In the world of fashion, ethics should matter just as much as aesthetics. Beyond sustainable materials, more of us are getting curious about the welfare of the people that make our clothes. As well as how much (or in many cases, how little) brands actually reveal about their labour force. Just this year, brands like Everlane who have long been thought of as the benchmark for better practices have come under scrutiny for not being transparent about factory working conditions.
But if ethical fashion means no cruelty or exploitation of our fellow human beings, what about the welfare of our furry friends?
The fashion industry has a long history of using animal skins and byproducts — like leather, wool and more. Albeit to some degree of controversy. On the one hand, a large group of us (brands and shoppers) still covet the look and feel of leather shoes and bags. There are still people that avoid animal-derived fabrics altogether in favour of vegan alternatives, citing the need for options that are guilt and cruelty-free.
There’s a belief that ethical replacements to animal-derived materials revolve around vegan versions like pleather or synthetic furs. Sadly, they have their issues too. Most are made from petroleum-based materials that don’t decompose and have already impacted many lives — furry and human. There are too many harmful chemicals used to make it.
This topic is one that a growing number of sustainable fashion entrepreneurs are trying to tackle, and one of them is Naomi Bailey-Cooper. A fashion textiles designer, for the past few years she’s been on a mission to create non-synthetic alternatives to animal-based materials. We met up with her in Singapore to find out more about her discoveries.
Tell us: how would you sum up what you do to the world?
Big question! My goal is to research and develop alternatives to fur and exotic animal skins for the fashion industry. I’ve been experimenting with this through embellishment and exploring decorative alternatives to fur, feathers and reptile skins. I’ve been working with existing materials and trialling a range of textile techniques to find out if the appeal of fur and exotics can be represented in a different way.
Why are you so drawn to working on this?
For a long time, I’ve wanted to find a way of bridging my love of animals with my skills and interest in fashion textiles. It was while working at Burberry in Research when most of the ideas for my PhD—which I’ve been working on for the past four years — was developed. I saw first hand how difficult it is to decide between using animal skins or furs and using synthetic options, which were seen as unsustainable and undesirable. It was an ‘either-or’ situation with no in-between. So I wanted to explore what that could look like.
What’s been one of your biggest discoveries?
One thing I discovered was that people value fur and exotic skins more for how they are treated in the design stage. After that discovery, I saw a huge opportunity to develop alternatives through fabric manipulation.
Tell us about the different things you’ve been exploring.
I developed my own embellishment techniques: ‘Adapted wig-making with embroidery’ and ‘threading rubber.’ I used wild rubber, glass yarn, Tencel and ahimsa silk to create samples using those techniques. Tencel and ahimsa silk worked as base materials, to which I attached glass yarn and wild rubber onto, using those two embellishment techniques. Other materials I trialled included sinamay, banana fibre, organic cotton, bayong beads, snake agate beads and recycled sequins. I also used some silks from pre-consumer waste.
Close up of Naomi’s threaded rubber technique made from glass yarn, wild rubber and Tencel, mimicking fur embellishments on clothing
Why did you choose these materials?
Based on feedback from the fashion industry, I work with materials I thought offered similar appeals to fur and exotic animal fabrics. Overall, this was: connection to nature, craftsmanship, lightweight volume, textural quality and rarity. I didn’t use any synthetic materials apart from some experimentation with recycled sequins, an early iteration of biodegradable sequins. They didn’t seem to offer the right appeal!
What pushed you to deep dive into embellishments in particular?
While I was at the company I researched and presented non-synthetic alternatives to leather to different teams. However, none of them really tapped into the deeper appeals of animal materials. I knew we needed deeper research to discover why animal materials were so appealing from a designer perspective. Especially if there could be a way of applying that as a design brief to develop alternatives. I was also aware that fur and exotic animal materials were being mainly used for decorative purposes in fashion. As my background was in embellishment, I saw an opportunity to apply that as a method to explore potential alternatives.
“Based on feedback from the fashion industry, I work with materials I thought could offer similar appeals to fur and exotic animal fabrics.”
Naomi wears a maxi shirt dress by Maisha Concept
Why does moving away from using animals in fashion matter?
The parallel environmental concern of declining natural habits and extinction rates has questioned our relationship to nature through fashion. It’s about time the industry takes a serious look into what fashion decoration could look like without harming animals.
In 2018, the Condé Nast conference discussed using animals in fashion. It was then that the Environmental Audit Committee recommended the UK Government should invest in material innovations to steer companies away from animal-derived products. Central Saint Martins banned their students from using fur. Many stores around the world also started to ban fur and exotics. It’s been a really exciting time to work in this area. Especially since the industry has suddenly become much more open to discussions, whereas 10 years ago they wouldn’t have been.
“The parallel environmental concern of declining natural habits and extinction rates has questioned our relationship to nature through fashion. It’s about time the industry takes a serious look into what fashion decoration could look like without harming animals.”
Naomi wears our Juno earrings by Emi & Eve
How have you watched the industry response grow and evolve?
My work in this area was really timely. It began when brands were banning fur and reptile skins due to pressure from activists and organisations like PETA. Plus there’s been an increasing awareness of the unnecessary harm associated with animal skins.
To put it into perspective, I started my research in 2015 and one year in Gucci announced a total fur ban in their collections. After that, between 2016 to 2019 the following designers all followed suit: Armani, Burberry, Chanel, Christopher Kane, Coach, Diane von Furstenberg, DKNY, Erdem, Furla, Jimmy Choo, John Galliano, John Paul Gaultier, Maison Margiela, Michael Kors, Miu Miu, Phillip Lim, Tom Ford, Prada, Victoria Beckham and Versace. Since then, Chanel, Diane von Furstenberg, Jil Sander, Tom Ford, Prada and Victoria Beckham have also banned the use of exotic skins.
Those are significant moves! What are you most excited about now?
Right now I’m reflecting on my PhD, which I submitted at the end of last year. On top of that, I’m wondering how I can apply the findings in different ways.
I’m working on some embellishment workshop proposals which will explore materials and techniques. As well as highlight their importance in terms of ethical and environmental concerns. The Journal of Luxury will publish an article of mine next month. It is almost a direct output of my PhD. It is a discussion on fur and exotic animal materials as a model for luxury non-animal embellishment.
A dress, made from ahimsa silk organza, designed by Naomi was exhibited in the Fashioned From Nature exhibition at the V&A, London
A dress of mine which I created as an output from my research was exhibited in the Fashioned from Nature exhibition, which is currently on a world tour and will open in China in a few months. I’m excited to see what the reaction is to that exhibition there!
Around that, I’m also developing new projects and applying for funding. One of those is a project which I started last year. It was during a residency at The Swedish School of Textiles, the University of Boras, which is about circularity. We’re looking at how classic wardrobe staples can have an extended life and be renewed using a range of subtle chemical and craft-based textile techniques. It’s been really nice to have this time ‘back in the world’, outside of academia. I think about where my work sits and what I can do towards care for animals and the environment.
Photography: Durva Simone Bose
Susannah is a fan of prints, sunshine and dogs. The founder of ZERRIN, she's passionate about making sustainable style accessible, inclusive and empowering for all.