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A fashion educator at COP27 talks sustainability takeaways

By Jackie Mallon


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Fashion |Interview

Gabriela Hearst leads panel on Fusion Energy at COP 27. Image via Massimo Casagrande.

“It’s nice to reach people who are not from fashion,” says Massimo Casagrande fresh from the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt. And vice versa. Postgraduate Program Leader at Istituto Marangoni Paris, Casagrande is energized by the advancements other industries and nations have been making in the area of sustainability. He was invited by a fellow speaker, Maria Buccellati, CEO of collaborative open design platform Faith Connexion, to talk about how fashion education is preparing future designers to be more responsible. Although there were members from other universities specializing in business or medicine there, he noted the distinct absence of fellow fashion educators. Yet he felt the promise of the future of fashion everywhere. Perhaps most importantly he was able to make the connections between what people are doing in industries far removed from fashion and the work he performs every day in the classroom.

“We forget but the apparel industry is a good platform to communicate from because everyone relates to it and everyone wears clothes,” says Casagrande. Professionals from other fields were surprised and intrigued by the innovations he outlined, such as Unreal Engine, the software program used in styling fashion shoots to create a virtual setting or landscape without the need for a team of creatives to travel to exotic locations, thereby reducing their carbon footprint. Another software program now ubiquitous in fashion schools, CLO3D, intrigued a civil engineer so much he approached Casagrande after the panel to find out more about it.

Burberry, Stella McCartney, even King Charles, were among the internationally high profile names at last year’s COP 26 but their attendance will also be down to the fact that it was held in Glasgow. COP 27 might have boasted less global heavyweights (Dior choosing to present its pre-fall menswear collection in the Egyptian desert three weeks later a mere coincidence) but fashion at the event was not marginalized, just localized. Says Casagrande, “There were so many independent brands and craftspeople and they had so much we could learn from.”

What independent sustainable brands are doing across the globe

One standout was Made From Stone, a company that manufactures hangers, carrier bags and garment bags from stone. “Hangers are becoming the straws of fashion,” says Casagrande. “We ship garments to stores on one hanger, then the store changes to their hangers, but what happens to the first ones?”

Left: Upfuse footwear; Right: Made From Stone garment bags and hangers. Image via Massimo Casagrande.

Two Cairo-based accessory makers, Up-Fuse and Reform Studio, presented ranges of sandals and bags using repurposed tires and plastic while Almah impressed with its double strategy of distributing used clothing to the homeless in local villages before upcycling the remains into fashion items. “What struck me was how working within the community and with artisans, turning waste into something new, was just second nature for many of the local brands,” says Casagrande.

Gabriela Hearst, founder of her own luxury ready-to-wear label and Creative Director of Chloé, hosted a panel which included members from the White House on fusion energy, a theme of inspiration for her last collection but which otherwise has had little mention in fashion. Without the dangerous associations of nuclear energy, and more efficient than solar and wind, this method of exploring how stars work to create power is exciting for the future.

“Many ministers in Egyptian government were female which was amazing to see,” says Casagrande. “And from elsewhere, so many women in high power positions.” Such as Vanda Witoto, an indigenous Amazonian activist and congresswoman from Brazil, who works to prevent deforestation and the subsequent disappearance of villages, and whose tribe suffered only 2 deaths throughout the 2 years of Covid because of her successful social media communications strategy.

The exchange of localized knowledge is key to meeting sustainability goals globally. At Istituto Marangoni the focus is, according to Casagrande, about “moving from performative design which is all about likes and retweets to responsible design and understanding the second, third, and possibly fourth life of the creation.” In his panel he described how sustainability is embedded in the school’s curriculum but also in its specific location. Paris, the city of couture, relies so much on handcrafted products, so the school cultivated ties with Montex, the company that creates hand embroidery for Chanel, Balenciaga, Dior. The materials used in the embellishment process are often plastic and these luxury leftovers are repurposed by students into new creations. Paris is also a city of world-renowned hotels so the school collects old bed linen for use in draping, prototyping and even final garments.

Casagrande believes less theoretical case studies and more direct interaction with brands is the future of fashion. “The solutions we provide for brands are designed to fit the learning outcomes and term times of our courses.” A topic that came up on many of the panels at COP 27 was how industries need to work with academics and institutions to connect and loop in the emerging generation. Casagrande mentions again the reason he had been invited to COP 27 by Buccellati who has worked with Marangoni’s student on projects together. “She knows what we do,” he said. “But the world might not.”

Left: Massimo Casagrande, Maria Buccellati, CEO of Faith Connexion, Vanda Witoto, and Laura Hache, COO of Faith Connexion. Right: Vanda Witoto. Image via Massimo Casagrande.
Istituto Marangoni Paris
Massimo Casagrande