Loving both fashion and the environment can often feel hypocritical. The fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to global waste, with over 150 billion garments being produced a year, many of which will never be bought, or if they are, will be thrown away or forgotten. So-called ‘luxury’ brands are just as much to blame as high street stores, often destroying unsold items or unused materials.
As the impact of climate change grows, buying new clothes is hard to justify. But fashion has always been about more than consumption - at best, it’s an art form and can change people’s perceptions. Designer Matthew Needham is set on doing just that — his CSM BA collection, which garnered attention from global press, explored waste free fashion, blending surplus Chanel tweed with items found on the street or in bins to create one-off pieces that are both ethical and covetable.
It also led him to work with Fashion Revolution, encouraging people to reduce waste and explore the potential of up-cycling at their DiscoMAKE events. Continually experimenting with material and cut, Matthew’s clothing is a reminder that ethical clothing doesn’t have to be any less exciting. We spoke to him about how and why he makes in the way he does, and what the future has in store for him and his creations.
Hey Matthew, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a few projects right now; I’ve just started my MA at CSM, and I’m lecturing there as well, on the BA. I’ve also been lecturing on the foundation at Kingston university - one of the projects I do there is called ‘Free’, where over two days the students go out on the street and find materials, and then on the second day they do draping, so it’s learning how to manipulate those materials and construct something new from them. I’m working on a project with the V&A which will be announced soon, that’s very exciting. I’m still working with Fashion Revolution as well, I just found out I’m going to Athens next year to do a DiscoMAKE there - we’re trying to expand more internationally.
Tell us more about fashion revolution and how you got involved with that?
Fashion revolution has been going for six years, and it started in response to the Rana Plaza disaster (the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, causing 1130 deaths and thousands of serious injuries to the garment workers there.) After I graduated in 2017 I got in touch with Orsola de Castro, the founder and creative director. We met for a coffee, and just got on like a house on fire -I became involved after that, and last year I started doing the DiscoMAKEs.
Have you always been conscious of being ethical and sustainable, or did you have a sudden lightbulb moment?
I think I’ve always been aware of the environment, and where we came from. I’ve always been interested in anthropology and how mankind curates the world around them. I say mankind deliberately because it really is men who have really put us in the position we’re in now, who have caused a lot of the damage. I realised how wasteful the industry was in my placement year. I did two placements, one in maroquinerie (leather goods), and one in textiles, both at big fashion houses. I could never have imagined how wasteful it would be. They’d make 20 samples for things in every colour and only use one. At the same time, my boyfriend at the time was from Norway, so I was spending time there and seeing this life that was so linked with nature, so different from the curated, constructed city. After that that I started to think about things differently. I started to use things that I found along the canal on my walk to uni, or surplus material from a fashion house, wood from my dad’s workshop.
"It’s the people you meet who make you question everything, who make you think differently about the world."
Do you think your education has encouraged you to think sustainably or perpetuated the unhealthier parts of the fashion system?
I think the fact that there are projects focused on sustainability is good, and it’s only really started to grow around the last 2,3 years, but it also is seen as a bit of a novelty, when it should be integrated into everything, and with my students that’s how I try to get them to think about it, from the start of the project until the end. But there’s definitely more being done, and Orsola, who I call the fountain of knowledge, is teaching on the MA course as well, which is amazing. But also I think CSM isn’t about the school itself, or the building, as much as the people. It’s the people you meet who make you question everything, who make you think differently about the world. Over half my class were international, and I learnt so much from being around this mix of people. It’s always been young people who have changed things, and I think right now young people are really aware and wanting to do things in a new way.
The phrase sustainable fashion can sometimes seem like an oxymoron, how do you think the two can coexist in relation to trends and seasons? I mean, I try and avoid using the word sustainable to describe my work because I think it has been so misused in the fashion industry. Every company now has sustainability policies, but that could be about financial sustainability, or how they treat employees, not necessarily environmental issues. It’s a word used to greenwash customers, when in reality only a small part of that garment may be ethically made. In terms of seasons, you know, there are now nine seasons a year when you include pre-fall and cruise, it’s just creating stuff for the sake of it. I was talking to a neurologist about this, at the V&A, about how people get excited when they have something new in their hands, and it been this way for the past 50 years. I want to change that; I want people to think about owning something that they can have forever, and pass on to their children. I want to question the idea of luxury and what people think of when they think of luxury.
"I mean, I try and avoid using the word sustainable to describe my work because I think it has been so misused in the fashion industry. Every company now has sustainability policies, but that could be about financial sustainability, or how they treat employees, not necessarily environmental issues. It’s a word used to greenwash customers."
In terms of starting your own label or business in the fashion industry, how do you see yourself doing that?
I don’t think it will necessarily be a fashion label, although clothes will definitely be involved. It could be a business where you get your clothes fixed, or remade for you, or if I was selling clothes, there could be this idea that you come back and the same garment gets changed every season.I think that’s what I’m hoping to figure out over the next 18 months of the MA, what shape my business, or community, is going to take.
If you could encourage everyone to do one to dress more sustainably what would they be?
To think. Do you need this piece of clothing? Where has it come from? Who made it? Why do you want it? Really questioning why you are buying something, and just thinking about the way you consume clothes. It’s important from a design perspective too, to think before you make things. It’s not just the bigger houses, I’ve interned at smaller fashion brands too, and worked in retail for years. There’s waste everywhere. If everyone thought more, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now. So yeah, just to think.