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A working life: the ethical stylist

Disillusioned by the churn of high street fashion, Lucy Harvey saw a way of helping people to look good while keeping a clear conscience

When I tell colleagues I am heading out to interview an ethical stylist, one asks: “What’s that, and does it involve hemp trousers?” This, I reason, must be the sort of reaction Lucy Harvey is used to – even from those who work at the Guardian.

On arriving at her sustainable photographic studios, Green Lens Studios, in north London, hemp isn’t really my primary concern. Harvey has somehow persuaded me not only to be styled by her, but also to be interviewed on camera about my thoughts on the UK fashion industry, as part of her Real Women Sustainable Style project. I’m actually quite nervous, having tried unsuccessfully to wriggle out of it all, but she is persistent and rationalises it as a sort of quid pro quo for interviewing her. “We want real women’s opinions about how the fashion world relates to them, and an honest account of how much you’ll know about the ethics of fashion. Sounds like you would be perfect!” she emailed before we met.

I enter her studio in trepidation. A woman in dark clothing, with what looks like a bird on her head, is seated on a stool being photographed and filmed while Harvey and her collaborator on the project – Alice Wilby of ethical fashion website Future Frock – stand by a clothing rail full of surprisingly normal-looking clothes.

I don’t know quite what I expect a stylist to look like, but I think I have someone in the back of my mind who might grace the pages of Vogue. I couldn’t be more wrong. Dressed in an eclectic mix of shiny blue leggings, a deep pink dress, a blue jacket with a white and pink print splashed over it, and purple Doctor Marten boots, Harvey looks both beguiling and – phew – approachable.

After greeting me warmly and putting me at ease by rebuffing my fears about being an unsuitable candidate, she picks out a pink polka dot shirt for me to wear from ethical fashion label People Tree (a label often promoted by film star Emma Watson), a cream lace vest from Oxfam Fashion and an organic cotton, Fairtrade jacket from Mandala. Aside from the colour, they were the sort of things I might have chosen myself. How does she know what will suit someone as soon as they walk through the door?

“Part of it is experience,” she says. “I’ve developed a sense for it, by just having to think about how people dress over the last 10 years. But now I seem to be able to just see somebody and sum them up – in a way, I have an instinctive response to what they are wearing.”

She concedes that part of this might be psychological: if she tells someone they will look amazing in something, that alone may be enough to make them agree. Perhaps that’s one reason why I find myself liking a pink shirt for possibly the first time in my life. But either way, my reaction dovetails with Harvey’s aims for the project.

“This is not a makeover, it is showing that [the women chosen for the project] are wearing ethical fashion that suits them and that each person gets their own look,” she says. “We want the pictures to have a feeling that they have been around for a very long time, so that it’s not about the nowness of fashion.”

It is this “nowness” that has led Harvey to seek a change in direction to her working life. She is in her 30s, and has been styling fashion since she left university, working on costumes for films and dramas, as well as photo shoots for magazines and musicians. But she says her discomfort with mainstream fashion grew as her exposure to the industry increased.

“I spent some time working on the Sunday Times Style magazine and began to realise this was not what defined me. I didn’t truly believe in it,” she says. “And I saw chains like New Look and Dorothy Perkins, which weren’t particularly high fashion, suddenly picking up this really fast pace and churning out all these designer items. I thought, how can they create so much desirable fashion so quickly? And then I started seeing the things I found so desirable in the charity shops, on a rail of 50 identical items in Topshop. That’s when I started to become quite disillusioned by it all and understand how gratuitous it is – and I wanted to recondition myself.”

Reconditioning has resulted in setting herself up as an ethical stylist in the last year. Via her website, she offers a home service whereby, after a consultation, she will research, shop and bring a range of ethical fashions to her client’s home for a fitting session. She also offers “wardrobe surgery” and one-off styling for special events. All the fashion she uses is sustainable, Fairtrade, vintage or recycled.

“It’s not easy for the everyday consumer to find an entire wardrobe based on the ethical labels that are out there,” she says. “You can’t just go to John Lewis. People are also not fully aware that ethical fashion is affordable. The prices are comparable, the styles are comparable – you really can achieve what you want to achieve ethically.

“I’m willing to put that little bit of effort in, if what it means is that the shopper will know so much more about the clothes they are buying.”

She says the move into ethical fashion came about following a “synergy of three events” in her life. The first was her previously mentioned disillusionment with the fashion industry. Second, her other role as a fashion lecturer means she finds herself repeatedly discussing the issue of sustainability with students and, third, the move she had already made into the world of personal shopping.

“I suddenly had a personal relationship with somebody and I thought, this is an avenue where I can actually introduce them to different ethical designers,” she says. “Once I’d switched on to this idea, there was no real way I could go back. It made total sense.”

By this point in our discussion I have had my make-up done, I am in my new clothes – which I like more and more – and it’s time to face the camera. After about 10 minutes of sitting in the same position, moving my shoulders and tilting my chin slightly, I begin to wonder how models do this for a living. It’s quite tedious, and a bit uncomfortable. Harvey buttons up my shirt to the collar and adjusts the necklace she has put on me, while Yev, the photographer, adjusts the lighting. The pair discuss the results, tinker with the backdrop, and take another dozen or so shots.

Once we’re done, I sit with Wilby in front of the camera and chat about my sense of style and the UK fashion industry more generally. I find myself waffling on for rather longer than I had expected on a topic I know nothing about, and am relieved to get back to interviewing Harvey.

As the day has gone on – and I have been in the studio with the other models for hours – I find myself becoming increasingly interested in the idea of ethical fashion, but I ask Harvey how this sits alongside the emergence of Primark and other cheap retailers that cater to cash-strapped youngsters in recession-hit times.

“It doesn’t sit very well,” she sighs. “It’s very difficult to bring people’s attention to the harm that shopping in these places does. I feel like I’ve woken up with a hangover from gorging for five years on fast fashion and thought, ‘Oh God, what have I been doing?’ But it’s going to take a long time for everybody to have that realisation.”

This realisation is not going to make her rich quick, and she acknowledges that. The ethical fashion world is big to those that are in it, she concedes, but small in the public eye. Celebrities such as Livia Firth – Colin Firth’s wife – and Watson have bought some glamour to sustainable fashion but, by and large, it is a niche market and one that, surely, cannot generate much money for a small business start-up.

“I have to work unethically, as well, to be able to afford to live,” says Harvey bluntly. “I haven’t been able to draw a line under the last 10 years of the way I work, which is commercially to make money in an industry that relies on fast fashion. I still have to take those jobs on when they arise, but my focus is now on ethical.”

Her ambition is to target the under-20s, the biggest consumers of “fad fashions”. She says: “Most of my clients are in their late-30s and fairly wealthy – those who have time to consider the ethics of fashion and indulge themselves in it. But it shouldn’t be an indulgence – it should be something everyone is aware of. I’d love to create a project that raises awareness for the 15- to 20-year-olds who don’t have a massive amount of income, who go to Primark without thinking.”

At this point the next model arrives for her 15 minutes of fame, and it’s time for me to go. As I change back into my own clothes I worry about the photos, which may end up on public display, and whether pink really is my colour. Then I remember it could have been much worse; I could have been asked to wear hemp. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds