British designer Sophie Franklin is the founder of Fort Dungarees, a sustainable and ethical brand focusing on one of the most iconic apparel of all time: dungarees. For Antibad, she speaks about the women who inspired her the most, habits of consumption and how the future of positive fashion looks like.
How did you decide to focus on one type of apparel?
I quit my job in festival production and went travelling in India – I really needed some time out. I took some of my favourite dungarees there and tried to find ways to make some samples. It worked out pretty well and I then decided to see if I could build my own business. I really love dungarees; they’ve always been my favourite way to dress. I really like their simplicity and I wanted to develop them in different fabrics.
In the collective psyche, the dungaree is often linked to work wear and later on to the emancipation of women, etc. How do you relate to the history of this apparel?
I feel like the history of the dungaree has made it a very strong apparel. You can wake up in the morning and throw one on for the day ahead. So, I guess there is something very modern about it. And somehow, it has managed to become a very sensual piece. I like this balance. It gives you some kind of strength. This is a piece in tune with the way we perceive beauty now – strong and effortless.
Who are the women who inspired you in your life?
Vivienne Westwood inspired me a lot in the way she thinks in the fashion industry. My sister has always been an important person, she is five years older than I am so as a child I always admired her, she has a very strong mind so I always had her to look up to. In a sensual way, I always liked Kate Moss or women like Liv Tyler. I like women who aren’t shy about their strength and sensuality.
How did you start thinking about making a sustainable brand?
After I had a few samples made, I realised how much sustainability was important for me. I decided I didn't want a brand unless it was sustainable. Fair trade became an important part of it too. I knew since the beginning that I wanted to make positive clothes. It became an evidence: ethics and sustainable intertwined and one couldn’t come without the other. I did loads of research before leaving to India and travelled there to find the factory I really wanted to work with.
Technically what are the different ethical and sustainable elements of your brand?
Part of dungarees, the white ones precisely, are made in a place in Gujarat, a state just north of Mumbai. A lot of cotton is being produced there. This is where I met this amazing group of hand-weavers – there are sixty, living in ten different villages. They deal with a very ancient cotton and all work on wooden looms and with natural dye. So I met the weavers and the pickers to observe how they work and in what conditions. In 2001, there was a really bad earthquake in Gujarat that flattened a lot of villages, so a lot of NGOs helped to rebuild the devastated villages and work places. The thing is, they are expecting another earthquake in the coming 50 years as the region is set on a tectonic plate. A lot of NGOs are working hard to make the new buildings safe and restore the economy there. The black dungarees aren’t fully organic at the moment because I really wanted to work with this particular organisation, even if I knew the first range of dungarees wouldn’t be organic and that we would be able to settle an organic process after the first row of production. They are up in the Himalayas and the factory was originally set up to help Tibetan refugees by giving them work. There are 60 people working there now who have escaped to live a better life. The company, called Ethical Creation, found them and gave them a way out.
Do you think sustainability is inseparable from ethical fashion?
Yes I think anyone who is interested in sustainability will necessarily be into ethical fashion. I think separating the two would be quite unbalanced. You can’t be sustainable without thinking about who actually makes your clothes. For me, sustainability is a double engagement.
What do you think about part of fast fashion proposing sustainable lines now?
I always feel a bit nervous about it because I hope it is not just a marketing wash. I think there needs to be more international bodies involved in making fashion more sustainable and regulate production more. We have to go further than the « check level » of being sustainable. But on the other hand I do think it is amazing that this kind of problematic is now coming at the forefront of people’s lives. So, the awareness-raising side of this new movement is amazing but we still do produce too much and in wrong conditions. I like to see the glass half full so I think we can embrace the fact that things are moving, but they have to move under the surface too!
Do you remember the time you personally became sensitive to these questions?
Working in the festival industry I became aware of the tremendous amount of waste we create. I have always been interested in environmental issues but I think it is when I really started looking into waste that I realised how much I wanted to make something positive about it.
How do you think we can all become more aware of how we consume fashion?
I think some designers do a great job about it like Vivienne Westwood for example. She uses fashion as a way to pass on a message and it is amazing. Big names can have a tremendous impact and influence a lot of people. And on a larger perspective, it is through education that we will anchor positive environmental attitudes. A lot of older generations didn’t necessarily have a very eco-orientated lifestyle so I guess we have to invest a lot on new generations now. New communication tools have had a great impact on young people’s minds. They are also more fashion schools offering sustainable courses, developing a sustainable attitude while learning about design is probably a very good way to change things for good.
You were talking about Westwood who often talks about the amounts of fashion we consume. I feel like your brand also has this aspiration to push people to revalue their desires of consumption…
Yes definitely. I have always liked the idea that you can get a top and a bottom with one outfit that can fit to many circumstances. It also allows reducing waste. I want to focus on quality more than quantity and by that, I try to stick to a « buy less » concept.
What advice would you give to a young designer willing to launch a sustainable brand?
Go for it! It takes time, but get to know the people you work with. Humans are the ones changing things.
If you could change one thing in the world…
Greed I guess. I would try and change the materialist side of people and the amount of things we buy.