I am a writer and executive administrator for Trusted Clothes, which is an ethical and sustainable fashion organization. The following is a series devoted in honor of the work done in collaboration with the Schroeckers and the Trusted Clothes team. Here is part 1.
Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs has worked in the fashion and footwear industry for nearly 20 years. She is a fashion lecturer, writer, currently researching social enterprise in the fashion industry and is involved with Oka-B footwear as their UK distributor. Her co-authored book is Marketing Fashion Footwear: The Business of Shoes.
Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.
Born near Liverpool in the early 1970s, not a particularly prosperous time in the north west of England but my parents were hard workers and wanted a better future for themselves and us, at the age of 4 we moved to the Middle East where my dad worked in computers in the oil industry – a new and innovative sector which paid well for expats at the time. Returned to the UK at 11 years old. While prospects in the North West weren’t much better, the UK, in general, had a better economic outlook, particularly in the south. Our family stayed in the NW but dad worked down south during the week for several years, after which worked in Spain and recently retired from a job in Switzerland.
I always wanted to work in the fashion industry, made dolls clothes, my own clothes and reworked and styled clothes for school friends. Was never a question that I was going to do anything else. I made the assumption I was going to be a fashion designer because I didn’t know there were any other jobs that you could do in fashion. I never knew anyone that had worked in it. Through school I did ok but although it was a good school it did not nurture my type of creativity or entrepreneurialism, it was a traditional academic girl grammar school and I was quite unique in my ambitions, even setting up a bespoke accessories company that recycled classmates jeans into drawstring backpacks – from what I remember they were quite popular!
I went on to a general arts pre degree foundation course but soon realized that I was better at talking about fashion than I was actually creating it. My undergraduate degree is in History of Art and Design with Fashion history and theory and my masters, of which I was one of the first to study in the late 1990s is in fashion marketing and promotion. Although marketing was not necessarily a new role in the industry it was being recognized as a growing area to study. I completed that course in 1998 and moved to London. London in the late 1990s was booming in the fashion industry. It was an incredibly exciting time in terms of the industry’s creative and commercial growth. Commercially many trends were quite minimalist but it was the era of the mega brand, Gucci revival, Prada Sport and real innovators like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano was being globally recognized in couture and high-end fashion.
Fashion was a cool industry and wasn’t something that stayed out on the edge for quirky misfits. This growth coincided with the real democratization of fashion. First Zara who managed to appropriate key trends from the catwalk and produce them quicker than the brands themselves could – it was literally magic in front of our eyes and not only that, we could afford to buy these things too. There was also much more access to counterfeit goods. The internet was not widely used to buy fashion so there were a certain exoticness and desirability about being able to get a knock off LV monogrammed bag from a friend of a friend who had managed a quick dash to Canal Street NYC during a business trip to the US.
So for the first time, a regular consumer could dress like a well off designer fashionista and I don’t think anyone really cared where the goods came from – or thought that people were being harmed – so long as we could emulate a look from the growing legion of celebrities…
One of my first jobs was assisting the wholesale manager at the newly established ready to wear company Jimmy Choo. This was a typical example of the democratization of fashion. Jimmy Choo was and still is a bespoke craftsman with a small team who would make bespoke personal orders for royalty, celebrities and very special occasions – weddings etc. A way to bring this to the masses if you like was to mass produce it. Which is what they did – albeit to the highest quality and made in Italy it was still RTW, meaning that anyone with a couple of 100 pounds could buy shoes that were also worn by Princess Diana.
We were all pretty consumed by this desire for fashion and some now say that it is the marketers that have ruined true creativity in fashion, in the quest to have lifestyle brands and so everyone can have everything we’ve taken the soul out of true craftsmanship and are forcing people to make and buy things that they don’t need. There is no real value in it anymore.
What is the importance of ethical fashion?
Ethical fashion style or ethical fashion business?
On a basic level, I guess you mean clothes etc made in a fair way with materials that do not harm the environment? I think one of the problems with the term ethical is that it means different things to different people and ultimately it boils down to personal ethics and there is nothing more personal than our individual view on what is fashion – so you have a double anomaly which will be as unique as it is individual – what is ethical fashion style for me may be very different for you.
We’ll never pin this down because it’s too big.
I worry that it is still being seen as a niche or subsection of fashion for a certain person that puts personal values ahead of personal style
For me I’m interested in businesses that are run in an ethical way, fashionability and style will follow. But this is at the core of a business and what is its purpose. The vast majority of businesses exist to make money for the people that have taken the risk in setting it up. They will look for a return on their investment of time and money so unless the person who has set it up or is in charge prioritizes ethical behavior and can convince shareholders and customers to measure that as a success I think we are a while off.
What is the importance of sustainable fashion?
For me ‘sustainable fashion’ is about a product or service that can make enough money to fulfill its objectives in a fair way over the long term without harming people or planet in the process. This should be the way that every new product and business in the fashion industry approaches innovation, development, and change – and if not we are not going to have an industry that lasts much longer.
All images courtesy of www.trustedclothes.com.