Fashion students are the next generation of fashion designers. So, the students who prioritise sustainability and ethics in their design thinking and garment making offer a sneak peek into a better fashion future. For example, Cape Town-based fashion graduate Gabriella Carter is gently pushing back at the mainstream fashion industry with her design process that is filled with care and consideration.
I caught up with Gabriella to find out more about her journey through fashion school and what inspired her to join the sustainable fashion movement.
When did your journey as a maker, creative, and designer begin?
My journey began when I was about six. My aunt and grandmother used to make and hire out pageant dresses. I’d always creep into my aunt’s room to see what she was up to. I never leave that room empty-handed.
My aunt would send me home with fabric scraps and handfuls of beads. Using these, I’d hand sew and glue together outfits for my Barbie dolls. Ever since then I’ve told anyone and everyone that I will be a fashion designer one day.
In my first year of high school, I enrolled to do a short holiday course at the Cape Town College of Fashion Design. That’s where I truly fell in love. I met some of the most vibrant, incredible personalities during that experience.
At the beginning of my matric year, I was still only just learning how to machine sew. I taught myself the basic foundations of pattern-making by tracing already existing garments and watching YouTube tutorials. It was while preparing for my final high school design exhibition that I realised that I do anything else but design. And so, my journey as a fashion student began.
You are a recent fashion design graduate. Where did you study and what surprised you the most about being a fashion student?
I studied fashion design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and was completely surprised from the start. People had mentioned that pursuing a career in the creative industry would be extremely time consuming, but I didn’t realise how true that was until I was in the thick of it!
I was also pleasantly surprised by the course content and found myself intrigued by many different aspects of the fashion industry other than designing and making garments. History and Theory of Design became my favourite subject in first year, because it covered many enlightening topics and provoked deep reflection about my role as a young designer. I also loved the pattern-making course and the clothing materials and technology course.
There are misconceptions about what fashion students do. There is so much more than just sewing. We learn everything from how to operate machinery and investigate fabric compositions, to testing how the fabric responds when exposed to different conditions including heat, dyeing, and wearing.
When did you realise that you wanted to have ethics and sustainability as a key focus?
In 2019, Fashion Revolution visited campus where we watched ‘The True Cost’. This was the first time that I had been exposed to the severity of the impact that fast fashion has on both the environment as well as society.
The Rana Plaza incident broke my heart and I began diving into research regarding the impacts of the fashion industry and then also how to contribute towards advocating for positive change.
First, I boycotted certain clothing brands that did not align with my morals and values. Then I discovered my love of thrifting as a sustainable alternative. I also started sharing as many resources as I could to inform others about what is happening in the industry.
My family also played an important role in my awareness of the importance of community, inclusivity, and eco-conscious decisions. So, I believe it is my responsibility as a designer to uphold these values in my design approach.
How do you incorporate ethics and sustainability into your work?
With each garment I make, every single process is meticulously considered from the design and fit, to the fabric choice. This means that I evaluate the garment at every step of the way by fitting a mock-up on myself, a family member, or a friend and asking them questions about how they feel in the garment.
I then make alterations and adjustments until I am happy with the feedback, before purchasing fabric. As of this year, I strictly work with deadstock and end-of-roll fabrics, because I strongly believe that there are enough existing textiles and that we should work with what there is instead of producing more. I also use locally, ethically sourced yarns.
I aim to create quality garments that are valued by the wearer as they are made to last a long time. And, I aim to contribute to the circular fashion economy that encourages this appreciation of clothing and challenges the wasteful nature of the fashion industry.
One of my favourite pieces I’ve ever designed and made took me an entire month to make. This garment is a printed quilted cotton jacket that has been made of deadstock fabric and locally printed using a watercolour painting I had produced and digitised. The outer layer of the jacket is made up of thousands of individual stitches that form organic shapes over the layers of the watercolour print.
What is one myth about ethical and sustainable fashion that you wish to debunk through your work?
I’d like to debunk the belief that sustainability only means buying from slow fashion or local brands. I think it is so much more than that. It’s a way of living, awareness of the process of making a garment, and an acknowledgement that clothing is valuable and meant to last rather than serve a short-term purpose of conforming to a fast fashion trend.
I’d also like to debunk the idea that sustainable fashion is boring. The idea that the silhouette of a sustainable garment has to be a loose, flowy cotton or linen garment in off-white or beige still exists. Sustainable fashion has evolved in ways that cater to a variety of style preferences.
Can you explain what user-centred design is and why it is important?
User-centred design is essentially conscious design that keeps the end-user in mind through every single process of production. I enjoy observing people’s outfits — whether it be strangers or friends and family — and I ask questions about their fashion decisions. This observation and questioning inform my design approach, because it helps me to create designs that are personal and inspired by the people around me.
My view is that I am not designing for myself and my aesthetic, but for an individual who values and appreciates the nature of slow fashion and uses garments as a form of expressing their identity.
This goes hand in hand with ethical design as the same amount of consideration is needed when making decisions around the environmental and human impacts of a garment. Every design input and process has an impact on a greater scale than just the designer and the design. I believe it is important to constantly be aware of this.
What does your perfect day look like?
My perfect day would be spending time looking through fabrics and knits as well as meeting with friends for coffee at one of our favourite spots and then a thrifting adventure.
When spending time by myself, a perfect day would either be painting or sewing something as well as learning how to cook a new dish. And perhaps catching up on series while knitting or lying in bed.
What is your current favourite item in your wardrobe? And why?
A vintage blue lace dress that belonged to my mom who wore it as a bridesmaid for a friend’s wedding in the 90s. I am yet to wear it. But, to me, this dress is an example of a timeless piece that has been passed down to be worn on a special occasion. That is extremely special.
Can you share a few local designers and brands you are loving, at the moment?
MmusoMaxwell, Thebe Magugu, Lukhanyo Mdingi and Rich Mnisi are a few of my favourite local designers, currently. As a fellow CPUT alumnus, Lukhanyo Mdingi’s growth and journey of his brand has been endlessly inspiring to me. A few of my favourite local small businesses include Purpose and Form, Sakkie.co, and Thriftplek.
What is your wish for the future of the local fashion industry?
My wish is for more of the larger companies to source textiles and resources locally and to start listening to the voices of young designers and creatives. Most of all, I wish for the local fashion industry to keep growing and providing opportunities for development through fashion design.