Mother of Pearl designer Amy Powney teaches us how to shop sustainably

She's on a mission to make us think about ethical fashion in a whole new way
Mother of Pearl designer Amy Powney teaches us how to shop sustainably

“I guess i've always had a totally different, off-grid experience,” says the designer Amy Powney. She’s not talking, as you might expect, about turning off her iPhone after 7pm, or going on a yoga retreat once a year, but instead she is referring to a genuinely back-to-basics upbringing.

"everyone’s forgotten truly where things come from. We’ve forgotten to ask those questions.”

When she was 10, Amy’s family decamped from their home to live the simple life – in a caravan in a field in Lancashire. Her dad sunk a well and installed a domestic wind turbine for electricity. “We couldn’t just go and switch a light on. We didn’t have a car,” she says. “Not having very much triggered me to think about what we do have and where things come from. We have such convenient lifestyles, everything comes nicely packaged with a beautiful bow on it, whether that’s your food or your products or whatever, everyone’s forgotten truly where things come from. We’ve forgotten to ask those questions.”

Now 34 and the Creative Director of Mother of Pearl, the East London-based label where she started 12 years ago as an intern, Amy thinks it’s time we did start asking those, often quite difficult, questions about fashion, too. Where do my clothes come from? How were they made? Who made them? In what conditions? “I find it horrendous that for an industry built on aesthetic, we can damage so much along the way.”
The deep-rooted interest in convenience the young Amy had developed translated into a professional interest in sustainability. Having read Naomi Klein’s 1999 anti-consumerist book, No Logo, she started her degree at Kingston University determined to make ethical, organic clothing.

Back then, however, it was a niche pursuit – too difficult, too pricey, and in the era of rampant one-wear culture, something we willingly turned a blind eye to. As the business grew, though, and Amy was appointed Creative Director of Mother of Pearl in 2015, she found it impossible to reconcile her beliefs with the demands of running a successful fashion business. The problem, in short, was the relentless requirement to produce more and more.

I’m a big thinker and I want to make a massive change

In her busiest year, she remembers creating 700 pieces. It didn’t sit right with her – “I thought nobody needs this much from a small brand”– so she pulled back to creating two collections a year.

With the extra time she now had on her hands, Amy set about developing No Frills, a sustainable, ethical, traceable collection. “I wanted to make a collection I could stand behind,” she says.

Three years in development, No Frills launched last year. The timing couldn’t have been better. Sustainability has finally found a prominence in fashion; Lyst reports that there was a 47 per cent increase in searches including sustainable-related keywords in 2018 and luxury conglomerates Kering and LVMH have both made eco-friendly commitments. “We are finding that sustainability is more important to our customer than ever before,” observes Lucy Nguyen, Fenwick Women’s Buying Manager, who has increased the No Frills buy by 125 per cent for this season. “Our consumer is keen to know the story behind the product; from where it was made to how it has been produced.”

But while sustainability is undeniably a buzz word, addressing it meaningfully is by no means straightforward. “The fashion system is complex and one that involves many different environmental and social impacts across many regions, which can make it overwhelming for brands to understand what they should tackle first or how they can effect positive change,” says Sarah Needham of London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Indeed, the hardest bit of the process was just getting started. “Where do you even begin?” Amy admits. Amy and her product developer had to go “back to school”, feverishly Googling and personally tracing the supply chains all the way back to source, from the alpaca farms in Peruvian mountains to the wool farms of Uruguay and the cotton fields of Turkey. By forging personal connections with the farmers, they were able to ensure No Frills was completely traceable and transparent.

“I don’t think you can use the word ‘sustainable’ unless you’ve attacked every angle,”

What sustainability actually means can be a little wishy-washy, however. For Amy it had to be a holistic approach. “I don’t think you can use the word ‘sustainable’ unless you’ve attacked every angle,” she says. “We know where our clothes come from, we know the people have been treated correctly, we know the animals have been treated correctly, we know where it comes from at every stage – where it was grown, spun, woven, manufactured. And we know that the chemicals involved in the process were the minimum they could possibly be.”

So is it now a on-trend issue? “I don’t know if sustainability will ever become an alluring word, but I think it will become an aspirational word,” says Amy. “That’s what No Frills is about – I don’t think you can say it’s frumpy.” Indeed, her mission is never at the expense of the design. The latest collection exemplifies the Mother of Pearl aesthetic, mannish silhouettes offset with deliberately pretty, romantic detailing – think striped shirting with ruffled sleeves, boxy brocade jackets, slouchy suiting in sweet gingham, boyish denim accented with signature pearl detailing. It’s a canny move – Amy knows more people are likely to buy into the message if they like what they see.

No Frills also refuses to play into blink-and-you-miss-it trends. Amy thought it was essential to create pieces that don’t date, that are classic but different. She is vehemently anti stop-gap shopping and so the No Frills core collection will never have a sale. They are meant to be designs you can return to over and over. This is the one piece of advice Amy thinks everyone can take away. “Don’t buy anything that you put on but aren’t sure about and might just wear one night, then throw away. Only buy something that you love,” she says. “That really is the mindset I think the whole world can get behind.” And that doesn’t necessarily mean only buying pricey pieces. If something is cheap and that’s all your budget will allow, it doesn’t mean you have to be excluded from the conversation. Just make sure you really, really love that piece and will wear it over and over, advises Amy. There’s a refreshingly democratic spirit in her approach to the issue. She’s adamant that the sustainability conversation is one we should all be a part of, understanding that finger-pointing and moral one-upmanship can be detrimental to the cause. “I don’t believe sustainability should be elitist at all because we can’t fix the problem if we don’t join together,” she says.

The twist in the tale, however, is Amy has actually found No Frills to be cheaper to produce. “There is often the assumption that more sustainable materials and processes command a higher price. However, collections like these are a great illustration of how transparency and a focus on key sustainable materials can be a great starting point to produce beautiful and sustainable products,” says Sarah from London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. “My message to young designers is that it was cheaper to develop, which is not something we were expecting,” says Amy. And it doesn’t stop there.“We’ve had more press now than we’ve ever had because people are excited, we’ve got a narrative, and our sales have increased. Surely that’s a success story for anybody.”

Not that her work is done yet. “I’m a big thinker and I just want to make massive change. I want Mother of Pearl to become a successful business, of course I do, but I also want to push the message. That’s my goal,” says Amy, who admits she never enjoyed doing interviews in the past. “If I could change the UK government standards and trading standards and trading laws, that’s a bigger achievement than me just making organic clothing. If I can inspire younger designers to change and inspire the consumer to ask questions, that’s going to make a bigger impact than what we’re doing on our own. It’s not about keeping this to myself.”

Amy’s five-step guide to shopping more sustainably

Buy less
Choose quality over quantity. If you are going to buy something – at whatever price point – just know that you really love it; that it fits you well and you feel amazing in it; you know it’s a piece you’re going to wear over and over. If you put it on in the changing room and don’t feel like that, don’t buy it.

If it’s really, really cheap, there’s a reason
If a T-shirt’s Dhs14 then somebody didn’t get paid properly and some horrendous chemicals have been thrown in there. Up-buying doesn’t guarantee it’s sustainable, but, if something is really cheap then someone’s paid a cost for it.

Choose organic cotton over conventional cotton
The problem with conventional cotton is it’s pesticide grown, which destroys the soil, destroys the environment, and means the water run-off is completely contaminated. From a human rights point of view, the farmers are sold the pesticides thinking life is going to be so much better – and it is for a few years because their crops flourish – but then their soils die and they can’t grow anything. The consumer has power by how they use their money – buying organic cotton shows there’s demand for it. Tencel is also a really good yarn.

Don’t buy a one-hit-wonder polyester garment
Polyester is a massive problem, so if you
are going to buy something made from it, just know you’re going to wear it again
and again.

Reuse. Resell. And buy vintage
If you’ve got a product that you’ve fallen out of love with, can you swap it with friends or sell it on? That way, someone else gets some love out of it. Buy like this too – you give pieces more of a lifespan.

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Photos: Supplied and Instagram