'We are living in a transition point': Saudi fashion conference shines a light on sustainability and diversity

Designers and industry experts converge at digital Fashion Futures Live event

President of the Arab Fashion Council in Saudi Arabia Princess Noura bint Faisal Al-Saud smiles during an interview with AFP at the al-Faisaliyah mall in the Saudi capital Riyadh on April 19, 2018. - The princess inspired by her time living in Tokyo is the new face of fashion in an ultraconservative kingdom, where dramatic reforms have sparked equal parts optimism and scepticism. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP)
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Saudi Arabia’s flagship fashion event, Fashion Futures, made its debut as a re-engineered digital platform on Thursday, with an online conference titled Fashion Futures Live: Moving Towards Sustainability, Diversity and Innovation.

Broadcast simultaneously from Riyadh and New York, the event featured Saudi, regional and international designers and industry experts in a series of keynote addresses, speeches and panel discussions.

Content was divided into four key pillars: entrepreneurship and experimentation; diversity, inclusion and the importance of empowering women, particularly not just as consumers but also as fashion producers; investment in new business models; and furthering the sustainable development goals.

The event kicked off with a keynote address from Noura bint Faisal Al Saud, sector development director of the Fashion Commission at Saudi's Ministry of Culture, who highlighted the importance of collaboration, a recurring theme throughout the day.

“We are living in a transition point in the planet, after 200 year of industrialisation. Our generation are the luminaries of this new era. We need collaboration; we need as soon as possible to change knowledge and practises,” said Oskar Metsavaht, founder of fashion brand Osklin and a Unesco ambassador for sustainability in Brazil, in a panel session called Building a Legacy: Fashion x Design.

We are living in a transition point in the planet, after 200 year of industrialisation.

Metsavaht went on to describe sustainability as a creative opportunity for designers. “Sustainability is a wonderful new field for designers. It’s a fertile field for us to research new materials. As designers we are used to designing with standard materials that were discovered hundreds of years ago. Sustainability is about searching for new materials.”

An advocate of a “new luxury” that combines ethics and aesthetics, Metsavaht believes that sustainability must become ingrained in designers’ mindsets, as opposed to being an afterthought or marketing ploy, as is often still the case. “It’s about changing the culture of companies and designers. Sustainability shouldn’t be something extra; it should be part of the thinking from the beginning,” he said.

Nadja Swarovski
CREDIT: Courtesy Swarovski

It was a viewpoint shared in the same session by Nadja Swarovski, chair of the Swarovski Foundation, who highlighted how fashion has always been about “creative problem solving” and noted that the pandemic could reflect a tipping point for the industry and society at large.

“This reset that Covid has evoked is calling for a reconsideration of values, and encouraging more consideration towards each other and towards the planet,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sara Sozzano Maino, deputy director of Vogue Italia and head of Vogue Talents, stressed the importance of awareness and education, suggesting that ideas like conscious consumerism and responsible decision-making could be introduced as early on as kindergarten and throughout school, so it becomes integral to the consumer mindset. "It is about thinking in a different way," she said.

Veja footwear is made from wild rubber and recycled cotton. Courtesy Mr Porter

The audience also heard from successful entrepreneurs such as Sebastien Kopp, co-founder of ecological footwear company Veja, who started the brand out of a desire to “create a different breed of sneaker. We wanted to deconstruct the sneaker and build it in a different way."

Veja's trainers are crafted out of organic cotton and natural Amazonian rubber, which are purchased according to fair trade principles. The company also famously does zero advertising, preferring to channel that spend into the supply chain instead. "We’ve tried to create the company that we wanted to work in when we were younger," said Kopp.

Also featured was entrepreneur Katia Beauchamp, who founded Birchbox in 2010, after realising that only two per cent of beauty purchases were being made online. She realised that the overwhelming amount of choice in this segment, plus the fact that consumers want to try products on before investing, meant they were wary of using the Internet to make beauty purchases.

In response, she launched an online monthly subscription service that sends its subscribers a box of targeted make-up and skincare samples. She recounted the highs and lows of her entrepreneurship journey, but also stressed the importance of women creating and building businesses for other women.

Across the board, whether discussing sustainable design thinking, leadership or diversity and inclusion, panelists repeatedly stressed the need for greater dialogue, more perseverance and more “connecting of the dots”.

Abrima Eriwah, co-founder and director of Studio One Eighty Nine, also noted the importance of “having the patience to do the marathon, not the sprint.”

Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at the Global Fashion Agenda, perhaps best summed up proceedings when he said: “If we can change fashion, which is so complex and so fragmented, we can change everything. We can inspire other industries, as well as individuals, to follow suit.”