How Copenhagen Became the Coolest — Most Sustainable — Fashion Week

The city is shaping what sustainable fashion really means. 

Ganni Show
Photo: Yuliya Christensen/Getty Images

Something amazing happened at the opening show of Copenhagen Fashion Week on Jan. 28, 2020. The brand Carcel invited guests to a runway show that actually served as a performance piece. As everyone took their seats, the room grew quiet and a video took over all four walls displaying artisans crafting some of the brand’s limited edition pieces. A few minutes later, the video asked guests to stand up in their seats and walk the runway. And they did. At first, everyone seemed confused before realizing what was happening and loudly applauding. There would be no traditional model filled catwalk with a brand new collection, just a statement about how the fashion industry should be.

“I think it's really important that we start questioning the fast cycles and the seasons and we figure out a new business model, and that we unite together as an industry to come up with what the next thing is,” Veronica D'Souza, the founder and CEO of Carcel, told InStyle, “We need to go beyond pushing new things all the time because we can't afford it. The planet can't afford it.”

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Copenhagen’s designers are leaps and bounds ahead of any other fashion capital when it comes to sustainability. The idea isn't only promoted as a marketing tactic during this fashion week, it's actually a requirement.

On Jan. 28, 2020, organizers presented the Sustainability Action Plan 2020-2023, which aims to reduce Copenhagen Fashion Week’s climate impact by 50% and to make the event 100% zero waste by 2022. "Copenhagen Fashion Week is the cultural and commercial meeting place of the Scandinavian fashion industry. This gives us an enormous responsibility and the potential to create impactful change in the industry at large," said Cecilie Thorsmark, CEO. "By taking this direction we go from being a traditional event to being a platform for industry change."

From now on, all shows and presentations on the official schedule of Copenhagen Fashion Week must comply fully with 17 minimum standards (ranging from using at least 50% certified, organic, upcycled or recycled textiles in all collections to using only sustainable packaging and zero-waste set designs for shows) or they will not be considered for participation.

Matt Jelonek/WireImage

And while Carcel may have had the most dramatic approach to activism in sustainability at Copenhagen Fashion Week, almost every designer on the calendar this season had some sort of sustainable element. With the support of other major brands like Ganni, that have come to define the Copenhagen Fashion Week scene, designers large and small are feeling pressure to change.

This season, Ganni once again proved that they just may be the leader of the pack when it comes to sustainable designers in Copenhagen. For the label’s fall 2020 show on Jan. 30, 2020, the brand teamed up with over a dozen women collaborators. Many of these collaborators contributed upcycled, sustainable pieces, such as Marie Lea Lund’s sculptures made from Ganni objects on the runway set, or Lulu Kaalund’s crocheted hats and tops made from recycled Ganni fabrics. Beyond that, the brand has one of the most sophisticated sustainability plans out there, which touches on everything from employee catering to shipments and office lighting.

“There's definitely something about living in Copenhagen,” says Ganni Creative Director Ditte Reffstrup. “There’s the sheer fact that we all cycle. Or we can jump into the harbor and go for a swim. There's a lot of decisions that have been made on a societal level that we take for granted, but it's not necessarily something you see in other places. And I think that definitely plays a role in how the whole fashion, not just the brands, but also the fashion week itself has kind of embraced a sustainability agenda big time.”

Cecilie Bahnsen
Matt Jelonek/Wire Image

In fact, Ganni has so many sustainable commitments, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. The brand has signed the UN Fashion Charter for Climate Action and committed to 30% reduction of CO2 per kg of clothing by 2030, and pledges to achieve net zero CO2 emissions no later than 2050 (in line with the Paris Agreement). They’ve also been mapping their full value chain CO2 footprint since 2016, and carbon compensate by supporting UN approved social projects that promote clean energy. Last year, Ganni began to eliminate plastics in packaging, too. “We try not to use the word 'sustainability' for a lot of reasons, but one being that it's kind of diluted a little bit because it covers such a broad topic, so it's not always meaningful,” explains Reffstrup. “Instead we prefer to use the word ‘responsible.’”

Even Copenhagen fashion brands that are not strongly categorized as sustainable brands are stepping up, sometimes in unconventional ways. Take, for example, Cecilie Bahnsen, which is known for its puffy, feminine, oversized dresses. “I want my collection to be timeless and beautiful. For me, it's about creating a dress that a woman would wear and give to her daughter,” Bahnsen says. “Without saying it, it’s an element of sustainability.” The brand also keeps its manufacturing close to home, as everything is produced in Europe.

Elsewhere, the Danish designer Henrik Vibskov who has been active since the early 2000s, showed his fall 2020 collection at Copenhagen Fashion Week with 95% sustainable materials, with outerwear made of 100% PET bottles, and wool from responsibly farmed sheep in Norway. “The brand is already two years ahead of Copenhagen Fashion Week’s goal,” Vibskov told InStyle. “The fashion week’s goal is at least 50% sustainable within two years — we are nearly at 97% already.”

Emerging brands, too, are finding new ways to be sustainable in Copenhagen. Rave Review, an editor favorite, used all upcycled fabrics and vintage duvet covers from their native Sweden to create stunningly cool outerwear and outfits for its fall 2020 collection. The up-and-coming Copenhagen based bag brand, Núnoo, is also a leading example for the accessories category as it is using only recycled cardboard, working only with factories that are SA8000 certified and by also offering leather alternatives such as Piñatex, a plant-based solution to leather, made from pineapple leaves.

Even the more practical brands are pushing for sustainability. The outerwear brand Rains showed its fall 2020 collection on the runway and for the first time offered an alternative to the filler inside jackets and puffers which is typically polyester or animal-based. Rains debuted a plant based fiber instead. “I think it's each brand pushing each other to be more sustainable,” Tanne Vinter, head of design, told InStyle. “It's not necessarily a specific demand from the customer necessarily from Copenhagen. It's more about the industry and the brands based in Denmark and Copenhagen that kind of wants to push out sustainability and trying to take some responsibility in the process.”

It is worth noting that Stockholm, Sweden actually cancelled its fashion week in 2019 in order to promote more sustainable practices. And while that is certainly a more drastic approach to the concept, Copenhagen is hoping to continue letting designers show by implementing rules and regulations. Even so this season proved that there is a long way to go – shows at Copenhagen fashion week were spread all throughout the city, very far apart and guests were chartered around on 40 minute rides on large gas guzzling buses.

With all the resources major cities such as New York, London, Milan and Paris have, it’s really surprising that none of these other major cities have put any rules or action plans into place when it comes to sustainability. It’s even harder to believe that leading brands in each city aren’t stepping up and encouraging their counterparts to do better. But according to Thorsmark, the only way we’ll be able to achieve a more sustainable, less wasteful fashion weeks is simply by demanding it.

“Although fashion weeks are arguably the industry's most important sales and PR platform, we are in the middle of a climate crisis – and we can’t ignore that and we can’t just continue as usual,” Thorsmark told InStyle. “Fashion is responsible for up to 10% of all of humanity’s carbon emissions, so all parts of the fashion system have to take the responsibility and change. Even fashion weeks. If we dare use our platform to demand change from the brands who participate, then we might actually be able to move the needle.”

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