Sustainability in Luxury Fashion: Inside the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Haute Couture

Written by Myrto

With a global climate crisis on the constant rise and having survived, and still surviving, a worldwide pandemic, the pressure is put on the fashion industry for the search for better, sustainable innovations, now more than ever. Every single fashion house, from high street fashion brands to smaller local businesses has been told to rethink, recycle and rebrand themselves in order to raise awareness for the catastrophic contribution of fashion, regarding the acceleration of the climate crisis. 


So, it came as no surprise at all when the ‘big boys’ of fashion, the haute couture maisons, followed suit right away. Thus, sustainability has taken its rightful place as the newest trend of the fashion world, in the last few years. From John Galliano and Tomo Koizumi’s collaboration to exchange and upcycle previous looks from each others’ collections for Vogue, to Emily Rode’s spectacular interpretation of this year’s Met Gala theme, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, worn by none other than Lorde, the game is changing towards a new eco-friendly direction. Nonetheless, not all haute couturiers have welcomed this trend. 


Here are some examples of the good, the bad-but-at-least-they-are-trying and the absolute ugly of the Haute Couture world and their history of sustainability: 



The Good: Iris Van Herpen

 


Ever since the brand was founded in 2007, Iris Van Herpen has thrived in the Haute Couture world, not only for her intricate designs, merging the art of clothes-making with technological innovations, but also for her contribution to making the fashion sphere a better, sustainable place. 


“Fashion is an instrument for change, to shift us emotionally. Through biomimicry [I]  explore new forms of femininity for a more conscious and sustainable fashion for the future.” - Iris Van Herpen


For this couturier, the atelier represents an alchemist’s studio where the synergy of technologies of the future, such as the ultrasonic welding, laser-cutting, magnetic weaving, etc, partnered with the traditional craftsmanship of hand-embroidery and mesmerising designs echoing the patterns often found in nature, create a novel perspective on femininity, the organic femininity. It is through those organic designs that she is able to demonstrate the fusion of the past with the future, while also bringing her garments to life.


Of course, Iris Van Herpen has not earned the title of ‘The Good’, or even, one of the best, solely for her innovative garments, but also for her continuous exploration of how fashion can be created through sustainability. For her latest collection, named Earthrise, for which she was inspired by earth and ocean tones, Iris Van Herpen collaborated with Parley for the Oceans, an organisation that seeks to raise awareness for the threats that the oceans face, through which she was able to use plastic recycled from the sea, in order to create the fabric for the gowns. Thus, adding a completely new notion to the term sustainable fashion.


It is without a doubt that the maison of Iris Van Herpen is, and will continue to be, one of the most eco-conscious haute couture brands.



The Bad: Gucci


Not all brands were founded on sustainable grounds, and more so those of haute couture. However, that is not to say that because of the lack of sustainability in their past, those brands have not made it their mission to recreate themselves and take on a more eco-friendly mindset. This is the case for the house of Gucci. \

 


First founded in 1921 by the couturier Guccio Gucci in Florence, Tuscany, Gucci has become a household name, with some of the biggest stars throughout history, from the icon Grace Kelly, to Jodie Foster, Kate Moss and even Harry Styles, claiming the role of the face of Gucci. Nonetheless, when it comes to considering its effects on the environment, Gucci has not always been thriving. 


It is no secret that in the recent years Gucci, just like many of the biggest luxury brands, has been under fire for its lack of transparency when it comes to the living and working conditions of its workers, most of which are located in factories abroad, like in China, but also for the toxicity of its fabric manufacture, as well as the animal cruelty involved in some cases for the making of its garments. This is why it was rated only 6 out of 20 on the Ethical Consumer in 2017, a platform that makes ethical consumption more accessible to the public by producing shopping guides and ethical ratings of various brands, in and out of the fashion world.


Although its past remains problematic to this day, Gucci CEO Marco Bizzari’s idea of ‘we cannot wait to be perfect to act- it’s going to be too late.’, as quoted in the Luxiders article by Danielle Kelly Aviram, is the reason why it has been rated a ‘bad-but-at-least-it’s-trying’, as in the recent years this haute couture house has taken some big steps towards a more ethical future for the brand. In 2015, Gucci launched a ten year plan called Gucci Equilibrium, which consists of various different projects on how to make positive change towards both the planet and the people. Some of these projects include the ‘I was a Sari’ initiative, providing job opportunities within the world of Gucci for underprivileged Indian women, and promising to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2022 in direct operations.


This is why Gucci’s history with sustainability, however delayed that might have been, begs the question, can a fashion brand ever be completely sustainable, from its start to its finish?


The Ugly: Louis Vuitton


It is without a doubt that one of the biggest and oldest haute couture brands out there is that of Louis Vuitton. Founded first in 1854, the more-than-a-century-old haute couture maison was named the most valuable luxury brand by Forbes magazine in 2019, with an estimated net worth of over $30 billion. So, its days of glory are still very far from over, yet, Louis Vuitton remains as one of the most controversial luxury brands, when it comes to its sustainability. 


Louis Vuitton is one of the most sought after brands all over the world, however it is due to its continuous lack of transparency, when it comes to addressing and fixing issues about the working environment of their employees in manufacturing factories, to its infamous burning of unsold stock, that it was rated a 11-20% on the Fashion Transparency Index, in 2017, the second lowest score, shared by many high street and luxury brands. It was also because of its damaging environmental impact overall that it was rated a 2.5 on the Ethical Consumer scale. 


Although putting a price tag on a garment can tell you its supposed price, the making of it comes at an even greater cost, when it involves the exploitation of animals. In 2014, Last Chance for Animals, a non-profit organization working internationally to fight against animal abuse and exploitation, published a research they had been conducting for 2 years, as explained in an Oh So Ethical article, on 70 rabbit fur farms, located in Spain. These farms were responsible for supplying fur to numerous luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton. This research graphically exposed the inhumane and torturous process of the manufacture of fur, from the animals living their whole lives inside a cage, to the skinning of them, which in some cases was done when the animal was still fully conscious, to the straight killing of any animal that was dimmed ‘sick’. What causes an even greater concern is that the rabbit fur manufacture is solely one of many animal-based manufactures that many haute couture houses, like Louis Vuitton, use. 


Thus, it is no wonder that the maison of Louis Vuitton has been dimmed as the Ugly of haute couture.


When all is said and done...


Even though there exist haute couture houses which either have always followed a sustainable approach towards making and creating fashion, or they have just started their road towards making their house a more eco-conscious brand, there are still many luxury brands that fail to see the bigger picture, how their actions contribute to the climate crisis that we are experiencing and with experience in the future. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the increasing shift of Haute Couture culture towards sustainability, and as  Annelise Lecordier states in her Fashion Fidelity article: put quite simply, the fact that sustainability is becoming a bigger part of the conversation for Haute Couture and luxury brands can have positive implications for how the rest of the industry views their supply chain practices.’.