You touched on the difficulty of sustainably sourcing fabrics earlier, but could you expand a little on the general challenges of running a fashion business sustainably?
PE We had to re-educate ourselves, because it wasn’t a part of my education and the technology is changing all the time. Twenty years ago, it would have been really hard to use some of these fabrics. We realised that we needed to research and learn about these sustainable certifications, but it’s such a massive subject that you can feel like a fraud, or like you’re greenwashing. It’s all so murky – even some of these certifications put in place to help people buy with confidence don’t mean what you think. We have been learning about ‘closed-loop systems’, which basically mean that nothing is released: water is purified and put back into the system, no dyes are put into rivers, et cetera. But then there are systems with water reduction in mind, regenerative systems, the difference between compostable and biodegradable… there’s so much to think about, which is why I made a WhatsApp group. We need to be able to learn quickly, so that was an attempt to give access to experts and help people find the right answers.
That’s really cool, because media conversations around sustainability can sometimes be quite overarching or make it difficult to know where to look.
PE Definitely – it’s so hard for designers to know this, so god knows what it’s like for consumers! I use the analogy of food: if we wanted to buy an egg in the UK, we could go into a shop and know that a battery farm egg is worse than free-range, which is worse than organic. It would all be labelled clearly, but it’s so murky and confusing with clothes, so there’s a huge amount still to be done in terms of clarity and public awareness. Also, I’m absolutely not an expert on this: sustainability is complex and contradictory, and I’m really still a student. There’s no perfect way of doing things, but hopefully by doing it imperfectly over and over again, we can make steps towards a more perfect way of doing things.
The easiest solution is to create clothes that are built to last, and it does seem like your designs are deliberately classic and timeless – is that fair to say?
PE Yes, I think it’s important not to make trend-led collections. To me, the mark of success is whether someone can still wear the pieces in ten years. It might sometimes mean our clothes aren’t as jazzy or exciting as others, but we have our own followers, so it’s been a case of accumulating people that appreciate what we do along the way.
It’s also custom-built with everyday wearability in mind, and that can sometimes be frowned upon because critics do tend to favour super experimental or avant-garde designs.
PE I just didn’t want to have anything in my collections that couldn’t be sold, so I started stripping back. I don’t want to make eight different pairs of trousers for stockists to browse and only order one – and we’re a small brand; they’ll never buy all eight. So we edit tightly, but then some stockists won’t buy from us because they’re used to picking from huge rails – even though their order would realistically be the same size either way. That’s always been frustrating, but I think it’s wasteful to invest energy and resources into pieces that might never get ordered.
Does that tie into your decision to show small-scale presentations instead of traditional shows?
PE Yes, plus I really like that it’s casual. People have just come from New York, they’re about to go to Milan… Everyone is tired and stressed, so I like that people can swan in, look at the clothes and swan back out again. My friends come with their kids, and they’re there alongside the American press. I like the mixture of people, and the fact that it’s not super formal or serious.
It’s strange, because we always hear calls for fashion to slow down. Now we’re amid a global pandemic which has ground the industry to a halt and forced alternative ways of working. Do you see this slowdown lasting?
PE I hope it does. Fashion actually can slow down, and it has in the past. My grandmother had a fraction as many clothes as I have, but she didn’t need all those clothes. Culture works in swings: we live in a culture of excess and mass production, but there’s no evidence that things won’t swing back to the point where having less is more fashionable. That’s why working in this industry is exciting. As a designer, you have influence, which means you can dictate whether it’s fashionable to use furs and synthetic fabrics. That’s a very powerful and privileged position to be in.
Finally, how do you want to use your influence as a designer?
PE What we’re trying to do is constantly move and shift. Fashion is a mirror of our cultural times, so I would like the brand to stay at a size where it can keep moving and help inform relevant ways to design and make clothes. At the minute, we’re at the size where, if we want to change something and we can afford to, then we can do it the very next hour. That’s a nice position to be in.