Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Livia Firth's Oscar Gown - a "Green" Triumph or a Vintage Tragedy?

Livia Firth, co-founder of Eco Age, a retailer of green and sustainable products, issued her "Green Carpet Challenge" a couple of years ago in which she pledged to only wear eco-friendly, sustainable, and green fashion on the red carpet as she accompanied her husband Colin during awards season. I applaud Livia's goal, and many of the dresses she has worn in the past meet the challenge admirably.

At the 2011 Golden Globes, Livia wore a gown made of sustainable Ahimsa silk (peace silk) designed by Jeff Garner of Prophetik.

At the 2010 Oscars, Livia wore a gown by Orsela de Castro of From Somewhere, who uses the scraps from other clothing factories to make her creations.

For this year's Oscars, Livia hired designer Gary Harvey to make her gown. Mr. Harvey has become well known for his designs using up-cycled used clothing. According to Livia's blog at, Harvey "scoured Southeast London for the right pieces, from Cancer Research shops to vintage boutiques, such as 360 Degrees Vintage." The goal was to use clothing from the 30s to honor the era in which the film "The King's Speech" was set. Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar for his role in that film.

Pursuant to that goal, Harvey cut up 11 vintage evening gowns from the 1930s and patchworked them into the 1 dress worn by Livia for the 2011 Oscars. But can we truly consider this "green" or "sustainable"?

Many vintage fashion lovers, myself included, wondered about the condition of those 11 gowns from the 1930s. Lynn Burgess, the owner of 360 Degrees Vintage, declared on her Facebook fan page that, "He bought the very best gowns". We can possibly presume that since she owns a well known and highly respected vintage clothing store in London, the dresses must have been in at least wearable condition. She later stated, "I did say he bought the best gowns. I didn't say they were perfect most vintage garments will have some sign of wear and tear." Yesterday, on the Ecorazzi blog, she stated, "“Although the dresses Gary picked were beautiful they were far from perfect. There was some damage to the netting and the top part of the dress which he removed. The other dresses had some signs of wear and staining which he managed to cut out and reconstruct to make Livia’s stunning dress.”

To be fair to all parties involved, I contacted Gary Harvey and Livia Firth with this question: "Were the gowns that you used in wearable condition as they were or would they have been considered damaged beyond repair?"

Mr Harvey responded to me this morning with this statement (italics by me): "This is an unjust criticism, I am a designer with a conscious rather than destroying collectable clothing, I am preserving it for future generations.

Firstly, I have the utmost respect for vintage clothing, an avid collector for the last 20 years, I have scoured the vintage stores and markets across Europe, The USA and Japan, and as Creative Director for Levi’s I was responsible for the design of the ‘LEVIS Vintage Clothing’ lines (authentic reproductions of LEVIS Jeans wear since 1873) and a regular visitor to the LS&Co archives in San Francisco.....

The 11 dresses used in Livia Firths Oscars dress were sourced from the millions of dresses available in the second hand market-place, there is literally tons and tons of vintage clothing out there just waiting for a new lease of life.

My aim with the design was to show Livia Firth looking amazing in the most beautiful dress supporting her husband as he collected his Oscar, I also wanted people to realise that just because something has been pre-owned, is not current, too small, ripped or stained there is still potential for reuse, thus raising the profile of vintage clothing and up-cycling.

Yes the dresses and fabrics were all sourced from or inspired by the era of the Oscar winning film ‘The Kings Speech’ however not one of these garments was suitable to wear in its current state, due to distress, damage or decay, they had all been beautiful dresses once, this is the true nature of recycling, I have preserved and given new life to these vintage garments, some of which would have ended up in land-fill."

Livia Firth has not responded to me as yet. Many people from the vintage community, myself included, commented on Livia Firth's blog questioning her choices in this matter. All those comments have been removed from the site and new comments are now being blocked.

The question remains, were the 1930s dresses used for Firth's Oscar gown in wearable condition or not? If they were, then a tragedy has been visited upon valuable vintage clothing. If not, then Harvey's standard of "reuse, reduce, and recycle" can perhaps be utilized as an example of how to keep damaged clothing out of our landfills. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

What say you? Triumph or tragedy?

UPDATE: Livia Firth and Lucy Siegle have responded to this controversy via Huffington Post. I find their tone to be very dismissive, and the idea that gowns were cut up because they were "too small" for anyone to wear is simply outrageous.