along with her” another A-list celebrity. It’s part of the “Green Carpet Challenge” she launched in 2009, inviting designers to create red-carpet dresses using only materials from sustainable sources. Part of Firth’s commitment to sustainability in fashion meant lassoing “bigger names in with me”. So far Armani, Gucci, Tom Ford, YSL, Valentino and Paul Smith have responded.
“Upcycling”, or the next wave of recycling, is not about simply sewing a mismatched button on to a jacket, patching a knee hole or hippy styling. Upcycling means high-end garments fashioned from ethical materials that don’t compromise on desirability.
The British-based husband and wife design duo Clements Ribeiro have long been using old buttons, lace, threads and fabrics in their demi-couture collections. “With recycling,” Inacio Ribeiro says, “you start with last week’s newspaper and turn it into toilet paper. With upcycling, you start with some discarded fabric, and turn it into a premium, luxury garment. There is so much material out there – why create more?
“We didn’t start off to create a conscience product. But, if we do our bit to help, it is an added bonus. For us it was more a case of finding astounding fabric at vintage fairs, beautiful hand-crafted bits that told a story – it was a pity to see that all go to waste.”
“Upcycling”, according to Firth, “moves a garment up the value chain. If you start with a pre-used fibre or plain material, then have a great design brain rip it apart and re-work it, you re-value it entirely. When you add sustainability to that equation, then the idea is potentially revolutionary for fashion.”
“Re-Made in England”, a meticulously hand-crafted line, launched in 2008 by London designer Christopher Raeburn, was created almost entirely from re-appropriated military stocks of uniform and parachute fabric. Another company, sirplus.co.uk, offers men’s wear of an impressively high standard considering the garments are hand-made from what the fashion industry calls “cabbages”: offcuts and surplus fabric.
Jewellers are getting in on upcycling too. Katherine Alexander trawls vintage shops and fairs for costume jewellery that she then re-works into acrylic and resin cuffs, available from www.ateliermayer.com. Firth herself has launched a sustainable necklace, offered on her site eco-age.com.
The actress and activist Suzy Amis, wife of Oscar-winning director James Cameron, started her “Red Carpet Green Dress” initiative in 2009. “With [the release of] Avatar, it was obvious that we were going to be on the red carpet a lot and, when I started looking for dresses, I soon realised there were very few high-end, sustainable garments out there. The idea struck to have a global design contest – all the entrants have to pay a fee, which goes to charity – and that year I wore the winning design on the Oscar red carpet.”
She adds: “It was really important for me to send out a message [saying] that, yes, you can live sustainably and consciously with the planet, yet not give up on style.” At Sunday’s Oscars, the “Red Carpet Green Dress” winning dress by Miami-based Valentina Delfino will be worn by Missi Pyle, who appears in The Artist.
Eco-awareness is not only an upmarket trend. In April the Swedish retail giant H&M launches an eco line with Michelle Williams as an early adopter: the best actress nominee wore a custom-designed H&M eco dress for her turn on the Baftas red carpet. And later this spring Firth will introduce a sustainable collaboration with Yoox.com.