Imagine this: Your friend is wearing a new pair of sneakers, and instead of asking her where she bought them or who designed them, you inquire, “What are the soles made of?” It’s fair to say that most of us wouldn’t know how to answer that question today: “Um . . . rubber, right?” As for the springy foam inside, it’s likely polyurethane, which is just a version of plastic. We needn’t remind you what happens to plastic when it’s thrown away; shoes aren’t necessarily a “single use” item like utensils or dry-cleaning bags, but they still end up in a landfill once you’ve worn them out. The same issue arises with certain types of faux leather, which can be derived from plastic, and the polyester found so often in dresses, blouses, and even suiting.
It’s hard to imagine we’ll stop wearing any of those items anytime soon, so the solution lies in alternative materials. Not just organic cotton and hemp, either. In fact, most of the truly game-changing innovations have more to do with technology than standard textiles. Consider H&M’s latest Conscious Exclusive collection—its ninth yet—which is introducing three materials the brand is using for the first time: Pi?atex, a leather alternative made from the cellulose fiber of pineapple leaves (which become waste after the fruit is harvested); Orange Fiber, a silklike fabric made from the peels of oranges at the end of the juice production cycle; and BLOOM Foam, a high-performance foam made from algae biomass, which “cleans the environment and reduces the risk of algal blooms while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels,” according to the company’s website.
“It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to work with all of these truly beautiful materials that show that fashion and sustainability must go hand in hand,” says Ann-Sofie Johansson, H&M’s creative advisor. She gave Vogue a glimpse of H&M’s first experiments with those materials, arriving in stores April 11, above. The knotted slide sandals have BLOOM foam soles, for instance; the abstract floral dresses and sleek suits utilize Orange Fiber; and the patchwork cowboy boots are made with beige and metallic Pi?atex. At first glance, you wouldn’t know any of this. You’re just drawn to the squiggle prints and billowy, of-the-moment silhouettes. “It’s very important to be able to get the quality of the fashion right—the way the clothes look and feel,” Johansson continues. “If [the aesthetic] is not 100 percent, our customers probably will not like it.”
That’s certainly true. But if your dress is made from repurposed orange peels, isn’t that the first thing you’d tell someone? That element of surprise—who knew fruit could become fabric?!—is an important part of the equation. If a brand’s greatest hope is that its customers will help tell its story, then it’s smart to incorporate those cutting-edge, conversation-starting materials. They’re materials many of us have never seen before, and at a time when many of us are concerned about the environment, not just the “tree huggers,” it feels right to be talking about the impact of our clothes, our food, and our lifestyle in general.
The hope is that other brands will be galvanized by seeing a company as massive and global as H&M using these materials. At the very least, its customers all over the world will be talking about them—and expecting more innovations in the coming years. “Looking forward, we definitely wish to be able to include and incorporate many of these fabrics into our broader fashion offering [beyond the Conscious Exclusive collection],” Johansson says. “We have set a goal that by 2030, all of H&M’s materials will come from sustainable sources, and we believe that this is possible.”