It won Paris Fashion Week. But is the spray-on dress Bella Hadid wore on Coperni’s runway sustainable? The short answer is no.
Manel Torres, who created the spray-on material and the company behind it, Fabrican, in 2003, says it can be washed and re-worn, or put back in the can and resprayed later. Yet, while it may be reusable, spraying fabric from a can likely uses more energy and chemicals and produces more waste compared to virtually any other fabric used to make a garment. And, while it looked cool in real-time on the runway, it’s hard to imagine anyone spraying on their clothing at home (the fumes from Fabrican filled Coperni’s venue, which alone could deter customers) let alone repackaging and reusing it.
“They’re taking aerosol, which is the least efficient, most problematic delivery device, and bringing it into an industry where it didn’t exist,” says Martin Mulvihill, a chemist and founding partner at investment firm Safer Made. Even though the cans are metal, aerosol cans are typically not recyclable: the pressurization makes them too risky for most recycling centres to accept. And Mulvihill says that Fabrican appears to have prioritized sustainability in developing its technology and avoids some of the most concerning chemicals used in many aerosol products, but that matters little in the context of fashion.
Since its runway debut in Paris, fashion has talked about the technology more as an innovation than a sustainability accomplishment. Torres concedes that home use is not practical — you’d need someone on hand to spray your back, for instance — and that he sees its use more applicable in industrial settings, which would leave it up to the industry to create infrastructure for collection and refill, a feat it is still far from accomplishing for even the most common fibres like polyester and cotton. He also says it gives fashion another material to work with, rather than to replace any particular fabric it already uses.
Fabrican wasn’t used in Paris to sell an overt sustainability message, but to create a moment, although Coperni co-founder and creative director Sebastién Meyer hinted at the potential of the innovation in an interview with Vogue Business ahead of the show: “It’s our duty as designers to try new things and show a possible future. We’re not going to make money on this, but it’s a beautiful moment — an experience that creates emotion,” he said at the time. (Coperni did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Nevertheless, fashion has made many advances in sustainable materials since Fabrican was developed close to two decades ago. These range from technological innovations such as textile recycling and low-water dyeing systems, to shifts in attitude among both consumers and companies. When Fabrican was first released in 2003, few fashion companies were talking about sustainability at all; today, it’s rare for a fashion company to not have a sustainability strategy published on its website.
What the dress ultimately represents is a missed opportunity. During a fashion month that was largely devoid of loud, in-your-face calls for — or demonstrations of — sustainability on the runway, the spray-on dress took up more space in conversations about not only material innovation, but also about fashion’s priorities overall, than any of the actual alternative materials and other sustainability initiatives that many luxury brands are experimenting with. Despite major brands having significant sustainability strategies or climate goals in place, the issue doesn’t usually appear on the runway — leaving some to question how urgent a priority it is for the industry.
“It is fascinating to see how the Coperni spray-on dress crossed the borders of the fashion press and managed to become a global, albeit brief, phenomenon. Catwalks seldom achieve this,” says sustainability-focused influencer Doina Ciobanu. “What it does is remind those working on [sustainability] that the products that have a groundbreaking but attractive story to tell will perform the best. From a communication perspective, this presents an interesting opportunity to learn how to engage with the mainstream audience.”
Calls are growing, from the UN and some advocates and influencers, for fashion to use its influence to promote sustainability as a priority and not just a practice in their supply chain. The Paris Fashion Week dress served as a reminder that for the most part, the industry isn’t really embracing that potential — one consequence of which, according to analysts, is to perpetuate the disconnect between customers saying sustainability is a priority and not necessarily demonstrating that in their purchases because, in part, brands are not helping to make it the desirable choice in the moment.
“Fashion, and luxury fashion even more so, is associated from a consumer standpoint with dreams, creativity, innovation and beauty. Until these concepts are part of the sustainable proposition, it will be challenging for consumers to feel engaged and show honest interest in sustainability,” says Maximiliano Nicolelli, managing partner and founder of Milan-based Hydra Consultancy. “It is important for brands to ensure that all consumer touchpoints — store, products, campaigns, digital, etc. — deliver enough relevance and excitement [relating to their sustainability practices] in order to connect to consumers in a meaningful way.”
For all the progress the industry has made, what’s still missing is an understanding that true sustainability has to be part and parcel of fashion’s overall existence. Samata Pattinson, CEO of Red Carpet Green Dress, says it boils down to one question for brands: “Why are you doing this thing called sustainability?” she says. “Are you doing it because you recognise that fashion craves innovation and excitement, or because you realise sustainability is crucial for the survival of our industry [and] our planet? Because both are right.”
The most important work — reducing emissions, for example — is not going to generate the same headlines as a dress being sprayed on an almost-naked Bella Hadid, so it’s fashion’s responsibility to find a way to make it appealing and exciting.
“It is frustrating that environmental achievement doesn’t attract the same level of engagement and attention. But the fault for that, if there is any, doesn’t lie with Coperni. Rather, it would lay with brands who have failed to message their ecological and sustainability credentials in a way that resonates — and, even more so, with those who have blunted the impact of sustainable achievements by abusing the term,” says Ciobanu. “Sustainability-related content should still have, at its core, what a fashion lover is there for in the first place — fashion.”
Originally published in Voguebusiness.com