One of the most quirky eco-friendly contributions to this year’s London Fashion Week, Sting, an event launching the Spring/Summer 2020 collection by Vin + Omi, featured clothing made from nettles harvested at Prince Charles’s rural Highgrove estate.
After contacting him about their work, the sustainable fashion pioneers first met the Prince of Wales in May 2018 at a tea for the Positive Fashion initiative, which promotes sustainability, equality and local production. A chat about horticulture and its place in their fabric research was followed up by a letter from the prince arranging for them to harvest the nettles in the grounds of his private Gloucestershire home.
Left to grow taller than usual to allow them to develop the necessary woody stems, the plants were soon being cut, cleared of leaves by a team of students from Oxford Brookes University and allowed to rot on grass. The resulting short cream fibres were then recovered and processed – either woven or part-felted – for a variety of fabric textures and then bleached with environmentally-friendly natural products or dyed with natural blue woad or red madder.
The fruits of this perhaps surprising collaboration were presented on catwalks at London’s Savoy Hotel. The designers, whose clients have include Marilyn Manson and Debbie Harry as well as Michelle Obama and Kate Moss admitted to journalists:
“We thought the juxtaposition between Prince Charles and us was so far apart that it wouldn’t work. But he’s really happy with it. He’s really happy with the aesthetics and how it’s going.”
Creations on show included an elegant beige coat in a nettle fabric resembling a lightweight cashmere-wool.
“Nettles are a very archaic way of making garments,” historically a source of fabric for “the landless,” said Vin, the British half of the pair. Despite their own technological innovations, he admits that the process remains “laborious” and “very time-consuming”.
Other materials gathered from Highgrove for recycling included surplus willow and hazel, used to make handles for shopping bags, and used chicken wire. Continuing to work with Highgrove’s head gardener, Vin + Omi are now considering other elements of the house’s organic gardens for creative recycling.
Public interest in Vin + Omi’s eco-conscious designs has grown with the rising concern about climate change, but 43-year-old Singaporean Omi said: “When we graduated 20 years ago, everybody called us hippies.” Encouraged by the subsequent increase in environmental activism, he went on to praise Extinction Rebellion, the pressure group which has repeatedly targeted Fashion Week and the broader industry. He remains sceptical of the ecological claims of the overall fashion industry, which he suspects are largely “greenwashing”. Pieces were adorned with an array of ‘tribal’ symbols hailing people they see as heroes working for constructive change.
Vin insists that Vin + Omi is neither a fashion brand nor a research and development company, but an ideology, funded by collaborations with brands seeking to become more sustainable. The show also featured creations originating beyond Highgrove, including satin pieces — some printed with bees — woven from reclaimed Daler Rowney plastic paint tubes, and handbags made from ad agency Ocean Outdoor’s used vinyl posters.
Their partnership with the Savoy hotel, as advisers on sustainability, goes beyond the choice of a venue for the show. Next spring, the hotel’s doormen will begin wearing Vin + Omi uniforms made from fabric created from the hotel’s own plastic refuse. In New York, meanwhile, they are using plastic collected from the Hudson River to make t-shirts for local sale. The duo is currently working on around 40 such projects worldwide. The V&A design museum is reported to have expressed an interest in display a piece from the show in its permanent collection.
Find out more about Vin + Omi at vinandomi.com/