FEATURE | 24 June 2021

Text: Celine Lika
Pictures: Silke Schlotz for The Wasted Hour

For her Spring/Summer 2021 collection, fashion designer Phoebe English once again worked with non-virgin materials, giving waste fabrics a new life. To make her latest collection, aptly titled Nothing New Part 2, Phoebe further refined her system of fabric sourcing to make the fashion and textile industry less wasteful. 

When life slowed down drastically last year, people in the UK were only allowed to go outside for a walk for an hour each day. London-based designer Phoebe English and her team used that time to reflect, and it changed their perspective: ‘It focuses your vision on what’s right next to you’, Phoebe says. Consequently, while making the Spring/Summer 2021 collection Nothing New Part 2, they used natural dyes such as inky blue blacks created from oak galls foraged on their daily walks around Greenwich.

In addition to working with locally sourced natural dyes, they didn’t use any virgin materials, so previously unused raw materials, to make the new Phoebe English collection. Instead, the designer and her team reused other companies’ waste fabrics, just like they did for the Autumn/Winter 2020 collection Nothing New.

Only some of the finishes, such as buttons, are still new, but they are very carefully sourced. For instance, the buttons of the Collarless Dress Shirt are made in the UK from casein, a protein element occurring in milk. These Codelite® buttons perform like plastic, but they are sustainable and biodegradable.

Since the first Nothing New collection, they have been building on that and finding new partners who can support them with fabric sourcing. ‘Collaborating with new companies and helping them to work with less wasteful methods has definitely been a highlight for us this year’, Phoebe says.

They have been setting up supply chains with companies in the South of England, as close to London as possible, to minimise the fibre miles of the garments. For example, Phoebe partnered with digital printing companies. They print many metres of fabric to check colours, which can’t be used again. Phoebe has been acquiring the waste print materials to overdye them and make them into new garments. ‘We’re making something precious from material that would otherwise be left unused.’

The designer also started to work with bridal companies. With most wedding dresses being made from circular patterns and fabric being a rectangle, there are many triangle cut-outs that are left unused. In Phoebe English’s collections, these fabrics get a new life.

Since this is already the second collection made with ‘nothing new’, Phoebe has been able to improve her system of sourcing fabrics. For instance, she limited the number of businesses which pass their waste materials on to her. ‘When we were working on the first Nothing New collection, we were working with a long list of suppliers.’ With so many different locations to travel to and teams to collaborate with, the logistics of sourcing fabrics for the collection were quite complicated.

‘Now that we’ve trialled that system, we’ve learned that the best way to do it is to work with a handful of those places and gain a relationship moving forward.’ In other words, Phoebe English’s nothing new approach is constantly evolving, which the designer thinks is ‘just so exciting. You never really know where it’s going to go to the next season.’

The Phoebe English Charcoal Button Crop Trousers, with sustainable corozo buttons
available at The Wasted Hour

The Phoebe English Crinkle Stripe Trousers & the Crinkle Stripe Jacket
available at The Wasted Hour

Phoebe got the idea to make a collection with ‘nothing new’ when her label had its 10th birthday last year. ‘Once you’ve been producing clothes for a number of years, you begin to have a greater awareness of your impact over that amount of time – how many clothes you’ve produced and what you’ve produced them from. I wanted to make better choices.’

Phoebe explains how she started thinking about the bigger picture: ‘The beginning and the end are the same place: the soil, the earth. Our business is just in the middle of those 2 places. We were quite mindful of how the choices that we make every day affect those 2 destinations and sources.’

Crinkle Stripe Jacket

Crinkle Stripe Jacket

Working with nothing new sometimes poses difficulties. ‘Traditionally, we would just choose a fabric from a fabric swatch card, order it, and then it would arrive at the studio. Whereas now, the sourcing process of our raw materials for the collections is a much, much bigger project.’

Phoebe and her team spend much time contacting and communicating with companies which may not have considered being less wasteful yet. ‘A lot of it is about introducing our value system and offering our services to help them reduce their waste.’

According to Phoebe, it takes a long time to find the right partners who have a similar value alignment. However, once that’s established, ‘it’s very satisfying. We hope that once we have the new supply chains in place, we can build on these relationships in the future and share them with others. This makes the way we put the collections together much more time-consuming but also much more satisfying.’

Charcoal Big Pocket Jacket

Charcoal Big Pocket Jacket

To Phoebe English, the title Nothing New is ‘more of an aspiration than a description. It is a challenge to ourselves to endeavour to not use any virgin materials and reminds us to be careful about what we’re bringing into the studio and what we’re putting into our clothes.’

Phoebe believes that the textile and fashion industry can be made less wasteful: ‘There’s a huge amount of both post- and pre-consumer textile waste that can be re-utilised into new clothes rather than always relying on virgin resources.’ In fact, the way that Phoebe English makes clothes reduces the wastefulness of other companies. ‘We help them to put their textile waste back into use, in a more circular way.’

The designer sees her collections such as Nothing New Part 2 as an ‘opportunity to offer an alternative value system around fabrics as a precious resource.’ Therefore, the research that Phoebe and her team do doesn’t stay within their company, but they share it with other businesses that work with fabrics and textiles. Phoebe English works to advocate for change within the industry: ‘We want to help and form a better approach to textiles and fabrics.’

Thank you, Phoebe, for being part of THE WASTED HOUR.

See more of Phoebe English here: