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Fashion shouldn't cost the earth

Men’s London Fashion Week begins today (Saturday 5 January) and runs until Monday. Former director of London Fashion Week Simon Ward talks to Sarah Olowofoyeku about why he believes God cares about clothes

According to the Bible, God made the first clothes

CHANGE is always in vogue and several times a year, designers, models and buyers gather at the world’s four fashion capitals – London, New York, Paris and Milan – to see the future season’s collections at fashion weeks.

As the industry has expanded, so have the shows, and in 2012, Men’s London Fashion Week was introduced. This year, the three-day event will showcase British design in catwalk shows, designer showrooms and events.

Simon Ward is familiar with the fine details of the industry. It’s why, after stepping down as director of London Fashion Week and chief operating officer of the British Fashion Council, he is still talking about it.

‘Fashion is loved by some and hated by others,’ he says. ‘But everybody wears clothes so everybody is involved in fashion whether they like it or not.’

So, he believes, it’s important that conversations about the good and more challenging aspects of fashion are on show.

Throughout his 35-year career, Simon discovered the positive elements woven into the industry – among them creativity and self-expression. But he has also seen how the industry has caused harm. He thinks that the negative effects of fashion on workers, people’s identities and the environment are more evident now than ever before.

‘It’s a huge industry with lots of money in it, but a disproportionate amount of that money stays at one end with very little at the other, which is exploitation,’ he explains.

‘Another issue is that people try to be like somebody else by dressing like them. Though it isn’t the whole story, this can lead to anorexia, self-harm and unhappiness among predominantly young women, but boys too.

‘Fashion is also no respecter of the environment,’ he adds. ‘Crazy amounts of water are used to grow cotton, the main fabric for clothes. The water is taken away from other crops – people’s food.

‘Rivers in China run with the fashion season’s colours because untreated dye is poured straight into them.’

In China and other countries where similar environmental damage occurs, people suffer health problems and food becomes contaminated because of a lack of necessary regulation.

Additionally, because of western demand for quick responses to trends, clothes manufacturing has had to speed up – a phenomenon known as ‘fast fashion’.

Simon explains: ‘There used to be two fashion seasons each year, but now new ranges come every two to four weeks. The marketing behind them drives people to spend more. People have wardrobes full of clothes they haven’t worn and which will end up in landfill.’

In many of the countries where those clothes are made, working conditions are unsafe. This was shown in 2013 in Bangladesh when it was recommended that workers should be evacuated from the Rana Plaza building because of structural concerns.

‘All the employees working in the shops, the banking units and the offices on the ground floor were sent home,’ Simon says. ‘But the fashion production units on the higher floors who were on tight deadlines for western high street retailers said no. The workers came in the following morning, the place collapsed and over 1,000 people died.’

The disaster triggered a sense of anger around the world, and Simon believes it would have angered God. ‘If God was a boss, he would run this industry with justice, compassion, kindness and fairness.’

Simon is a Christian and believes that God is interested in fashion and how the industry is run. ‘According to the Bible, God made the first clothes,’ he says. ‘I think he loves fashion. He invented the seasons. He loves colour and change – you just have to look outside at the natural world. It is beautiful.’

Simon’s industry experience and faith prompted him to produce a podcast series, The Heart of Fashion, with Premier Christian Radio, in which he explored fashion-related issues with a variety of guests, from designers to clergy. Producing the series encouraged Simon to continue looking at the industry from a faith perspective.

‘God would smile at the potential of fashion but long for us to tackle the issues,’ he says.

One of the aims of the podcast is to encourage people to change the way they think about their fashion choices.

‘There’s too much at stake for the industry to be just stopped and about-turned,’ says Simon. ‘It will take a long time but companies are already trying to be more ethical.

‘The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. The more people who see what one step they can take, the more the fashion industry will have to sit up and take note.’

Simon believes God led him to his work in fashion, and hopes that, with his experience and faith, he can encourage change for the good of others and the planet. He says: ‘Mankind was instructed to take care of the environment – the land, the animals and the people in it. Christians should be at the front, with other people, celebrating what’s good about fashion but also making sure its footprint is honest, just, compassionate and kind.’

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