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Confronting Sustainability at the Future Fashion Exhibition

The exhibition displays a weak effort to showcase truly sustainable fashion — highlighting the industry’s greatest challenge.

“Fashion is not important,” says designer, Yousef Akbar. The audience of fashion industry professionals laughs nervously. We are gathered in the dimly lit lecture theatre of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum for the Future Fashion exhibition. The exhibition is touted online as showcasing work by the best and brightest fashion students from Sydney’s most prominent fashion schools. Drawn by the undertones of sustainability in the program schedule, I’m here to learn how one of the most polluting industries will evolve in the coming years as we orbit closer to climatic annihilation.

However, as the evening draws to an underwhelming close, it’s clear this showcase has done a better job at highlighting a reluctance towards sustainability in fashion, even with its forward-looking bent.

Spread over the labyrinthine grounds of the museum, we weave past pottery, vintage automobiles and spacecraft on our way to each workshop. The future of fashion, much like this entire exhibition, is dark. At one station, people sew together wacky hybrid shirt-skirts in a barely lit space. Further on, needles pierce a communal tablecloth at the embroidery workshop, eyes squinting in the mood lighting as the thread misses the eye of the needle again and again.

We make our way through the dark towards the centre of the exhibition where the students’ works stand displayed on mannequins. Curiously, the future of fashion is represented here by no more than eight outfits by four students. Curiously, only one of the students takes to the microphone to explain her process, most of which is lost in translation as the PA system projects her voice to the caverns of the open warehouse, bypassing the small crowd directly in front of her. Sustainability isn’t mentioned. Or if it is, we can’t hear it. Amongst the eight mannequins, a black puffer jacket made from voluminous ripstop overpowers the other designs. Ripstop is a notoriously non-renewable plastic fabrication. Unless it’s made from recycled materials.

If it is, nobody mentions it.

We continue our march through the museum, peering around each corner for an echo of sustainability.

And I feel as if we may have just found it, or an iteration of it. In a space of his own, student, Christopher Potirakis, showcases digital clothing designed specifically for video game avatars. This way, users can purchase something decidedly more fire to don in the virtual world. While it’s definitely futuristic, I’m a little confused as to how it’s sustainable, if at all. In fact, the entire exhibition leaves you guessing, unless you manage to spot the designer and approach them for clarification.

The exhibition seems to be playing on the retrofuturism of the 1950s, which envisioned the year 2000 with flying cars and silver jumpsuits. But as current fashion trends continue to lean heavily on nineties and noughties nostalgia, forecasting the increasing relevance of cyber-fashion seems gratuitous.

Hoping that sustainability is to be found at the panel discussion, we file into the lecture theatre where the two designers, Akbar and Karla Špetić, sit peering into the audience. Thanks to the museum’s inexplicable insistence on romantic lighting, all they can probably see is a dark mass. It’s all very ominous considering they are literally staring at the future of fashion.

One of the first questions the moderator asks centres around the importance of sustainability to each designer’s business. While Špetić gives an honest yet noncommittal answer, admitting that her business is not sustainable, and that it would be a great effort to make it so, Akbar answers the question staring directly into the darkened blotch of the audience; “Sustainability is so important, but I don’t believe any fashion business is fully sustainable, or can be fully sustainable because there is just no such thing. Because honestly, no one needs new clothes. Shopping is not important, it’s a first world problem.”

He continues, “My view of this is that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to try and do it in the most sustainable way possible to me. I would not approach anything unless I could do it in at least a slightly better way.”

It’s an honourable sentiment and one that he seems to follow through on in some concrete ways, mentioning patternmaking which minimises waste, and using GRS-approved recycled and deadstock fabric. He utilises fabrics without prints so that colours are easier to match in existing materials.

Getting clothes into stores has always required creative compromise – most concepts are a struggle to transform into a finished product. This is truer still for sustainable garments, but there might be a way to curb the production step altogether. Next up in Akbar’s sustainability journey is DressX, a marketplace for futuristic, digital garments that can be worn using the filter technology on Snapchat and Instagram. It’s a better alternative for influencers who purchase fast fashion for a single Instagram post before discarding it. “They can also be sold as NFTs,” Akbar adds. The sustainability of NFTs is still widely disputed, as blockchain systems such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, over the whole network are known to consume more energy than entire countries. While cryptocurrencies might move towards more energy efficient processes, it remains unlikely that they will do so in a meaningful timeframe. “I’m too old school for that,” Špetić quips, “I need something tangible that I can pass down to my kids.”

As Akbar rattles off the ways he has tried to achieve sustainability, I am struck by an imponderable: Why is Karla Špetić here? Her brand clearly has no sustainability agenda, and she briefly mentions onshore production that she failed to maintain with a lot of I guesses and shrugs thrown in. If Akbar has made anything clear, it’s the effort that goes into creating a sustainable brand. In fact, he’s begun or ended most of his answers with, “it’s challenging.” Sustainability is not easy. So much of fashion is about looking effortless while actually having put considerable thought into an outfit, throwing on a pair of sneakers you waited hours in line for, or finally picking out a jumper in the morning before confronting a bedroom strewn with the rejects. But achieving a business model which champions sustainable processes is about as hard as it gets. Perhaps some thrive on problem solving more than others, but it has become clear that Špetić is the other side of the coin – the future of fashion that won’t see the planet, much less the industry, prevail in the world post-climate crisis. And if we could only apply that same effortful, attention to detail that goes into honing an aesthetic to racing towards true net-zero in the fashion industry, we wouldn’t fall far from the mark. After all, making the effortful look effortless is what this industry does best.

The future is now, and it’s clear there are a lot of budding fashion designers in the room. They giggle knowingly as Akbar discusses dreaming about the technical issues of his designs. Appropriately, futurism plays into this exhibition more than even the ageing curator probably realises. It is possible that after almost 30 years of running this showcase, she has strayed from what the title initially meant. But futurism in this context appears to be parading on sustainability without committing to it. And it shows in the measly eight outfits on display, the disparate workshops, Špetić’s blatant unpreparedness to answer sustainability questions and her self-confessed “old school” mentality. While failing dismally to address the place of sustainability in future fashion, the exhibition inadvertently, but valuably, highlights the reality of what we are facing in the fashion industry; that we must rise above outdated, lazy mindsets which default to easy, polluting processes and cost the planet dearly.

We are not here for an honourable reason. As Akbar said at the start, fashion is not important. We are all here because we are vain. Isn’t finding your passion in the subjectivity of aesthetics somewhat vain? The Future of Fashion exhibition is a call to the helm for what we need from our future fashion leaders; Those who can look beyond self-serving vanity projects and foster planet positive fashion. While highlighting how elusive sustainability is, it made it all the more apparent how vitally we need it.