When PH5’s new designer Zoe Champion started working on the Spring 2021 collection earlier this year, she had Australia’s bushfires, which dominated global headlines in January, on the brain.
The links between climate change and increased fire risks are well-documented, which means devastating fires are likely to increase as the world gets hotter due to humankind’s ongoing burning of fossil fuels. But the degree to which fires were once again dominating the headlines when PH5’s new collection finally dropped — nine months after the bushfires — still felt uncanny, even if we ought to know by now that these blazes are going to be increasingly common in a warming world.
This time, the fires in question are choking the American West (not to mention the Amazon rainforest — again), flooding social media with eerie orange-skied scenes captured everywhere from San Francisco to Portland, OR. All those doomsday images conspired to make PH5’s Spring 2021 collection feel weirdly prescient: The clothes are full of references to fire, with little tongues of flame that repeat to make a larger fire pattern serving as a common motif.
But the lookbook and “presentation” — which happened in the form of a video released on Runway360, the CFDA’s online stand-in for New York Fashion Week — leaned into the theme even further. In it, PH5’s Spring 2021 collection is modeled by members of the Firesticks Alliance, an Indigenous Australian-led initiative that seeks to “re-invigorate” traditional land management practices that include controlled, or “cultural,” burning.
“Cultural burning is a practice used by traditional Aboriginal people all across Australia, and allows us to be able to really apply fire in a way that connects, revitalizing the landscape on which we live to allow the vegetation to grow in a way that we can improve the health of the landscape,” says Jessica Wegner, a director of Firesticks Alliance with Ngiyampaa Wangaaypuwan heritage.
The approach that Firesticks Alliance advocates for isn’t unique to Australia. In some parts of hard-hit California, the state is finally starting to listen to what Indigenous people have said all along: Beyond playing an important role in Indigenous cultural heritage, controlled burns can actually reduce the risk of out-of-control fires by clearing out the dry underbrush that fuels them; cultural burns can also encourage healthy new plant growth.
“The environment evolved with fire, fire that was used intentionally,” explains Sian Romack, an Australian Firesticks member who hails from the Budawang people of Yuin country. “Across the world, Indigenous people used fire to look after Country.”
When it comes to looking after the planet, the raw materials a brand uses are no less important than the design themes being explored. Which is why it’s crucial to look beyond PH5’s video messaging to the clothes themselves.
On a positive note, the brand uses 3-D knitting machines that allow it to produce zero-waste clothing. (Any mistakes can simply be unraveled and turned into new garments.) The pieces also incorporate material from old seasons this way. And PH5 touted the use of some new materials this season, including EcoVero, a Lenzing-produced form of viscose that’s supposed to be better for the earth than its conventional counterpart.
On the other hand, only 30 to 40% of the collection was made using what PH5 calls its “sustainable materials.” Plus, part of what the brand is counting under that category includes Better Cotton Initiative cotton, which isn’t exactly setting the bar when it comes to reducing (or even properly measuring) the environmental impacts of growing cotton. The remaining 60 to 70% of materials used in the Spring 2021 line are comprised of PH5’s “signature stretchy blends” made of nylon, rayon and spandex, none of which are known for having a minimal planetary impact.
In short: When it come to actual sustainability, PH5 has a long way to go. But if the brand can increasingly listen to Indigenous experts with a deep knowledge of how to care for the land — like the women depicted in its Spring 2021 video — perhaps it can eventually get its materials to more fully align with the themes that have captured its designer’s imagination this season.
See every look from the PH5 Spring 2021 collection (complete with a purse-carrying wallaby!) in the gallery below.
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