When Amy Powney was announced joint-winner of the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund in 2017, her response to camera was that she would use the money to create a sustainable collection. Filmmaker Becky Hutner immediately asked if she would be willing to chart the course of this adventure on screen. “I didn’t know what was ahead of me, so I just said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” says Powney, now 38 years old, and owner and creative director of her brand Mother of Pearl.

Mother of Pearl founder Amy Powney
Mother of Pearl founder Amy Powney © Toby Coulson

The documentary Fashion Reimagined, which comes to cinemas on 3 March, feels inevitable. Powney was raised by activist parents off-grid in rural England; for years she had felt conflicted about her role in an industry notorious for its carbon footprint. It shows how far the industry has come since filming began – and how far it has to go. Today, a fashion brand making claims for sustainability is no longer unusual: in 2020, retail analytics company Edited reported that over the previous four years the number of clothes described as “sustainable” had quadrupled among online retailers in the US and UK – but this has only also increased doubts as to what “sustainability” means. “[In 2017] we had brands beginning to use terms like ‘radical transparency’,” says Powney. “But all they’d done was look at the factory where they made their garments – what happens before that?” 

Cotton pickers in the Urfa region of Turkey
Cotton pickers in the Urfa region of Turkey © Fashion Reimagined Ltd
Amy meeting some curious alpacas in Peru
Amy meeting some curious alpacas in Peru © Fashion Reimagined Ltd

Powney had in mind a fashion version of farm-to-table cooking – to get back to the farms producing the raw materials and have as few steps (and countries) as possible between them and the end result. Tackling the complex supply chains proved more of a drama than expected. While Powney finally found a farm for wool she was happy with in Uruguay, she could only find hand-spinners in neighbouring Peru – and still no knitters or weavers...

Mother of Pearl now labels every product to show how it satisfies sustainability credentials, and Powney hopes that the film will leverage changes to UK legislation around clothes labelling. She is also still working on the brand’s sourcing and supply chain. Ultimately, the film tracks Powney’s gradual change in thinking. “As a designer you’re trained to draw a garment and then say to a product developer: ‘Right, go make it for me,’” she says. “We flipped the entire thing on its head. We said, these are the fibres and fabrics we’re happy with. Now what can I make with this stuff?” 

The result is sumptuous jacquard-weave tailored jackets and smart-casual sweatshirts with her now-signature ruffled sleeves punctured by recycled-plastic beads. It’s almost as if by restricting herself, Powney has amplified her creativity. 

Fashion Reimagined opens in UK and Irish cinemas on 3 March

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