Almost two years ago, Phoebe English took a two-season hiatus from her namesake label to question how it could continue as a cog in an industry which is a primary driver of climate change. English returned to the London show schedule this past September with a 16 piece strong S/S 20 collection which put a refined focus on sustainable processes of cutting, dying and producing fabric. Titled Attempts at Sustainability, the collection is an open statement about how the brand has worked to resist the excess and over-production of which the fashion industry is frequently guilty. A time-capsule look is a favourite: a calf-length skirt and kimono jacket are made up in a raw calico-cream shade of natural fibre, encased within which are dead-stock care labels with dry-clean only recommendations from previous collections. Sincere about its past and willing to learn for the future, the Phoebe English brand has put a more conscious approach to craftsmanship at its core. English is a star student in the essential yet continually evolving lessons of sustainability, which permeate current discussion and promise to define our future.
With a collection entirely made in England, the designer endeavours to promote transparency and open conversations surrounding sustainability in the fashion industry. Previously based in East London, English now has a studio in South London's Deptford, which she opened to the public earlier this year as part of Fashion Revolution's Open Studios. I spoke with English about South London as a base for devising sustainable solutions and discussions, the future of the fashion industry and why the South holds the roots to the city.
Hetty Mahlich: Why did you move to South London, and how does it differ from where you were before?
Phoebe English: I was out-priced from Hackney so I had to move areas. The main difference is in terms of space - you tend to get more for your money in South London. As a joke, we looked at some studios in Chelsea, and a lot of them are actually cheaper than East London, where it's super desirable to be. Deptford is a very fast-changing area. There’s a new business or studio block every day, and there are a lot more fashion people here than when we first moved. It feels how Hackney felt when I first had my studio there eight years ago. It’s an amazing area - it has this nice intimate vibe, where you don't necessarily feel like you're in London. You bump into people in the street that you know. I used to have that in Hackney, but then I lost it.
HM: Are you worried that this will get lost again in Deptford?
PE: I am definitely worried. We can afford our space now, but as the area becomes more gentrified the rent will go up, and eventually we will have to do the same thing and move out. Part of being a creative in London is accepting that that’s how things work in this city, and I’m part of the gentrification.
HM: You have promoted an open-door policy when it comes to sustainability, starting the WhatsApp group Fashion on Earth and also opening your studio to other creatives as part of Fashion Revolution's Open Studios. Since you've moved South, have you felt there's a difference in the community surrounding issues of sustainability and design?
PE: It’s a hard question. There's definitely more of awareness across the industry and across the city. I wouldn't necessarily say it was something specific to South East London. Approaches to sustainability from my experience seem to be coming from studios across the whole city which is really positive. However, we're all working on it individually in separate studio spaces and separate areas of London which is really inefficient, so that's why I started the Whatsapp group to start connecting people.
HM: Following your recent S/S 20 presentation Attempts At Sustainability Solutions, what are your thoughts on the future of the fashion show?
PE: It's a question people have been asking me for a long time, but it's quite hard to know the future of fashion. I can look at how it's changed from when I started until now, which is a period of eight years. There's been a big change in people coming off schedule and showing within their own time frames, moving away from fashion shows and doing presentations, which I think is very positive. The designer now has the ability to take control of how they show their work. All businesses are entirely different and showing in the same way isn't always relatable to every type of business. The future of fashion is labels taking more control about how they're selling, where they're selling, what they're selling, in a less homogenised way.
HM: You contributed to the Environment Audit Committee’s Fashion Fixing Report published earlier this year, which the U.K government sadly rejected. Where do we go next in terms of getting the government to implement change within the fashion industry?
PE: It's really sad that the Government didn't accept a single one of the report's recommendations when we live in this frightening world which is burning, and fashion’s just going to carry on incinerating unsold stock? It is completely insane in my opinion. However, it's also a wake-up call to members of the industry that an element of self-regulation is needed as no one is going to clean up the fashion industry for us. No one's going to help us by helping us legislate, they’re only going to drag their feet. We must double our efforts and we must double our efforts right now.
Fashion is in a really privileged position to be able to contribute to the times that we're living in a very direct way as it can have a huge impact and leadership in what is fashionable. It can help to inform what is an acceptable way to be making, selling and using design within the planetary boundaries that we now urgently need to stay within. Fashion has always been a mirror to culture and our culture has got to change, it is not physically possible for a culture to exist in the same way that it has been doing where it is operating beyond its planetary boundaries.
HM: What are your favourite three spots in South London or Deptford and why?
PE: I probably would never say because I guard them closely. The Dog and Bowel pub in Deptford is a favourite spot. Also, walking along the river. It's just at the top of the road so being able to go there after work to have a beer is a really unusual thing. Seeing the skies change as the night draws in is so beautiful and it's quite nice to remind yourself of the roots of the city which is that amazing life force which is the Thames. The third one would probably be Deptford market which is another soul of the area, it's a very special and historic market. Deptford's quite a special place so I feel very lucky to be living and working here. Deptford has an amazing history; the mulberry trees, merchant’s houses, and also the mud larking culture that goes along the Thames and the creek when the tide's low.
HM: What's next for Phoebe English?
PE: We're doing some exhibitions and we've got a new collection to start working on. We've put a lot of things in place in terms of altering how we're working to make it more positive and less impactful and we're going to keep working on that so we can be better. It's not a case of saying we’re now a sustainable brand. It's about continuing to research, continuing to alter behaviour, continuing to have conversations, be informed, to learn and look for new developments and new technologies. We're also looking at how we can use the space for a more helpful purpose beyond just making and selling, as a space for cleaning up after the industry that we work in, almost like a recycling depot. We’re looking to be a donation location for Swedish Stockings which is the only sustainable hosiery brand in the world.
HM: If Deptford or South London was a person, which Phoebe English garment or collection would they be wearing and why?
PE: Oh my goodness, that’s really hard! I don’t think Deptford would be any collection of mine, it's married and too hard to define. It would dress itself, it would probably be wearing its own style - a carefully styled accumulation of magic gems from Deptford market.