If a fashion brand markets itself as “sustainable” or “ethical” but can't even provide you with a clear, traceable map of its supply chain and production processes then as a consumer, how can you be expected to pierce this veil of secrecy? And what about labels that claim they are sustainable but fall short when it comes to economic, ecological or social sustainability?
Being a 21st-century name in fashion requires a lot of thinking, and earning the right to call yourself "sustainable" does not come from using only organically grown cotton. Closed-loop production, fair trade and creating added social and economic value for society together build a strong foundation in a brand's journey toward real sustainability. In the world of fashion, brands and designers call these dimensions pillars and build their presence from the bottom up by focusing on even the smallest details.
One of these brands is Giyi, a young, independent Turkish brand that was established when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. On a sunny and tranquil Sunday, Göknil Bigan, the founder of Giyi, told me about her story over Zoom from her Istanbul flat.
"I started to show interest in the sustainable fashion scene four years ago. It was in 2018 when I went to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which centers around sustainability in fashion. I was very impressed with the whole organization, and the collection of pledges from brands to be more sustainable," she explained. The takeaways from this summit for Bigan were that a brand needed to be green and clean, high-quality, ethical and fair while also caring about saving water and energy.
Based on her observations and research, Bigan decided to found her brand on these five pillars:
- Planet-friendly materials: To use biodegradable and stay away from plastics, harmful or pollutant chemicals.
- Fair and ethical labor: To give workers fair pay and ensure humane working conditions; to inform customers transparently about the whole process.
- Versatility: To create functional, timeless pieces that can withstand seasons and years instead of "wear-once and get-rid."
- Circularity: To be waste-conscious in clothing and packaging and promote upcycling and recycling.
- Inclusivity: To follow an inclusive business model that champions women's empowerment and to create social and economic benefits while helping continue craftsmanship.
Though this is not an exhaustive list and such pillars can be categorized differently, to be a sustainable brand one must think about wider impact, which is what Bigan strived for with Giyi. By choosing a lean production model that operates on minimum stock and leans more heavily toward custom and made-to-go orders at the end of last year, she continues to stand out as a small yet principled brand.
Bigan now aims to make Giyi a certified B corporation, which is the title given to social enterprises that can create value for their employees, the local community and the environment. A goal she hopes to achieve in the next few years.
Her first collection is comprised of seven interchangeable and transformative pieces, including a dress or a tunic when worn more traditionally but when unbuttoned, acts as a jacket and duster to layer with other pieces. Bigan said she wanted to create pieces that could fit virtually any occasion and help women go from day to night in chic, functional staple wear.
So she imagined a woman who appreciated the value of clothing and cared about the hands that sewed the garments, who opts for natural, nonsynthetic fabrics, and sought a timeless wardrobe. "Transform it into something else every time you wear it, breathe into it a different life," she said of her motto at the beginning.
With a less is more and the simpler the better approach in production, she debuted her brand Giyi in 2020, on March 8 International Women's Day.
The timing was anything but opportune. By then, the world was pondering mass lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Bigan said she wanted to put her message out there and was willing to take a risk.
"I did it even though I knew it would be slow, but those first months were immensely educational for me. There was no better time for the whole of humanity to sit back and think. Of course, we were all worried about the economic uncertainty, and creating something in such volatile times was not easy by any means. But I like to think of it more pragmatically, looking back on it to see what I can learn from it and what I will carry into the future."
Bigan said sustainability is not purely a matter of the materials used and needs a holistic approach that incorporates such practices into manufacturing, consumption and after use.
To realize the first pillar of her sustainable business model, Bigan embarked on this journey by asking herself if she could make all of her garments without resorting to using a single piece of material derived from petroleum. As expected, it required a lot of legwork and hours of research.
She made her first collection out of fabrics such as cupro, also known as vegan silk, and organic raw (dry) denim. Meanwhile, all the accessories were upcycled from the excess left behind during manufacturing.
"I don't use polyester," she stressed, not even for her buttons.
It's certainly not easy to say everything is 100% natural, she added. Cupro, for example, is made from unused cottonseed linter which is usually discarded after cotton is ginned. Like tencel, it is a cellulose fiber and often used in lieu of silk as a vegan alternative. Despite being created by the Japanese in the 1890s, it has only recently become popular due to a growing emphasis on sustainability.
Bigan now has her sights on tencel and is on the hunt for a good supplier. Tencel is a cellulose fiber that is made by dissolving wood pulp that goes through a special drying process called spinning, much like bamboo or rayon. Tencel production requires less water than cotton and it is said to need less-frequent washing due to not holding onto bacteria as much.
"It can also dissolve in nature, which is the biggest problem with plastics nowadays. These microplastics stay undegraded (for hundreds of years) or pollute our waters through microplastics," she added.
Right down to the packaging, she has thought this through. It's a sturdy carton box that reads "I am not trash" on its side.
Then came the second pillar: supply-chain. The processes of production the garment goes through and how it reaches the end-user is another area brands need to pay attention to if they want to be deemed truly sustainable.
"H&M is trying to do this by making visible online the factories where certain articles of clothing are produced. But this is not easy for big brands," she pointed out.
The fashion industry is implicated in many shameful and inhumane practices around the world. Most notable is the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh and modern slavery practices in China where workers are forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions. Turkey is not off the hook either; we see illegal workers and child workers.
Bigan wanted to find a manufacturer and tailors she could share with her customers with a clear conscience, and proudly say "this is who made your clothes."
She initially began working with an atelier/factory in Kilis in southern Turkey but that eventually closed down. The long distance the garments had to be transported was also putting a dent in her emphasis on sustainability.
Then she came across Adnan Usta (Master tailor Adnan) and a womens' cooperative in Istanbul, the latter of which is more involved in the intricacies of production such as embroidering and creates belts made from fabric waste.
In the way you might seek to make food waste useful through composting, textile waste is also an issue that needs to be addressed.
There are two kinds of waste in fashion, Bigan said. The first is production waste.
"We had leftover bits from production, deadstock fabric so decided to use these to create new accessories. It requires a lot of thinking, effort and planning. You need to put your heart and soul into it."
The second is the waste that occurs after it is bought by the end-user.
"What do we do with our old clothes or when these new clothes start to become frazzled? That's something I've been thinking about," she said.
As Giyi is still a new brand, it currently does not have a garment collection scheme, but Bigan has already dipped her toes in it.
"A customer of mine sent back a garment she had bought after it tore on the chest while she was doing something. She sent it to us to use, but the women at the cooperative found a way to patch it up aesthetically and saved it."
For the future, she wants customers to send their old clothes in exchange for a discount code redeemable at the online store to promote upcycling.
"Retransforming used clothes into fibers and thread is also an exciting dimension in fashion," she added, commenting on an area she also wants to explore.
Another important pillar for Giyi is versatility, and more precisely how many different ways a garment can be utilized and how many functions it can be worn for.
"Instead of boxing clothing into strict categories such as work attire, loungewear or party wear or winter and summer clothes, I wanted something that could be worn year-round and be updated to fit the occasion," she said.
Pointing to the buttoned, short-sleeve, camel-colored utilitarian dress she was wearing, Bigan said: "I wear this in the summer but come winter, I layer a turtleneck underneath."
One of her biggest criticisms about the current world order in fashion is the number of collections and the mountains of waste that come from it. That is why she chose to release a single collection every year.
"To achieve this, I wanted to focus on staples in our closets, like a little black dress or a beige trenchcoat. I had to choose my styles and fabrics carefully; they couldn't be too wintery or summery either."
Then she thought of emulating this principle in other daily garments to see if every item could be turned into a coveted basic.
"This dress can be worn as a long jacket, too; at home or when out and about," and that's the key to a cohesive, versatile and more sustainable wardrobe.
Bigan has a custom virtual background on Zoom, the house is a mess, she admits. Aren't we all, I think to myself.
Bigan is also brutally honest about her choice of lockdown attire.
"Like all, I, too, I have been living in a T-shirt and leggings for a year. It's been a time when we've realized that we don't actually need clothes," she said. "Not wardrobes full, at least," I added.
While textile giants and major fashion labels have been aggressively pushing out products and flouting sales and discounts to melt away stock, Bigan said she has favored a calmer, slower approach. Lockdowns and the pandemic have naturally bolstered e-commerce and online shopping, but Bigan didn't want to contribute to overconsumption.
"I wanted to tell people about the value of clothing instead, about how to extend their life and look at their wardrobes in a more mindful way."
Tenting my fingers with anticipation, I asked: "So what's the oldest piece of clothing in your closet?"
"Good one," she said smiling, and she stopped for a good moment to think.
Of her own buying, she said she has a few near and dear pieces from her days at university. "They are about 20-25 years old," she said, "and now I have given away my age," she chuckled.
But Bigan said she also has a few pieces left from her late grandmother, mother and aunt. "I have some shoes and bags, which must be at least 70 years old," she said. Passed down three generations, impressive it is.
She said her journey in fashion was sparked by that very idea: to remind people of how we used to cherish clothes and took great care of our hand-me-downs.
"I don't come from a background in fashion, you see, but my mom and grandma were always very talented with sewing," she said.
Indeed, Bigan comes from a corporate background in financial auditing and fiscal management and a high-flying one at that. After having spent years at Koç Holding, the only Turkish company on the Fortune Global 500 and Turkey's largest industrial conglomerate, she felt a constant pull toward social initiatives. The point of divergence in her career came when she worked for the nongovernmental organization Vehbi Koç Foundation (VKV).
"My heart used to beat for social projects," she said.
An important milestone in her career was after her second child was born when she took a break from working life for a year. She and her friends established the platform "Yeniden Biz" ("Us, again") to help women rejoin the workforce. It soon blossomed into an association, and ever since Bigan has been active in women's empowerment projects.
This spurred her to think of a business model that was predicated on women's empowerment. But she had another question that needed to be answered: Can a social initiative create an appealing fashion label?
"Most often, we see these existing on their own, not together; we see a label that is trendy and attractive but fails to connect with us and on the other hand, these social projects rarely have an unboring image."
She hopes that Giyi has lived up to that promise, and her second collection, which comes out in March, proves it once again.
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