When I decided to leave my career in finance and set up my own womenswear label under by own name - Bozena Jankowska, I knew I was entering a very different world compared to the one I was used to. I knew I would be starting from scratch and would have to build up the contacts that would be essential to building out and making the label a success. On the one hand it was daunting, after all, I didn't have the prestige of having studied in the kind of environment offered by some of the top fashion schools such as Central St. Martin's. But on the other hand, I am not afraid to take risks and I was ready to take a new direction, which would enable me to turn my dream and passion into reality. From day one it has been an amazing experience built on sheer determination and hard work. So what has been my journey so far?
The most exciting and absorbing stage is the design process. The starting point can come from anywhere, an image, an item, or an observation of an environmental or social issue that I am especially moved by. Research plays a vital role and I cannot start the design process without it. It involves learning about the issue, exploring for and gathering images that depict the topic, its mood, its story and exploring all its different sides - the beautiful and the ugly, as often environmental and social issues have extremes of both.
This gives me the first building blocks necessary to move onto exploring and experimenting with silhouettes, details, textiles, colours and textures that reflect the story I am setting out to tell. I often like to play with experimental draping including deconstructing old garments and reconstructing them in new ways which leads me to discover new ways that clothes can drape and lie on the body. Documenting every stage of the process is key and I have a sketchbook in which I record my research and ideas via images, sketches, photographs and textile samples I have pulled together during my research. I think of it as a collage of my ideas that provides the collective inspiration for my designs. From here, I am able to start evolving the ideas further by sketching my designs, continuing to redraw, refine and distil them until I believe I have reached a point where I have a cohesive and balanced line up that tells the story of my initial inspiration that is also representative of the woman I am designing for.
Throughout the research process I would already begin to explore textiles and trim options and begin collecting samples that I felt were particularly reflective of the mood, textures, patterns and colours that I have gathered during my initial research. Sometimes the fabrics and trims can be a source of inspiration driving the design process, at other times I may have a specific texture and fabric in mind and others it is finding the right fabrics that will reflect the vision I have for the collection. If I am looking for a particular textile print, I would usually design the print in-house, which in itself leads me to a separate research path. Not only is the print unique to me, it adds another layer of dimension to my designs and further allows me to express my intention with the collection.
Researching textiles requires a lot of leg work and so far I have found to be the most challenging part. Fabric fairs are a great place for finding what you are looking for. They are a great opportunity to see the range and breadth of fabrics available and importantly, learn about new developments in textile design and innovation. I have now visited several of these fairs both in London and Paris (both conventional and sustainability focused) and I have learned that it pays to plan your visit in advance especially if the fair is spread across three airplane hangar sized buildings filled with thousands of different exhibitors! My first experience of a fabric fair was with one of the largest in Europe - Premier Vision in Paris, which not only shows textiles, but leathers, furs, accessories, trimmings and every conceivable item a designer would need to produce their collection whether it be garments, handbags or shoes. I remember how overwhelmed I was during that first visit, where on the one hand I was totally excited by the world I was entering but on the other hand being struck by the sheer size, scale and diversity of the industry and because of that, how significant the industry's footprint must be on the environment.
As a label focused on creating sustainable impact through fashion, there is certain expectation to pay attention to the sustainability of the textiles I use. I often get asked whether the plan is to use organic, ethical or sustainable textiles. That is my goal and I hope that with every new collection I am able to use a sustainable textile. Currently however, my options are severely limited. I have found pretty much early on in my research process that sourcing sustainable textiles, especially for a small start-up designer like myself, quickly becomes a catch-22 (read my earlier blog where I discuss this in greater detail). Price is a stumbling block but also availability and choice of fabrics is an altogether different challenge. Equally, where sustainable fabrics are available, the sheer order volumes that mills require are simply prohibitive for designers who work with smaller sized collections.
It's great to see designers such as Stella McCartney developing their own sustainable fabrics and leading the way in conscious design. Stella was able to develop a traceable and sustainable viscose for her collections using wood fibre from managed forests in Sweden, certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council, with the yarns being spun in Germany and women into fabric in Italian textile mills.
That's fantastic, given she has the scale and clout to embark on such a project. Stella is addressing a critical problem in the fashion supply chain. The majority of viscose fabric (which is increasingly being used by designers and high street brands) is made in China using about 30% wood from untraceable sources which often originate from ancient, endangered or unsustainably managed forests and the majority of textile mills are unable to specify the exact source of their wood fibre that goes into making the viscose. It just demonstrates how complex the supply chain is - and we are only talking about a single type of fabric!
I have dedicated a considerable amount of my research trying to source sustainable fabrics (only to realise the catch-22 situation) to finally reaching a compromise and instead seeking for greater transparency on the fabrics I have chosen to work with. All come from natural fibres - silk and wool so in theory have a lower environmental impact than conventional polyester or viscose. I have been quizzing the textile suppliers for more information on the provenance of the textiles I am planning to use and was surprised that many have little transparency on the sustainability of the fabrics they are selling. I can only guess that the majority of their other clients are not systematically asking the kind of questions I am, and therein lies the problem. It just shows how far the fashion industry has still to come on sustainability. As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, the choice of sustainable fabrics still continues to be limited turning off many designers.
I know that the silk I will be using for my collection originates in China (where most silk comes from globally) with some being dyed in Europe including the UK. Whereas the wool textiles I will be using originate from Australian sheep (apparently wool from UK sheep is to course to use in fine wool cloth) and processed and woven into textiles In Italian and UK mills. I wish I had greater choice and flexibility with sustainable fabrics. I am keen to demonstrate that apart from raising environmental and social awareness with my collections, I can show that sustainable fashion need not be boring or unfashionable and that it can offer choices to women. As my label grows from strength to strength, I intend to incorporate more sustainable fabrics into my collections but this will be a gradual process and where possible, work with mills that provider greater sustainable options for designers.
To bring the collection to life, it is critical to find a pattern cutter who understands your vision for the collection and has the right experience and understanding to take your designs from concept sketches to the finished garment. This is process in its own right requiring a series of stages starting with generating the pattern templates that will be used to cut the cloth, then making up the 'toiles' which are made from plain cotton (calico) which enable me to see how the design looks in 3D first on a mannequin, and later, on a real human body. This is a crucial stage as I am able to check the silhouette of each design, determine its fit and make any final alternations to ensure the collection works.
Now, I am at the stage where I am ordering the fabrics I have chosen for my collection, and which Katy and her team will use to produce the 'samples'. This is the stage where I will at last see my designs as I envisioned them allowing me to see how the fabrics work with the designs and make any final tweaks before we move to production. My goal at this stage is to focus on UK based production and in particular, a manufacturer that operates to high ethical working standards. Being based in London, that gives me the opportunity to visit the factories myself and satisfy myself that my end customers know who made their clothes. And so the next phase beings....