The Future Of Sustainability Is Here: Introducing The Modern Artisan Collection

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The Future Of Sustainability Is Here: Introducing The Modern Artisan Collection

Words by Ms Molly Isabella Smith

12 November 2020

Near Scotland’s Firth of Clyde, just down the road from the small town of Cumnock in Ayrshire, sits Dumfries House. Nestled in 2,000 acres of greenery and gardens and furnished by Mr Thomas Chippendale, it could be any other tourist-friendly stately home on first approach. But it’s here, in an atelier on the estate, that a small group of students have been spending their days working on an unprecedented project co-founded by The Prince’s Foundation – a charitable body established by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2018 – and YOOX NET‑A‑PORTER, our parent company.

The Modern Artisan, which launches today at MR PORTER, NET‑A‑PORTER, The Outnet and YOOX, is a collection of sustainable luxury menswear and womenswear, designed across borders in Italy by pupils at the Politecnico di Milano and made in Scotland by a band of young British craftspeople and the workers at Johnstons of Elgin.

Inspired by the sketches and inner workings of Mr Leonardo da Vinci’s polymathic mind, and released to coincide with the 500th anniversary of his death, the collection represents a new collaborative approach to sustainability: a cross-brand initiative without boundaries or borders, a sort of sartorial lingua franca, for the technological age.

The first seeds of the idea were planted when HRH The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the new state-of-the-art YOOX NET‑A‑PORTER Tech Hub HQ in London back in 2019. During the tour with our Chairman and CEO, Mr Federico Marchetti, the two men discovered they shared similar passions. “Education and sustainability – these are two pillars that we had in common,” Mr Marchetti says. “I always thought of Prince Charles as my hero. Because he’s been talking about sustainability since the year I was born in 1969.”

It’s hard to imagine these days, at a time when sustainability feels so crucial to the future success of the style business, but back when the pleas of environmentalists were falling on deaf ears, HRH The Prince of Wales already had a long track record of championing eco initiatives. Even when it comes to his own wardrobe, the Prince exercises uncharacteristic restraint, wearing the same suit decades after it was originally tailored for him.

“Sustainability has to be placed at the heart of the textile industry if it is to operate in harmony with nature and not test her to destruction,” HRH The Prince of Wales says. “At the moment, textiles production is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, more than aviation and shipping. Hazardous substances used in textile production are also having a serious impact on the health of textile workers and the effluents are causing major environmental damage. This is simply unsustainable.”

So, in building the Modern Artisan line, the urgent need to challenge the status quo in the textile trade was front of mind, with reams of overstock cloth used in the manufacture of the collection alongside noble fibres such as cashmere and sustainably produced, fully traceable silk. Choosing classic, natural fabrics that will really stand the test of time was also key.

“We have to move from a take, make, throwaway culture to a more circular approach,” states HRH The Prince of Wales. “At the moment, less than one per cent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing and only 13 per cent of the total material input is in some way recycled after clothing use. Ensuring that materials are produced in a way that avoids the use and therefore the recirculation of toxic chemicals and byproducts is also essential. This circular economy philosophy sits at the heart of my Foundation, so it was only natural for the Modern Artisan collection to be designed and manufactured in a sustainable and responsible way.”

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An artisan working on a silk shirt. Photograph by Mr Mike Wilkinson

There are, of course, a handful of designers already treading this path, but what sets the Modern Artisan project apart is the unique way it uses data. The word “data” is still one that can sound intimidating, particularly in the context of luxury fashion. We prefer to think of these garments as the product of hours of intricate handiwork: a workman toiling at his bench for days on end or a seamstress delicately stitching embroidery, but to truly reach a sustainable future, Mr Marchetti believes we have to move with the times, so to speak. 

“I think it will be a blueprint for the industry,” Mr Marchetti says. “In Silicon Valley, they talk a lot about ‘disruption’; I think more about building rather than disruption. By respecting the past, the tradition of the fashion world, but building for the future through technology.” To meet this challenge, the design students were given access to five years’ worth of customer data as well as AI visual-recognition tools, to help them determine everything from colour and fit, to the correct sizing runs.

“Data is our window into the hearts and minds of our customers,” Mr Marchetti explains. “It was like seeing a collection come from the minds and the hands of the students, but also from our four million plus customers.” Of course, the outcome of relying on concrete evidence – making what you know people will want and buy – means less wastage overall.

It’s a subject Ms Jacqueline Farrell, head of the Education programme at The Prince’s Foundation and a designer herself, holds dear. “The fashion industry has also come a long way in recognising how much of a pollutant it is,” she says. “The conversations we are having now simply weren’t happening before and I think makers and brands are starting to understand what they could and should do to be more sustainable.”

Naturally, Ms Farrell is proud of the work the Modern Artisan has done so far. “Managing the project… has been a dream come true for me,” she says. “The progress the artisans made in such a short period of time was remarkable and I can’t wait to see what they go on to achieve next.”

The students, after all, are the heart of this project and encouraging young people to rediscover endangered crafts is one of its central aims. “One of the greatest challenges faced by the textile industry today is that there simply aren’t enough new entrants with the required skill to replace the workers that are approaching retirement age,” HRH The Prince Of Wales says. “It is their skills that for years have created the delicate, intricate, elegant clothing that so many of us cherish. To safeguard these traditional craft skills and artisanal techniques, I believe it is absolutely vital that innovative and intensive training programmes like the Modern Artisan initiative are developed before it is too late and there is no one left to teach new generations how to do it.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the students themselves. For Mr Graeme Bone – who grew up in Auchinleck, just around the corner from Dumfries House, and who has recently set up his own kilt-making operation – it’s vital to reeducate and reinvigorate the area. “Ayrshire used to be well-known for textiles and manufacturing,” he tells MR PORTER. “But, over time, this reputation has started slipping away due to the fact that workers are retiring and there aren’t enough people with the skills needed to replace them. I want to play my part in bringing manufacturing back to the UK and felt that the Modern Artisan project would give me the skills, experience and platform needed to do just that.”

As well as going out on their own like Mr Bone, many of the Modern Artisan cohort have already gone on to secure permanent positions in the industry, despite the challenging economic circumstances 2020 has thrown at them. “One is working at Max Mara, one is at Off-White, and another went to [Ermenegildo] Zegna,” Mr Marchetti says. Giving them the conviction to pursue their passions is the real reward for him, he adds. “They got the confidence through this project; they know now they can do it. It’s marvellous.”

See the collection