What do you think when you think “sustainable fashion”? Moving past tired preconceptions of hemp sacks, your mind is most likely flitting to new-gen designers like Bethany Williams and Priya Ahluwalia, right? We’ve finally embraced the fact that environmentalism and fashion don’t have to be contradictory, with organisations like Fashion Revolution working from within the industry to make it greener, cleaner and kinder. But as any recovered fast fashion fanatic will tell you, it’s also our mindsets as consumers that need to change as we disengage from consumerism’s “more is more” ethos.
Matthew Needham is among the young designers provoking deeper consideration of how and why we consume. Creating a dialogue around value, brand worship and what we consider “rubbish”, his Gareth Pugh-esque 2017 CSM graduate collection “Man and His Man-made Future” boldly repurposed fly-tipped waste to combine it with deadstock Chanel fabric. As he explains over the phone, no-one was quite ready for his vision at the time. “Two or three years ago sustainability was known about but we didn’t talk about it as openly as we do now,” he recalls. “When I graduated from my BA no-one wanted to know anything about it: people were very scared of what I was doing.”
But as Matthew himself laughingly admits, his message wasn’t exactly delivered in the most palatable of packages. “To be fair, my BA collection was very ‘trash from the street’.”Since this punkish first foray into the fashion world, his star has risen from being featured in last year’s ‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’ exhibition at the V&A and outfitting Emma Watson for the most recent Pirelli calendar. He’s also been hard at work refining his practice through an MA, also at CSM, culminating with 2020 graduate collection Øyeblikk.
Roughly translating to “in the blink of an eye” it combines weather-conscious pieces — think: windbreakers, cycle shorts and high-vis jackets — with dramatic, voluminous shapes and a tempest of emotions. Drawing upon memories of time spent in Norway and, in particular, a sense of wonder at the country’s unspoiled natural beauty (“I’d never seen a world like that before: it just changes the way that you view everything”) the collection became a vehicle for Matthew to consider the emotive and nostalgic power of clothing. “Øyeblikk was about reaching back into that time in my life to tell a personal story to a wider audience. But it was also a way of talking transparently about the power that clothing has,” he explains. “Garments allow us to transform, feel emotion and even reminisce.”
By collaborating with footwear designer Helen Kirkum on up-cycled heels and trainers, he further developed a passion which has not only become his USP but which has allowed him to grow his sustainable fashion credentials whilst remaining creatively engaged. “When I started up-cycling I didn’t know what I was consciously doing: it was just because I loved old things. They already have a story and I like the idea that I’m continuing that story“ he tells us. “And then there are the challenges of using something that’s already in existence. Does it have a specific shape you have to work with? Is there only a limited amount of it out there in the world?”
The similarities between up-cycling and story-telling feel like a particularly important parallel to be drawing — after all, just because we’re ready to throw something out doesn’t mean it can’t be of use to somebody else. But Matthew also wants to bring similar mythology to the process of wearing his collection, much of which has been designed to accumulate its own unique personality through extended wear. “I applied a coffee-stained binding to a jersey I’ve used throughout the collection. So when you wear it and wash it, it creates its own print,” he explains. “For me, this collection was far more about the cut and the wear when it’s in the hands of somebody, almost like you own a part of the Øyeblikk story and I’m sharing it with you.”
This collaborative ethos informed the collection at every level, seeing Matthew team up with bioscientist-cum-jeweller Alice Potts to make a crystal earring out of his own tears (a “really big project” he laughs) and milliner Jo Miller as well as Helen Kirkum. Inviting more like-minded people into the design process was, according to Matthew, something of a natural shift, “Collaboration in this collection was so important for me,” he says. “Working together on this project, we all had a very similar feeling of the way the world should be now. It’s not just working on your own self-expression: it’s also about working with other people and sharing each other’s creativity.”
It seems that now, as the fashion industry and creative industries feel the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, this spirit of collaboration and mutual support will be more important than ever for emerging designers and artists like Matthew. As he admits the situation is particularly dire for recent MA grads who are emerging into a bleak new world of crisis, precarity and scant opportunities. “For all of us leaving MAs right now, there’s no funding. We’re all applying for different competitions but obviously the world is slowing down right now,” he says candidly. “As freelance creatives, we’re all very scared and unless you have some money saved, no one knows what to do.”
Given that cultural workers have been overlooked by government bailout measures in response to the current pandemic, the Creative Industries Federation has appealed to the UK Government to support its cultural sector as artists, musicians, actors and designers like Matthew struggle to make ends meet. In the meantime, Matthews peers have been getting creative online. “I’ve seen a lot of my friends are trying to sell things through Instagram,” he explains. “It’s scary because we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for.”
For Matthew, the crisis doesn’t just pose questions of imminent survival but could also curtail the growth of his brand before it’s even fully begun. “Right before this, I was at a crucial moment [in my career] where I was trying to do meetings and interviews and schedule production…but that’s not easy when you’re in your house in quarantine,” he explains. Yet he’s determined to not let his outlook become clouded with negativity. “If we’re looking at this positively, which we have to do, it’s a good time to focus on things like mental health and sitting down to take time for yourself,” he says. So what, then, are his tips for not letting lockdown get you down? “Now’s the time to sort through your laptop and plan your next six months — things we don’t do normally do, especially in fashion because we’re so rushed all the time with all these deadlines,” he recommends.
“It’s the first time the world has stopped in about a hundred years: we have to utilise this time as best we can.”