Taking Responsibility

Combatting waste in the fashion world, a new label looks to the future through sculptural minimalism and affordable craftsmanship.

Peruvian designer Francesca Canepa rallies against trend-led fast fashion with the first collection from her new label, Port Zienna. Based in New York, where she has lived and worked since completing a postgraduate degree at the city’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 2014, the artist combines clean lines and a deliberately limited colour palette with her expertise in the couture technique of draping. The result is a distinctive blend of fluidity and structure, making use of environmentally friendly fabrics, and the results are designed for a lifetime of everyday wear.

After graduating, Canepa began working for Finesse Embroideries, gaining crucial experience of producing work for an impressive list of runway designers including Burberry, Tom Ford, Caroline Herrera and Dolce & Gabbana. Although the designer says she enjoyed working with pieces of such “stunning quality,” she goes on to admit that “there was always a part of me that missed draping.”

She explains this method in simple terms: “you grab muslin fabric and throw it on top of a dress form and start shaping a garment, just following the flow.” Although she makes it sound easy, the technique is, in fact, a highly skilled element of couture and demonstrates significant craftsmanship in design. Canepa was adamant that her pieces would be suitable for a ready-to-wear collection.

Moving away from the “old couture techniques”, the vision here was to create something fresh. This represented a big step away into unknown ground for Canepa: “I just wanted to follow my passion again, and because I’d done all this embroidery detail for so long, I went to extreme minimalism and didn’t incorporate my former style into this collection at all. It’s completely the opposite.”

The structure and shape of the garments, then, is a crucial part of the brand’s visual identity. Inspiration comes partly from urban structures: “I love Japanese architecture,” Canepa says, “as well as architects such as Walter Gropius. He was a huge inspiration.” The clean lines and geometry of Gropius’s (1883-1969) designs – and those of the associated Bauhaus movement – are echoed here in the shirts and palazzo pants created in a restricted, tonal range of colours with a firm emphasis on structure over detail.

Sculpture, too, has had a role to play: American artist Richard Serra (b. 1938) is highly influential through his monochromatic pieces, which Canepa describes as “stunning blocks in the middle of the desert.” She explains that there is, due to these canons of inspiration, a need for her designs to be “clean” – not only in terms of their aesthetics but also their environmental credentials.

Using a tightly-limited range of colours has helped her to achieve this aim on both counts: “We maintained this all the way through the collection, thinking also about sustainable, eco-friendly fabrics. Because they are all organic, we don’t use colours; we keep the whole process very clean. So here we kept a lot of white, a little grey and beige – from the regular organic cotton – and black.”

Sustainable, small-scale business operations are at the heart of the company’s ethos. Although the label was founded in part due to a desire to move back into draping, Canepa also felt strongly about “giving something back to my country” – that is, Peru. She attempts to provide industry for the country’s own ateliers where possible, saying: “I have a lot of people there that I know work at these small places, it’s not huge manufacturing … just four or five machines. I wanted to help give jobs to communities over there.” In order to achieve this, she drapes the sample pieces from her studio in New York, before sending them back to Peru, where the local ateliers create the same piece in multiple sizes. “Everything is very small,” she says.

“We wanted to do this because Port Zienna is a sustainable brand, and the manufacturing has to be, too. Right now, with fast fashion in the world being as it is, I just feel there’s a lot of excess, a lot of waste, and I don’t want to contribute to that. I really am against it, so I wanted to go the other way.” Keeping things small is key, she believes, even from the level of production – the brand produces limited numbers of each piece – to the team of people who are making the clothes. The need to offer employment is also acknowledged, in a manner that “people can rely on.” In doing so, Port Zienna is part of a growing number of small brands which are dramatically distancing themselves from the large-scale, exploitative production common elsewhere in the mass-produced fashion industry.

As well as environmental and economic sustainability, the label hopes to build a positive relationship between the buyer and the designer. “In general, wearing couture draping makes you feel super-strong – you feel like you stand out from the crowd.” This sense of strength is, importantly, offered also through pieces at a more accessible price point: “I wanted to tell the client: ‘You don’t have to wear couture to feel beautiful, to feel like you’re the only girl in the room.’” Using the same technique on what Canepa describes as a “regular brand – obviously the fabrics are a little more expensive being sustainable, but at least not that high,” aims to provide the sense of empowerment of wearing couture, but in an everyday setting. “As long as you have your palazzo pants and your vest, you might be very casual but you’re feeling … well, a little different. And you’re making the world better, too.”

A conscious approach to gender and equality, as indicated by a discussion of empowerment, is a big part of the brand’s mission statement. Although some of the clothes appear to have an androgynous quality, this is not something that has in itself been considered in great depth as an objective for their designs. The focus, instead, is on playing a part in achieving “complete equality.”

The designs aim to take on the capacity to shape a woman’s outlook, whilst remaining focused on the aim of making women feel relaxed, confident and comfortable through the power of design: “That’s the first thing. When you feel comfortable, that’s when you can really be yourself. You can make your point, and not be afraid to say it. This is going way over – it’s just clothes, I know – but imagine being like that.” The garments therefore become a pathway to individual expression. The idea that anyone should have to “wear a pretty dress and be feminine,” should, Canepa believes, now be a thing of the past.

Creating this empowering, everyday wardrobe means that timelessness is a vital part of the company’s ethos. These are pieces that “will never go out of trend.” Instead, the small collection is full of clothes that are multi-purpose: “you can go out and have fun, alone or with friends. Or literally go to work in your blouse and culottes!” There is a resistance to  using the words “modern” or “classic”, but nonetheless, Canepa acknowledges: “I think these are things you can wear today, and you can still wear them in five or ten years’ time. Fast fashion is just trend after trend: in a month it’s all over and you have to get a new thing.”

The solution is to wear a selection of “essential pieces.” Echoing other minimalist designers and advocates of a pared-down aesthetic and lifestyle, she suggests that: “Every woman should have a white blouse in her closet, and a pair of black palazzo pants. These will never go out of fashion. And I think the idea of owning one good quality piece in a good material – that’s what makes you stand out.”

In this respect, a keen interest in art clearly provides a point of embarkation for the anti-fast-fashion principle. By seeking inspiration from various practitioners across the 20th century, Port Zienna’s designs are naturally imbued with the quality of aesthetic immutability. They do not seem to correspond to any particular time or place. This can be explained by the diverse range of ideologies and stylistic influences which are at play in their approach.

As well as Gropius and Serra, as discussed above, her passions range from the intricate, “goddess-like” couture of Madame Grès (1903-1993) to “municipal plans,” which, she says, “drive me crazy!” The first collection represents an attempt to merge these visual ideas. It thus becomes clear why she dislikes “modern” as a descriptor of her work.

Although the environmental, sustainable ethos which she advocates initially seems to be a key concern of the 21st century, the influences stretch a long way back, and each emphasises a certain type of small-scale craft skill: even those of the municipal engineer and planner, which are roles for those carefully trained in technical drawing.

Canepa believes that her approach is in tune with the future direction of the ready-to-wear clothing industry. Instant trend-led buying habits are peaking. “Customers will start realising what fast fashion really means. I think you just have to go back and think ‘I’m wasting all of this time and all of this money – and on what? On pieces that are not going to last a year.’ Clients are realising this and they want to go back and help emerging designers.”

A strong conviction that there is “already a negativity forming against fast-fashion” informs this point. This is, ultimately, a hopeful, positive and active stance,and one which is likely to have a strong resonance with today’s informed and ethically engaged consumers. “I think this is what the world needs right now, with everything that’s going on. We don’t need more and more – it’s just stuff. We have to be conscious of what we choose,” says Canepa.

The brand itself looks set to get bigger, in status if not in size: as keeping things small will remain vital to an ecologically friendly and low-emission business model. Nonetheless, Port Zienna will present a new collection at a number of fashion weeks over the next year, and will be showcasing the garments for the first time in February 2018. “We want to grow, and become known for a sustainable, draped piece in people’s closets,” says Canepa. That said, “there’s no way we’re going to become huge – this is what we want to do – just certain pieces and techniques. Not an empire!” Based on her passionate, principled approach and the fashion world’s affirmative reaction to the first collection, these goals seem eminently plausible.

Anna Feintuck