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As the sustainability movement continues to gain momentum, one thing's become abundantly clear: There are hundreds of different ways to join the charge. Rather than looking at the mandate to design responsibly as a limitation, the next generation of fashion designers are using those constraints to fuel even greater creativity.

Felipe Fiallo, Olivia Rubens and Cameron Williams are three emerging talents that prove sustainability can serve as the perfect fodder for innovation. I first came across their work as a press juror for the International Talent Support design competition; while each of the three took home awards, what stuck with me more than anything were their unique approaches to designing with the wellbeing of people and planet in mind. 

Fiallo looks to the future with innovative materials like seaweed, mycelium and natural-growing crystals to make his sneakers. Williams draws inspiration from history, relying on traditional materials like bark and mud cloth to stay within planetary boundaries as he creates. And Rubens represents a very up-to-date ethos by meticulously articulating the sourcing strategy that goes into her creepy-cool knits.

Read on to get to know these rising design stars — then be prepared to keep an eye on them, because they may just end up designing the future of sustainability.

Felipe Fiallo

felipe fiallo sustainable sneaker designer

Hails from: Ecuador

Studied at: Istituto Marangoni Firenze

Brand name: Felipe Fiallo

How would you describe your work?

I present an eco-futurist vision that combines fashion, digital fabrication and biology — it's more call to action than new style. I'm promoting a cultural change that seeks to redefine luxury, fashion and the way we interact with objects and with the environment. I aim to create a consumers' experience that is sustainable over time.

Who or what are some of your biggest inspirations?

My biggest inspiration is society and the planet. We need to reinvent ourselves and co-create with nature and ethics to survive.

How are you integrating sustainability into your work?

I have created three lines within my brand. Bio-Future is an experimental line that's the result of co-creation with nature, featuring biodegradable shoes made out of seaweed, natural crystal shoes that don't need glue but grow directly on the shoe and a shoe growing from the mycelium of fungi. The second is Eco-Future, which has zero waste principles and upcycling as pillars of production. Finally, the Future line is one that considers local manufacturing and circular economy as fundamental pillars.

What's one of the things about your work that you're proudest of?

I'm very happy to have managed to disrupt an industry as competitive as fashion, and specifically sneakers. It's a clear sign that society is thirsty for change and my brand was born to serve this new generation. My career in fashion began in 2018 when I traveled to Italy to study at Marangoni, and later got a diploma in sustainability at Fabricademy. For the previous 10 years, I directed REINO Studios, a laboratory for innovation, industrial design and architecture in Ecuador.

What do you think the sustainability movement and narrative is missing right now?

There are many brands that intend to present a re-branding with basic changes in the composition of the materials they use, but the change must be much deeper than this. Radical is the way to go, not only in the raw materials, but in the entire chain of production and throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I envision myself leading my brand and a different fashion system that has influenced a new culture of consumption and production: a new aesthetic and the redefinition of luxury, based on regenerative design

If you could decide on one change for the entire fashion industry to make tomorrow, what would it be?

Migrate to a circular economy system, and promote local production and distribution.

Olivia Rubens

olivia rubens sustainable design future

Hails from: Canada

Studied at: London College of Fashion

Brand name: Olivia Rubens

How would you describe your work? 

I make eccentric, playful, vibrant and somewhat dark and eerie knitwear with sustainability at its core.

Who or what are some of your biggest inspirations? 

In terms of sustainability, Christopher Raeburn and Bethany Williams. They consistently challenge themselves to disrupt current fashion systems, innovate in the field of sustainability and redefine what being a designer is.

Regarding inspiration for my designs, I usually draw from human nature: discourse, our quirks, the intersectionality of people, culture or social issues. I also poke and prod things that are normally taboo, which is why my work can be dark and playful in a colorful way.

How are you integrating sustainability into your work? 

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On the environmental side, I work with either highly certified yarns and materials (GOTS, BCI, RMS, GRS) or I meet the farmers or suppliers so I can get to know their production first-hand. I also work with natural dyers, sustainable dyers and spinners in the UK and in Europe. I invest in and develop collaborations with innovators who are developing new materials that are climate positive or circular. I also source deadstock garments that don't sell on the stock floor of charity shops to upcycle into new materials. 

With regards to the social side of sustainability, I work with these same charities to develop social initiatives, such as one most recently with youth surrounding cyber bullying and identity. I work closely with Manusa, a knitwear facility in Pistoia, Italy, which trains and employs refugees.

What's one of the things about your work that you're proudest of?

I'm proud of my ability to juggle so many collaborations in the making of a body of work, which always creates a more unique output. Being able to share my successes with my collaborators gives me such joy. I couldn't have done anything that I've done without them.

What do you think the sustainability movement or narrative is missing right now?

The sustainability movement is missing real goals and purpose. Often these players will find satisfaction in simply putting an "eco" stamp on things — a fabric might have the GOTS organic cotton stamp on it, but then 60% of the fabric might be polyester.

It's important for each designer and manufacturer to make a measurable impact in repairing the damage we've done, or to become circular. Without that, the attempt at "being sustainable" really doesn't have much meaning. Truly caring about sustainability means knowing that you cannot be 100% sustainable and asking yourself tough questions, because there will always be room for improvement.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I'd like to be running my brand similarly to Christopher Raeburn, Katherine Hamnett or Bethany Williams (not too big, not too small, consistently collaborating). I'd like for my studio, sales and showroom to be totally transparent, to know much more and be more vigilant about my supply chain, and to be consistently updating my manifesto and challenging the status quo. I want to meld scientific and material innovation with fashion by successfully starting to challenge and change consumer behavior, and to have measurable environmental and social impacts.

If you could decide on one change for the entire fashion industry to make tomorrow, what would it be?

I want all stakeholders, designers and suppliers to truly care about the impact they make, rather than doing the bare minimum because the market is starting to demand it. We could then bring about the change the world needs at the pace that we need. Considering how quickly our planet is deteriorating, that's what's necessary, rather than these far-off goals for 2030 or 2050.

Cameron Williams

NUBA FW20 cameron williams black sustainable designer

Hails from: U.K.

Studied at: Central Saint Martins

Brand name: Nuba

How would you describe your work?

Historically Western cultures have conceptualized blackness — both the term and the color — with detrimental or threatening connotations. I use black and other dark earth tones to convey the allure of African culture, as well as the emotional plight experienced by Indigenous groups, and to subvert the meaning of black. I use this approach as opposed to the more commonplace Manichaean concept of light versus dark meaning good versus evil, or current versus nostalgic. 

Who or what are some of your biggest inspirations?

The Nuba tribe inspires me because of their simultaneous resilience and elegance. Their aesthetic encompasses spirituality, beauty and connection with their environment, which is expressed as a lifestyle that visually and conceptually transcends intentional forms of art. 

The Nuba people are some of the darkest, most beautiful people on the planet, while having experienced great struggle from civil war. Growing up in South London, I've always been surrounded by Afro-Caribbean culture, which is a reminder of where I come from. I combine the influences of sculptural wrapping and frugal functionality with the urban streetwear influences of my surroundings.

How are you integrating sustainability into your work?

I work with organizations that support local communities that produce traditional fabrics like bark cloth or mud cloth using culturally significant processes that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. I've worked with Hands Up For Uganda and Barktex Germany to support the communities of Uganda that produce these fabrics, allowing their contribution to the fashion industry to fund community development. 

What's one of the things about your work that you're proudest of?

I'm happy that the materials I'm using support communities in need of infrastructural development. 

What do you think the sustainability movement and narrative is missing right now?

It would be great if it infused the way we learned about fashion design and production from the ground up. Integrating organizations like Fashion Revolution into fashion education on a wider scale would ensure that the future of fashion design and business has sustainability as a natural part of its function. 

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

My main goal is to support the economic development of African countries by working with communities to manufacture and cultivate sustainable materials on a larger scale as a viable part of the textiles industry. It's about economic liberation. Sometimes going backwards — in terms of looking to historic cultural practices — is needed in order to move forward.

If you could decide on one change for the entire fashion industry to make tomorrow, what would it be?

To shift to a culture of conservation as opposed to overconsumption. 

Homepage photo: Courtesy of Felipe Fiallo

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