AUT fashion graduates Thomas Sussex and Marilyn Deare are part of the new guard of conscious-living leaders who aim to influence the fashion industry one good design at a time.
Having been largely separated from the production process, New Zealanders often go through life without considering the back-story of the products on our shelves.
Third year AUT fashion students Thomas Sussex and Marilyn Deare have gone against the grain with their graduation collection, committing to a completely recycled, organic and sustainable clothing line.
Since becoming aware of the brutal realities of fashion production in developing countries, the pair have felt increasingly challenged to understand where their clothing is coming from and how workers are being treated along the way.
“It’s crazy to think that the person who touched that garment, the person who made it with their own hands, is not even paid enough to live,” says Deare.
Sussex and Deare view the industry as an opportunity to benefit others both locally and globally, both in the messages they convey through their designs and the transparency of their work.
“We went through first and second year with a pretty main stream idea of fashion but this year we started to look at it from a different point of view,” Deare says.
“We want to take away the materialism of it and care more about where our clothing is coming from, who’s making it, who’s not getting paid, who’s getting the short stick.”
Sussex and Deare say this has been the underlying theme of their entire project, right from the sourcing of the material to the designing of the prints. In collaboration with graphic designer Leah Surynt, Sussex and Deare used imagery relating to the production of genetically modified cotton.
“All our prints are inspired by the idea of not knowing what you’re buying. We want it to be fashion without a negative effect on anyone or on the environment,” says Sussex.
Their graduate collection is hoped to be the start of a career aimed at challenging the marketing mindset of ‘cheap is good’ and rather focusing on promoting the quality of their products.
“We’ve found that marketing is often just like ‘buy this it’s cheap!’ We want to be more like ‘buy this, it’s a really good product, it will last you years, it’s organic, it’s good for you and it’s good for the person who made it,” says Deare.
“We don’t want to be seen as people whose ethics are good but their clothing isn’t. We want people to want our clothes more than others even if they don’t care about ethics, and then hopefully they will start to care in the long run,” – Sussex
Part of Sussex and Deare’s inspiration to think bigger than themselves was sparked by Freeset, a fair trade business offering employment to women trapped in India’s sex trade.
Deare visited Freeset in March 2015 and it opened her eyes to what production could look like, fuelling her passion for making sure everyone involved in the process gets what they deserve.
“What inspired me about Freeset was the respect and sense of importance the women had from their employers. It hit me that there was a whole side of production that I didn’t know about,” says Deare.
“Freeset is such an admirable business that offers equality for their workers. The women receive benefits like the living wage, healthcare, counseling and childcare, which is really rare for fashion production in a country like India.
“It was a huge eye opener to what the standard of production should be and I know that it’s not. There’s so many documentaries of women in developing countries being worked to the bone from fast fashion, it’s so sad,” she says.
Sussex and Deare have stayed in contact with Freeset since then, discussing possible partnership opportunities for the future. The pair hopes to continue supporting the cause when they launch their own brand by getting some of their clothing made by Freeset.
“It’s crazy to think that the person who touched that garment, the person who made it with their own hands, is not even paid enough to live,” – Deare
Their organic and ethical endeavors put them on the back foot in their class, having to put extra research and planning into how they could produce their clothing in the most affordable and achievable way.
“Nothing was available in New Zealand so we had to design everything without having our fabrics with us,” says Sussex.
The difficulty of their task was not reflected in their success, as theirs was the only collection selected for both of AUT’s end of year fashion events – the runway show as well as the show room exhibition.
“It’s a good time to show what we’re about. We want people to realise that there are students doing something really ethical and really different to mainstream fashion,” says Sussex.
Sussex and Deare say being a couple has brought its own challenges, but despite their lecturers’ reservations, it has worked to their advantage on the most part.
“I’m good at some things and she’s better at others,” says Sussex. “We kind of work off each other.”
As well as producing clothing that is ethical and organic, Sussex says they still strive to be competitive in the industry. They want to produce clothing that people will buy simply because they love it, whether or not they have in interest in the story behind it or not.
“We don’t want to be seen as people whose ethics are good but their clothing isn’t. We want people to want our clothes more than others even if they don’t care about ethics, and then hopefully they will start to care in the long run,” says Sussex.