Traditional dress is one of the few physical symbols of cultural and socio-economic identity. Whether a folk dress, sari, couture or a dashiki, traditional clothing represents centuries of memories, social codes and class. For a new group of emerging designers, the way to work with this heritage appears to have shifted from simply preserving culture to redefining and altering tradition, making fragments of the past sustainable for the future.
London-based brand Chopova Lowena – a collaboration between British-born Laura Lowena and Bulgarian-American Emma Chopova – merges sustainability and modernity by using vintage Bulgarian fabrics and recycled textiles mixed with traditional Bulgarian styles. Their signature style, launched last year, is a recontextualised take on the Bulgarian pleated skirt or bruchnik. The original version is a three-quarter-length tie-around skirt with pleats traditionally made with bent sticks; Chopova Lowena’s version was adorned with keychains, karabiner hooks, and charms to create a bruchnik 2.0 that embodied fragments of cultural identity and folklore. Not carrying the same cultural connotations as the original means it can move from appropriation to heartfelt appreciation.
Berlin-based brand GmbH, founded by Benjamin Huseby and Serhat Işik in 2016, combines its designers’ multicultural heritage – Norwegian-Pakistani and Turkish-German – with signifiers from the club scene in their hometown of Berlin. This can particularly be seen in their take on the traditional Norwegian lusekofte, a heavy-knit sweater often worn by fishermen and inhabitants of mountain villages, which the designers make from deadstock fabrics so each one is unique.
One designer working tirelessly towards preserving history and tradition is Emily Adams Bode. Since 2016, she has been using historical techniques, such as quilting, to create upcycled clothes made primarily of resurrected antique fabrics, Victorian quilts, bed linen and grain sacks. Earlier this year, Bode collaborated with Microsoft to create the Bode Vault, an AI-powered database of quilts documenting the different patterns and styles of this traditional American art form. By reusing old, worn-out fabrics and patchworking scraps of cloth together to minimise waste, she has proven that tradition doesn’t have to be the price you pay for sustainability in fashion and a greener future, nor is advanced technology a must.
Bode is not interested in creating trends and, in contrast to the other up-and-coming designers with a finger on sustainability, she appears to be the only one even remotely worried about tradition and textile history. Perhaps this is where other designers should pay attention: if tradition becomes insignificant then the art form that created it will also crumble in the long run.
When tradition is changed, it opens up new meanings and brings new customers, as Marine Serre has proved. When she launched her brand in 2017, after winning that year’s LVMH Prize, the French designer made it clear that her brand would be sustainable. In contrast to the other designers on the Parisian couture calendar, Serre fuses her interest in upcycling with traditional couture construction. She may not have petit mains running around her studio in white coats, but numerous hours were spent constructing couture gowns out of old bedsheets, wetsuits, fleece blankets and recycled graphic T-shirts. Serre’s approach to couture is also interesting thanks to a price point set at the cost of the fabrics, which makes the clothes more affordable than the organzas, silks and crystals seen at her more traditional couture counterparts. Her vision stands as a contemporary example of trickle-up fashion theory. Look at the paradigm shift in luxury’s customers and it becomes clear that the next generation of luxury buyers will be millennials and Gen Z who are rightly concerned with fashion’s environmental cost. Change is happening right before our eyes.
Amsterdam-based designer Duran Lantink has chosen to take a different path in sustainable fashion. A finalist at the 2019 LVMH Prize, Lantink has based his brand solely upon upcycling brand new items of clothing and memorable designs from major fashion houses like Prada, Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons. His cut and sew approach to upcycling has resulted in confusing, but interesting pieces featuring meshes of brand logos and repurposed deadstock. His spliced and zero-waste approach to clothing also allows him to transform out-of-fashion pieces, a metamorphosis that is fascinating to watch. He can take jackets and coats from six different designers and make them into one new garment or a pair of fine wool dress trousers and splice them with a pair of rugged camo trousers to create what may very well be the new normal.
Even though his work is unorthodox and avant-garde, Lantink might be onto something by altering traditional dress. From changing static boots and sunglasses to a point of no recollection, and by giving new life to bygone products, Lantink is not only changing the traditional connotations these items may have but also manages to keep his finger on environmental issues whilst creating what may be the right path for future fashion production and new traditional garments. However, Lantink’s approach to upcycling makes him an easy target for cancel culture and online fashion policing with Instagram accounts like DietPrada always patrolling the web for the next cultural appropriation scandal in fashion. Lantink has yet to be officially cancelled by the web, but it could very well just be a question of when. What must be said about Lantink is that he is admirably brave in his approach, during his LVMH Prize presentation, he showed the president of the LVMH Group, Bernard Arnault his latest creation, a half-Gucci, half-Louis Vuitton bag, meshing two competing mega-corporations in one.
The ongoing diffusion of tradition paralleled with the ongoing rise in innovation we’re seeing in fashion will force traditional dress and the connotations these garments bring to a halt. Fashion history has shown in the past, that small and big revolutions or happenings in society if you will, have the power to alter the way we dress. The sustainability revolution will cause change, and traditional garments brought forward by boomers and Gen X, and the ones that came before them, are at risk of being extinct because of this. Younger generations are no strangers to rebelling against ancestral tradition or the detrimental global damages brought forward by the ones that came before them as Greta Thunberg did with her global school strike. This rebellion against the system will also prevail in fashion, as the industry is forced to change in order to save the planet.
Christian Dior’s New Look from 1947 proved that even in a post-war era, the feminine wardrobe, standards and tradition could change into something original and perhaps that is what is currently happening right in front of us as Marine Serre opts for bed-sheet couture and Duran Lantink splices camo trousers and tailoring.
We evolve and prosper by hybridising cultures, but in fashion, it appears to be diffusing tradition to the point of no recollection, moreover, not all examples are bad. Tradition isn’t dead, but the doctrine of these garments will not be the same when we pass them on to the next generation. It’s inevitable; fashion needs an update, a reboot and innovation. One could argue that it’s these things that are the driving forces of fashion, but fashion also needs reminders of bygone silhouettes, déjà-vu and history to thrive. History has proved this time and time again with garments making a comeback, some with greater cultural value than others. It’s not enough to just create something new for the sake of innovation, fashion needs its backbone, the fundamental rules created along the way.
WRITTEN BY Madeleine Holth FOR TANK MAGAZINE PRINT ISSUE AW20