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Sustainability and fair trade are key if you don't want your reputation in rags: social responsibility in vogue for the 2014 fashion industry

As well as a preview of women's style trends for 2014-15, exhibitors at Tranoi Femme, one of Europe's leading female fashion events, say that high-end consumers expect a degree of corporate responsibility with their couture of choice.

Photo: Bags of choice: Rocio’s socially-accountable le accessories.
Bags of choice: Rocio's socially-accountable le accessories.

Substance is this season's style, with the fashionistas prowling the gleaming marbled halls of Paris's Tranoi Femme show clearly looking beyond cut and cloth. Being sustainable, responsible, adaptable and credible are as important as being fashionable for autumn/winter 2014, at least, so it would seem.

This season's must-have accessory? A conscience – if many show insiders are to be believed.

Jean Marc Dameron, a Director of New-Delhi-based Eleven Eleven, manufacturer of contemporary Indian fashions, is a keen exponent of the sustainability ethos. Emphasising the importance of transparency in the production chain, he said: "Currently, sustainable development, fair trade and the desire to follow a healthy lifestyle are the trends that are emerging. People are increasingly concerned about their life, what they eat, the cosmetics they wear and the fabrics that touch their skin.

"Our target market is fairly affluent, as we're dealing in luxury clothing. So when someone buys a jacket from us – one that costs maybe between Euros1,000 to Euros1,500 (US$1,400-2,000) – then they like to know that the money is going to go directly to the weaver, to the human side of the garment.

"Our products are hand-woven and hand-dyed. There's no electrical interaction in the production of our garments and we see that as important."

Tellingly, this year the advocacy of higher quality, sustainable natural raw materials was not just confined to the textiles sector. Hamish Menzies, a Director of Rocio, a Glasgow-based producer of high-fashion bags, clasps and purses, sees sustainability as central to his brand's appeal.

He said: "'Eco luxury' is the foundation of our whole brand. This means sustainability is absolutely paramount for us. Only when we knew we had secured a supply of sustainable materials and wood did we green light our latest range. We were very lucky to find a source of mahogany and acacia that we could manage and help to sustain.

"As for sourcing other materials, that's a constant seasonal battle. We're always looking to find different enhancements to complement the wood we use. We're more than happy, though, to stay with wood as our primary material. We've worked hard to develop that aspect of our business and it's what we are known for.

"Despite that, we're always looking to move the brand on, to take a pioneering approach in a number of different areas. We're always keen to complement the woods we use with a range of different materials.

"This season we have opted for shagreen, stingray, mother-of-pearl and shell. We also have python, as well as crocodile and ostrich. We pride ourselves on offering a whole host of innovative items."

The overall feeling at this year's event was that fashion houses now have to work ever harder to sustain their reputations in an increasingly issues-driven marketplace. Simply sourcing materials and labour from the cheapest supplier was widely seen as exposing companies to huge potential damage to their reputations.

Philipp Albert, Marketing and Business Development Manager for Boulezar, a Munich-based fashion brand, believes that the obligation to move away from cut-price suppliers has been compensate, at least in part, by a new consumer sensibility. He said: "There is a trend for quality and that's being communicated more and more. People are now looking far more for more quality than quantity.

"We manufacture in Germany and our customers appreciate that. There has been widespread coverage of the downside of using production facilities in less-regulated countries, notably Bangladesh. This filters into the public domain and risks the image of the brand.

"These days, negative news spreads very quickly. There is a huge risk that negative associations will compromise your brand and companies just don't want to be exposed to that. The product has to be seen to be produced on a fair and sustainable basis.

"Our raw materials are mostly sourced from Japan and Italy. While we don't have 100% control, we do our utmost to ensure that our suppliers value our philosophy as much as we do."

As well as an upsurge in the popularity of ethically-produced items, several exhibitors also reported increased buyer demand for flexible fashions. In a market still feeling the effects of the uncertain economy, consumers want more bang for their clothing buck. This has seen those items that are versatile and suitable for wearing in a variety of situations prove highly competitive.

Photo: Many fur items appeal to Asian buyers. Some don’t.
Many fur items appeal to Asian buyers. Some don't.

One company unashamedly capitalising on this trend is Podolyan, a Ukrainian women's high-fashion brand. Explaining her company's philosophy, Daria Mingaraieva, its Managing Director, said: "Most of our pieces are transformable, so you can wear them inside out. We tend to use black in the majority of our collections.

"We aim to produce classic pieces that would complement any wardrobe, whether for day or night-time wear. This means you can have a dress that you wear one way during the day time – in the office for example – then you can go out and wear it an entirely different way."

As well its impact on the utility of various styles, economic concerns continued to have an impact on the actual composition of the event's attendees. Commenting on some obvious absentees from this year's show, Sebastian Daus, founder of Plomo o Plata, a German scarf manufacturer, said: "You can judge the state of the economy in terms of visitor numbers. From some countries, they're just not coming. In terms of southern Europe, for instance, I think there are fewer people here than there used to be. This is because, in those countries, their business sectors are still struggling.

"Overall, though, at the top end of the market, it's influenced much more by your product than by any given economy. If you have something that's hot, then it will sell. If it's average or cold, then buyers simply won't want it. It's much more about the trend."

Of course, regardless of the increased preference for sustainable materials, responsible manufacturing and flexible garments, these remain secondary considerations for many. However practical and ethical the product, at the end of the day, it still has to look just right in order to sell.

In terms of what exactly looks 'right' for the coming season, it seems to be a given that metallic will continue to be hugely popular. Confirming this and other trends for 2014, Mingaraieva said: "For this season, knee-length skirts and dresses, open necklines and bows are all going to be quite major, largely as a consequence of Dior's championing of them. Metallics are also going to continue to be strong."

The ascendance of metallics was also cited by Menzies. He said: "We make sure that we maintain a core collection, which is timeless. Then we rotate our seasonal palettes depending on the trend forecast. Metallics are strong this season, for example, as are exotics, greys and flannels.

"Very clean, simple, single colours, married with wood, are also proving potent this year. We've utilised this approach in our Rio and Candy range and they're selling really well."

Among the European buyers, there was also a belief that 2014 would prove to be something of a transitional year. Giacomo Serrati, Sales Manager for Milan-based Tatras, a young fashion brand, said: "Different markets have different needs and different ways to sell and to buy. At the moment, Europe is at the tail end of the trend for camouflage prints. They're still selling, but it's finishing. This season I've seen lots of micro-print 'fantasies'. This is the coming trend now."

Outside of Europe, the effects of the global recession are widely seen as lingering just that little bit less. Susanne Rohrmann, a Director of Rohrmann, a Copenhagen-based family fashion label: "We've had considerable interest from Japanese and Chinese buyers. They've been looking at a lot of our little shorts and skirts and the expensive furs. I don't think price point is as important to those buyers. Overall, they're looking more for the right design."

Photo: Tranoi Femme 2014: couture with a conscience.
Tranoi Femme 2014: couture with a conscience.

Tranoi Femme Fall/Winter 2014-2015 was held in Paris from the 28th of February to the 3rd of March. A combination of catwalk show, art exhibition and trade fair, it saw over 1,000 exhibitors from across the world display their wares at three Parisian venues – the Palais de la Bourse, Carrousel du Louvre and Espace Montaigne.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Paris

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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