A young fashion designer’s fight for a better tomorrow
Alexandra Wall welcomes me into her cozy studio on a rainy Friday afternoon. She’s asked her two interns, a second-year fashion student and an air hostess, to take the rest of the day off so we could talk. Tucked away in the middle of the labyrinth that is this old church filled with art work, the blonde twenty-three year old leans back on her chair and speaks with the confident professionalism you’d expect from a business owner. With the faint sound of a pop song coming from her Mac Book Pro, she says:
“I don’t want to be a millionaire. As long as I can make a living off this, and still have a pint on a Friday, I’m happy”.
She sits in front of a large colorful church window that she “just fell in love with” when she was scoping the space only a few months ago. After placements for six months in London, Alexandra found she had no more to learn from unpaid positions and decided to move back to Cardiff. Even though most of her family is from England, by the time she came around they were living in Bridgend. “I’m very much Welsh, you can’t tell me I’m not Welsh! I was born in Wales, I’m Welsh”.
She loves being patriotic in what she does, she tells me, and considers it an advantage to be based in up and coming Cardiff, rather than larger, more established London. “Yes, I’ve come from Cardiff. It’s a brilliant city to be, kind of, like, spokesperson for fashion. You don’t need to be in London! London is so overrated and I need people to realize that,” she says smiling.
Her business, Xandra Jane, has an androgynous aesthetic and is built around a sustainable philosophy – meaning using organic materials, and no scraps get thrown away.
“Trying to be eco and trying to go forward with zero-waste is actually, it’s a challenge for a small business…. It’s kind of like healthy eating, it’s more expensive. It’s so much easier to buy for 50p chicken nuggets, but if you want to eat healthy and take care of your body, you have to fork out and buy the good fruit and veg and stuff,” she says. “But, if there emerging businesses in fashion don’t do it, then who is going to lead the way?”
Certainly a question many are asking. The fashion industry is second only to oil in how much it damages the environment, and has been associated with sweatshops and mistreatment of workers across borders.
The complexity and size of the industry makes it difficult to determine the exact size of the carbon footprint. However, a good starting point is looking into the pesticides used in cotton farming, as well as dyes and general waste of discarded materials. On top of those, extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping cause immeasurable damage.
“There’s a dark world to it and I just need to rebel against it,” says Alexandra. “Morally I couldn’t go down another route. My morals would just get in the way”.
She highly recommends the documentary True Cost by American filmmaker Andrew Morgan. This is the film that made her pursue environmentally-friendly clothing by bringing to light both ecological consequences, as well as the exploitation of cheap labor in developing countries, of the industry.
In the beginning of the film, Mr. Morgan says: “I came into this story with no fashion background at all, beginning with a few simple questions. What I’ve discovered, has forever changed what I think about the things I wear and my hope is that it might just do the same for you”.
In Alexandra’s case, he seems to have succeeded. Her dedication to sustainable fashion is, in her own words, “a challenge for a small business”. It’s not only more expensive, but having to use every bit of fabric has an impact on the creative process as well.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “The zero waste thing I’m trying is actually quite an exciting process,” she says while tracing her fingers on a small white piece of fabric. “If you have, say, this piece of fabric and you’re creating a garment, and you have to use every square millimeter of that piece of fabric, that poses problems. It’s kind of like a logical puzzle that you need to work out”.
Her process goes against what most, especially the biggest, fashion companies are doing today. While hers is a more conscious business, it doesn’t satisfy the speed and low cost of what is known as ‘fast fashion’.
Fast fashion allows masses of consumers to buy clothes straight off the catwalk, at affordable pricing. These brands include Zara, H&M, Debenhams and many more. With constant turnover in collections and low prices, these brands give their customers fresh designs at low cost.
And how do these companies manage to achieve this? In one word, sweatshops.
The fashion industry is notorious for its exploitation of workers in poor countries. Places like Cambodia, India, China and many others, have a much lower minimum wage than that of the UK or USA where the companies are usually based. Most of the workforce are women, although many are children as well, and there is very little regulation when it comes to health and safety.
One particularly gruesome incident took place almost exactly three years ago. Over a thousand people died and more than twice that were injured in a garment factory collapse in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Known as the Rana Plaza collapse, the incident happened when additional floors were added to the five-story building to expand the factory. It wasn’t built to take the weight and the walls started cracking. The workers noticed these and became worried about the safety hazard, but their pleas were ignored and their superiors forced them to return to work.
The factory made clothes for brands like Mango, Primark and Benetton, and many more. The incident caused an uproar domestically and internationally, and is seen as an example of the exploitation in the industry and a reason for reform within it.
These companies defend their ways by saying they are at least giving them jobs, and that they bring in a lot of money to the countries through imports and exports. Meanwhile, suicide rates are some of the highest in the world, sexual assault is rampant and mass hysteria phenomenons like mass faintings have been affecting thousands of workers.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even big businesses can be sustainable and protect their workers – like Safie Minney’s People Tree, which highly prioritizes fair trade. It is an expensive, but possible, change for High Street to make.
While they catch up, Alexandra Wall is already there. “So far, everything I’ve been doing is UK sourced. I’ve met with the people who work for me, I know where my fabrics come from. If I don’t approach a collection with zero waste, I will ensure that I will have used all organic textiles”.
There’s no way around it. As she put it: “A lot of people like to scoff at fashion, but those people wear clothes. Unless you’re a nudist, you can’t really scoff at fashion …. It’s just like a second skin, isn’t it?”
Showing me a clip of her Graduate Week show, the most prestigious fashion students event in the UK, the happiness on her face is obvious. One of the models even has Alexandra’s favorite piece, black leather pants, put on backwards. As a march of waif-like models with pleasantly symmetrical faces and bored expressions showcase her work to the world, she laughs. “This one’s got a goat skull, cause you know, why not”.
“I love the industry and I love the people. Like, it’s surprising, the ‘bitchy fashion industry,’ and everyone is so lovely.. New people, all the time. Very social place to be. Great fun doing. I can get up and work seven days a week because I love what I do. It’s just easy”.