Mother of Pearl’s new collaborator isn’t a model, an influencer, or even another fashion brand; it’s a TV channel. Earlier this year, designer Amy Powney partnered with BBC Earth on a sustainability project that included a series of panels at London Fashion Week (Powney’s contribution) and a short film about fashion’s impact on the planet (produced by the BBC, naturally). Their goal was simply to raise awareness, both for Mother of Pearl’s fans and the fashion industry as a whole, but the response was so strong that both parties felt it necessary to do something bigger.
Tomorrow, Mother of Pearl will introduce a special BBC Earth capsule of nine pieces made with “peace silk”—i.e., silk that is produced from silkworm cocoons without killing the worm inside—as well as eco-friendly dyes and textiles certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard and the National Program for Organic Production.
“I think a lot of people don’t have a real grasp on the impact of fashion and that it’s one of the most polluting industries on the planet after oil and meat,” Powney says on a call from London. “In a way, this collection is a solution to that problem. We’re trying to say that you can make things better and create a more elevated product, too. Sustainable fashion doesn’t have to be hemp or hippie-ish.” To create luxe, wearable clothes with a nod to nature, Powney looked to botanical drawings and iconic BBC photographs for inspiration; the soft pink on a polka-dot wrap dress was lifted from a photo of flamingos, for instance, and a few pieces are digitally printed with massive flower designs.
The materials and sustainable manufacturing weren’t new to Powney. When she launched Mother of Pearl, in 2013, “sustainability” wasn’t part of her messaging, but she’s spent the past few years working toward ambitious goals. “In university, my graduate collection was about ethics and fair trade, and at that time the bigger focus was on social issues,” she explains. “I didn’t even know the extent of fashion’s environmental damage, and people still don’t naturally connect fashion to the environment.” After she won the British Fashion Council/Vogue?Designer Fashion Fund prize, in 2017, she put her ￡200,000 ($250,000) in prize money toward reevaluating her supply chain and transforming Mother of Pearl into a traceable, sustainable brand.
“We were a tiny company back then, and as we grew our quantities, I thought: Hold on, what is my impact? Of course, as a small brand your impact is pretty minimal compared to the massive brands. But I looked at our footprint and decided to restructure everything.” In September, she shared her new, transparent supply chain (it’s detailed on the Mother of Pearl website) and was “completely shocked by how little everyone knew about the problems in the fashion industry,” she says. “I felt quite responsible to not just create sustainable products but also tell people about it. So that’s really how this BBC project came about—they have the chance to amplify my learnings. As a small company, we can’t talk to everybody, but the BBC can reach a lot more people.”
When Powney looked for a retail partner for the collaboration, Net-a-Porter was a serendipitous match: It’s launching a new section devoted to sustainable fashion tomorrow. It will include more than 500 products by 26 designers that prioritize human, animal, and environmental welfare throughout their supply chains, including Stella McCartney, Maggie Marilyn, Veja, Ninety Percent, and, of course, Mother of Pearl’s BBC Earth capsule. Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-a-Porter’s global buying director, says sustainability is an increasingly important topic for the customer: “Net-a-Porter has stocked a number of brands who champion sustainability on the site, and with the launch of Net Sustain, we’re able to formalize our approach and identify the products that fall into this category for the ease of the customer,” she tells?Vogue. In the next few months and into 2020, the sustainability section will grow to include more designers and beauty brands. “In both the fashion and beauty industries, this is a pressing topic,” she adds. “Not surprisingly, this is something that a majority of our brands are already actively working on or are looking into developing.”
Those brands can look to Mother of Pearl as a model to follow. “A lot of people come to me and think it’s a quick fix, but it’s a thought process that has to be interwoven into how you run your company,” Powney explains. “It’s not just about using organic cotton and ticking a box. It’s about retraining the way you do everything. We have a holistic, 360-degree approach and look at our impact at every stage, from the fabrics to the people making the clothes, and we’re thinking about what happens when a customer doesn’t want them anymore.”
She’s also working with her supply chain to reduce the number of times a garment is shipped before it’s finished; an average garment travels to five countries before you receive it, according to Powney, and in many cases, it’s much more. “I’ve changed how I design, too,” she says. “I can’t do all this work in sustainability and then sell a dress that feels really seasonal. So we’ve moved towards the idea of ‘classic but not boring’ clothes. I always say there’s the argument [to be made] for the woman who buys one piece from a nonsustainable collection but wears it every day until it falls to pieces. She’s more sustainable than the girl who only buys ethical brands but has a lot of clothing in her wardrobe. So it’s a very inclusive conversation—everybody has an opportunity to do something.”
Still, the biggest takeaway for like-minded designers might be Mother of Pearl’s commercial growth. “I didn’t move our brand into a sustainable one [for any reason] other than the fact that we were making more and more product, and I couldn’t keep doing this if we didn’t do it in the right way. But when we came out to market [to introduce our new supply chain], the business grew, our profile grew, and we found that it was actually less expensive to produce our collections sustainably. So it was a win-win-win,” she says. “We’re a real success story, to be honest.”