For anyone still operating under the illusion that fashion and activism are mutually exclusive, The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange is here to prove you wrong!

Masterminded by Livia Firth of Eco Age Ltd – and the Green Carpet Challenge fame – and supported by key partners in Swarovski, The Woolmark Company and Matches Fashion, the exhibition spotlights the work of artisans and designers from all 53 countries in the Commonwealth, with a view to encouraging trade links and increasing awareness of handmade craft and global supply chains.

In the wake of the Queen Elizabeth II award at London Fashion Week – an accolade to celebrate a pioneering designer in both aesthetics and ethics – we spoke to Livia and Nadja Swarovski to find out why initiatives such as The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange are as poignant as they currently are...

Livia Firth, Founder and Creative Director of Eco Age Ltd

A huge element of Eco Age’s manifesto is centred on the environmental impact of fashion, and – while The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange does incorporate that – arguably there is also a strong aspect of social activism involved too, particularly for the support and promotion of women artisans.
Eco Age has never ever separated environmental justice from social justice. If you look at the business model of fast fashion – and we wouldn’t be here today talking about the importance of sustainability if fast fashion didn’t exist – it’s based on high-volume production that’s very cheaply made, entirely predicated on the exploitation of labour. As we know, the environmental impact of fashion is huge; we create mountains of rubbish and wasted textiles. If labour wasn’t allowed to be exploited, you couldn’t have fast fashion. Basically, if you take care of the social aspect, you immediately (or at least almost immediately) take care of the environmental one.

Is the situation improving?
When you work in sustainable fashion, it can sometimes feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel. For every step you do, something happens and it turns a bit more, and it means you have to keep on going. Fast fashion has the capacity for expenditure, both in terms of marketing and production. It can occupy space immediately – and yet, the one thing it still cannot occupy is the story or ‘handprint’ of fashion. For every project like this, and every time you talk about the hands behind a style or product, you play the card to win the battle and make everyone understand why sustainable fashion is so important.

So why is an initiative like The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange happening now? It definitely seems like the beginning of a shift in public consciousness.
More and more people are becoming aware of what’s happening behind the scenes. Five years ago, the supply chain of stores could remain hidden – that can’t happen any more, because of a combination of social media and journalism. Consumers are becoming more and more aware – of everything from the Rana Plaza catastrophe to prison labour. As a consequence, they want to know the stories behind a design or brand.

We are so lucky to be able to show an exhibition of this nature in London, where it’s so fortunate that every museum is free and it can reach more people. That’s incredibly special.

Despite this change in opinion happening en masse, is there still a misconception about sustainable or ethical fashion being an antonym for luxury?
I don’t think that exists anymore. Every event that we’ve done has proved that ethics and aesthetics are a match, and also that sustainable fashion has nothing to do with looks. Whether a design is ethical or unethical has nothing to do with what a garment eventually looks like.

We have been aware about the incredible work of groups like Nest for a very long time, so when the Swarovski Foundation came on board we knew that, through them, we had the capability to enrol the artisans that participated in the original initiative and produce something that combines both ethics and luxury.

Livia Firth and Nadja Swarovski launch The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at Australia House.

Nadja Swarovski, Chair of the Swarovski Foundation's Board of Directors; Member of the Swarovski Executive Board

The Swarovski Foundation has a history of philanthropic partnerships, one of which (with Nest) is to promote the wellbeing of artisans – particularly women. Please would you elaborate on that and how this has informed your involvement with The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange?
Nest is a non-profit organisation that supports artisans globally – about 400 in total. We have connected some of those artisans with the designers here in the effort of promoting craft, while also enabling women to work. For many women worldwide, it is too dangerous for them to leave their homes; this is a wonderful way to implement their skills into something creative and allow them to produce an output. In a way, you’re killing two birds with one stone. It’s completely about female empowerment just as it’s also about protecting a craft.

Our world is becoming so superficial – almost everything is made by machine. It feels so different when something is really handmade. There is so much more heart and soul. In terms of raising awareness about that and what’s actually out there, we see the trend happening in fashion anyway; it’s getting away from that ‘cookie-cutter’, international globalisation of the larger brands, and advocating more localisation and consideration.

You’re right! It’s both encouraging and telling that the luxury fashion industry is getting involved with initiatives such as this and really sitting up and taking note of ethics. You’ll remember that this was the reasoning behind the Queen Elizabeth II award at London Fashion Week! In terms of the handmade approach and ethical side, how does this resonate with Swarovski?

We’re providing a creative ingredient for people to use in designs that require a lot of hard handiwork, particularly with all the beads that are being sewn on throughout. We absolutely appreciate what is being done here. It’s all using what we call ‘upcycled’ crystals – stones that we would have taken and melted down, because they might have had a scratch or imperfection. They’re actually a brilliant ingredient!

Something being ‘luxury’ doesn’t have to mean it’s not sustainable; people may look at a crystal and automatically think “This is not sustainable”… But it is! Sustainability requires a lot of education, which is why we appreciate partnerships and events like this, since it’s really about educating the wider public.

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange will run at Australia House until 6 March 2018. All images courtesy of Eco Age.