Leading up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this month, the Duchess of Cambridge and the Countess of Wessex hosted an exclusive reception at Buckingham Palace for the launch of the inaugural Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. In an effort to foster partnerships and build new trade links within the fashion industry, the initiative established collaborations between established and emerging designers, artisans and manufacturers from all 53 Commonwealth countries, to highlight sustainable production and traditional craft.
“Collaboration is the way forward, to give recognition where it is duly due, and also leverage the communities that are formed when working together to create impact,” explains Shivam Punjya, founder of Behno, a New York-based brand which promotes sustainability in the workplace.
Behno manufacture from its own factory in India and was paired with a co-operative of artists, Fafine Niutao I Aotearoa, from the fourth smallest country in the world, the Pacific island of Tuvalu. For the Fashion Exchange, the duo created a repurposed wool coat certified by Woolmark and a sheer dress with freehand crochet panel techniques original from Tuvalu.
Looks created for the Fashion Exchange were designed to meet the requirements of The Green Carpet Challenge, an initiative established by sustainable consultancy firm Eco-Age which aims to amplify a brand’s commitments to ethical, social and environmental excellence. These principles include using traceable and reusable materials, minimising waste emissions and contributing to the economic and social development of communities involved in the production process.
“It’s an honour to attempt to shed new light on artisanal and factory production that's palatable for a global audience” Punjya continues from his studio in New York. “It's an interesting conversation that we have, drawing from the traditional, but simultaneously remaining unapologetically true to its essence.
For me, innovative applications of technology, shifts in retail, and a progressive consumer mindset amongst the challenges of the industry, all displace the recognition and access that artisan communities globally should command.”
Leading sustainable British-designer, Stella McCartney, created a silk ruffle gown with Oshandi, an artisan brand launched in London that weaves silks in a factory in Tamil Nadu, India. Oshandi produce naturally dyed silk fabrics using hand-weaving techniques on a handloom that results in minimal environmental footprint.
“The exchange highlighted how marketable traditionally made goods are to the fashion industry. Hopefully, this can spark more collaborations between the fashion industry and the artisan community as the
stories are just as important as the final product,” says designer Linda Mukangoga of the brand Haute Baso.
Other creative collaborations for the project included bringing over twenty designers partnered with artisans to create one-of-a-kind looks for the event; these included a dress using wool and upcycled mosquito nets embellished with handmade beads, the result of pairing of Haute Baso from Rwanda with Ugandan jewellery brand, Ihato.
“The Commonwealth connected us to a brand in Uganda with the brief of creating a sustainable design that incorporated each brand's strength,” adds Mukangoga. “Artisans are already an important part of Haute Baso's value chain so the collaboration was seamless, and the perfect opportunity to highlight the people behind the pieces.”
Brands such as Burberry, Bibi Russell, Tanya Tailor and Bernard Chandran also designed looks using their own in-house weavers and local sustainably certified suppliers and manufacturers. The project was supported by Swarovski, the International Woolmark Prize, and Matchesfashion.com, and officially launched during London Fashion Week AW'18. It included an exhibition open to the public for two weeks at Australia House and live-streamed on the digital platform Google Arts & Culture.