First published by Vogue on 31 August 2018
The most satisfying thing hands down," says Amy Powney, the creative director of Mother of Pearl, "is that it's cheaper." This may be the most surprising revelation of a project that's been two and a half years in the making: the brand's No Frills line. It's a collection for which Powney has traced the supply chain right back to cotton fields and sheep farms to ensure it's as sustainable as possible, painstakingly combing through everything from air miles and packaging to farming practices and worker welfare.
The fact that doing things more sustainably has also ended up being – ever so slightly – cheaper "just blows my mind," says Powney. "I thought we were going to come out with this product that was way more expensive. Normally our development teams go to fairs and find nice fabrics – that's how we work. Whereas, actually, if you start the process right from the beginning and you keep it close, it doesn't pass through as many hands and so there aren't as many mark-ups. The challenge as a business is that you have to commit to huge volumes, but we're just clever about developing a fabric and then using it season on season."
The result is a collection that is not only more ethical, but also instantly recognisable as belonging to the brand, a cult favourite among fashion editors. The No Frills line has the chic, oversized suiting loved by customers; the masculine shirts with pie-crust collars; and plenty of Mother of Pearl's trademark faux-pearl embellishments (not sustainably made yet, sadly, but Powney's hopes are pinned on a recycled polyester version currently in development). A fringed pinafore dress is comfortably understated but elegant and distinctive. "My biggest goal was to make sustainable fashion that wasn't horrible," she says. "I wanted it to be something that you still felt great in."
This laborious project, which has taken her on fact-finding trips to Uruguay and Peru, was born of a deep-seated environmentalist streak in the designer, who as a child lived off-grid. "When I was 11, my parents decided to try and live the good life," she recalls. "We moved into a caravan while they renovated the barn that we would eventually live in, many years later. I spent my summers working in the fields. Dad put up a wind turbine for electricity and we had a well that he sunk himself. We couldn't just switch a light on; we could only watch TV if it was windy. They didn't do it to be sustainable, but living like that opened up my mind to ask, 'Well, where do these things come from?'"
No surprise then that when she graduated from Kingston School of Art, she focused her final collection on sustainability, and that in her 12 years at Mother of Pearl (rising from studio assistant to creative director), she's become increasingly exercised about the environmental and social impact of fashion. There's a lot to be concerned about, and she recommends the 2015 documentary The True Cost to anyone who wants to educate themselves. More than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers have taken their own lives since 1995, she tells me. Meanwhile, to prevent a condition known as flystrike, sheep on many Australian wool farms undergo a practice known as mulesing, in which sections of their skin are cut off without anaesthetic.
"Before I ventured into No Frills, I'd had moments where I thought, 'Should I leave this industry?'" she confesses. "So much of it is terrible. And then I thought, 'Maybe I can actually be part of the change, which will do more good than walking away from it.' The way I approach it now is maybe I can make a difference and learn about what can be done, and pass that information on so that as a whole industry we can make changes."
Mother of Pearl has always had a close relationship with its factories – Powney and her team visit them regularly. "We know them, we like them, we go for dinner with them," she says. "But so many of the problems in our industry happen earlier: it's the farming of the original crops or the animals, it's the dyeing and the weaving and the spinning. Often those people are being paid nothing. I wanted to see the whole process with my own eyes."
She feels there's a lack of government regulation in the UK's textile industry; brands can use labels like "organic" or "sustainable" to mean wildly different things. "The term 'Made in the UK' often just means that somebody sewed it here," she points out. "You assume as a consumer that because there are lots of sheep in Scotland and there are also weaving mills there, that the mills must be weaving the wool from Scotland. Often they're not – they're weaving Australian wool." Transparency, then, is at the heart of the No Frills collection: each garment will have its sustainable attributes listed clearly online so that customers can make an informed choice.
Some efforts have been more successful than others – those faux pearls are clearly a source of frustration – but she is particularly proud of the brand's new jacquard fabric, which she believes is the most sustainable in the world. The wool comes from South American farms that don't practise mulesing; the cotton comes from certified organic, socially responsible farms in Egypt. It's woven at a mill in Austria that uses steam rather than chemicals to soften the fabric. Powney's only frustration is that she can't identify the specific cotton pickers because all the cotton of the region is collected by one company and lumped in together. "I would love to be able to go and meet my cotton picker and let the customer know exactly where they're putting their money, but it's literally impossible," she says with a sigh.
The next step – along with a continuing quest to improve, and to apply the changes where possible to Mother of Pearl's main collection – is to spread the word. "We're not even proclaiming to be the most sustainable brand," says Powney. "I just wanted to show the world that it was a possibility." She's on the British Fashion Council's Positive Fashion committee and will use that position to share her learnings with young designers. "Even if I can make each brand change two things, that will have a much bigger impact than Mother of Pearl can make on its own."
In any case, she has surely debunked the assumption that doing things the right way is always more expensive. Appropriately enough, the name of the line is a humorous nod to the budget supermarket Kwik Save and its in-house food label No Frills, which was ever-present in Powney's family caravan. "Mother of Pearl always has humour in it," she explains. "This might be a serious topic, but we're still having fun."