Redeployed Military Fabrics in Sustainable Fashion

The quest for sustainable textile sourcing is surely front and center on every conscious fashion designer’s agenda for 2011. Thanks to new resources like Source4Style, identifying and acquiring sustainable fabrics is becoming less time consuming and arduous in terms of research and supply checks. In addition to recycling and upcycling textiles that are all ready in the waste stream, several resourceful fashion designers have targeted the massive global stockpile of military surplus garments and fabrics. Heather Heron and Christopher Raeburn are standouts in this latest phenomenon, as their chic and functional designs transform high quality fabrics into timeless signature pieces that just might out maneuver sustainable strategies of the past.

Heather Heron  For Environment Furniture

We are not talking about “military chic” here, or the glorification of war-mongering attitudes, but given the fact that our troops have been deployed somewhere at some time for as long as hemlines have been shifting, it is inevitable that there is a hefty surplus of military fabrics on standby for reuse.

As British fashion wunderkind Christopher Raeburn described in an interview with Fiona Sibley of The Guardian, it makes sense that a designer looking for durable (often waterproof) fabrics would choose to tap into a cache of military ponchos, parachute fabrics, and field tested canvas/woolen gear.

“…The military always has to overproduce its garments, so there are warehouses with thousands of square feet of military surplus sitting around. For me, giving that a new lease of life is very interesting. What is available depends on political issues: I use fabric from the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic, but also from the former East Germany, which has a post-cold war feeling. After the first Gulf War there was a fall-out of desert camouflage. I spend a lot of time researching the supply, and now my challenge is to find quantities to make my production scalable, to be able to make 100-200 garments, not a handful.”

Raeburn, who studied at The Royal College of Art and was a February 2009 recipient of the Ethical Fashion Forum’s Innovation Award, works first and foremost as a precision-driven craftsman who artfully transforms military garb into beautifully tailored garments that Vogue, Barneys, and numerous fashion glossies have latched onto. All of his designs are made in Britain, something that allows him to monitor scalable production as well as maintain ethical standards. In the end, Raeburn’s designs are first and foremost about fashion with a production process that just happens to be ethical and conscious in its smart use of materials and built-in functionality.

Comme des Garcons

As the folks at BurdaStyle recently pointed out, designers like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons have been working with reclaimed garments and dry goods for years. Khaki fatigues patched together with military tent fabric and jackets serve as iconic collage elements for street style dressing. Designer Heather Heron might fall into this camp with her eco-luxe accessories that highlight the raw beauty of vintage military fabrics transformed into sleek clutches, computer sleeves, and totes that are ideal for modern living.

Heather’s most recent collection on view at Environment Furniture’s New York showroom demonstrates the beauty of transforming one basic style of vintage army sack into five functional and smart looking pieces. A pleated clutch crafted out of Swiss army textiles definitely sends a message that sustainable style is more than an attitude; it’s a gorgeous testimony to accessories that just get better with age and personal adventure. Add to this the fact that Heron produces all of her designs locally in California with skilled artisans, and the reports from the field just seem more and more promising. The military “trend” is here to stay and it is up to us to find the most sustainable way of addressing and demobbing the issue.

Lead Image Christopher Raeburn