What does sustainable fashion actually mean? In short, it’s an umbrella term for clothes that are created and consumed in a way that can be, quite literally, sustained, while protecting both the environment, ecosystems, and garment workers.
That’s why cutting CO2 emissions (going ‘carbon neutral’), addressing overproduction, reducing pollution and waste, supporting biodiversity, and ensuring garment workers are paid a fair wage and have safe conditions, are all crucial to the sustainability matrix.
In 2022, brands and small businesses not only have the post-global economic slowdown to contend with, but they also have to adhere to the increasing pressure to eradicate poor environmental practices. The fashion industry is responsible for a shocking 4-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Thankfully, we’re experiencing something of a slow fashion renaissance, and there’s an uprising among emerging small-scale Irish brands, who are not only reshaping how we think about clothing production, but who are leading by example.
For Irish designer Lia Quigley — founder and designer at Made Obvious, a luxury, hand-made fashion and accessories brand based in Madrid, Spain — creating a brand that was built upon a made-to-order production model made perfect sense.
Quigley only makes what she actually sells, minimising the possibility of waste and oversupply.
“Unsold stock can often end up in landfill or be incinerated. At Made Obvious, I’ve tried to completely eliminate the possibility of this happening,” she says via Zoom, in her bright and airy home which is perched high in the hills on the outskirts of Madrid.
“Made to order used to be the norm; in the past, people expected to wait for their clothes to be made. Now the industry has sped up so significantly that we have lost touch with the effort, time, and skill it takes to make an item of clothing. Giving more thought to the production process really helps in understanding the environmental impact of producing a garment.”
Rooted in sustainability, she first identifies the sustainable materials and labour she has at her disposal, and reverse-engineers the finished design.
“When I first set up the brand I was like ‘okay, where can I source really sustainable fabric that is printed locally, and what is the most sustainable route I can take?’ rather than starting with a product and figuring it out how to make it.”
Quigley notes that this way of working allows her to be a bit more creative, and experiment with the materials she has at her disposal.
A graduate of NCAD, and having worked as a textile designer in the fast fashion industry for over a decade, Quigley is well-versed in the effects of the industry on the environment, and it was her aim to create a brand that positively contributed to the environment.
Having only established Made Obvious during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Dublin native already has an impressive catalogue of sustainable separates and accessories, all of which are inspired by the natural world, and our need to protect it. She’s also walking the walk: all of Quigley’s prints are used on sustainable and ethically produced Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton, and handmade in her studio in Madrid.
What’s more, her studio uses Oeko-Tex 100 certified water-based inks, meaning they are non-toxic. When it comes to waste, any surplus fabric is used to craft eye and body pillows for pain relief, which Quigley developed as a result of her personal journey living with chronic pain and Fibromyalgia.
When it comes to designing at home in Ireland, Quigley is working with new-generation farmers to develop ethically-sourced wool samples, to transform into garments and accessories.
Given the production and processing of materials makes up the majority of fashion’s carbon footprint, it’s no wonder there has been a renewed focus on textile innovation across the industry of late. Understanding the impact of materials is crucial when it comes to making more sustainable purchases.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid virgin synthetics, such as polyester — which makes up 55% of clothes globally — as these are derived from fossil fuels and take years to break down.
Aoife Rooney’s eponymous label — a o i f e® Lifestyle, founded in 2017, uses ECONYL®, a regenerated nylon that includes fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and plastic waste, to bring her luxury line of bags to life.
She also works with recycled fishing nets sourced by Healthy Seas, an initiative that rescues ghost fishing nets from oceans and prevents the accidental capture of whales, turtles, birds, and other marine mammals.
Rooney’s sustainable material roster even includes biodegradable cactus leather, but admits that she was met with hesitancy when she first proposed using this alien material in her Italian workshop — who have been crafting with animal-derived materials for generations to an extremely high standard.
“I had to make them believe in myself as an Irish designer first and foremost, which was huge. Here are people in the heritage of bag making and I’m coming along going, ‘these are my designs [and] this is fabric, you’re not going to be working with your leather, you’re going to be working with all new and innovative materials,’ and so, fair play to them because they have had to learn how to work in different ways.”
For Rooney, collaboration is at the heart of circularity, which is a fundamental ethos of her brand. Every aspect of production is carefully planned to establish a circular model (the process of using what’s already in circulation to avoid creating something new), redesigning waste into functional and well-crafted products like the onyx-black Reclaimed Mini Crossbody bag.
“Our products embody smart, traceable solutions that recognise the interconnectedness of the world and the human element associated with it. This approach makes a o i f e ® fully transparent. And to combat carbon footprint, fabrics, metals, and manufacturing all take place in immediate proximity to each other.
“We’re not really going to make any changes to climate change unless we work together.”
Rooney not only donates 2.5% of each sale to Healthy Seas, she has been recognised for her sustainable efforts on an international level next to fashion giants like Gucci, Stella McCartney, and Prada.
Rooney creates feel-good fashion (without the guilt), and she is determined to pass on her expert knowledge on sustainable fashion far and wide.
When you consider there is currently enough clothing in the world to last us for the next twenty years (not including the hundreds of years it will take for microplastics in clothing to break down, once it hits landfill), that can’t be a bad thing.
“Education is key. There are 380 school initiatives that we’re running to teach children about the dangers of plastic pollution, and I’m discussing with the team about bringing those educational initiatives home to Ireland.
“We’re restoring and regenerating the environment as well through the educational initiatives and through the fabrics that we’re using,” she issues, before listing off some of the over 1,500 individuals involved in educational initiatives currently undertaken by a o i f e® Lifestyle.
It may be a cliche, but the mantra “buy less and buy better” is key when you consider that a staggering 100 billion garments are being produced globally every year, which is why Katie Earley, of Earley Hats, is determined to create headwear that is built to withstand breakneck trends.
“It’s very important for me to make high-quality headpieces that will last a lifetime and are not trend-driven. That way, the hat won’t go out of fashion, and will hopefully not end up in landfill,” says Earley, who has worked under world-famous Irish milliner Philip Treacy, designing hats for Valentino Couture, and even had a part to play in the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
“The process of making a hat takes time, patience and a lot of attention to detail. Each hat is hand-crafted on a millinery block and sewn entirely by hand.
“Straw or felt materials are ‘blocked’ (millinery term for moulding the fabric on a wooden shape) by hand using lots of steam, and held in place with blocking pins.
“The hat is then left to dry, stiffened, and wired. This process takes a few hours, and I often start blocking a new hat while that one is drying. The hat is then trimmed with ribbons, feathers, or hat pins.”
Like Made Obvious and a o i f e® Lifestyle, Earley Hats strives to make the best product — without sacrificing the environment’s welfare or her customer’s needs.
For Earley, this means ensuring her hats are made from 100% certified wool and biodegradable straw materials, as well as vintage materials to make and decorate the hats — specifically, embroidered cross-stitch tapestries, vintage ribbons, and hat flowers and trims, which only adds to the charming character of her pieces:
“I source secondhand garments and deconstruct them to make hat linings, and I use vegan cork leather for the hat sweat-bands. All my hat boxes and packaging is sourced from Irish suppliers and are 100% recyclable.
“It’s really important for me that my brand has a positive impact on the environment, and it upsets me to think about all of the clothing that goes into landfills each year, knowing that a lot of the clothes weren’t worn once.”
Characterised by heritage, colour, and detail, Earley Hats is also on a mission to make headgear a part of our everyday wardrobes, and not just an accessory to be worn to a special occasion.
Consumers surely won’t need much convincing, thanks to the Roscommon native’s selection of boaters, trilbys, berets, pillboxes, and Alice bands — all in Earley’s tantalising and saccharine shades. And with her neat studio tucked outside Roscommon town, the surrounding rural landscape offers bountiful inspiration for her fun and eco-friendly designs.