Sustainability is the new black


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Ecofashion designer Zuhal Kuvan-Mills

If you told her as a child that she would become the first certified organic visual artist in the world – Zuhal Kuvan-Mills wouldn’t have believed you.

Now an accomplished designer, artist and Alpaca owner, Zuhal has her sights set on bringing more awareness to ecodesign, and the beauty of slow fashion.

Not only is she the founder, visual artist and creator behind a handmade organic haute couture label Green Embassy and organic textile house Atelier Zuhal, Kuvan-Mills is also a passionate, forward thinking ecowarrior, who is bringing the world of slow fashion to Australia.

Having grown up among farm animals and nature in Turkey, she became an academic with a strong love for animals and the environment. It seemed there was no better role to fulfill her desire to help the natural world than to become a veterinary surgeon and later, an animal science lecturer in the UK.

While she has lived many lives before settling down in Western Australia, there is no doubt that the move to art and eventually fashion, was a match made in heaven.

After teaching in Britain for nearly 20 years, a change of scenery and creative purpose was needed. In 2006 Kuvan-Mills moved to Western Australia and once again became a student, this time pursuing the visual arts.

She took the plunge and moved to the Swan Valley where she could live among her animals, away from the city life; while creating art and pursuing a greener lifestyle.

“I was focusing on creating textiles, which is an art form, and also functional art which is something you can use – a rug, a blanket and use around the home.”

In 2011, Kuvan-Mills was sent to Korea to represent Western Australia in the textile trade show, where she displayed her work among artists from all over the globe.

“For the first time in my life, I met fashion designers. They were asking me if they could buy my textiles by the metre!

“One of the designers, a German one I think – she told me you are an artist, why don’t you make fashion from your work?”

It was this passing comment from a stranger that set the sewing machine in motion for Kuvan-Mills. Upon returning home she photographed her work on a model. The outcome mirrored haute couture pieces you see on Paris Fashion week runways, and from this inspired moment her fashion label Green Embassy was born.

Everything is designed, knitted, spun, felted, stitched and embroidered from scratch by Kuvan-Mills from the comfort of her farm in the Swan Valley. She describes her designs as functional, but timeless wearable art. Something that can be passed down from generation to generation.

“It all started from there because I can sew, I can make a dress – it’s like an essential from where I come from, where I grew up. You know how to cook, you know how to clean, you know how to sew, you know how to knit – it’s just a skill.”

As with any revolution, her pursuit of ecofashion has not been without its obstacles.

“No one wanted to know about ecofashion in Perth. So I did up my website and sent it internationally – to London fashion week, Paris, Vancouver, Beijing, New Zealand. And everyone was asking: Can we have it!”

For Kuvan-Mills, it’s never been about the glitz and glamour of being a fashion designer – it’s about the message and purpose ecofashion delivers.

“I still like to teach and for me I see fashion as a tool in my artist box. If I teach in a class-room, I can only teach twenty people. If I exhibit my story, what I am trying to teach in an art gallery – again maybe only 100 people will turn up.

“But when the runway becomes the classroom, when the runway becomes the gallery – things change because you have a big window through social media. I can reach the masses.”

As the name suggests, Kuvan-Mills’ brand is more than just pretty clothes; it’s an embassy where she can inspire others.

“Originally that’s why I called it Green Embassy, I didn’t want to call it my name because I am just one individual … It’s not just making great clothes; it’s storytelling; it’s educating; it’s teaching.”

The concept of Green Embassy and ecofashion is not just as simple as using organic materials as the fabric. It’s where the garment is made, whether the factory is environmentally friendly and many other crucial steps in the making of fashion.

“You have to explain to them; where the wool comes from; how the cotton is grown; how much pesticide is being used in the production; what’s happening at the factory; are they polluting the environment?

“More and more people are educated compared to when I started. People are now making more conscious decisions.”

Kuvan-Mills’ ecofashion movement sheds light on the choices we make. By shopping consciously, you lessen the chances of buying from companies who use sweat shops or cheap labour.

While Kuvan-Mills does not ignore the fact that buying locally produced, environmentally friendly products is generally pricier. She says there are ways to make small changes which, in turn, make big differences in the world.

“It’s costly compared to sweat shop slavery produced products. Maybe people will start thinking about buying from op shops instead of buying another sweat shop product.”

At the moment, Kuvan-Mills is working on a new concept for Green Embassy. This time the inspiration for her collection comes from ‘The Red List’, which features the world’s threatened species.

“There are two species that I am focusing on for the 30 piece collection; the Carnaby Cockatoo and the Cassowary, and I am using Merino, Alpaca and raw silk. First I make the textiles; this takes about two weeks per design. Then I send it to the extremely talented couture seamstress’ in Perth.

“That’s really important to me – local production – because a lot of people have amazing skill. But they can’t make a living from it because of cheap labour and fast fashion.”

According to Kuvan-Mills, the most important part of being an ecodesigner is passing the baton of knowledge to the next generation. It’s about teaching up and coming designers about the benefits and beauty in slow sustainable fashion, and the dark side of fast fashion.

The push to move away from the consumer driven, fast fashion that society has fallen into won’t be easy. Over-consumption of fast fashion made in sweat shops is something we all do, without even thinking. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, not to mention one of the least ethical. On average Australians discard 6,000 kilograms of clothing every 10 minutes, and like any other piece of plastic, it sits in landfills for hundreds of years.

But because of Kuvan-Mills and designers like her all over the world; change is coming.

Last year Kuvan-Mills took a huge step forward, promoting ‘suitability as the new black’ in Australia by launching Eco Fashion Week. For her, it was about providing the platform for ecodesigners in Australia to showcase their work. A unique experience that fashion in Australia has lacked for many years.

“I know a lot of people out there in Australia, like myself, looking for opportunities but they can’t because there’s been no such things. There’s only big expensive fashion shows all about making dollars and nothing for ecodesigners because they are insisting they are not using sweat shops.”

Her innovation had an amazing response from local and international designers all wanting to showcase in Eco Fashion Week, with the first year running 44 designers on the cat-walk.

This year Kuvan-Mills and her team of volunteers are taking Eco Fashion Week to two locations: Queensland and Perth. That way she believes more designers from the east coast have the opportunity to launch their designs.

With no big corporations funding the show or the designers, Kuvan-Mills says community, love for arts and sustainability make a huge difference in promoting the cause.

“We are doing everything sustainably without the dollars, because that’s not what we do this for. People come to me and say they have big sponsorship behind them, and who do I have?

“I always say I have something much bigger than corporations, I have community.”

Eco Fashion Week Australia will be held in Perth from November 15-21.  

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A Green Embassy evening dress on the Eco Fashion Week catwalk in 2017