Oliva's final garment that she submitted to the TU Clothing sustainable award at GFW.

Hollie Gwinnett explores how sustainability is emerging in fashion and talks to student designer and GFW finalist about her sustainable collection.

Sustainable fashion was a growing issue for the fashion industry pre-pandemic.

As we emerge from it, how to live – and dress – sustainably has become an ever more vital concern.

2020 was a huge year for shopping ethically and nearly half of Gen Z and millennials said that sustainability has become more of a factor in how they shop, according to a report undertaken by Drapers. Because of this, fashion brands need to adapt to ensure they are keeping up in the ever-growing industry.

Graduate Fashion Week (GFW) is an event that brings together final-year university students to show off their talent in the form of mock-ups, garments, and collections.

The action-packed event started on June 12 and ends June 18. All year, students are designing their collections with the goal to send their creations down the catwalk at GFW, and to enter competitions set by GFW and their sponsors.

TU clothing by Sainsbury’s has a well-established partnership with GFW and this year the supermarket chain has launched the ‘TU Challenge 21’ with sustainability as its main theme.

The brief asked students to “think big and create a product under any fashion category, with sustainability at its heart.” The two winning graduates will each receive £5,000 and the opportunity to be advised by the TU in-house design teams. Judging for this award took place on June 4 by an industry panel including Toni Salters-Warner and Lucy Moore who are both womenswear designers for TU.

With over 80 applicants being nominated for this award, TU shortlisted it down to just 10 talented graduates, who had the opportunity to showcase their work to the panel.

Olivia started sewing from a young age and it was her Grandmother who bought her her first sewing machine. Credit: Hollie Gwinnett

One of the three finalists is NTU fashion student Olivia Rugg, 21, who has studied fashion for three years.

For her, sustainability has always been critically important.

“With stuff like this you can’t do it half-heartedly,” she says. “It’s got to be something you are genuinely interested in.”

According to a 2018 study by the United Nations, the fashion industry generates up to 20% of global water waste and sends around 21 billion tonnes of textiles to landfill. Having to cater to the demand for fast fashion, brands are distributing countless collections for their customers.

Olivia agrees, saying that brands like Boohoo and Nasty Gal are constantly rolling out garments. “They’re on trend for a month, then the trends over. So where do all the clothes go?” she asks.

To stay away from fast fashion brands, Olivia opts for second-hand retail by going charity shopping, and she isn’t alone. Mintel reported that in the last year 52% of people aged 25-34 bought second-hand clothes.

Not only does Olivia try and design sustainable clothing but she also ensures she is being as eco-friendly as possible by using end of roll and fabric scraps.

“In my hometown, there is a little fabric shop, and when I go in, I make sure to ask for end of roll. They said ‘it’s so nice that people are asking and using scrap fabric because we physically can’t use them'”.

Olivia explores why we should be investing in a modular wardrobe pulling together primary and secondary research. Credit: Olivia Rugg

Olivia describes herself as a commercial designer, which is why designing for TU clothing felt natural to her.

“Somewhere like TU clothing for Sainsbury’s was more my market level. So, I could understand from my market research reports what would work for the brand.”

In the final year, students are urged to think ‘When I leave University, what do I want to achieve as a designer?’, ‘how can I see fashion evolving?.

Olivia says: “The brief just fit how I wanted to be as a designer and what interested me.”

When designing her garments, she was initially inspired by her grandmother’s furniture.

“I was looking at identity and taste through the home and I was speaking to my grandma as she has lots of clashing prints and colours in her house,” Olivia says.

“She’s had her furniture for years and it’s because she moves it into different rooms and she is able to create a whole new look.”

Because Olivia is so interested in sustainability, she wanted to get these two elements to mix.

“That’s how I got onto the detachable idea. You have your base jacket, but you can mix and match the sleeves and the pockets. The consumer can personalise it to their own style,” Olivia explains.

She believes that if the consumer has an emotional connection to something, for example, personalisation, then they will have an attachment to the garment and therefore will be less likely to throw it out.

Olivia’s idea was inspired by her grandmothers furniture after she realised her grandmother moved furniture into different rooms to create a whole new look. Credit: Olivia Rugg

Olivia says that she was inspired by Marfa Stance, London based womenswear brand. The ‘build-your-own’ coat concept is similar to Olivia’s detachable jacket, but she believes its important to see where you sit in the market.

“This proves that it is something that a consumer wants. If you can’t find brands that are similar then it’s hard to get inspiration and you don’t know if the market even exists,” Olivia said. “It helps knowing that there is a market that genuinely care and want sustainable clothing.”

Olivia designed a detachable jacket and trousers ensuring consumers can completely personalise their outfit. Credit: Olivia Rugg

Vanessa Brown, course leader of Fashion, Knit and Textiles at NTU said that students now have an increased awareness of social and ethical issues.

She says, “A big thing for fashion is a greater emphasis on fashion services for creative forms of re-use, repair and remodelling. Fashion as a discipline will broaden and be more connected with other disciplines to improve the role clothes play in our lives and in the future of the planet.”

Looking to the future, Olivia believes sustainability will become an increasing factor in designers’ creative decisions.

“It’s so nice to see that as young designers, most of us are even just thinking about the element of sustainability. So really going forward, I feel positive that this new generation of designers are thinking about sustainability and are putting it at the forefront of their mind and thinking, ‘what are just the little things that I could do that would help.'”