Between an escalating global pandemic, unabating racial turmoil and increasingly divisive politics that have at times spiraled into violence, 2020 is proving to be one of the most dramatic and difficult years—if not the most dramatic and difficult year—in living history.
And it appears that H&M has decided to just roll with it.
On Dec. 3, the Swedish clothing giant will unveil its latest Conscious Exclusive collection, which is in part inspired by the 58th International Art Exhibition, organized by La Biennale di Venezia in 2019 and prophetically entitled “May You Live In Interesting Times,” and in part by the concept of “creating beauty out of waste,” according to Ann-Sofie Johansson, creative advisor for H&M.
Glitzier and dressier than the retailer’s typical mall offerings, H&M’s seasonal sustainability showcase has traditionally served as a proving ground for innovations in eco-friendlier textiles and materials. Autumn/winter 2020, which offers 25 garments and 12 accessories, is no different.
The collection features two materials making their worldwide debuts: Circular Systems’ Agraloop Biofiber, derived from oil-seed hemp waste, and Naia Renew, a closed-loop cellulosic fiber that comprises 60 percent wood pulp and 40 percent recycled plastic waste, including post-consumer carpet fibers and post-industrial plastic packaging. They can be found in “opulent” evening gowns in black and green jacquard taffeta, yellow jacquard or “festooned with dusty green flowers,” Johansson told Sourcing Journal.
The retailer is also feting for the first time We aRe SpinDye’s SpinDye technology, which Johansson described as a “clean, traceable” dyeing method that significantly slashes the use of water and chemicals. Also new to H&M is Made of Air, a carbon-negative plastic, partly made using waste biomass, that the brand crafted into a pair of sunglasses.
“At H&M we always find it very exciting to work with such innovative sustainable materials,” Johansson said. “In terms of challenges, we encountered some amount of trial and error with obtaining the look and feel we wanted, but we’re really happy to work with so many of these amazing innovators.”
H&M is reintroducing some of the cutting-edge fibers it has used in the past, including Texloop, a recycled cotton Circular Systems makes from post-industrial cotton waste, and a closed-loop polyester fabricated from castoff clothing and textiles. For its shoe—a boot that converts into a mule with a removable sock—the company returned to Vegea, a vegan leather, derived from the byproducts of winemaking, that bowed in its spring/summer 2020 Conscious Exclusive collection. Pieces crafted from Tencel and organic cotton, two H&M standbys, round out the rest of the lineup, which “brings back” men’s wear for the first time since 2017 with a classic tuxedo and tailored suiting.
Johansson said she played with the idea of volume and length, from billowing tiers of fabric and balloon sleeves to nipped-in waists and cropped hems. The concept of “creating beauty out of waste” manifested in the prints, which drew cues from the peeling floral wallpaper and ancient tapestries characteristic of Old World Europe. Flower appliqués and moth motifs throughout “allude to both life and decay,” she added.
H&M, which has faced criticism for its fast-fashion model of cheap prices and extravagant volumes, has been dipping a toe into other, more circular consumption models, including promoting repair and resale at Cos and investing in secondhand platform Sellpy. It’s in that spirit that two H&M stores in Stockholm and Berlin will be offering rentals of six different pieces, some available to rental customers in unique designs or colorways.
Because the Conscious Exclusive pieces are by necessity and design limited in terms of reach and impact, they can sometimes appear more gimmicky than indicative of systemic change, which some experts say would require a fundamental rethink of the industry’s growth-centered mindset and a slowing of consumption.
Johansson said, however, that Conscious Exclusive materials have made the leap into the main collection, such as Tencel, which H&M introduced in its 2010 Garden Collection. Now, though, H&M is one of Tencel’s biggest buyers. Econyl, a 100 percent regenerated nylon made from abandoned fishing nets and other bits of nylon waste, too, initially appeared in a spring/summer 2018 collection, but can be found today in H&M’s primary line.
“Given that the aim of the Conscious Exclusive collection in particular has always been to move H&M’s fashion and sustainability development and innovation forward, I believe it has created change overall at H&M and shaped the conversation around how fashionable sustainable fashion can be,” Johansson said, noting the retailer’s ambition to work only with “sustainably sourced” materials by 2030 and become climate positive by 2040.
“Innovation also keeps driving our circularity efforts forward,” she added.