Did you know that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry? An estimated amount of 200,000 tonnes of dyes are emptied into rivers and seas every year. In addition, textile treatment and dyeing contribute to 20% of industrial water pollution.
This is an issue that people in the industry want to tackle. In Singapore, the Textile and Fashion Industry Training Centre (TaF.tc) cast the spotlight on sustainability this year, by organising a fashion design competition featuring an eco-friendly textile. The Tencel Fashion Design Competition had its contestants design dresses using Tencel lyocell fabric, which is produced by environmentally responsible processes from sustainably-sourced wood.
The Tencel Fashion Design Competition Grand Finalé was held at Design Orchard on 14 November 2019, where 10 finalists’ dresses were showcased during a fashion show before the Creative Director of the show Ms Sylvia Lim, founder and group managing director of The Emporium Group and Triologie, together with a panel of judges comprising Mr Thomas Tan, senior designer and consultant at TaF.tc, Mr Jeremy Loo, founder of Tailour and Mr Merdi Sihombing, guest fashion designer from Indonesia. Participants were given a theme of “Singapore Story” and had five days to design, sew and complete a dress. It was sponsored by Tencel manufacturer Lenzing Group, Textile and Fashion Federation (Taff), homegrown specialty boutique Triologie, zip-maker YKK and thread and technical textiles manufacturer, A&E.
TaF.tc offers courses and programmes to train students for a career in the competitive fashion industry.
More than 150 participants submitted their dresses with their unique design interpretations and sewing skills. A total of 168 dresses were assessed based on sewing quality, wearability, design and production quality, and in the end 10 finalists were selected. Among them were a 63-year-old professional dressmaker, and white-collar professionals such as a financial analyst and a chemical engineer who are self-taught amateurs. Nonetheless, they were all united in their aspiration to become fashion designers.
Ms Agnes Seah Bee Hong, 37, was crowned as the winner of the competition. She is currently five months pregnant with her first child. She had to overcome many challenges such as morning sickness during the process of the competition. She won a Tencel Sustainability Scholarship which sponsors a TaF.tc Diploma in Apparel Design and Product Development. She also won a year-long employment opportunity with Triologie, an overseas trip to the Lenzing Headquarters located in Austria, a cash prize of S$500 from YKK and a Juki sewing machine.
“I started to learn sewing around 8 to 9 (years old) and I used leftover fabrics around the house,” said Ms Seah, Winner of Tencel Fashion Design Competition.
Long before sustainability was a buzzword, she started upcycling clothing into handbags and pouches using those leftover fabrics.
For her winning piece, she updated the silhouette of the traditional Chinese cheongsam by taking away the stand collar and adding an asymmetrical peplum hem to the waist. The fabric used in the dresses made by the finalists is a combination of 50% Tencel lyocell fibres and 50% cotton. Tencel lyocell fibres are a sustainable choice of fabric compared to other fabrics as they are 100% biodegradable and compostable, and will break down safely in landfills. They are certified by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) showing that they follow sustainable practices in production deriving from natural raw material wood.
“Tencel is currently using REFIBRA technology which involves using mainly cotton scraps to make new fibres for fabrics and garments. This process uses 50% less water and energy for the application of the dyes. The dyes used for the material is inherent in the fibre itself, making it long-lasting,” said Harold Weghorst, SVP of Global Brand Management, The Lenzing Group.
The event was bustling with supportive friends and family members of the contestants, some of them being as young as infant-in-arms, and some who were grandparents.
Companies like Lenzing are trying to show that it is possible to use more sustainable resources to create fashion.
“There has been an increasing demand among youths over recent years with 30% from the previous year,” said Mr Weghorst.Harold Weghorst, SVP of Global Brand Management, The Lenzing Group.
Going 100% sustainable is no easy feat for fashion retailers. Ms Sylvia Lim, the Creative Director of the competition and founder of homegrown fashion brand Triologie, pointed out that there are challenges in adopting sustainability in production and design. Being someone who loves to tell stories through her dresses, her collections feature colourful 100% cotton garments made with fabric that has undergone a special digital printing process in Italy. Unfortunately, the production of cotton fabric is not environmentally sustainable as the fertiliser used on cotton runs off into freshwater sources and groundwater, resulting in oxygen-free areas in bodies of water.
However, fabric choice is not all there is to making a fashion line more sustainable. Ms Lim pointed out that the carbon footprint produced from transporting clothing all over the world after it has been made in China has to be taken into consideration as well. If clothing can be sold near the point of manufacturing, it would significantly reduce carbon footprint. Sadly, in Singapore, very few garments are manufactured locally as the workforce does not have sufficient talent, expertise and manpower for production. “It’s almost impossible to find able Singaporean seamstresses,” said Ms Lim.
Using this competition to revive new talents
Identifying and training new talent is one of the reasons TaF.tc ventured into organising this competition. Ms Doreen Tan, chief executive of TaF.tc, said that part of the objective was to find new talents who can both draft and sew.
“The world is changing. Digital companies like Alibaba and Amazon are doing onshoring – they have their own garment factories.” said Ms Tan.
Upcycling fashion requires sewing skills
TaF.tc the organiser shared that if more Singaporeans possessed sewing skills, there could be a higher percentage who would know how to upcycle their clothing items. This, in turn, would lead to less waste produced overall.
Concurring with this point was runner-up, Mariam Shah who recalled that she used to live in Japan where they have a strict system on garbage disposal and were required by law to recycle. She wanted to continue that practice when she came back to Singapore. For her competition entry, she worked on a sleeveless body-fitted dress with a “flipped s” design and with a slight flare at the bottom which was inspired by her interest in pattern making and manipulation. She won a scholarship for TaF.tc’s Diploma in Apparel Design & Product Development from Triologie, a S$300 cash prize from craft and haberdashery shop Sing Mui Heng and a Juki sewing machine.
“I made my own clothes back from my teenage years and I was self-taught. I want to work on making adjustable clothing that provide more seam allowance as there are few clothing pieces out there that provide seam allowance,” said Ms Mariam.
The competition has also created more awareness about sustainability in the community. Second runner-up, Yunice Ooi feels that Tencel is moving forward in terms of being eco-friendly. She worked on a sleeveless dress cinched at the waist with a curved, thigh-high slit on the A-line skirt of the dress. She won a scholarship for TaF.tc’s Diploma in Apparel Design & Product Development from Triologie, a S$200 cash prize from Brother and a Juki Sewing Machine.
“There are multiple ways to incorporate sustainability, such as using recyclable fabric,” said Ms Yunice Ooi.
“One area Singapore can do is upcycle. If more people can draft and sew, then they would be equipped with the skills to upcycle garments which normally would be tossed out,” said Ms Doreen Tan, chief executive of TaF.tc.
Potential ways that Singaporeans can start working towards sustainable choices would be through making eco-friendly purchase decisions and upcycling materials.
And of course, learning how to sew.