From living off-grid in a caravan to becoming creative director of ethical London brand Mother of Pearl, the ascent of Amy Powney is inspirational. Here, she tells us why sustainable fashion should be the norm, not the exception.
When Amy Powney was 10 years old, her parents uprooted her and her elder sister from their cosy home in Lancashire to live in a caravan in the middle of a field, while they renovated a barn. They wanted to be totally self-sufficient, so her father built a well and installed a wind turbine, and the family lived entirely off-grid. Fast forward two decades and Amy now resides in a desirable Victorian terrace in east London, where she is creative director of sustainable and ethical luxury fashion label Mother of Pearl. Since joining Maia Norman’s fledgeling brand in 2006, Amy has worked her way up from studio assistant to being at the helm; and it is she who is responsible for the once under-the-radar label becoming a cult favourite among the fashion set, who can’t get enough of her playfully feminine, street-influenced designs, with their signature pearl-embellished ruching.
Triggered in some part by her upbringing, sustainability has always been at the core of what Amy does. As the momentum around the womenswear brand grows, she has used this as a platform to encourage designers and consumers to take a more ethical approach to fashion. In 2018 Amy launched No Frills, a core collection of Mother of Pearl wardrobe staples that is sustainable, organic, and socially responsible. Following on from its success, earlier this year Amy collaborated with BBC Earth at London Fashion Week, hosting a series of talks and putting together a short film to further raise awareness. As part of Amy’s ongoing collaboration with the BBC, in June Mother of Pearl is launching a capsule collection of evening wear exclusively with Net-a-Porter, created using cutting-edge sustainable production methods that will demonstrate how innovation and new technology can help to reduce the impact of fashion on the planet.
To what do you attribute your appreciation of fashion?
I think my fascination with fashion came about when I was at school – I was interested in how brands represented being “cool” or “not cool” and how this expressed which crew you belonged to. We didn’t have the luxury of money for expensive clothing and I dreamt of owning Adidas Popper trousers and a pair of Kickers shoes. I combined this fascination with my love of art and design, which is all I ever wanted to do, and so I pursued a career as a designer, joining Mother of Pearl as a studio assistant in 2006, immediately after graduating from Kingston University.
Did living off-grid as a child open your mind to sustainability?
Absolutely, but not in the obvious way of using renewable energy. More the lack of amenities, which gave me so much perspective on how we should respect resources and nature.
What sparked your environmental and ethical concerns within the fashion industry?
I read Naomi Klein’s anti-consumerist book No Logo when I was at university and I was deeply disturbed by the social issues within the industry I was about to enter. This inspired me to make my graduate collection from sustainable fabrics. Since then, and also I guess as a result of my childhood, I have had a deep-rooted concern for ethical and environmental issues and have always tried to make myself aware. In the past few years there has been a lot more information on the industry’s impact and this has incentivised me.
How are you hoping to bring about change through Mother of Pearl?
Firstly, we are making Mother of Pearl products as sustainably as possible and this goes for the way we run the business, too – our lunch scheme offers staff vegetarian lunches, all of which are packaging-free and locally-sourced. More importantly, I feel compelled to spread my learnings on the subject to invoke change on many levels. Since we launched No Frills, our first fully sustainable line of everyday classics, I’ve been struck by how little awareness there is, both within and external to the fashion industry, regarding environmental issues. For each No Frills garment, we list its Sustainable Attributes online – for example, that it’s mulesing-free [mulesing is a cruel practice of removing strips of wool-bearing skin around the breech of a sheep to prevent parasitic infection], can be traced to source, and that it is made responsibly from natural fibres and is organic. This will hopefully inform people’s buying decision, but also educate them for future purchasing.
You’re on the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion committee, and collaborated with BFC and BBC Earth at London Fashion Week, initiating the #SustainableMe movement. Did you achieve what you set out to do?
For me, the appeal of this collaboration was the fact that the BBC has such a huge voice and could amplify my learnings to the wider public. We worked with BBC Earth and their Natural History Unit on a short film, which showcased the wonders of our planet and the effect of the fashion industry on it; the idea was to help educate and inspire all of us to be more conscious consumers. The film has been viewed by around 300,000 people and we have engaged an audience of just under one million across platforms. I think the biggest success, however, was the effect the collaboration had on all those involved in the project and how they will be changing their habits and inspiring those around them to do the same. It’s a domino effect; the momentum will build.
Can you share any future sustainable plans for the label?
We have a lot in discussion right now. I am super excited to be continually innovating in our way of thinking and creating, and hopefully inspiring others to do so too. As part of our continued collaboration with the BBC Earth team, we have an upcoming capsule BBC Earth collection which will drop at the beginning of June exclusively on Net-a-Porter, to coincide with new sustainable initiatives they’re launching. The evening wear collection will consist of nine pieces, drawing inspiration from the colour of nature, and created with a traceable supply chain and 100 per cent GOTS certified organic peace silk. In addition we have designed two sweatshirts that have been inspired by the BBC’s iconic Planet television series working with Colorifix, a pioneering bio-synth company who have developed a ground-breaking new dyeing process that uses 10 times less water than conventional dyeing practices.
Which other fashion brands do you admire for their forward-thinking attitude towards the protection of the environment?
I am a big lover of Allbirds, which makes shoes with natural materials like merino wool, eucalyptus tree fibre, and sugar cane. I admire brands that can concentrate on one thing and do it well, plus I love simplistic storytelling that has powerful scalability.
What are your hopes for the future of sustainability in fashion – are you an optimist or a pessimist?
I’m on the fence and switch between the two on a regular basis; some days, I see great inspiration and on others I am faced with brutal realities. I have hope in the younger generation’s passion about climate change, but there are also some scary statistics out there. When I am sitting somewhere between the two, I mostly feel frustrated. I see so much potential and we have the information to know what we have done, can do, and how to save ourselves. I just wish we could all fight the same fight and make sustainability a way of life. After all, this affects all of our lives and, no matter what, that’s something we all have in common. My hopes are for a greater consciousness by all; a greener future; and the impact we make in our industry to be reduced significantly. I hope to be an eternal optimist in 10 years’ time when we’ve managed to stop climate change.
Amy Powney’s London Glossary
Lunch date – Farmacy, Notting Hill
I love Farmacy, from its decoration and ambience to the amazing vegan food it serves. I am not a vegan, although I make an effort at all times to source responsibly. We made some T-shirts for Farmacy recently with slogans like ‘Got no beef’ and ‘Contains no artificial content’.
74 Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill, W2; farmacylondon.com
Top shop – A New Tribe, Hackney
A New Tribe is a go-to for great homeware and gifts. The owner is the divine Ella, whose obsession with Morocco took her from fashion design to opening this beautifully-curated store. She recently advised me to visit Berber Lodge in the Atlas mountains and now I, too, am Berber obsessed.
92a Chatsworth Road, Hackney, E5; anewtribe.co.uk
Go-to British designer – Stella McCartney
I love how Stella McCartney curates great design, whilst also thinking about ethics. There is no point in making dull clothing albeit with great ethics, as it won’t inspire and change the customer or our industry. I feel Stella also has a playful attitude to design, like me; if I didn’t have my own label I would be knocking on her door for a job!
23 Old Bond Street, Mayfair, W1; stellamccartney.com
Must-visit market – Maltby Street
Maltby Street in Bermondsey is a food haven; also it’s a little more hidden away, so it feels like a discovery. St. John used to have a tiny restaurant there, which has since closed. But they have a bakery not so far away, so I always grab an Eccles cake on the way home – they’re a childhood favourite.
Maltby St, London SE1 3PA, maltby.st;72 Druid Street, London, SE1 2HQ, stjohnrestaurant.com
Secret sanctuary – William Morris Gallery
My home in Walthamstow is my perfect place to unwind, having lived in a caravan, student halls and then an ‘artist’s studio’ in Hackney Wick for almost ten years, which had no heating. On the weekends I love nothing more than strolling with my husband and dog around the grounds of the William Morris Gallery, now known as Lloyd Park, which back onto my house.
Forest Road, Walthamstow, E17; wmgallery.org.uk
Hidden gem – Fitzrovia Chapel
We recently discovered Fitzrovia Chapel which is where we showed our last London Fashion Week presentation. The outside is relatively unassuming, but walk inside and you’re immediately hit with an abundance of decadence. It’s the perfect (non-religious) wedding venue for anyone looking.
Fitzroy Place, 2 Pearson Square, Fitzrovia, W1; fitzroviachapel.org