Fashion designer Martina Spetlova graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2010, with a collection made from repurposed leather, fabrics and fastenings, and jumped straight onto the fashion week bandwagon, producing seasonal collections twice a year. Wanting to incorporate sustainability at her brand’s core, Martina felt at odds with the fashion system and in 2017, the designer took a step back from the traditional schedule and decided to follow her own pace – a leap which many emerging brands struggle to take. From there, Martina was able to hone her craft, focusing solely on her unique hand-woven leather techniques and statement pieces.

“Working with just one fabric gave me the opportunity to tidy up the supply chain and find new and exciting ways to work with leather more sustainably,” says the designer. From earth-friendly dyeing processes and end-of-line fabric sources to blockchain-encrypted labels (which she embeds into her clothes), the designer convincingly weaves a sustainable ethos into all of her garments, physically and metaphorically. “I work away from the fashion system and my collection is continuous,” she says, “the way I work with retailers is very bespoke. Nothing is wasted.”

I caught up with Martina on the morning of her new opening WARPED at The Sarabande Foundation, which took place over the weekend, in line with London Craft Week, and featured fellow weave fanatics, Megan Brown and Anouska Samms. Using metal, fabric and even human hair, Megan a jewellery specialist and Anouska a multidisciplinary artist joined forces with Martina for an interactive exhibition in homage to the ancient craft.

The trio invited audiences to create their own giant woven sculpture, using an eight-by-two-metre loom installation produced by Souvenir Scenic Studios, which is set to be displayed after the event. Martina has championed humanitarian support since she started her career, she did a project in Pakistan during her studies and has since worked with an NGO in Turkey bringing together artisans from Syria, threading the stories of wider communities into her tactile work; and this new installation is an extension of that. “I’m inspired by bringing people together, making connections and sharing experiences,” she says, “we wanted to bring some of this to the exhibition. The loom requires four or five people to operate it, so you have to work together.”

At the event, I reach into a rattan basket full of silk offcuts in a kaleidoscope of oranges, lilac and browns. I tie the fabric in tight knots and I’m directed to the loom end of the machine. Together we direct the knotted ribbon through the strings of the loom and we lead it all the way down to the bottom end. The process can only be done when working with another person.

Using a large stick we pack in the fabric, arranging the material by hand to fill any hole and neaten out any imperfections. The method is therapeutic and I experience the healing nature of weaving (which the three designers all praise) and am reminded of the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who writes ‘when the hands are busy the mind is free to wander’.

Because spoke to Martina Spetlova to find out more about her brand…

How have you seen the landscape of sustainable fashion changed since you started out in the industry?
When I first started out, sustainability wasn't really given much thought, and it definitely wasn't a requirement. What's interesting is how things have changed, especially after the lockdown. More and more designers are now opting for the sustainable route, which has almost become necessary for survival. However, this trend also brings some negativity, as some brands simply jump on the sustainability bandwagon without truly embodying it. This can be confusing for customers who want to make informed choices. After all, who has the time to thoroughly research every brand?

That's where blockchain technology comes in handy. It provides a way to verify and track clothing items, ensuring their authenticity and traceability, and preserving the information forever. It's an exciting development in the field. With every trend, there's always a downside, as some brands take advantage of the situation. However, what excites me is that young designers and smaller independent brands are getting more recognition and promotion. Ultimately, they are the driving force behind sustainability and its progress in the industry.

How have your designs developed since you took the step to focus solely on handwoven leather jackets?
Nowadays, I showcase a collection of jackets once a year and one of my favourite design choices is leaving them unlined. When you open up my jackets, they tell a whole story that I carry across all my designs, but it evolves with each iteration. It has become a distinct part of my brand's identity. I now have ambitions to expand and create a whole world of Martina Spetlova, encompassing not only jackets but also bags and interior design pieces. My time at Sarabande residency was instrumental in helping me pursue this vision.

For the exhibition, I wanted to present my jackets in a fresh and unique manner. I decided to hang them up on the wall like art pieces, alongside newly developed wall hangings. The goal was to create a synergy between these two different products. Exploring the world of interiors has been particularly exciting for me because it allows me to delve into new materials and possibilities. In fact, I utilised offcuts from production to craft the wall hangings, ensuring that every piece of leather is put to use. This additional direction allows for new experimentation with materials, as the final product no longer needs to be solely soft, lightweight, and comfortable to wear—it can now evolve in new ways and that excites me.

How did the exhibition at Sarabande come out?
Well, I actually left Sarabande right before Christmas, but the great thing about being a Sarabande artist is that you're always part of the family. They keep pulling you in for different projects. I had an incredible experience there and made some amazing friends, so I'm always going back and forth. For this particular exhibition, London Craft Week approached Sarabande, and they approached me about it. It was a collaborative effort with Megan and Anouska, who have their own unique weaving styles. Megan works with precious metals, while Anouska weaves with textiles and hair. Together, we wanted to explore weaving in different ways and break away from the traditional assumptions of machine weaving.

Sarabande went the extra mile and commissioned a massive eight-by-two-metre working loom for the exhibition. It was built by the same studio that creates all the amazing sets for Alexander McQueen shows, using repurposed wood. We were also fortunate enough to receive donated silk off-cuts, allowing visitors to contribute their own personal touch to the larger woven co-created community textile. It was truly a celebration of collaboration.

Why do you think craft is a facet of fashion and garment design that should be celebrated and given a platform?
When you can actually see how much time it took to create something, it completely changes your perspective. As someone who works with handcrafted items, it makes me appreciate each piece as its own unique creation, rather than just another part of a larger collection. You can really notice the texture, colour, and details that come together to make something special. People are naturally drawn to this hands-on quality. The fashion industry is starting to appreciate the value of slowing down and taking the time to craft something with care. Many designers are bringing in skilled artisans to create custom-made pieces, which adds even more value. In my own work, people can easily find out how long it took to make a piece and where each part came from just by scanning a chip in the jacket with their smartphone, it really grabs people's attention and starts interesting conversations.

By Augustine Hammond