One of Australia’s top fashion designers is taking on her biggest challenge yet: making a school uniform that’s sustainable, affordable and comfortable.
Kit Willow, who last year was part of a Commonwealth Fashion Exchange to London, where she met the Duchess of Cambridge, is giving a makeover to the uniform of one of Melbourne’s most prestigious schools, Firbank Grammar School in Brighton.
The school has a co-ed primary division and a girls’ high school. Willow, whose label is KitX, is overhauling the current look, which has been in place for more than 15 years.
“Uniforms have an average life of 18 months because children grow, they get worn every day and sometimes washed every day,” Willow, a fierce sustainability advocate, said.
Willow agreed to the project on several conditions: she could choose the fabrics, including “upcycled” polyester, which is less harmful to the environment than virgin materials, and the school must agree to educate parents and students about the toxicity of the mainstream fashion industry.
“When you wash polyester or a blend, they give off tiny fibres into the ocean that cause massive problems for marine life,” Willow, a mother-of-two, said.
“When new nylon is created, it gives off nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more toxic than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. New uniforms are … wrapped in ‘a million’ layers of plastic, and then when they are washed frequently, they give off microparticles, then when they are discarded … they never, ever break down.”
Firbank Grammar principal Jenny Williams embraced the opportunity to partner with a sustainability warrior, after discussing a uniform overhaul with Dobsons, one of Australia’s longest-running uniform wholesalers.
“It was really important I had a woman working with me, because it’s about positive role models for the senior girls,” Mrs Williams said.
Willow said that at first, Dobsons “had such little awareness about fashion’s impact. Now they know, they are so excited”. And there is plenty of potential for other schools to follow Firbank’s lead.
“Hopefully it’s a game-changer,” Willow said. “Quite quickly, you can have an impact. It’s not one customer buying, it’s like boom, one school done. It’s thousands of students, quickly.”
Mrs Williams said Willow’s brief was to maintain the heritage of the uniforms, including the school colours, but with a signature KitX spin. She acknowledged that some pieces will rise in cost, but that the school community was committed to the project. The uniforms could be rolled out as early as the second half of 2019.
“For all of us, it’s an important decision. Younger people are aware of the really cheap brands popping out ‘disposable’ clothes, and how unethically they are produced. With a uniform, you don’t have lots of pieces, you wear it every day.”
Willow joins a long list of well-known designers to have worked on school uniform projects, including Jonathan Ward, who has designed uniforms for several Sydney schools including Loreto, Kirribilli and St Andrew’s Cathedral School.