Plants from a royal house grow into a dress
The bride, decked out in wedding finery, is traditionally the last model to appear during the live fashion show. But at Vin + Omi’s show, the finale of its spring 2024 show in September during London Fashion Week, there was a floor-length, long-sleeved gown made from giant buttercups grown on King Charles III’s Sandringham estate.
“Its silky texture is amazing,” said Vin Cara, who was joined by Omi Ong on a recent video call from Spain, where they were filming a documentary about sustainable innovations around the world. “It’s so regal.”
The giant butter fabric was the latest in an ongoing collaboration between the duo and the Royal Estate, which has included the development of 10 new textiles from materials such as nettle and willow cuttings.
Although none of the fabrics entered commercial production, nettle cloth is in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Another is part of the National Museums Scotland’s collection and will be on display in Edinburgh until Sunday. The giant butter dress is now in storage while designers determine where it should be archived.
They met the royal, who was then the Prince of Wales, at a cocktail party in June 2018 to support sustainable fashion. “He asked us what we were doing, and at the time we were looking at rural properties in the UK” and wondering what happened with plant waste, Mr Carra said.
Carra said he was “really interested” and invited them to collect plants at his home in Highgrove in Gloucestershire, which adheres to organic gardening principles. King Charles is an ardent environmentalist and has been known for most of his life for his concerns about climate change and his environmentally sensitive care for the land.
In recent years, the fashion industry has become increasingly interested in alternative sources of material production, such as using mushrooms or pineapple leaves to produce synthetic leather.
“It has accelerated very quickly,” said Claire Lerbinier, associate professor of sustainable textiles at the School of Fashion and Textiles at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. “This has become like actual work.”
Although neither man had any formal training in fashion — Mr. Cara has a corporate background in sculpture, and Mr. Ong worked as a photographer and journalist — they were disturbed by the waste they had witnessed in the industry since founding their publicly funded brand. Private in 2000.
During a visit to Sandringham in February, they noticed that the giant butterflower covered about a quarter of the lake in front of the house and needed to be cut down. The perennial plant, with the botanical name Petasites japonicus, can grow in Asia and can grow to nearly five feet tall and has kidney-shaped leaves that can be up to four feet in diameter.
“It was perfect for us to try” because the plants need to be trimmed, and because the designers work only with waste materials, Mr. Kara said.
He pointed out that “the fibers of this type of plant with long stems and broad leaves are often suitable for weaving into textiles.”
The duo collected a few hundred leaves, totaling about six kilograms (13.2 pounds), then used a process called “maceration” to extract the long fibers, placing the leaves outside in the morning so that the dew, and eventually the parts they had moistened, would dampen them. Don’t want it to rot away. The remaining long fibers were then twisted together, using a vegetable binding material, to form threads which their six employees wove on hand looms to produce four metres, or approximately 4.5 yards, of fabric measuring 1.37 metres. The work took about four months.
“It was just a kind of classic fabric, which produces a classic dress,” Mr. Cara said. The fabric was a natural golden colour, they didn’t use any chemicals to process it, and the garment was made with only six layers to limit the amount of energy used in putting it together.
Nina Marenzi, founder of Future Fabrics Expo, an annual event in London showcasing sustainable material solutions, said innovations such as butterfabric were “just a great way to communicate what is possible” and that it was important to “change this type of fabric”. Collective awareness and making everyone not only realize what is possible, but let them dream a little bigger.