| creative women with a conscience | Zuhal Kuvan - Mills Eco Fashion Week Australia founder & CEO, 'Green Embassy' eco fashion designer, environmental activist and conservationist.
Zuhal is one of those women that you feel like you've known for 10 years, when in fact, it's only been 1 hour - over the phone! She's warm, inviting and a true change maker leading the way on a mission to prove that community is going to disrupt the current state of the fashion industry and that a socialist - not capitalist approach - is the way of the future.
Zuhal is the founder and CEO of the the first ever Eco Fashion Week in Australia, which will be taking place in the city of of Perth from Nov 23-Nov 27th.
We chatted about her lifelong dedication to environmental conservation and how this has lead her to becoming an eco fashion designer as well as the female entrepreneur behind EFWA 2017. Her strong desire for inclusivity and accessibility are motivations for creating this platform where young and emerging designers have a chance at showcasing their designs without the competeitivness and financial strain of International Runway events.
To learn more about the Eco Fashion Week Running schedule visit the website for more details.
*tommie has been selected as an official media partner for EFWA - if you aren't able to attend the shows in Perth, be sure to follow us on instagram for live runway and behind the scenes coverage*
Why did you choose to hold the first International Eco Fashion Week?
I wanted to put Perth and Eco-Fashion on the map together. I hope that this is a country-wide event that will take place in different cities each year. I came up with the event at home in the kitchen when I shared the idea with my friend, Anita Moon – she said go for it, you can make anything happen, and I had said I can’t do this on my own.
This event is not mine alone.
I wouldn’t have been able to make this happen without the generous support of both the local and international community , media like yourself and everyone who is volunteering their time to be part of this movement.
What’s the one message you want to get out there with Eco Fashion Week?
Australians care about the environment as a whole and although I’ve started this, it’s a shared goal and desire of those who are on the same journey and have the same mission.
This event belongs to Australia.
It’s all about taking care of young talent and giving them a platform and providing opportunity that is accessible. It’s also about raising awareness for the conservation of our environment and educating people about the current state of the environment. It’s also to prove that money isn’t everything, unlike the fast fashion industry, where money is everything. So we’re proving that you can make change without the money – this is happening because the community wants it to happen and we’ve had tremendous support from Perth locals, businesses and organisations wanting to take part. It’s time to move on, to move forward and Eco Fashion Week is the catalyst for change that I want to take place to support designers from all walks of life – I have indigenous designers who are attending and interstate designers and new designers who deserve for their work to be seen. It’s for the eco designer in me and for everyone else out there who values the environment and incorporate this into their creative work.
I wanted to know more about where your appreciation for natural materials and textiles came from. Is it something that’s stemmed from childhood, as a result of your upbringing and traditional ways of looking at fabrics and clothing? And where did this appreciation for the earth come from?
I always loved anything natural – having this love for the environment is what led me to become a veterinarian surgeon.
Although my career has had many twists and turns like a meandering river, 30 years later my love of the environment is evidenced in the small hobby farm located in Perth, Australia where I live and learn life through stewarding a herd of beloved alpacas. Sydney, Georgia, Lucy, London, Midnight and Apache are just few of my charges.
At Curtin University my visual art degree focused on creating my own textile art work from alpaca fibre and merino. I am devoted to traditional textile art and craft like knitting, felting, embroidery, and dyeing. Learning new techniques integrates my passion of integrating science, art and environment.
I personally hate anything unauthentic and manmade because I know the impact when they end up in our land, and what the production side of things with these kinds of textiles result in. All the synthetic dyes and chemicals end up in the oceans and create all these toxic effects on the sea mammals and these issues don’t even begin to address the unethical side of fashion.
Before I was a designer, I always had waste and sustainability at the forefront of my mind. Whatever stage of my life, I purchased consciously and would often visit the op shops. When I was in Britain at the time, I’d look for wool blankets for example and I’d make things like little coats for my two children, and I’d buy second hand pieces to decorate my entire home. At that time I wasn’t even thinking about becoming a designer or an artist, it was just what I cared about and valued.
So are felting, knitting and spinning skills (techniques you incorporate into your designs) that you’ve recently learnt how to do?
When I was young I used to be fascinated by my mother who knitted. I’d watch her knitting for hours in the winter near the woodburner. My first knitting experience was probably around 6 or 7 years old. I knitted my first scarf… IT WAS TOO LONG…OFCOURSE. The length was proportional to my pride in accomplishment.
As a teenager, my mum taught me how to cut the patterns and to sew simple dresses. Felting and spinning originated quite differently – felting is a skill I’ve always wanted to learn because it’s a traditional old Turkish craft. So after I graduated from Curtin University I specifically went to Turkey and attended felting workshops. When I was back here in Perth, I saw a few ladies who were spinning and I said, I’ve got plenty of fibre from the alpacas on my alpaca farm – and asked them if they could give me private lessons. And so I learnt from the local lady who taught me how to spin. It’s only recently, in 2012/13 when I mastered the skill of spinning. It’s great because now I can teach anyone.
I’d love to learn a craft like this, I don’t know how to do things with my hands when it comes to textiles and I really respect and admire the patience it takes...
I think it’s a practice that’s really relaxing and it’s very meditative.
I want to know why you think these traditional artisanal forms of craft are not incorporated into fashion design today as a majority and why learning these skills seem to have skipped the younger generation?
In the past, before fast fashion, this was the way of making fashion – using all these traditional techniques. People seem to value patience, discipline and quality associated with mastering an art form less and less. Cheap and fast are what we value in a culture dominated by disposable everything.
So what I try to do, apart from the ecological and environmental side of my work, I make sure to keep employing traditional techniques in each of my collections, ‘Regeneration’, ‘Earth’, ‘Silent Rainforest’, and ‘Empty Oceans’. I hope younger designers are inspired to take the time to master, preserve and innovate new techniques that are informed from a more holistic viewpoint. High fashion can be as amazing when you apply those traditional techniques. If I pick up a garment and I see that it’s been hand crafted using embroidery for example – whether it’s a new piece or something I’ve seen in an op shop, I jump on it - itt’s the number one selling point for me. I hope that when people see the value in this, that’s when we’ll preserve these traditional techniques. It’s actually one of our criteria for the designers at EFWA…
When you start mending, knitting, repairing, sewing – that’s when you start to learn how to look after and value your clothes. You know how much time it takes to do that kind of work. You look at your clothes differently and you definitely won’t want to throw it out. But when things are easy and convenient, that’s when we start to engage in mindless behaviour – like using one use disposable, plastic items like water bottles – and this is when we don’t question where these things come from, who was on the supply chain, who suffered from making our clothes in third world countries, the animals, wildlife, the environment – so value is a very important thing.
I think it’s really important to push this idea of longevity with our clothes. I think a lot of designers have lost this edge when creating clothes and the idea of pieces being passed down from generation to generation isn’t as valued. Like you say, production has become so fast and creating those heirlooms (like you do with vintage pieces, that work their way through the family tree), has become more rare. I think it’s really sad that we’ve lost this connection to our clothes. I often wonder why it is that clothes aren’t looked at as vehicles to tell stories, evoke emotion and create memories with. I’m interested in what you think about why we’ve lost that connection with our clothes.
If you look at the last 30 or so years, around the 70’s to the 80’s, this is where third world sweatshops became popular and where designers started using celebrities to wear their designs. This is then what started the culture of designers copying these high-end designs and making cheaper versions, because everyone wanted to look like that celebrity. So this is a culture they’ve started. But who has gained from this? H & M, Zara – the richest man in the world. This is how it’s happened because they’ve created those corporations. And this destroys independent designers who are relying on their unique creations, because they can’t compete with those big machines. And so they start disappearing, and lots of designers are just giving up. A mentality developed where consumers are saying, ‘Hey, I can buy that dress for $10 and wear it once for a party and I don’t need to wear it a second time – and I don’t have to be seen wearing the same dress twice’. It’s all these social norms that need to be addressed, that has created this fast pace, throw away society.
And the thing is consumers have the power – if my daughter, who is 19 years old, sees her friends wearing things from H & M she says, oh my god how shameful of you! Instead of buying cheap, fast fashion items, she’ll take what little disposable income she has and will buy things from the op shop, and she’ll say, ‘look this was just about to go to landfill, but now I’m wearing this second hand piece and have saved it’. So it’s this shift in thinking and thoughtfulness.
What’s one message or story you’d like your pieces to share or communicate, whenever you design a range?
Conservation of the environment mainly, but also conservation of traditional textile art & technique and conservation of designer talent – we need to let this traditional artistry receive design merit, because when we start valuing this, then these designers will have more access to opportunity. And when the consumer starts valuing these kinds of products, they contribute to the cause, by giving designers an opportunity to do the right thing and help the conservation cause, the environmental cause and the investment in traditional techniques. It may cost a few dollars more, but it’s better in the long run. For designers it is a hard journey, but the future is ours and we’ll continue to work on it.
As an eco fashion designer, why is it so important that we use organic fibres over other materials? What is it about the other fibres that are harmful to our environment?
Just creating textiles is harmful – like polyester - which is made of petroleum and petrol. The production of this textile is extremely harmful to the environment; think about all the chemical dyes in the fibre production. And of course, there’s what happens after – when they go to landfills, that’s another bad side of it, because they’re not biodegradable so they stay on the land for the next 200, 300 years. And when they’re in the soil, they still continue to release those chemicals. Then there’s contaminated water supplies as a result because of the decomposing process. So its harmful from every direction you look at it.
The future is all about education, the more we educate people about these issues that are not necessarily learnt in a school environment, the greater we learn. If you can’t afford new, sustainable fashion then your next best option is to try shopping at an op shop, doing this means you’ve saved another item from ending up in landfill.
As someone who is a second hand shopping ambassador and advocate myself, I do also think it’s important that we support the eco fashion designers who are trying to make a difference, because if we don’t support them, this is when designers become obsolete…
That’s exactly right, if we don’t support local designers work, then they’ll eventually give up. It’s the very same cycle and story as organic food – if a small, organic locally produced grocer opens up next to a large supermarket and we continue to support the big name chain because its cheaper and is more convenient, then the small business will close. So we need to go back to the beginning and change the industry. Fashion is the same thing.
As we speak, tommie is working on its first community event with a private screening of BLUE the film which looks at ocean conservation, I’ve become quite moved and intrigued by your commitment to protecting our oceans with your collection called ‘empty oceans?’.
Empty Ocean collection is created with industrial fishing net remnants , re generated polyester made with the ghost fishnets.
I don’t think people realise how fashion and our oceans are related, but there’s more and more coverage on micro fibres and what that means for our oceans. If someone was to ask you how micro fibres are connected to our oceans, and what that means, how would you explain it?
It’s in the food chain, so these microscopic synthetic fibres from your clothes go from the washing machine, into the water streams and the rivers and eventually our oceans. So smaller fish and prawns are eaten by larger fish and it goes up in the food chain, which means it ends up on our plate and we’re eating the same thing. And this issue is only in relation to synthetic fibres – you don’t have this issue when it’s a natural fiber like wool. This then extends to issues like general health and well being, where doctors can’t actually explain what is happening to people who are sick and suffering from diseases like cancer. We are exposed to more chemicals these days and the younger generation are exposed to more harmful toxins, so they may not even live as longer as their great grandmother who may live until 90. Our oceans are turning into a liquid tip, our land is filled with toxins and our soil is dirty, which means when you grow produce its going straight into your food, on your plate and inside you. The oceans are exactly the same, when you eat fish. We need to start questioning; what are we actually eating? What is in this? What’s in the muscle of the fish? Our land and soil is filled with pesticides and toxins – and we’re just talking about now, why people with cancer are a growing epidemic. I wonder why? Younger people these days are experiencing more health issues with lower immunity, higher allergic reactions and this is all related to the toxic chemicals in our food, water and air. We’ve become a disposable planet, ourselves included.
I love that in your blog section on your website you say that everything in our society is connected to land – I think this is so profound and so beautiful. Why do you think we’ve become so disconnected to our land?
It’s a culture that has been created to live in more urban cities, it’s become more hip to live in the city where people don’t even have one pot plant…
Just to interrupt you there, I know you live on a large property, can you tell us more about the property you live on?
It’s on a protected land and is on the outskirts of Perths vine region area – called Swan Valley. We have more wineries here – but my land here is full of trees and we have a massive bird life because of all the flowers. It’s like a wildlife refuge here – its very noisy in the evening because of all the frogs and all the birds and I have my alpacas too. But the fact is we are apart of land and when people don’t understand the connection, they don’t value it.
The society that we’ve created in the last 30 or 40 years is so different - when you speak to someone 70 + yrs old they respect the environment and nature much more than someone who is 25 years old, but millennials are changing this and that group are more knowledgeable than their mothers and fathers because of the power of social media and the speed of the communication now.
But those groups of 30 and 40 yr olds are probably not as knowledgeable or sensitive to what is happening and how we are connected to our land. Also with one of my collections I dedicated it to an Indigenous community and I travelled for my work and met with some of the Indigenous communities in Australia and then in New Zealand I met Maori groups and in Canada First Nations and I had long chats with them – So this is why the collection is called ‘Connection to Land’ – it represents their love and care to the environment.
Why don’t we think the way they think? Their value for the land travels through history from thousands and thousands of years back to when these communities were gatherers – when they collected eggs to feed themselves, they always left one or two eggs in the nest for the next generation, they didn’t take everything – and this is the mentality of these communities.
We are connected. We are apart of the land. When we cut the cord of the connection to the land, then that’s the end of humanity, because the further we move away from the land, we’re then basically destroying our home. So all these things that keep us going, won’t be in our future. Once we kill everything, what is left? There’ll be no rainforests left and no oceans left - oceans are the lungs of the planet. When our oceans aren’t healthy then this is why we have natural disasters like hurricanes – every year, for the past 10 years, you would have noticed there are more and more natural disasters happening. This is happening because we’re messing with the natural order of things - we’re changing the natural balance of things. When the seasons’ change, everything changes – there are huge biological changes.
Where we’re now is the beginning of change…. We need to start making a difference.