We met with Feng Ho, ethical fashion designer, Fairtrade enthusiast and advocate for bringing responsible luxury into the mainstream to discover more about the inspiration behind her work.
Ethical fashion is becoming increasingly more popular in recent years with more brands opting for greater transparency in supply and production. These values have always been important to you in your business. What encouraged you to go ethical right from the start?
A year after I graduated, I set up my fashion business with the help from the Prince’s Trust. Along with a loan, I was given a mentor – Michael Humfrey, a charming and charismatic man in his late 80’s. Michael brought me to London Fashion Week, where he mentored another fashion business who was taking part in Esthetica – the Ethical Fashion Showcase in LFW. Whilst I was there, I got talking to the people on the Environmental Justice Campaign stand. I went away with this report – ‘White Gold: The True Cost of Cotton’. I was moved and shocked – I learnt about the devastating environmental impact and inhumane treatment of people working in the fashion industry; I had to do something about it.
More people are learning about ethical consumerism and it feels like we are making huge strides in the right direction. What is left to be done? Are there any areas that are still getting overlooked in your opinion?
In the light of the recent news that Burberry, and many other high end fashion houses, are burning old stock, shocks me. The disposable of garments, whether unworn or worn, should be considered. The consumer knows of clothes recycling, but many do not realise how difficult it is to recycle a garment that have been made from multiple materials & components.
Your willow collection is fairly traded in Malawi using locally sourced African fabrics in collaboration with The Mayamiko Trust. Can you tell us more about the wonderful work they are doing, and how you got involved with them?
In 2011, I worked with the Mayamiko Trust. The Mayamiko Fashion Lab was in its infancy, and I was one of the first collaborating designers. Mayamiko Trust offers training and educational courses for the most disadvantaged people in Malawi and other parts of Africa, teaching them a transferable and creative skill such as tailoring, bee-keeping, solar lights promotion, and then educating them on how to utilise those skill through business and financial education workshops as well as our micro-financing scheme.
The Mayamiko Fashion Lab workshop provides training in sewing and tailoring to local women, many of whom are affected by the HIV pandemic or care for HIV orphans. The women are trained in a variety of different textile processes: pattern reading, cutting, sewing, and tailoring, all the way through to finished garments. The Mayamiko Trust provide a crèche & free meals each day for their students and their children, and offer micro-financing so that they can buy their own sewing machine in order to start up their own businesses after graduation.
My journey with The Mayamiko Trust was a learning process. I had to adapt my designs to work with their strengths. The Mayamiko team were brilliant. We communicated via email and the postal service, I didn’t physically have to go out to Malawi and everything was done remotely. However, this did slow things down somewhat and it took months of samples being sent back and forth, but I was delighted by the end result and feel really proud of everyone.
You also use end of line British fabrics to create designs that are handcrafted in the UK. Is it easy to source this fabric? It feels like a great solution to waste in the fashion industry. Is this something that more brands should be doing to help tackle this problem?
It’s relatively easy to buy small amounts of end-of-line fabric from UK fabric merchants, but you have to be prepared to spend hours hunting for the fabric that you want! And to have the quantity that you need in stock. It is a bit of a gamble, but this creates a unique ‘one-off’ aspect to the designs. Yes, more should be done to tackle this problem. The high street should be using their excess fabric stock in creating a limited run of a capsule range. They could get independent fashion designers involved to make this a really exciting project!
Coming from a Malaysian/Singaporean heritage and growing up in Britain must have influenced your design aesthetic, how do you feel that your cultural influences come through in your designs?
I am British, but at first glance, I don’t look British. I attended a private girl’s school where I, along with my sisters, was the only non-white student. I never really fitted into any ‘tribe’, so decided to create my own fashion identity – which at the time was a mix of vintage, rave ware, and charity shop. I certainly turned heads in the sixth form common room! Living in the UK I am very cut-off to my ancestry in South East Asia, but every time I go back to visit, I feel a sense of belonging – like things make sense. Hard to describe in words, but its definitely a feeling.
Your designs are stunning. Where do you find inspiration?
Thanks! I love modern architecture – the feeling it gives you when you’re being immersed within it. I am particularly inspired by architects who have gone against tradition to create fluidity in their structures. I’m a big fan of Guadi and Zaha Hadid – two very different styles of architects who have both made some pretty amazing spaces. Being a mother is an inspiration – watching and learning from my two daughters, seeing how they interact with the world around them. They are such curious creatures, and they inspire me take a different perspective on the every day.
As a mother do you have plans to release a children’s line in the future?
When I finally have some spare time and energy, I would love to start a children’s line. I am lucky that my eldest daughter is a big fan of my creations and will wear her favourite piece every single day, until she grows out of it. It’s great to see how much joy they give her, and how proud she is that I’ve made it for her. I love the playful & experimental process for designing for children, and would love to collaborate with fair trade weavers, printers & tailors to get a new line up and running.
You use a variety of sustainable textiles in your designs, including Tencel, soy, hemp and organic cotton. What do you love about working with these fabrics? Are there any fabrics that you’d love to introduce to your designs but haven’t had the chance to yet?
I love the resilient nature of organic cotton, especially handspun khadi. Each time it is washed it becomes softer, more ‘lived in’ and adds a bit of character to the garment. Soy jersey drapes wonderfully and is fantastic of creating transitional day-to-eveningwear; garments that are comfortable to wear yet have that ‘going-out’ feel to it at the end of the day. Tencel is manufactured from the Austrian company – Lenzing. It is made from Eucalyptus tree. The fabric is produced using a closed loop system that uses less water than conventional cotton, and the chemicals in the processing are recycled. It is such a versatile fabric to use!
It was so great to visit Sustainable Angle’s Future Fabrics Expo at London Fashion Week this February. There were sustainable fabrics derived from orange fibre, apple waste and pineapple leaf; eco leather-alternatives from salmon skin, laser cut wood and mushroom. And not forgetting the biodegradable sequins, which were incredible! These fabrics address the waste generated through fast fashion and help designers to create garments that can be composted at the end of its use.
I also loved Sustainable Angle’s collaboration with high fashion designers. These stunning garments are proof that high fashion and the environment can indeed, work together. I was really inspiring to see this new range of textiles – I’d love to use these in the future, but it would mean that I would have to decide on what direction I’m going to take my business. Do I peruse the Fair Trade, or do I go down the environmental route? It’s something that I’m still deciding on!
Aside from your fashion business you’re also busy doing the PR for Fairtrade at St Michael’s and were creative director for O3 Ethical Events. For you, ethical options are a complete lifestyle and not just something that you’ve adopted for your fashion brand. In what other areas of your life do you live ethically?
I have always been in love with the environment and spent many of my childhood years raising money for various animal charities. I was brought up by parents who refused to throw anything out, they bought products that lasted and they still drive a Volvo that is over 30 years old. I have to admit that sometimes they are a little extreme and embarrassing – picnics where shandy was drunk out of old yoghurt tubs, but then again – there’s been a rise in trendy bars using jam jars, so why not? I have been handed a pile of vintage clothes from my mum to make alterations & to repair. My upbringing has definitely been an influencing factor to my lifestyle. I have always repaired my family’s clothing or re-purposed them into soft furnishings or toys. I buy fair trade as much as I can – I feel so lucky to work in a shop where you can buy pretty much everything you need to live ethically, their plastic-free range and sustainable palm oil cleaning products are top of my every-day usage. I favour buying from local businesses over the internet giants. You pay more for the same product, but you get more in return – it’s the experience that counts! Plus you’re preserving the high street and putting joy back into shopping.
Do you have any advice for parents of young children who are looking to make greener choices for their families and hope to raise their children to be more eco conscious?
I have to admit that my children do have a lot of toys – but these toys are either fair trade, or bought from charity shops. My eldest went through a phase of looking at labels on her toys and asking ‘what’s it made from & where does it come from’ (the answer would usually be Polyester and China.) She then developed an understanding of materials and their qualities, and we will also take a look at the Atlas to track the journey. I think letting your children be curious, and try to answer them as fully as possible.
Can you recommend any products (fashion/beauty/home/lifestyle) that fit in with your values?
I’m a big fan of the fair trade jewellery company – Just Trade. They have definitely succeeded in bringing fair trade producers access to the western market, and have improved the lives of thousands by doing so. I love their contemporary geometric designs that are so easy to wear and versatile for every occasion.