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The Elephant in My Wardrobe Steps Out: A Dialogue on the State of Today's Fashion with Fonny Bunjamin and Gemma Metheringham

In this episode, join Fonny Bunjamin, founder of Vestis Labs,  as she discusses  with Gemma Metheringham, her shift from being a creative director for international fashion brands in the UK, to creating the successful blog The Elephant in my Wardrobe, focusing on the secondhand market and promoting a sustainable future for fashion.  Gemma's passion for sustainability and the second-hand market is contagious, and in this episode, they'll delve deep into these topics.


This insightful conversation explores key areas:

  • Gemma's remarkable career shift and her mission to challenge throwaway fashion and promote a sustainable future for fashion.

  • The potential and limitations of the second-hand market in achieving true fashion sustainability and a circular economy.

  • How 3D development is revolutionizing the industry by minimizing waste and creating a more efficient process, from design to production.

This episode is a valuable resource for fashion industry professionals, sustainability enthusiasts, and anyone interested in the future of fashion. So tune in!

As a side note, here is the link to Gemma's amazing art reflecting the tangled fashion ecosystem - hear all about it at 18:46 mark.


00:00:00 Fonny Bunjamin

So welcome, Gemma and everyone to our first session of inspiring Thursdays. So this is a new series dedicated to bringing the stories of inspiring individuals in, reshaping the fashion industry. So today we are incredibly honored to have Gemma with us. So Gemma is a visionary designer and a former colleague of mine.

We worked together at Karen Millen, where she was a creative director, so Gemma's journey from a creative director in the fashion industry to a champion of sustainability, it's nothing short of inspiring. So here we are, Gemma, it's an absolute pleasure to have you with us today.

00:00:39 Gemma Metheringham

It's very nice to be here, Fonny. Very nice. Thank you for inviting me.

00:00:43 Fonny Bunjamin

Now, thank you for coming to this chat. I'm very excited to discuss a few topics with you. I remember your work as a creative director, so it was an incredible work and your transition to focusing on sustainability and fashion is fascinating. Can you share with us what sparked this shift and about the journey from being a creative director to focusing on sustainability.

00:01:09 Gemma Metheringham

Sure. I became a designer because I loved clothes. I've loved clothes my entire life. I love the way all of us actually, consciously or unconsciously, we're expressing our personalities through what we choose to wear. I love the fact that clothes can kind of make you smile. They can kind of make your day sometimes.

I also really love all the crafts that's involved in making them, from the people that spin the fibers, weave the fabrics, people who cut the patterns, sew them together. When you go to the factories, there is so much work involved in actually making clothes.

But in the time that I've been working and Fonny, do you realize I've worked in five different decades in the fashion industry. Ohh my gosh. Terrifying. So in the time that I've worked in the fashion industry it has changed so much. Globalization, digitalization, fast fashion and I think probably for me when I look back on it about 15 years ago, I think the market just really started to feel really oversaturated. I'd be sitting in board meetings and we'd be talking about growth and as a creative person, and as a consumer even, I just couldn't see where the growth was going to keep coming from. It felt like the world was just full of stuff. And I also felt like all our conversations were shifting, so rather than it being about making beautiful clothes that people want to buy, it started being about our marketing calendar and when we were going to do the next discount and how we could kind of push stuff at people to get them to buy more.

Creatively, I felt like that was just wrong and it was making me really sad. If you think, fashion’s this lifelong passion of mine, it was a bit like breaking up in a relationship. It felt sort of like, really bad for me.

Originally I started this thing called ‘The Elephant in my Wardrobe’, which was an Instagram feed, and I started it to kind of explore my own emotions and my relationship with fashion.

And when I was researching for the Instagram feed, kind of what I discovered was that we were now making twice as many clothes as we were making in 2000. Here in the UK, we were sending 11,000,000 items of clothing to landfill or incineration every single week.

00:03:38 Fonny Bunjamin

It's crazy, isn't it? 

00:03:40 Gemma Metheringham

I have become an environmentalist, but I read this research by the World Wildlife Fund and they were saying that 69% of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians in the wild have 69% of those populations have declined since 1970.

And that sort of stops you in your tracks. And I think I can feel that in my environment, there are less birds, there are less insects, there's just less wildlife. And somehow to me, that whole thing started to feel really, really connected.

Growing the fashion industry is unsustainable and I think this is the decisive decade. I think the 2020’s are a really important moment. McKinsey has said that if the fashion industry is to have any hope of meeting net 0 by 2050 and staying in line with the part of climate accord agreements, it has to halve its emissions by 2030. Therefore it's incumbent on people like me who have experience in the fashion industry and have worked through this incredible growth period to go back to college and learn and retrain and try and find solutions.

Because I don't think we can carry on as we are.

00:04:57 Fonny Bunjamin

No, absolutely. I mean the numbers that you just mentioned are just, staggering isn't it? So we definitely need to do something right.

00:05:06 Gemma Metheringham

I think so, and I think we need to talk about those numbers. Whenever I say those numbers, people are like, Oh my God, really. And I just don't think we say them enough.

00:05:14 Fonny Bunjamin

We read it and then we forget about it, that's the reality. No, that's really inspiring, Gemma. And you mentioned about the blog, ‘The Elephant in my Wardrobe’.

Love the name. The title is very intriguing. So can you tell us more about it and the concept behind it and if you feel people are actually starting to notice this elephant in their wardrobes?

00:05:43 Gemma Metheringham

When I started the elephant in my wardrobe, I think I was talking a lot about the elephant in the room, and the elephant in the room was degrowth. And not being able to just keep growing the fashion industry.

But I started it from a very personal place. So like I said, I was sad and unhappy and I wanted to kind of rebase my own fashion consumption and think about my own relationship with fashion. But what was really interesting was once I started it, the conversations I was having, they really resonated, with my friends, with my family.

I found myself building this much broader community of people and actually reconnecting with lots of people like you, that's my wardrobe. I've connected with people. I was at college with, all kinds of different people who found me there.

00:06:24 Fonny Bunjamin

Yes, yes.

00:06:29 Gemma Metheringham

I think there was some really interesting research. I don't know if you saw it there, these people called Williamson and they did a report on London's fashion footprint and they said that in 2019 people in London bought on average 48 new items of clothing and got rid of 44.

00:06:46 Fonny Bunjamin


00:06:48 Gemma Metheringham

On average. So you think there's gotta be some super consumers in there? I think I was probably nearly there. Fonny, you know, I worked in fashion. You have to have the new season's looks and all of those.

00:06:56 Fonny Bunjamin

Yes, yes.

00:06:59 Gemma Metheringham

But I also think what that says is we're starting to consume clothes like take away coffee, that is the metaphor for throw away fashion. I buy 48. I get rid of 44. I'm just turning my wardrobe. And I do think when you know what goes into making clothes that makes you feel quite sad because you think all that work and it's just going into the bin because those numbers don't include anything second hand. They’re only including you and they don't include you reselling anything either. So it's literally just I buy it new and I get rid of it to a charity where it goes to the bin.

The other thing I've noticed is people sort of when they talk about the environment, they talk about carbon emissions, they sort of see fashion as this kind of frivolous thing like fashion’s, kind of fun. And it's over there. The fashion industry is actually responsible for 10% of all our carbon emissions. And I think probably more if we account shipping, which we tend not to.

So. We're using up the planet too fast, aren't we? We're using our planetary resources quicker than they can regenerate.

 I've been sort of researching this stuff and thinking about it. The feeds changed, it's moved slightly away from just my relationship with fashion. Although I do buy a lot less. And I do feel a lot happier actually about it all, but it's more a space where I start to ask questions. I ask questions.

I'm challenging people to think, do I really need it? Do I really want it? Will I wear it? Have I got something in my wardrobe that will already do that job?

And actually, some of those conversations I started on the Elephant in my Wardrobe, they actually led me to go back to college and do fashion futures. I met somebody who'd done the fashion futures. They may have thought. And it just resonated with me, that was the cause for me. And since I've been on the course and I've been researching the second hand market, my community on Instagram actually have helped me an extraordinary amount with my research. I ask questions. I get feedback. They point me in different directions. They connect me to people. I know there's negative views about social media and the impact that that has. But for me, it's really been about finding a community of people and a shared interest and a shared passion.

00:09:08 Fonny Bunjamin

No, I think you're right there because, I've been following your Instagram the Elephant in my Wardrobe, and I really love reading it because the discussions are so interesting and the different opinions really provoke some thoughts in your mind. And I think that's great.

So yeah, so amazing work on that. Congratulations.

So you have done this extensive research on this second hand market talking about it with the Community that you have built, how do you perceive the role of the second marketing, promoting sustainability and circularity within the fashion industry?

00:09:50 Gemma Metheringham

The interesting thing about the second hand market is up to 90% of fashion carbon emissions depend individually on the product, but up to 90% of the emissions in each product are about the production of the fibers, the fabrics, and the manufacturing of the garment.

So it's fairly straightforward to say that if we want to reduce fashions emissions, we probably need to make less clothes, and we need to keep using the clothes that we've already got.

Yeah, sort of very straightforward, but I think the elephant in the room, or certainly the elephant in my wardrobe is that.

For me, as an individual consumer, if I choose to buy second hand clothes, that's great. That reduces my impact. I don't know if people are listening and you want to find out about your personal carbon footprint. The World Wildlife Fund has this amazing carbon footprint calculator, which really makes you think and starts to point out how you can reduce your emissions. So buying second hand clothes will make me more sustainable.

But for the industry as a whole, the only way that the second hand market can impact its overall emissions is if the purchases that I made actually directly replace a new purchase and take away the need to make that production in the beginning and actually overall reduce fashions production numbers.

And in all the research I've done, I can't see any signs of that happening, and in fact what I think is happening to a degree at the moment is there's this sort of funny symbiotic relationship where the mainstream industry kind of needs the secondhand market to grow because it's giving us this really nice way to get rid of our stuff. You know, I can resell it. I can make some money, I donate it and that is great.

The second hand market can really only grow because it's getting all this stock from our throw away fashion consumption. And what I don't quite get is how you break that cycle.

The optimist in me says, well, maybe we're sort of heading for a tipping point because as a consumer, it's kind of easy to understand sustainability around second hand fashion. I'm not buying something new. Therefore I'm buying something good and I think is green cotton or organic cotton better than BCI cotton or better than recycled polyester? From a consumer, choosing something new that's sustainable, feels very complicated and actually can be very expensive. Because if you're a small brand making sustainably and ethically, then your clothes are more expensive.

So the complication and the price put people off from shopping more sustainably. Where the second hand market it's quite appealing. It's quite straightforward, it's usually cheaper.

00:12:27 Fonny Bunjamin


00:12:30 Gemma Metheringham

And I think it's becoming more and more acceptable, so I think, and actually quite fashionable for a younger generation.

00:12:37 Fonny Bunjamin

Yes. Yeah, absolutely.

00:12:39 Gemma Metheringham

And when you look at my local High Street actually, there's no full price shops left. It's almost exclusively charity shops and second hand businesses. Down the road from me and they're really busy. So there is a sort of momentum.

What I don't know, Fonny, is how you make that tipping point work where you stop making as much new stuff.

00:13:06 Fonny Bunjamin

To reduce the production and grow the second hand, instead of increasing the production to also feed into the secondhand market, which is really what's really happening.

00:13:14 Gemma Metheringham

Exactly yeah, I don't know how you make that switch. That's what I'm really interested in. So I  think I want to carry on researching. I'm gonna apply to do a PhD, and I want to research that, how do you make that switch?

00:13:30 Fonny Bunjamin

Yeah, that is gonna be very interesting.

When we see this secondhand market, the relationship with sustainability and circularity. There are also a lot of challenges to actually implement this. Right? So what do you think are the main challenges that currently exist within this market and how can they be addressed?

00:13:57 Gemma Metheringham

Well, I've had this personal mission to shop second hand first, so I want to test the theory, how does that work? And what I've discovered for myself is that it's a very different way of shopping. You can't just say, well, I wanna go buy a pair of trousers. And necessarily find those trousers in your size in the color that you want them in the way that we've sort of been trained, I think, by the mainstream fashion industry to expect availability. You were a merchandiser, you know we better have stuff available all of the time.

00:14:28 Fonny Bunjamin

Yes, yes.

00:14:28 Gemma Metheringham

We've become used to this, that I can just go shopping and buy whatever I want, when I want it. And so you have to be much more patient as a second hand shopper and we're not trying to do that.

But then also I think people, the second hand market has this sort of myth around it. That it's a more equal, slightly alternative way to shop. But actually I think what it does do is it sort of replicates all the inequalities in the mainstream market. So there isn't an even distribution of sizes. I think that's a really big problem. There isn't an even distribution across genders. There's a lot less menswear, there is less children's wear. These are problems as well.

And then actually regionally, I think it becomes very difficult.

Within an hour of my house, there are hundreds of second hand shops I could say, but there are other parts of the country where there's much less choice and much less availability. And then you could say, well, digitization is great, because that makes this sort of pool of stock available to everybody.

If you know exactly what you want and you know exactly what size, then the digital fashion second hand market is great cause you could probably go and find it with a bit of patience and a lot of determination you might find what you want. But if you just want something, you know, it's almost impossible, I think now to sort of browse in that environment and find inspiration and a lot of people I know are very nervous about buying online because my research suggests that people will pay more in the second hand market for clothes they can see, they can try on, they can inspect for faults.

00:16:11 Fonny Bunjamin


00:16:12 Gemma Metheringham

And I think one thing that the digital fashion market is doing is because people feel it's quite risky, ‘Dare I buy it?’ It sort of pushes the prices down. It has to be a fiver. I'll take a risk on a fiver if it's awful, I'll throw it away, it doesn’t matter.

00:16:27 Fonny Bunjamin


00:16:28 Gemma Metheringham

Digital isn't this sort of dream that we think, the other thing I worry about is when you talk about the second hand markets, its attraction is finding treasure, isn't it? People describe it as treasure hunting. We're all looking for that Gucci handbag for a fiver in Oxfam that they've mispriced. That's what we want. The Celine coat or whatever it is. We're looking for that wonderful bit of vintage. As we're churning our wardrobes faster and faster and faster and we're buying cheaper and cheaper and cheaper clothes.

Given the dependency that the secondhand market has on the mainstream market for stock I worry about the long term future of the second hand market because lots of people have said to me, will Primark jeans or Boohoo dresses be the vintage that we want in 20 years?

00:17:24 Fonny Bunjamin

Yeah, the 1 pound Primark jeans in the second hand market.

00:17:32 Gemma Metheringham

What happens to all of that stuff? Charities are under pressure, aren't they, to turn their stock faster and faster as well, and sort of ship it off and export it and so when you look at all of that, what will the second market look like in 20 years? And I think that's something we should be thinking about actually.

00:17:52 Fonny Bunjamin

And does it go back then to producing more quality?

Garments or products with a higher price is not a throwaway product so that it can prosper as well and it can also make the secondhand market in the future a little bit more robust in that sense and not filled but I guess that's the idealistic view.

00:18:19 Gemma Metheringham

It's another elephant in the room, really, isn't it? I think there is an elephant in the room that says I think clothing prices in the EU have dropped by 25% since 2000.

And you think about all the courts we have about inflation and pressures, should clothes cost more money. Have we got used to paying unfeasible prices for our clothes?

00:18:42 Fonny Bunjamin

Yeah, that's another big conversation.

00:18:46 Gemma Metheringham

Huge conversation, and they're all sort of interrelated and impacted actually, aren't they? I made a map of the fashion ecosystem in my local environment as one of my projects and I stitched it.

And I'd originally thought that all the threads would hang down. They'd be really neat and you'd just be able to follow the threads and they all got knotted up and tangled. But I started to think that's a really good metaphor for the fashion industry because it's so interrelated and so tangled.

00:19:13 Fonny Bunjamin

I would love to see that one. Is it on your Instagram?

00:19:16 Gemma Metheringham

It is, yeah.

00:19:17 Fonny Bunjamin

OK, I'm gonna look it up, because that sounds really interesting.

Yes, the fashion supply chain is super complex as we know it and very opaque, right?

Going to buy secondhand, you can't just go there and say OK, I want to buy pants in this color. It’s this availability thing.

Does that actually kind of make you more creative like you go there and you see and you kind of start putting this outfit in your head based on what you see? Does that happen to you?

00:20:04 Gemma Metheringham

I actually try not to, Fonny if I'm honest, because I think that's one of the dangers of secondhand shopping is because there's only one and you've got this one moment and you can buy it or you don't. You can end up buying stuff that you don't need.

I'm a clothes enthusiast. So, I went to Portobello a couple of weeks ago. There was a vintage Mary Quant shirt with the original labeling on it and it was lovely. It was like a little print. It was beautiful. I don't need that shirt, no.

00:20:38 Fonny Bunjamin

Going back to do you need it.

00:20:39 Gemma Metheringham

Yeah, but it was this beautiful piece of fashion history and I had to put my hands in my pockets and walk myself away and give myself a stern talking to. But I think the danger with the second hand market is you see people with these bags of stuff because the prices were great and they just thought, why wouldn't you? And I don't think that's helpful in this narrative where we probably need to consume less.

00:21:03 Fonny Bunjamin

Interesting point. Yes, absolutely.

00:21:05 Gemma Metheringham

So I think you have to have a very clear sense to shop second hand. You need a very clear sense of your own style and what you're looking for. And then quite a lot of patience. And I think the patience bit it's maybe the bit that I'm still practicing.

00:21:18 Fonny Bunjamin

I think we all need to practice that. It goes hand in hand with the growth of second hand and how there needs to be a growth of repair services that are affordable and accessible as well.

00:21:34 Gemma Metheringham


00:21:37 Fonny Bunjamin

So we've talked a lot about this secondhand, Gemma, thank you so much for this very enlightening conversation. I'm gonna go to your blog right away and look for that post.

Before we finish up, I'd like to hear about your experience working with Vestis Labs.

I think we did this project last year where you upcycled the three vintage Gucci scarves into a beautiful blouse. Just quickly. What's your experience and how has it influenced your work and vision for a sustainable future in fashion?

00:22:17 Gemma Metheringham

It was really super interesting and I do want to say thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to experience virtual prototyping in real life and to actually kind of test that out. That was brilliant. And I'll admit I was a little bit skeptical in the beginning.

But I could also see the opportunity because I think when you've worked in fashion, one of the things you know is making design prototypes is really wasteful and really expensive. And I think a lot of people don't know behind the scenes in the fashion industry that for every garment that you see in the shops, we'll probably have made three or four prototypes.

00:22:58 Fonny Bunjamin


00:22:59 Gemma Metheringham

To select that one style. Then once we've decided we've made three or four, we've selected one. Then once we've decided that one, we'll make another three or four prototypes to make sure we get the fit right.

And we'll ask the poor manufacturer to make them in different colors and in versions of the prints or the fabrics that we want, and they'll dye up all these sample lengths and they won't necessarily be able to use them because they're not tested properly. The sample length, so you're wasting fabric and you're wasting a lot of work and it's very expensive for the manufacturers. And if you're a small business, it's almost undoable, actually, isn't it? It's very, very expensive.

00:23:37 Fonny Bunjamin

Yeah, you have to pay two to three times more than a normal production.

00:23:43 Gemma Metheringham

I think what you're doing can eliminate a lot of that work and also a lot of waste, which is really interesting cause I think that waste isn't even really factored into some of the other calculations.

And then the thing that I was really interested in as well is like there is a sort of growing movement of people who want to upcycle fashion waste. And then you're working with one offs. Like my scarves. Actually. Where you don't have the opportunity to make lots of prototypes because the things you're working with are one off.

I think on reflection now kind of looking at where we took the project, that's really interesting because for me those scarves were valuable. I'd owned them for a long time. I was really nervous about cutting them actually. And so the ability to be able to work with your system to maximize the usage, think about print placement, it worked really brilliantly and we made the shirt and it kind of came out almost exactly how we thought. So, I think as a test it was incredible, actually. 

And I can see there would be applications for other businesses that wanted to upcycle vintage pieces and use the service to do that. And in fact, I was so impressed. I went off and took myself off and did some clothes training to understand kind of how it works and I think it really does replicate the processes of pattern cutting in ways that you had not done. Once I've done the training, I could sort of see, OK, this really does work. The use of it is brilliant. I think the challenge for you Fonny and maybe you've resolved it now is because of the way the design and the creative process works. We always do want to kind of make the real full versions of something before we decide on that one.

00:25:21 Fonny Bunjamin

Yes, we made two versions.

00:25:24 Gemma Metheringham

We did make 2 versions. So I think for you it's kind of how you manage the fact that if this really is providing a sort of development service in some ways then people might want to make more than one version of the things that they finally you finally deliver and that's sort of slightly more difficult for you in terms of how you cost it. Does that make sense?

00:25:45 Fonny Bunjamin

Yeah, of course. It is difficult and it's not easy. The way we approach our services. We try to standardize things as much as possible and not make it complicated.

So from our experience, there are always exceptions. There are always changes and as creative designers, you know how the final creation should be and it is still a challenge. And I think this is one of the challenges that we as an industry still have, how to make this scalable? How to make this whole process as standardized as possible and we have resolved some of them. Yeah, I wouldn't say 100%. We have from our experience standardized a few processes and we have learned how to make this faster especially for less challenging styles.

But with fashion it is very, very abstract. One day there can be a style that we need to work with that is super complicated and will require more time and less standardization because to be able to achieve that final look and final fit, and not just kind of looking good digitally but also making sure that it is fit for production. So that's the challenge that we still have to improve all the time.

00:27:21 Gemma Metheringham

But I think that was a really interesting thing with your service, because there's lots of people kind of doing these. You can try the clothes on online and stuff but actually, you know the patterns that you provided us, they worked. It wasn't just this visualization of something, it was right through to the end of the process in terms of the practical parts. I think that's a really great thing.

00:27:45 Fonny Bunjamin

That's what I believe in and that's what we believe in at Vestis labs because for us to actually really reap the full benefits of 3D development you kind of have to start from Ground Zero, really making it fit for production. So to cut out all the inefficiencies and waste and not just developing the 3D only for marketing visualization purposes at the end after you've done all the sampling and wasted all the time and costing and that's what we encourage your designers to do but there is always a need for improvements. Software is always improving as well.

00:28:26 Gemma Metheringham

I think the more designers work with you and work with what you're doing, the more you understand the process and it will start to change the way you design. I came at it as somebody who's drawn stuff all her life and worked with trials and draped fabric.The more you work with the process then you know it will evolve together once it. I think the people that you work with will shape it and you'll shape it and you'll actually shape their processes, it's a collaborative process.

00:28:58 Fonny Bunjamin

And also the way you review the prototypes are different, right? Reviewing a real prototype and the digital prototype takes practice and to be able to increase accuracy for example.

00:29:11 Gemma Metheringham

I do think that sort of understanding of how the technology works and how it sort of relates back to the pattern you can start to see that you can open things out and it's almost working with it, it's almost like pinning it.

00:29:26 Fonny Bunjamin


00:29:26 Gemma Metheringham

It's very physical actually, which was interesting to me.

I didn't imagine it would be so directly related to the process of working with the pattern cutter and twirling something.

00:29:37 Fonny Bunjamin

Understanding garment construction is definitely very important, even in digital product development. It's not just because it's digital, then you don't need to understand the garment tech, or garment production skills.

00:29:55 Gemma Metheringham

No, you almost need to understand it more, I think actually.

00:29:57 Fonny Bunjamin

Yes. OK. Well, thank you so much, Gemma, for sharing your valuable, valuable insights and experiences.

So to our audience, thank you for tuning in. Gemma's journey has reminded us of the impact we can make through conscious choices. Gemma is so very clear with that. Thank you so much, and let’s continue to challenge the norms and push for a sustainable future of fashion.

00:30:27 Gemma Metheringham

Thank you very much for having me on here and it's yeah, thank you for giving me the chance to try your technology as well. It was really super interesting.

00:30:36 Fonny Bunjamin

Thank you. And see you soon. Bye.

00:30:36 Gemma Metheringham




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