meet the future of bangladesh's sustainable design talent
Bangladeshi fashion is so often framed negatively, but these four up and coming designers are championing craft, education and sustainability in fashion.
Imagery via Instagram.
Sustainability and Bangladesh are two words rarely uttered in the same sentence in the west. With the tragic Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1,134 people still fresh in people’s minds, and a lack of opportunity for local designers, the perception behind the words "Made in Bangladesh" remains exactly that: clothes are factory made, not designed.
But sustainable fashion design talent exists in the South Asian region , it can just be hard to find. Higher fashion education is difficult to access, and design and the arts still face a local stigma. Fashion is still considered by many to be a job for those living under the poverty line. But still there are designers working who are not only sustainable but who are also spearheading ethical and eco-friendly manufacturing across the region.
You might not realise it, but Bangladesh has the most “green factories” of any country in the world. A “green factory” not only complies with environmental laws, but its energy efficiency and sustainable production balances environmental and business interests. This means all materials are recycled, from the water to the glass the water comes in.
67 of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment factories have the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) approval, an internationally recognised environmental and sustainable certificate from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Of these 67 factories, 13 of these are rated platinum -- the highest tier in LEED certification -- with seven of these ranking among top 10 green factories in the world. 280 more factories in Bangladesh registered with the USGBC for LEED certification. However, putting those numbers into context, Bangladesh has a total of 4560 factories, with a total of around 4,000,000 employed. While there’s progress being made, there’s still a long road ahead.
But the designers already on that road are making the journey an exciting one. We spoke to some of the emerging talents who are tackling both the stereotype of being “Made in Bangladesh” and tackling the epidemic of fast fashion.
After being awarded the Outstanding Achievements at British Bangladesh Fashion Council Awards earlier this year, Rahemur Rahman’s show last season celebrated sustainable production, ethical working conditions and fair pay. It also broke boundaries in its mixing of queer identity and South Asian heritage. Showcasing his spring/summer 19 collection last month at London Fashion Week Men’s, Rahman’s colour palette focused on dusty pinks (naturally dyed from pomegranates) and dusky blue.
“We will not only collect culture, we will invest and protect culture,” Rahman wrote in the accompanying show notes. When asked what this meant, the British-Bangladeshi designer explained, “I always had this fear that I was appropriating my own culture but by giving back, not just to the fashion and sustainable industries, but to the factory workers’ rights, we're helping. By investing in jobs we are being sustainable for the people and their climate and surroundings. We can only then be whole.”
Sponsored by Aranya, a team made up of local artisans lead by designer and activist Rubi Ghaznavi, Rahman has spent months at a time in Bangladesh working within the green factories. “It’s been a journey of unlearning habits from both sides", he explains. “I naturally assumed Bangladesh would be the worst place to produce sustainable clothes but what I saw with my own eyes is that it’s only the rich that aren’t sustainable. The locals even explained that when you are poor, you have no choice but to be sustainable.” Clothes, textiles and materials are repurposed, used water is poured back into the earth or recycled. There isn’t a throwaway culture because so many cannot afford to throw away what they have.
Rahman notes the revolution Bangladesh -- a country only 48 years old -- is set to go through in its sustainable fashion trade in the next 15 years, as well as the steps the country has already made towards it. Since 2000, though with limited resources, the country has had one the fastest reductions in poverty anywhere in the world as well as being one of the top-performing countries in terms of reaching the Millennium Development Goals. With Rana Plaza still hanging over the country, Bangladesh is on track to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, as the country is developing positively in terms of poverty reduction, gender equality, electricity, sanitation and annual GDP growth.
Labelling her collection as ‘agender’, Moon Hussain, a 2018 CSM MA Fashion Graduate notes the importance of accountability in fashion. “The fashion industry can be a careless industry because we buy and throw away. I believe buying less and thoughtfully will help solve a lot of problems,” she says. “Back in the day clothes were kept almost like heirlooms and passed down through generations. I feel like that is lost now, we live in this throwaway society, and that’s where the issues lie.”
Hussain’s MA collection focused on creating utilitarian womenswear -- stepping away from the idea of mass-production and homogenous culture and incorporating lessons from her own heritage. “When designing, the idea of heirlooms and not throwing away definitely came from looking at my mum’s saris, many of which she was passed down from my grandma," she explains. "A lot of the fabrics I used for my collection were the end of line fabrics. Tissue that would have otherwise been thrown into the landfill.”
Her vinyl-coated suits, for example, were classed as faulty by the factory but Hussain says she “found beauty in the irregularity of it all” and decided to repurpose the ‘waste materials’. Now she plans to work more with silk weaving within Bangladesh, as this vast history of sustainable textiles has been forgotten about for too long.
Denim revived and recycled and entwined with poems, short stories and fables from her childhood, Afsana Ferdousi’s latest collection, Blue Smile, takes an interesting approach to sustainability. “Design is all about problem-solving, reconciling what we want to do as a designer with what is realistically possible. Creativity is just what’s on top,” Afsana explains.
Using upcycled T-shirts with 100% natural indigo dye and a Japanese batik technique called shibori, the collection began with a colour. “Blue is the colour of trust and responsibility,” explains Ferdousi. “And the Blue Smile embroidered messages are promoting charmed ideas around sustainability. Time has come to start the battle of sustainability for our Blue Planet.”
But for the Bangladesh Fashion Week designer, sustainability doesn’t just end with design. “I want the next generation to grow up healthily, happily, breathing clean air and drinking clean water alongside every other animal who have inherited this amazing planet.”
An ethical and sustainable fashion company based in the UK, Birdsong believe in ‘dressing in protest’ -- whether that be demanding to know where your clothes came from, or who exactly it was that made them.
All of the makers behind Birdsong are migrant women; the majority of whom from Bangladesh. Birdsong not only gives these women above the London living wage, but the brand has a history of promoting women and their independence for work in Bangladesh.
This hasn’t come without its hurdles. “We had a wholesaler who worked with Bangladesh factories in collaboration with the Fair Wear Foundation, however, we dropped them as, though they were way better at transparency than a lot of brands, they weren't yet implementing living wages and addressing over time,” explains co-founder of Birdsong, Sophie Slater.
As Birdsong has only been running for four years, Slater explains the double-edged sword of not wanting to add to air miles, but needing to know every part of the process. “As a small company who can't fly out ourselves, we really rely on the fair wage foundation/industry reports, but unfortunately in the UK we tend to only ever get news about Bangladeshi manufacturing when some brand has fucked up and there's a scandal.”