Long overdue, the world’s first-ever fashion awards show dedicated entirely to ethical fashion took place in November 2008 and was an undeniable milestone. London’s eco-elite played host to the RE:Fashion Awards, set in an historic town hall in Shoreditch, once the hub of England’s tailoring and sewing industry and now the epicenter of the city’s skinny-jeaned, Indie rock scene (like the East Village, but rainier and with stronger drinks).

Junky Styling, one London’s oldest ethical brands, works only with used clothing, performing inventive transformations like turning old gents’ suits into sharp and sexy ladies’ blazers and corsets. It joined labels like People Tree (specializing in purely fair-trade garments); Traid (which stands for Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development); and Pachacuti (providing artisinal, fair trade, craft-inspired South American chic) for a night celebrating the fact that clothing doesn’t have to sacrifice “aesthetics for ethics,” as host Louise Roe put it. (Roe, a model, stylist and writer, may soon become familiar to Americans as the face of American Vogue TV.)

In addition to the awards ceremony, the evening featured a celebrity catwalk, delicious canapés (the vegan chocolate, in particular, was a huge hit), and festive libations like organic pink champagne and cumquat-and-sage sidecars. By evening’s end, the servers had abandoned their trays of carefully measured cocktails served in martini glasses in favor of generously flowing pitchers.

Inebriation aside, the main amplifier of the audience’s volume was the close-knit camaraderie of London’s ethical fashion community. Pioneering designers have worked for more than a decade to promote socially responsible and environmentally sustainable clothing. They were understandably overjoyed to see their fellow designers — friends and colleagues — recognized after so many years of being “branded as deeply uncool,” as Roe put it.

The program wasn’t without a few kinks: the categories of RE:Model and RE:Cotton went unawarded (apparently none of the entries met the judge’s criteria), leaving some audience members grumbling. Carbon emissions from the awards show’s energy use were not off-set, and it would have been nice, says Pamela Daniels, director of the Ethical Fashion Forum and one of the night’s chief organizers, to see more handbag, shoe, menswear, and lingerie companies eligible for recognition.

But those gaps — like the prospects for next year’s awards — are also opportunities for improvement, innovation, and creativity. For now, it was enough that the evening could give long overdue credit to the pioneers of ethical fashion.

No label matched underwear company Pants to Poverty — in British slang, “pants to x" is an expression of disapproval meaning “down with x” — for crowd response. Though the brand garnered no awards, even the most uptight posh girls in the audience couldn’t help but cheer its models. While most designers paraded their threads on stereotypically severe-looking models, Pants to Poverty trotted out three fantastically atypical models: all black and all of average height and weight. Gyrating, jumping, and dancing to thumping hip-hop, they completely brought the house down.

Pants to Poverty sources organic cotton for its underwear and bras from fair-trade farming co-ops in India, and is in the process of founding a new cottonseed trading company to serve 25,000 farmers with child labor-free cottonseed. But the real reason for their irresistible popularity on this night was their attitude: unabashedly fun, smiley and sexy.

Would Pants to Poverty’s style translate as well on the US chic circuit? Possibly not: Brits are by nature far more forgiving – in fact, adoring – of idiosyncrasies. This is a country that has always prized eccentricity, reflected in its clothing. And this meshes well (if not always perfectly) with the ethical fashion ethos: creative, unique, and distinctive threads that leave a lighter footprint, whether they’re hand-sewn without wasting electricity, made from discarded fabrics and clothing rescued from landfill, or sourced without sweatshop labor.

“The ethical consciousness in London is the most extensive in the entire world; New York is two or three years behind London in bringing ethical brands forward,” says former New Yorker Kurt Williams the manager and promoter of Junky Styling. Judging by the events of last week, London can confidently claim to the eco fashion capital of the world. And it shows no sign of relinquishing its title.

Story by Zoe Cormier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

The world's first ethical fashion show
A London soiree shows that clothing doesn't have to sacrifice style for environmental and humanitarian consciousness.