New York. London. Paris. Isle of Wight.
It might not be the first place you think of when it comes to cutting-edge fashion, but the Island has become an unlikely hotbed of home-grown style in recent years, from the upcycled bouncy castle bags loved by TV presenter Fearne Cotton, to the recycled organic cotton T-shirts worn by model Cara Delevingne. And best of all, this movement has sustainability and ethics at its heart. Perhaps living in this rural location gives local designers a unique understanding of how fashion affects the environment, or maybe it’s simply the beauty of our landscape that inspires a special kind of creativity.
Take the Isle of Wight gansey jumper, for example — the brainchild of ex-John Galliano knitwear designer Gail Middleton, who now runs Mrs Middleton’s Bookshop in Freshwater, and her retail neighbour Marianne Su Yin, owner of the artisan gift shop and craft space Whistle & Hound. “We started talking about workshops with a focus on reigniting traditional skills and running a teaching-based knitting group,” says Su Yin of the partnership. “Living on an island, this seemed like a natural project to work on together, especially as our modern island lives are still influenced by the sea”.
With a base pattern created by Middleton — a modernised version of the traditional gansey (an old dialect word for jumper) shape — the only way to get your hands on one is to sign up to an eight-week knitting course at Whistle & Hound. “Each piece produced by our knitters is totally unique, with personalised patterns having their own story,” continues Su Yin. “Our wool is sourced from British business Rowan Yarn. We don’t use anything artificial and there is no waste; all extras are used up in other smaller projects.”
Another British fabric-focused company using the Island’s geography as a starting point is Smock Project, which boasts, as the name suggests, practical unisex smocks that are ideal for popular Island activities such as sailing, walking and gardening. “It was a product that people kind of expected, but there wasn’t one,” founder Anna Pickering tells me. She sells her wares mostly at London’s Herne Hill market, but also makes the most of the buoyant summer months on the Island to sell at selected markets such as Yarmouth Vintage Car Boot. She uses traditional fabrics such as moleskin, drill and corduroy in easy-to-wear shades of navy, grey and washed-out red. “I use dead stock, vintage, or UK made,” she says. “I can’t see why I would do it any other way.”
Bags of fun
But the Island’s new fashion hub doesn’t stop at the traditional, as the designers utilising otherwise unwanted materials to make desirable bags are proving. The Yarmouth interiors shop Lintons Home introduced woven totes to its range in 2018 and you’ll be hard pushed to walk down any high street on the Island and not see someone sporting one. Made from either recycled plastic bottles or packing straps, they are all handwoven and are practical enough for everyday shopping, while being a handsome addition to any outfit.
Meanwhile, Wyatt & Jack has been upcycling bags from an even more seaside-familiar fabric since 2010. After helping a friend remove some 1970s fabric from a sun lounger, founder Georgia Wyatt-Lovell used it to make a bag for herself. “I then decided to make more and drove around the UK coast meeting up with beach concessionaires to take their old deckchair canvas and windbreaks,” she says. “At the time, people were asking ‘what do you want that for? It’s going in the bin!’ Now there’s more awareness than there ever has been.”
And Wyatt-Lovell’s desire to save old fabrics didn’t stop at deckchairs: “I moved on to bouncy castles about a year later.” The brand launched an inflatables amnesty in 2016, encouraging people around the world to send in their old lilos and dinghies to be reused. To date, they’ve collected around 150 tonnes, saving it from landfill. The rucksacks, clutches and shoppers that it is made into are incredibly popular, with some styles selling out within minutes online. When Fearne Cotton posted a picture of herself using one, combined with some national press coverage, orders sky-rocketed and haven’t subsided since. Wyatt-Lovell even has a stockist lined up as far afield as California.
“We’ve gone from a team of two to a team of 15 people over the course of about a month,” she says. This works especially well because as well as having environmental issues at the heart of her brand, she also advocates supporting local people. “I wanted to bring manufacturing back to the Island,” she says, having moved from London to a workshop near Sandown. “One of the things I like is that we can employ people flexibly and above the living wage.”
Going in circles
Employing a good number of young people is something that brothers Mart and Rob Drake-Knight, the co-founders of casual fashion brand Rapanui, are also passionate about. Their solar-powered factory in Freshwater’s old Co-op building has around 60 full-time and 30 part-time staff, who benefit from the software and robotics the company writes and builds in-house to make the working environment as efficient and stress-free as possible. “There’s more network cable in this building than in the space shuttle,” Mart Drake-Knight tells me as we take a tour of the site.
Rapanui began as an organic cotton T-shirt and surfwear brand in 2009, but the brothers always had circular design — based around zero waste and products being returned to the manufacturer — in mind from the beginning. “We use organic cotton because it’s high quality, plus it’s good enough to be used on its own without a synthetic additive,” Drake-Knight says. “What that means is, we are able to remake it.” Every Rapanui product’s label explains how to return it to the brand when the customer no longer wants it, where it can be remade into recycled cotton fibre and, ultimately, a new Rapanui garment. And it’s working — last summer they received back a tonne of old garments every month.
Keen to upscale their business without having a detrimental effect on the environment, the brothers had the idea for Rapanui’s most recent venture: Teemill. “We see ourselves now as toolmakers. Factories are usually designed to shut out anything other than mass production; 40% of all clothing produced is never sold and goes straight to landfill. We realised that there weren’t solutions.” So, they made them. Using modified Epson paper printers that allow an infinite number of water-based organic ink colours to be used (and with no minimum order), combined with their own software and those circular organic cotton T-shirts, Teemill gives anyone, from big clients such as Google, to individuals in their bedrooms, the tools to design their own T-shirts which are then printed in Freshwater. “There are about 65,000 businesses connected to this factory,” says Drake-Knight. “Because we make products in real time after they’ve been sold, there’s no waste.”
So, whether it’s traditional craftsmanship, cool upcycling, or cutting-edge technology that floats your sustainable boat, you really couldn’t have come to a better place than the Isle of Wight for the best in local, sustainable fashion.
Lauren Griffiths’ distinctive style is minimal and raw. Her contemporary designs are Fairtrade certified, responsibly sourced, and come in recycled packaging. She also runs jewellery and silversmithing workshops at her studio in Bembridge.
With a store on the southern tip of the Island in Ventnor, Sophie Honeybourne, a Royal College of Art graduate, specialises in work inspired by the Island’s beaches and unspoilt woodlands. She also has a popular upcycling service that breathes new life into inherited items.
Founded by Artemis Russell, originally from the Island, and Nao Utsumi, from London via Japan, RU.ST creates ethical jewellery that it sells in its showrooms in Yarmouth and Tokyo. All of its diamond and precious metal suppliers are certified members of the Responsible Jewellery Council.
How to Get Around the IslandPlan your travel arrangements for your trip.