In April of 2006, Aveda premiered their Ecoture collection at the LOHAS convention in California, showcasing dresses fabricated out of materials ranging from lace made from recycled plastic to sandalwood sourced from aboriginal communities. The collection was designed in partnership with London-based fashion designer Deborah Milner to raise ethical and environmental awareness within the fashion industry. Each dress tells a different story and reflects Milner’s long-standing dedication to environmental sustainability. Below, Deborah kindly agreed to answer some questions about the Ecoture collection.

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What inspired you to develop this collection? I was living in Brazil and inspired by the incredible natural beauty of that country. I was looking for a way to help preserve our natural habitat and a friend suggested that I might be better off trying to incorporate these beliefs into what I am good at – ie designing instead of trying to do something I was not qualified to do. That was the start of it – my background is in haute couture – as far as I knew at that point (end 2003) no one had created an haute couture line specifically from the point of view of environmental responsability and fairtrade.

How did you come to partner with Aveda? I was already a big fan of Aveda’s products and had read a book by the founder, Horst Rechelbacher some years before which set out Aveda’s code of practise from an ethical standpoint – I thought this would be a good model to follow. Also beauty and fashion go together so I thought it could be a mutually beneficial partnership. I called a friend of mine in London and by chance he was working with Aveda and arranged for me to be introduced. Aveda embraced the idea wholeheartedly which was a very happy result for me.

Can you tell us more about the textiles that were used? I worked on the textiles with a long time collaborator of mine textile designer, Karen Spurgin, she had also been doing research into eco-textiles. We decided to approach the project from as many angles as possible to see what the possibilities were for future developments. Part of our approach was to see where we could link with some of Aveda’s own knowledge, for example in the use of natural dyes and the partnerships with indigenous peoples.

We found it quite difficult to find fabrics of a suitable luxurious standard which were a hundred percent eco, therefore we decided initially to work with natural dyes and dye the fabrics which were available to try and make them look as exotic and expensive as possible. We chose several silk organzas as they are relatively environmentally friendly (in contrast to non organic cotton for example) – silk worms refusing to eat mulberry bushes which have been sprayed with pesticides. Eventually we started working with Women Weave, a fairtrade cooporative of women weavers in India to produce the basic silk organzas for dyeing. We also used end of line tie fabrics and recycled them to create an appliqued dress. Another textile designer, Janice Marr, made a lace for me from old plastic bags. We worked with a print designer, Emma D’Arcey on a more eco printing technique – marbling – which has very little waste and which Emma developed to use more environmentally friendly processes.

The focal point of the collection is the Yawanawa Dress which shows scenes from my visit to Brazil with Aveda to visit one of their indigenous partner – the Yawanawa tribe who produce urukum which is used as a natural pigment in some of Aveda’s make-up. This dress has the opportunity to bring attention to these people who live in and protect part of the Amazon rain forest and who have a wonderful and rich cultural heritage. The silk threads used for the embroidery are all dyes with natural dyes and showcase the wonderful array of colours which natural dyes can produce.

How is your collaboration with Mantero to develop “eco-friendly” silk coming? We showcased the first dress using one of Mantero’s especially created fabrics at Alta Roma in July of last year – this fabric has been yarn dyed using natural dyes something which is not possible for us to achieve without the collaboration of a factory used to producing fabrics of this exceptional quality.

Are you collaborating with any other textile manufacturers? What has their response been? We are working on several possibilities for this for the future. Most people are open to look at the possibilities, the difficulties come from the amount of investment needed to restructure a factory for more environmentally friendly practises or for example the fact that there are not sufficient planting projects at the moment to supply raw materials for some of the colours we have achieved in natural dyes at an industrial level.

What is currently not eco-friendly about traditionally produced silk? Is it just the finishing and dyeing that is the problem with silk? I’ve read that Anna Sova uses natural products like organic nut soap as a finisher for the fabric versus formaldehyde. Have you heard of this? Did you use any tussah silk? Yes, on the one hand it is things like finishing and dyeing, on the other hand, if one is an absolute purist, one could take issue with the fact that in order to produce very fine silk (i.e. no slub) the silk worms have to die in order to make a continuous fine filament for weaving. If the worms die a natural death and bite through their cocoons the filaments are in pieces and have to be joined together – hence the slub. I am looking into natural silks for the future, but at the couture level it is unlikely that I would make the decision to stop using fine silk altogether.

How does the silk chiffon used for the Sandalwood dress differ from that of the Yawanawa, aside from being produced by a women’s collective in India are there other sustainable characteristics? It is dyed with natural dyes – the Yawanawa dress silk is end of line tie fabric from Mantero – therefore recycling as it could not be sold in the normal way.

I have read about melting plastic bags to make a kind of DIY Tyvek. How did you come about experimenting with plastic for the bridal dress? Janice Marr, the textile designer, had already done some experiments with this material and I thought it would be great to create one of the dresses for the collection from it.

Are there some things you experimented with that didn’t make it into the final collection? There are other ideas we had but mostly we used everything we experimented with as we chose carefully which direction to go in knowing that we would have a lot of research to make anything happen. There are plenty of other areas we would like to research in the future, such as wools for suiting, raw silks, organic cottons, etc.

Can you tell us a bit about the dyes that you used? It seems the leather industry uses vegetable tanning cost effectively, why do you think natural dyes are not more commonly used in textiles? Penny Walsh who did the dyeing for us is an expert in natural dyes. She has been trying to match natural dyes to the pantone chart. Most of the dyes come from sustainable plant sources and use either no mordant or alum. As I mentioned above, I think the main reason natural dyes are not more commonly used in the textile industry is because often the process is more time consuming, for example depending on the raw material used, to get green you may need to dye first the yellow and then over dye with blue. Also, nowadays there are simply not enough raw materials available and would require major planting projects to change this. The validity of industrial natural dyeing is something I am very interested in researching further.

What are some things in the fashion industry that you would like to see change? First of all, for major companies to be more receptive to looking at ways to improve their practises and, secondly, for us all to try and make the most sustainable choices we can realistically at the moment. This could be simply to decide to make one or two t – shirts in a collection from organic cotton and to be more responsible in our manufacturing choices

What has the response been to the Ecoture collection? I was told the dresses are available for purchase, have any of the designs been sold. We have only just started selling the Ecoture dresses but so far the response has been vary positive.

Will you be making more collections for Ecoture in future seasons? What is next for Ecoture and you? Hopefully yes, although, due to expense of creating a couture collection, I would expect to do this only once every year or so. I am also looking at ways to produce a ready- to- wear line based on these dresses and the possibilities for producing a small commercial t -shirt line in conjunction with The Yawanawa’s textile designs.

all images courtesy of Deborah Milner and Aveda