The esteemed designer and creative director of Mother of Pearl, Amy Powney, has recently taken on yet another challenge in her tireless quest for sustainability: releasing a docufilm, Fashion Reimagined. The film, which hit screens on 9 April, focuses on the years after Powney won the BFC / Vogue Designer Fashion Fund in 2017 and was awarded a £100,000 prize, which she used to create a collection called ‘No Frills’. The range was created from entirely organic and natural materials, with an honest and detailed supply chain, that put environmental concerns front and centre – a first at the time.
Over her career, Powney has become an environmental force for change in her own right. Raised on a farm in rural Lancashire, Powney’s foot in the door of fashion came differently to most. She joined London fashion house Mother of Pearl in 2006 and started out sweeping the cutting room floor; eventually, she rose through the ranks to become its creative director (she now owns the majority). The secret to her success? Transparency.
“I grew up in a caravan off-grid and that was a very different sort of background to most people who enter the fashion industry,” Powney tells me. “For many years, I didn’t talk about this part of my life, it felt like it was at odds with the industry and even frowned upon. Now, I cherish that upbringing and shout about it loudly. It made me who I am today and informs everything I do, both personally and at Mother of Pearl. It gave me a grounding and respect for the natural world.”
Powney’s upfront nature and pride in her background echo her sustainable fashion message. “Since I’ve allowed that side of me to come through into Mother of Pearl, and talked about it openly, the business has gone from strength to strength,” says the designer, who explains that she adapted the ‘farm to table’ concept that transformed the food industry and applied it to fashion.
As she points out, “the fashion industry is no different” in terms of its waste production: the equivalent height of Mount Everest of discarded clothes is thrown into landfill every seven minutes. “From the seed which goes into the ground to make cotton, or the sheep which gives us its wool, I think the consumer is disconnected from the fact that [fashion] is born from agriculture.”
Fashion Reimagined follows this ‘field to fashion’ journey by examining a garment’s whole supply chain, to really delve into how our clothes are made. Powney puts her own brand under the microscope, to highlight the importance of transparency. “It’s not an easy job to map out every stage and make the right ethical choice at each point, but this is what a brand needs to do if they want to be truly sustainable,” she says. For consumers, shopping eco-friendly can sometimes feel overwhelming, due to the volume of information and brands making false claims about their environmental credentials.
“Brands need to look at their entire supply chain from beginning to end, which is not an easy job”
“For brands to say they are sustainable because they are using more natural or organic fibres is just greenwashing, the entire supply chain needs to be taken into account,” Powney says. “It’s a huge undertaking and that is why transparency is so important: the consumer needs to see where a brand is achieving, and where it needs to improve. We are a small brand, and if we can do it, then anyone can.”
Fashion Reimagined urges shoppers to take matters into their own hands: do your research, don’t believe everything you read and question your place in a changing world. “The fashion industry is a system which simply does not allow itself to be naturally transparent,” says Powney, “so we had to do that on our own through sheer determination and hard work”.
“The documentary is really for anyone who wears or makes clothes,” she continues. “I don’t think consumers know what it takes to make their clothing or that, quite often, their clothes are more well-travelled than they are. I’m hoping it will be informative and encourage people to rethink their approach to their wardrobes or how they produce things. If I can change one person’s mindset then the work we do and the film has succeeded.”
“Our hope is to use the film as a starting point for a discussion”
What would Powney suggest to someone who is keen to make some changes for the better? “Starting small is key,” she says. “If you try to do it all at once, you will fail; it’s too big a prospect.” Instead, remember that one little change leads to another. “In terms of our wardrobes, I’ve always been an advocate to buy less and to buy better. We have to step away and realise the damage we’re doing to the planet with our fast fashion mentality and throw-away culture.” Investing in forever pieces means we’re making more considered choices, as we’re thinking of our clothes and wardrobes with a longterm mindset.
Powney is also a great supporter of the resale and rental markets, which encourage a cyclical approach to fashion. “You don’t need to buy new things all the time,” she says. “There are some incredible platforms for both adults and children, from Vestiaire Collective to Dotte, which have some amazing finds at reasonable prices.”
While there’s a certain level of responsibility that lies with the individual to make better choices, ultimately the real change comes from the powerhouses leading the fashion industry. “Our hope is to use the film as a starting point for a discussion on the very long road to creating change within the industry,” Powney says. “I’m fully aware that one film isn’t going to change an entire industry, but I hope the work we are doing with the film will encourage that change.”
In order for fashion to operate in a more sustainable way, there needs to be greater legislation, which takes time. For now, it’s up to the brands themselves to self-regulate and do their bit to help the planet. “Brands need to look at their entire supply chain from beginning to end, which is not an easy job and takes time and money to do,” Powney says. “There’s no handbook on how to make a brand sustainable.”
At a time of overwhelming newsfeeds, scary statistics and an uncertain future, how does she stay hopeful? “It really isn’t easy to always stay positive, the issues are huge and I do have bleak days when I feel like we are not making any difference at all, and we are definitely not moving fast enough,” she says. “However, as a mother of two small children, I have to be hopeful, I have to strive to ensure they will have a safe and happy future. When I doubt myself, I always refer back to my favourite quote: ‘I always wondered why someone didn’t do something about that, then I realised I was somebody’.”