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Australia’s Sustainable Fashion Scene Is Going Through An Identity Crisis

Sustainability has no set definition; part of its beauty is that it can be left to an individual’s interpretation. For some, it’s about garment worker treatment, for others it’s about environmental protection (and for others still, it’s a profit-making marketing technique).
When you think of the prevailing sustainable fashion archetype, it's likely that you'd use words like hemp, linen, beige and monochromatic minimalism, probably accompanied by an eye-roll. And there is truth to these clichés: simple, minimalist pieces do make up a large chunk of sustainable fashion, and yes, many of them come in neutral colourways and are made from natural fibres like hemp and bamboo.
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But on the other side of the sustainable style spectrum are bold, experimental, unconventional and avant-garde pieces championed by the independent creatives. 
Both co-exist in the sphere of sustainability, and feel dramatically at odds with one another. But is that really the case? Refinery29 Australia spoke to the founders and designers behind Esse, Dyspnea, Erik Yvon, Bassike and Aaizél to hear what those in the industry think. 
Bassike has been in this space since 2006 and its core values haven’t changed much. Co-founder and creative director Deborah Sams points towards the impact on people and the planet as being integral to the brand’s ethos. “I aim to design collections that are useful, wearable and will remain in a wardrobe for years to come,” she tells us. 
Minnie Jo, founder of Aaizél (which she calls a “micro business”), acknowledges that there’s still strides to go in her sustainability journey. “[I make] sure that manufacturers are Ethical Clothing Australia accredited so that all [workers are] fairly treated and well paid,” she says, adding that she repurposes deadstock fabric too. 
For Erik Yvon, whose brand shares his name, people are also pivotal in his definition of sustainability. “For me, sustainability is not necessarily about having organic cotton for each collection," he says. "Sustainability is about community, engaging with creatives and supporting the talent that we have here in Melbourne.”
Whimsical brand Dyspnea is keen to steer away from the sustainability label, instead calling themselves “sustainability minded”. Co-founder Jameen Zalfen highlights the difference, saying that “it's important to remember that [it's] still a brand producing clothing.” Education is a key pillar of sustainability that the team is focusing on right now, encouraging its consumer base to “purchas[e] lasting pieces that [they’ll] continue to wear over and over.”
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With these vastly different definitions of sustainability come vastly different approaches to design. I asked the five designers whether they can pinpoint a definitive style of Australian sustainable fashion. Contrary to the image I initially offered up, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the aesthetic of sustainability. 
Founder of contemporary womenswear brand Esse Charlotte Hicks, whose pieces are known for their timeless appeal, suggests that there isn’t a defined aesthetic as such, but says that values like longevity, timelessness, versatility and classicism feed into it. It makes sense then, that Esse’s offerings reflect this — limited colour palettes, sophisticated cuts and simple silhouettes make up its collections. 
On the other end is Mauritian-born, Melbourne-based designer Yvon, where you’ll find camo mesh, prawn jeans and neon knitwear; a far cry from the minimalism design principles championed by other sustainable brands. I was surprised to hear that Yvon doesn’t think there’s a separation between the two different ways of approaching sustainability. 
“I can see why you would think it feels kind of separate,” he says, suggesting that marketing is a cause of this 'outsider' mindset. “[But] we can coexist… I don't necessarily see the ‘basic’ aesthetic as competition. I truly believe that there's room for everybody in the [fashion] scene, even though the market is very saturated.”
He points to pieces in his collection that come in black that “tap into the minimalism crowd” — because while these designers feel like they exist on ends of the style spectrum, the reality is that consumers don’t operate in binaries.
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“There will always be the quirky customer out there and the refined customer and of course both can be sustainably minded. Absolutely they can co-exist,” echoes Dyspnea’s Zalfen. 
This flexibility in style is not just seen in what people wear, but also in how brands choose to evolve. Bassike is nearing 20 years of operation and while a lot of its philosophy and design have stayed the same (its organic cotton wardrobe essentials are still its “hero” pieces), it has also changed with the times. Its latest collections feature bright pops of colours and trend-influenced cuts. “As a brand, we are always evolving while staying true to our DNA,” says Sams. “Our future remains focused on producing design-led collections made sustainably, ethically and with integrity.”
I ask Esse’s Hicks about the pressure of microtrends on sustainable brands. “That, to be honest with you, is the nuance in what we do. That’s where being a very intuitive designer is very important, because you have to stay with your signature style [though] it's a continuous evolution,” she says.
The binary view of categorising brands as either refined and minimalist, or innovative and out there is limiting for all, especially as we witness a new era of designers, like Jo from Aaizél, who exist in the space between the two. With her modern approach to contemporary, seasonless design, Aaizél seesaws between timeless pieces and ones that are more experimental.
“I’ve kind of combined the two together, but [I] still [keep] it cohesive,” Jo quips before I even bring up my observation.
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Sustainable fashion — just like any other area of fashion — should not be bound by labels and aesthetics. Its current face in Australia is one that’s a mixed bag of brands that boast a range of aesthetics. To minimise the scene to one particular taste is to do it a disservice. Just as there isn't a single definition of sustainability, there isn't one right way for it to look. 
“It’s wonderful to see designers adding their creativity to designs without sacrificing sustainability practices,” says Sams. “Each designer has distinct styles, shapes, colours and fabrications, and the creativity and innovation used to ensure these designs are also kind to our planet is applaudable.”
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