The renowned Tommy Ton shot pictures of the different designs after the competition. This is one of the shots he made of Sissal's model, Jenny S Wardum, the day after the competition ended.

The renowned Tommy Ton shot pictures of the different designs after the competition. This is one of the shots he made of Sissal's model, Jenny S Wardum, the day after the competition ended.

I Eat Fish and I Use The Skin Too

Hi, my name is Sissal Kristiansen, I’m from the Faroe Islands, where I have my fashion brand, that I founded five years ago, named Shisa Brand. I am a self-taught in this line of work, but I have a master in marketing, a profession I worked in since I graduated. Last month I won the first Blue Fashion Challenge, that was organized by NORA and held on the Faroe Islands – and the reason I’ve been invited to speak to you here. And thank you for that.

Well, I’m here to shear my thoughts on fashion and blue economy – not something we usually put together, but after this, I hope that at least some of you will have opened your eyes to what possibilities there are in merging these two.

But let’s start with some depressing facts and/or statements.

Some research shows that “Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil”, other research states, that “fashion is ‘only’ the 5th most dirty industry in the world” – if it is because one states ‘fast fashion’ and the other (only) ‘fashion’ I can’t say, but maybe?

But there is also this fact: Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly lower prices, prices so low that many consumers consider this clothing to be disposable. Some call it “fast fashion,” and this has led fashion brands to spit out new collections more frequent than we care to think about – new collections that we as consumers just have to have, otherwise we will be ghastly outdated.

But let’s take one more fact: The fashion industry is a massive consumer and polluter of our fresh water. And one of the biggest culprits is cotton. And it is estimated that around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles.

So, whether we believe this or not, we do know:

a) that the Fashion industry is growing rapidly, mainly due to fast fashion conduct.

b)that the Fashion industry is a big polluter – especially on water, but also, that the culprits left by the cows, wherefrom we get our leather - although as a bi-product – are definitely worth keeping an eye on

c) and, that people in the developing countries are suffering a great deal because they don’t have sufficient access to fresh water – also due to the footprints that unsustainable cotton farming have made.

So, what to do – what to do.

As mentioned, I have my own brand, and up until recently my main focus has been on wool and knitting. My sustainable fashion contribution has been to keep the production as local and close to the end consumer as possible – go with hand knitting and make classic designs that last – go for slow fashion. So, I a new player in this field of Sustainable Blue Fashion and I will therefor focus on the two fabrics that I used for the Blue Fashion Challenge – fish leather and the seaweed jersey.

In Greenland, there is a saying that goes ‘I eat seal and use the skin’. For the Blue Fashion Challenge, I decided to translate this saying into my world – ‘I eat fish, and I use the skinn too’.

Being Faroese, eating fish is not only as natural as it is for an aquarium fish to eat the food it is being fed, it is also highly eco-friendly.

In fashion many of us are like the aquarium fish – we don’t question!

This is what we are being served, hence this is what we will buy. We don’t take responsibility!

But the difference between most of us and the aquarium fish is, that we have a choice – we can choose to be more responsible when we purchase our clothes, we can choose a sustainable option.

And as designers, we have that same option. We can choose to design our garments and other items as there is no tomorrow or we can be sustainable in our way of thinking, designing and choosing the fabric and methods we do.

The world’s interest in sustainable fashion is growing, more depending on in which part of the world we are talking, but we should expect a boom in the demand for any material that is sustainable and has a fashionable potential in the near future – and the blue industry has the opportunity to be the solution that the world craves for. 

So much of what makes fashion great is that inspirational, aspirational, have-to-have-it-feeling. Yet if we walk through the Sustainable Fashion department, it tends not to evoke that have-to-have-it-feeling. Many of the first movers in the area, have been focusing more on the sustainable element, rather than being fashionable, and as the drivers in fashion always will be ‘what looks good on me’ and ‘what is in fashion’ this is likely one of the reasons that we are still in the birth of Sustainable Fashion.

As people, many of us, like to take a stand, and to stand out, but for the good reasons, not at the cost of us looking untidy and unfashionable. Would any of you buy an expensive suit or a dress that looks unstylish just because it’s sustainable? I’m guessing no!

Luckily there is a shift in the Sustainable Fashion business. Sustainable designers are more aware of the fashion element and Fashion designers are more aware of the sustainable element, and the more the sustainable and the fashionable element merge, so will the prospect of growth in this niche of fashion.

But there is still one rather important aspect to address, the price.

For the Blue Fashion Challenge, I created three items: a hooded dress made with a jersey fabric that contained 35% seaweed fibers. A fisherman’s smock made out approximately 70 salmon skins and a travel bag made out of roughly 35 salmon skins.

If we turn to the fish leather items first. There are brands that have used fish leather for some years now, mainly for smaller bags, belts, shoes and a little decoration here and there. But mostly fish leather hasn’t been used for big items, and very seldom in clothing.

The reasons are many, I believe.

-      One, it is fish – and wearing a fish dress or t-shirt just seems fishy.

-      Another reason is that it is quite stiff, especially in the beginning.

-      Thirdly, it is not one big fabric, so to get a reasonable fabric to work with, you first have to sew the many skins together, and it is very time consuming.

-      Fourthly, and for me this is the biggest challenge, there is the price.

Just for the smock, the 70 salmon skins, the cost of the material was about 1200 euro, and that is before it’s been cut and sewn together. So, when that smock would hang on a rack in a store, I don’t think it would cost less than 4000 euro.

And then the question is – how badly do we want to be trendy and stand out and how much do we really care about the environment and the future of our planet?

I do see great potential in fish leather, it is very strong, it is thin, it is fairly easy to work with – although time consuming and it only gets softer with time. In many ways, it resembles other leathers that we know and use, it just has more character and a much better story to tell and sell.

But for it to be a real player in the sustainable fabric department, it has to be cheaper. Somehow, we need to get more of the fish leather out there. We need more aesthetic and fashionable items on the runway and in fashion magazines, blogs and on Instagram for the ‘somewhat conscious consumers’ to request it.

Since winning the Blue Fashion Challenge, I’ve met a great lot of interest in the designs. My experience with it, and how it was to work with these fabrics.

But there has also been shown a lot of concrete interest in the different items – and they seem to appeal to a lot of people and very different groups of people, the trendsetters, the environmentally friendly, younger, older, and even people I normally would characterize as being less-fashionable, have shown interest. But so far, they have all made a twitch when I have mentioned the prize.

I don’t expect, that my smock and my travel bag, at a lower prize, would change the way we think of fish leather in fashion – but I do believe that events like the Blue Fashion Challenge, can help us, consumers and designers, to be more aware of the many possibilities that there are in these somewhat alternative materials – as fashion fabrics.

Now, let’s turn to the seaweed jersey. This, I would say, surprised me the most, mainly as I didn’t know what to expect from a fabric made with 35% seaweed fibers – and what I did imagine was nothing compared to what I experienced. The fabric was in all sense wonderful, it was soft, comfortable to wear, easy to work with, and did not have that cheap shiny look, that many of these jersey fabrics have and it scored highly on the washable scale also.

The thing with the jersey fabric is that it is such a known fabric, and a fabric that is in high request. Adding the seaweed doesn’t change this – you can’t see the seaweed – hence you have to be told that it contains seaweed. As we are still in the development stages, and you can’t buy seaweed jersey in a fabric stores or factory, it is difficult to predict how the consumers will greet it – but I believe, that if it more or less holds the price range of other quality jersey fabrics, it could have a bright future.

Because the selling proposition of the seaweed fabric is not so much that it is a really good quality fabric and that it is sustainable, it is that seaweed is so much more than sustainable.

The fish leathers are sustainable as the fish skins otherwise are waste products or bi-products to the fishing industry, so as long as we as people will consume and request fish for our diet, it will be considered eco-friendly to use the fish skins for other purposes. But, heaven forbid, the world decided not to eat fish anymore, and we would only fish for the fish leather, then it would be questionable if the fish leather was sustainable – a discussion I am not qualified to take.

Anyway – point being

Seaweed, research shows, is much more miraculous. Seaweed, it seems, is the solution to all our problems, or at least many of our ocean pollution problems.

Recently, the Australian Professor Tim Flannery identified three major functions of seaweeds:

-      it can be used as the food of the future,

-      it can help clean up pollution from waterways, and

-      it can mitigate the effects of climate change.

What the good Professor didn’t point out is, that now it can also be used as a substitute to e.g. cotton in the Fashion Industry.

As a conscious designer, this is big. The fabric is eco-friendly and sustainable, and, after all, the most important for a fashion designer, the fabric is a nice workable and sellable fabric. But imagine the self-satisfaction of making garments with a fabric that contains fibers that actually mitigate the effects of climate change?

If you can’t sell that!

So, ladies and gentlemen – the ocean and all that it beholds is very interesting in many other businesses too – it is very interesting in the field of Sustainable Fashion, a growing industry that you can be part of – or not.

My wish is, that we all stop acting like the aquarium fish – we do have a choice, we can open our eyes and be part of the solution.