This week, our GFF Talent spotlight hits Norwich University of the Arts where Phoebe Constable is experimenting with creating innovative bio plastics that look to redefine fast fashion. Phoebe is aiming to make sustainable fashion relevant, colourful and creative.

What was the starting point of inspiration for your graduate collection? 

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To borrow a phrase from environmentalist Al Gore, it is an Inconvenient Truth and deeply saddening that the industry I want to be a part of is the second biggest polluter of our natural world. Growing up by the sea in the sleepy village of West Wittering on the south coast, I have seen first-hand the continuing and worsening effect that plastic has on our oceans and shorelines; synthetic seas are perhaps the biggest and most potentially devastating problem humanity faces right now. For my graduate collection, I wanted to challenge ideas of plastic, whilst creating garments that are inherently sustainable.

Nature often inspires my work, and during my second year at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) I was lucky enough to participate in the Erasmus scheme — so off I flew to the far away island of Reunion to study for six months. This was the scariest but best decision I have ever made, and looking back it is the warmth of the people, the vibrancy of the colours in the sunsets, the tropical plants and ocean life, as well as the textures of the volcanic rock and the shapes of the mountain skylines that all come together to inspire this collection. The easy-going nature of the people there meant that they were simply happy to express who they were without a care — often dressing in bright colourful clothes of clashing patterns, which are also traditional of Reunion dress. It is this mentality that also inspires the boldness in colour and texture of my designs.

What fabrics are you using and how have you sourced and worked with these? 

I never stop experimenting with materials and I always try to find a new way of doing things, to make my research and work into sustainability that bit more interesting; from using recycled foam and rubber rings to using natural towelling in previous projects, for example. Last summer, after much research into sustainable plastic alternatives, I read about the notion of bio-plastics and imagined their potential to become wearable garments.

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Interestingly, I have discovered arguments over the years that some synthetic fibres can be more sustainable than some natural ones, and so to help achieve the aesthetic of my collection, where I couldn’t make natural fibres work, I have used such synthetics, some recycled. There are also some natural fibres such as bamboo and organic cotton that I choose not to use in my collection as they are not as sustainable as they seem at first glance.

 

How has it evolved from your initial ideas and what have you learnt along the way?

There are limitations that come with sustainable fashion, which as a student on a limited budget are hard to overcome. There were many issues along the way with the bio-plastics, for example that it couldn’t be sewn (unless fabric was trapped inside it to strengthen it), and that it can easily go mouldy during the drying stage if the conditions aren’t just right. Even if it doesn’t mould, the panels shrink and can deform uncontrollably during drying, making it difficult to predict the size of my garment patterns.

My emphasis as a fashion student has always been on textures and how they can enhance my designs. The learning curve presented by the bio-plastic caused my design ideas to evolve radically throughout the year, in order to achieve desired shapes that work in-line with my textiles. The testing and sampling of the bio-plastic has been a long and on-going journey, which has tested my resilience as a designer as well as my problem solving skills. However, it is the challenge to make them viable and fit for a fashion purpose that inspires me and in turn it has taught me just how passionate I am about sustainable alternatives and that there’s always another way. 

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What is the message behind your collection that you want people to take away?

For me, the term ‘sustainability’ has been overused and has somewhat lost its meaning. The aim of my work is to therefore show that being sustainable can be fun, exciting, interesting, colourful, alive, relevant, and by combining my home-grown bio-plastics with colourful yarns and various other textures such as knit, I hope to achieve this. Whilst I am also recycling other types of plastic such as bubble wrap in my collection, certain outfits will be fully biodegradable by using the bio-plastic along with natural yarns and fibres alone.

I think what is key with my collection is that it doesn’t necessarily shout sustainability until you ask questions and dig deeper, and this would be what I want people to take away from it. Being inquisitive is perhaps the most powerful tool we have in beating global warming, in a future that lies in exploration, experimentation and collaboration to find viable solutions. Most importantly, as with the nature of the fashion industry, challenge convention. For example, fast fashion has long been a culprit of climate change, yet my garments show how even fast fashion could be positive; with biodegradable outfits that you really can just throw away care-free after a few uses.

 What is your plan once you finish your BA? 

Whilst graduates can’t always afford to choose, I hope I am lucky enough to find a position from the get-go with a company whose driving force is sustainability, where I could continue my exploration into sustainable fibres and collaborate with others to bring them to life. There is so much I have yet to learn, and so whilst one day I dream of being a designer for my own haute couture brand, I think it’s imperative that I first learn about the fashion world in the real world. Finally, studying in Reunion solidified my French language and so to travel with my job or work abroad would be both incredibly exciting and invaluable.