In a world where we are told it is difficult to change how the fashion industry works, in steps fashion designer Amy Powney owner of the contemporary sustainable fashion brand Mother of Pearl to show us how it’s done. Here she tells us how in 3 years she has turned the brand around and the positive changes she is making going forward to continue to grow her business by doing 'the right thing’.
D: Amy where did you grow up and do you have any memories before you were living in the caravan?
A: Yes, lots as we only moved to the caravan when I was around 10, before that I lived in a house in the village, I had a more classic normal childhood. The house in the village was in a cul-de-sac and then my parents had the idea, I think from watching The Good Life and decided they were going to sell up, build their own place and live off grid, that happened when I was about 10.
D: How did it feel to move to the caravan? When you were ten it probably didn't have such a big impact but as you grew up did that change?
A: About 13ish it became more obvious that we were different, I think my sister probably realised it sooner because she was a bit older. Looking back I wouldn’t change anything, I'm really happy I had that. As a child I probably wanted to live in a house with electricity and water like all the other kids at school. Living in a caravan up North it rains a lot, that's the truth, the weather is not great and when you live like that it's not always easy. We didn't have in house entertainment, we couldn't just have the TV on whenever we wanted because we were off grid. But really I wouldn't change it for the world now, because it taught me so many things that have made me who I am today and that's part of the reason I'm doing what I do too.
D: Because when you're a kid you want to be like everybody else, it’s more difficult to be individual.
A: Exactly, I wanted to wear logos and brands and not be living on the farm.
D: You see people on Grand Designs building the dream, did your parents eventually finish the house?
A: No not really but they live in it and it works for them. Building the house was never about them, it was very much about what was around them. Dad’s passionate about how the grounds look, but he's not really bothered about the house. Mum would probably wish it was more finished, nicer but dad is a very functional person, as long as it works he's happy. So no, I think it will never be finished.
D: As you said he's more connected to the soil, to the earth. Looking back do you feel it was an adventure and now that you have your daughter do you think you could do it with her?
A: I am so torn between the city girl and the country girl, I really have both parts deeply rooted. I can't leave London because I love the diversity, I love the culture and everything you see, the visual impact and the creative impact it has on you, the people that you meet here. I'm not suggesting that people in the country aren’t wonderful at all but it's very diverse here and I really struggle with the concept of moving back out to village life. That being said my ultimate dream is to do a grand design, off grid grow my own food and get back to soil. So I want all of that, my dream would be to have two properties but that's unrealistic and also feels indulgent, should we even be thinking like that? My dream life would balance culture and the ground. My way to do that at the moment is to get a van and renovate it into a camper, so that at least on the weekends we can get out of the city. We have never owned a car, neither myself nor my husband, but now we have Niamh, I really want her to experience the countryside. We have battled with the whole sustainability of getting a car but we decided as we don’t fly and we don’t go on holidays, if we have the van then we could use it on the weekend. If we eliminate flying and stay local it will be more sustainable. That's our thought at the moment to get a bit of both.
D: I'd love one as well, we had a caravan when I was growing up, family holidays campsites, and the sound of the rain on the roof, I really love that.
A: I really love the idea of renovating my own van rather than buying a camper because then we can make it like our home in mini form. I don't think I could do the classic camping without a van. If it's raining, I really need somewhere I can sit in, make a cup of tea and maybe watch a movie. I have become slightly fair weathered having lived in London for a really long time.
D: What were your early fashion influences?
A: My number one muse was the Spice Girls, back then when you lived outside cities you only got the mainstream, there were only channels one to five, there was an HMV and it was tiny. Music came from The Charts (Top 40), as a kid I didn’t learn what music could be, or what art could be. It was very much what was on Top Of The Pops which was boy bands and the Spice Girls and music really influenced back then, still does but, as kids you were either into indie pop, or rock, or pop stars. I was with the pop star group of kids so it was Spice Girls all the way. Which meant fashion was tracksuits and for my first outing to an nightclub I wore a suit with just a bra, wonderbra underneath as that is what they used to wear and I thought that was totally acceptable and fabulous. Now if my daughter did that I would be asking what are you doing?
D: Did you go to Uni?
A: I always knew I wanted to do art of some kind and went to Kingston to do fashion design as a degree. I landed there because I was too frightened to come into central London. I had looked at the schools but it felt too big a jump from the caravan to the centre of London and I panicked a little bit. Kingston was good because it was on the outskirts and I could easily get the train in.
D: When you were at Uni you were already interested in sustainability, your final collection was based on sustainability. You could have come to university and not done a sustainability line, you could have turned your back on that after escaping the country, what kept you interested?
A: I wasn't sustainable when I was a kid, I lived that way because it was the choice my parents made and in a way I was anti that, I wanted to go shopping, I wanted to move to London, I wanted the opposite of what I’d had. But I guess somewhere deep rooted inside me it was still very much part of who I was. Most of Uni I wasn’t thinking about that so much, but towards the end of my degree I started thinking, what is this industry I'm about to get into and happened to pick up the book ‘No Logo’ by Naomi Klein and was like ‘what the hell’. Back then it was all about social responsibility not sustainability. At that point I think I'd had enough of being anti everything I’d learnt living growing up. I realised that I needed to make sure I was doing the right thing. For me it was always about if there's a better or right way to do something then that's what I have to do. Back then it was more about social responsibility, fair trade was a big conversation, sustainability in terms of the environment wasn’t a big part of the conversation, a lot has changed in the past 15 years. Our consumption in the last 10, 15, 20 years has gone through the roof. That all changed so rapidly and now, most of us have access to everything we need in this country.
D: I love that you worked your way up through Mother of Pearl from sweeping the floor. Tell us how that happened.
A: Fresh out of Uni I realised that it was hard to get a job, I had done internships and had loved doing them, but no one was paying and I needed somebody to pay me. On the whole I disagree with internships, people say only the privileged can afford it, but I did all my internships by working in bars in the evening and working weekends. Everything I learnt by doing them was completely invaluable. I worked from morning till evening for years, but I was young and you can do that then. Yes, some people in this world are more privileged than others, but that doesn't change when you get out of Uni, and I would do it again in a heartbeat, without pay. Once I graduated though it was, OK now it’s time to be paid. As luck would have it I stumbled across the job at Mother of Pearl, it was three days a week so I took it and on the other days I was interning with Giles Deacon. At the time he was in his heyday, so I was getting my creative fashion fix there and was paid by Mother of Pearl. I saw a lot of potential in Mother of Pearl starting as an assistant, then studio management, it was a long time before I took over the creative. More responsibility came with time and eventually I was given the responsibility of running the whole thing on my own. Now the majority of the businesses is mine. It's been a very organic process and I was fortunate the opportunity was there. It has been hard because I didn't have a mentor, I had to learn everything myself. It would have been nice to have had a mentor. Still everyone has their own path and now 15 years later I have learnt everything and in a way when you learn it for yourself is ingrained.
D: When you took over the reins you started to make changes, for example reducing the collections from four to two. How did it feel to start putting your own vision in place?
A: This wasn’t an overnight story, it was an organic growth, I took over bit by bit. It took a long time to feel confident enough to say OK this is what I'm doing. When we won the Vogue awards that really was my moment. They asked a lot of questions and I was interviewed as part of the competition a few times. You have to stand up in front of a panel, and the panel is made up of famous people from inside the industry or important editors or editors of Vogue et cetera. You really have to stop and think about what you're saying, and think about your brand. It is a really good process like going onto Dragons Den. It made me step up and own my vision, otherwise they weren't going to believe in me and give me the award. From then on I felt OK, this is my time and sustainability is going to be at the forefront of everything we do. From that moment we changed. We do four collections a year now but back then it was two. We create the same amount of looks now as when it was 2 collections. Only now it's spread over 4 drops so it hits the shops four times a year. I don't make more stuff but sell it four times instead and our collections are tiny. The core part of the brand is a huge section, it never goes into markdown and we rerun those styles. Ideally we'd have the whole brand like that but that doesn't really work in fashion. The best selling products are those that don’t go into markdown, that’s at the core collection, that’s what people want to wear anyway. Which means they don’t wait to buy it. You can see how customers’ habits work, they know certain things will go to markdown and we only really sell them when in the sale so it's a whole false economy.
D: After you won the designer fund prize it gave you the freedom to research what you wanted to do and look properly at the supply chain. I love that you say that it was easy, as a lot of people say it's not and three years is no time at all to put everything in place have transparency and have the brand in the place where it is now.
A: We have 5 pillars: environment, transparency, animal welfare, social responsibility and circularity. Then each garment is also tagged with our sustainable attributes, that's how we share what we've achieved per garment.
D: Can you tell us a bit about each of these and why they're so important to you?
A: The biggest fear I had after winning the Vogue award was the environmental damage we are doing. Of course the social aspect is huge, it always has been and that's never changed over all these years. But what was changing drastically was the speed at which we are consuming and the amount of pollution. Fashion’s number as one of the worst polluting industries in the world was getting higher and higher and higher so I realised this has got to be our focus. We wanted to understand everything, we wanted to know the truth. As a designer you go to a supplier and you say I’m going to buy this fabric from you and that's it. You ask no more questions. When we started asking questions: where does your fabric come from? Where do your fibres come from? No one knew anything, they bought it from someone else, who bought it from somewhere else, the whole thing was untraceable. So we started on a huge mission, to find out more by asking: where does the cotton grow, where does the silk come from, where does the Tencel come from, those types of questions, so we could piece it all together. Once we’d worked out which countries do what, we then tried to work out how we could work with suppliers directly rather than using say, an Italian supplier who was actually buying cotton from a Chinese supplier, but the Chinese supplier was actually buying from Turkey. By going direct we cut out a load of middlemen and everything became more affordable. You have to want to find a solution, and we wanted to do the right thing. It’s easy in that there's a few things everybody could do tomorrow that would make a massive change. It’s harder if you want to go further, you won’t find the field the cotton or flax was grown in but you can find the country of origin and you can buy under certification. But for now it's impossible to go back to a specific field, to a specific picker and lots of people don't want to do all of that either. When you ask your factories and your suppliers to get the certificates of origins most of them say ‘what do you even mean?’ Then you have to educate people as no one else has been asking these questions.
For us it was about the environmental aspect of the fibres we use and what the best fibres are to use. What’s the carbon emission, what’s the water usage, how does it work? Then if we use them, how can we get to that final garment in as few stages as possible? We don't want to transport all this stuff around the world. Usually most things are grown in one country, spun in another country, woven in another country, made into a garment in another country and that's just one fabric. If the garments got X amount of fabrics in it, it's all coming from everywhere else, so we try to and use only one fabric in each garment, maximum two. We try not to line things as we don't want to deal with linings.
It boils down to: what are we using? What’s the best version of that? if it's cotton then we use organic not normal cotton and Tencel is better than cotton, it's one of the best fibres. Then how can we then get to the final garment with the geography being as close as possible, so we're not shipping it all over the world. Then what are we making? If we're making something that's only seasonal and fashionable and unwearable, well that defeats the whole point. Within all of that is social responsibility and animal welfare, as well as the environment. These were our original main pillars. Since then, we have learned so much on the journey: we’ve sorted the supply chains, now we're focusing on circularity and have launched rental, next we want to launch resale and then repair. That will cover field to final, then we will look at circularity. It is ongoing and the truth is we don't use polyester right now, or recycled polyester because I don't really want to touch that industry. There might come a time where they've managed to sort out recycling well enough, where it does work and we can start using it, because it is more circular and it uses less resources. But there's no real data on that out there and we are doing the best we can with the information we have now.
Every time we design a garment we think about everything, if there is a chip in the chain that doesn't work we might not make it. If you want to design say a dress in a certain fabric, but the only way to do that sustainably is with one factory, but that factory can't cope with that type of dress, then we have to say ‘well do we make that dress or not’? No one else is doing that, everyone else says I want that dress, I want it in that fabric, I don't really care about the rest of it. We question everything and there are ways that make it super easy, you can buy Tencel with Lenzing certification from suppliers, there are lots of easy fixes people can do but still don't. No one should be buying cotton that's not organic, it's the same as food, we shouldn't be making food that's not biodynamic or organic, because we're killing the soil and killing the soil affects climate change even more. People forget, or don’t even know, that fashion comes from agriculture, fundamentally we haven't connected the two. If you say to a child here is a cartoon pig on TV or here's a fluffy toy pig and when eating pork it's a pig. I don't think they realise it's the same thing. In a supermarket you don't see the pig you don't watch somebody slaughter the pig there is a disconnect. It’s the same when people pick up a dress they don't say, this comes from a farm. The ‘Kiss The Ground’ documentary highlights that more and more research shows that by tilling the soil and pouring chemicals into it we are killing the very ground that we need. Not only does it grow stuff for us but it also absorbs carbon. I think 2/3rds of the planet is dead now, the soil is dead. On the remaining 1/3 we should be bio dynamic farming for food, for fashion, for everything. All agriculture has to be like that and that's really what we have to change.
That’s why I would love to own my own land so that I can protect at least a portion of it. Imagine if we were all guardians of the soil.
D: Soil is the foundation of everything.
A: It's all coming to light now and all governments have to pass laws to increase biodynamic farming. All pesticides have to go, all chemicals have to go, they have to change farming rules and laws. But everybody has to pay more money for food and not waste as much food.
D: How important are the collaborations you do with others to you?
A: Collaborations have sat both really well and really confusing for me because there's part of me that thinks I don't want to touch any other business unless they're committed to change the way I am, and if they are not then I shouldn't be partnering with them. I shouldn't advocate for these companies. But at the same time you think we have to get the message out. I always look at Jamie Oliver as an example and what he did for school dinners. You can be the most sustainable chef on the planet but if you're not educating the wider audience then what's the point. It was the same for me when it came to collaborations, I thought ‘well I can carry on with my brand and do everything the right way, but how am I going to grow that?’ How am I going to increase my audience and I don't even mean increase my audience to sell more clothes, I mean increase my audience to help educate people. So it's been really conflicting. The way I see it is knowledge is power and the more people I can educate the better. When I collaborated with the BBC they really wanted me to make stuff, but I said no, let's talk to people about it. In the end I did create something because they, were obsessed with the idea of creating stuff, but I made it so specific and niche and tiny, I don't want to make more T shirts with animals printed on them, nobody needs that stuff, so it became an educational short documentary.
With John Lewis we created clothing, but there was a big marketing campaign around it about sustainable fashion, unfortunately it coincided with Covid which was such a shame. We had whole sections set up in store to talk about it the collection, but because of Covid it became more about the products and less about the and education which was what I really wanted to do.
I want to grow the business to have a bigger voice, because the bigger the business the more powerful the voice. In some aspects I want to carry on doing my small things and not collaborate, yet on the other hand I want to make my voice more powerful so I can help teach more people. Jamie Oliver's a great example, he became a mainstream conversation, he didn't do everything perfectly at all, but he could move the needle for the nation. It’s such a battle making small compromises along the way but the aim is to be able to help on a much bigger scale. The great thing about collaboration is the ability to share your knowledge with another business or another company and they also teach you things that you hadn't even thought about. It’s a good way to share knowledge and I like to think, especially with companies like John Lewis, I've worked to change the way they think. I guess it's infecting the world in a good way, you grow your roots and plant seeds with more people, in the hope that more people take it on board and change. That's the whole point of interviews, the more people read them maybe they'll make a change too. Everything has its pros and cons and I do think knowledge is power.
D: Recently I saw you have also turned your hand to homewares.
A: It's my creative outlet that’s not to do with work in a way. My home is my sanctuary, it's where everything is rooted. It's my happiest place. It's somewhere that's so important as I lead such a busy life, so I have a real passion for space. I prefer the concept of not having things but having the right space to live in. If we all invested more of our money into the environment we lived in and decluttered our lives of stuff and ate well but lived more basically, I think we would be a happier nation, l ready do. More and more the love of how an environment affects your mood and how you feel, has become a passion of mine. When John Lewis approached me about doing homeware it felt like such a natural fit. They don't work in a fashion calendar way, they don't have this seasonal product, they launch the product and if it works they keep selling it. It's a nicer way to work. It's a slower approach which I think is nice.
D: Has the arrival of Niamh changed your perspective again?
A: On sleep yes. It has changed my perspective, but I thought really long and hard before I had Niamh. There were many times when I thought I shouldn't do this. How could you have a child, I know this is really dramatic, but, at the beginning of the end of the world? It really does feel like that. It was a really big decision for me to make, yet at the same time I think if I didn't have a child it would have made me feel more angry at the people that weren't changing. I felt if I didn't have her then I didn't have hope and didn't believe things could change. So I've had her with hope in mind. I feel more frightened than I did, because she's here now and I love her. Eco anxiety becomes stronger I guess. At the same time she is a great distraction too, before maybe I had more time to worry, now I don't really have the time to worry so, maybe it's quite a good thing.
D: I feel you have answered this question already, but what drives you?
A: I am asked that question a lot and I honestly think it is something innate in me. I don't know where it comes from and I don't know why, but I have to pick the right way. If I see information in front of me for example if you don't buy renewable energy then you're supporting fossil fuels, if you buy renewable energy then you are not so that’s the right thing to do. It's more expensive, so how am I gonna make that work? I do that by finding a way to save money somewhere else. I own a company, I have to do things the right way or I couldn't go into work everyday. I employ people, and I feel such a duty to make their working life right too.
D: You're staying true to your word in your values and are leading from the front.
A: It comes from knowledge too but it really comes from an innate need to do the right thing. Obviously you combine that with knowledge and the impulse to do right is a reaction.
D: Finally what next?
A: A camper van. Get back to nature, get my hands in the soil a little bit. Then for Mother of Pearl its circularity. Thinking about and growing the business, but also giving the customers the tools to do the right thing once they own it. There's a documentary on the horizon, someone's been following me around for a long time, so I think that should come out this year and it will be the proof of what we've been doing behind the scenes. Often a lot of people talk about this sustainable fabric, or my sustainable brand, or whatever, obviously we do that too and have our website which is our shop front where we tell everyone. But this will be footage proof of everything we've been doing and how we are working.
D: That's fantastic because I always feel that that's missing on television. There's documentaries on Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing and all that stuff and I think can we have documentaries that show a better way? So it’s great that this is coming.
A: It’s a fly on the wall documentary, from me saying, ‘okay I wanna make sustainable fashion how am I gonna do it?’ Then someone's following me on that learning curve. So I think it will feel very honest, obviously it's edited, but is a very fly on the wall kind of following, not a curated film.