From Mother of Pearl, her cool label, she transformed it into an innovator in sustainability. Amy Powney is now aiming to make our wardrobes more stylish. 


 You shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money to dress sustainably. I know lots of people can’t afford to pay £300 for one of my dresses,’ says fashion designer Amy Powney matter-of-factly. As creative director of London-based label Mother of Pearl – loved in fashion circles for its cool, contemporary pieces with impeccable sustainable and ethical credentials – Amy is well aware that the brand caters for a ‘small bubble’ of shoppers.

Amy’s sustainable vision has been carried out on the high-street for several years. In 2020, she launched the first of three exclusive collections for John Lewis, the retailer’s most sustainable offering to date, with the current range featuring organic cotton jumpers and mididresses made from EcoVero (a more sustainable form of viscose) for under £100. ‘If sustainable designers don’t get involved with the high street, how will anything change?’ she says. ‘You have to take the opportunity to talk to a wider audience, and brands like John Lewis have a very strong voice to the nation.’

Phoebe Waller-Bridge at Cannes Film Festival in off-the-shoulder Mother of Pearl

Phoebe Waller Bridge at Cannes Film Festival, off-the shoulder Mother of Pearl

Amy celebrated 15 years of Mother of Pearl. However, her love for sustainability began before she even started to work there. She learned early on that the environment was important to her from rural Lancashire. When she was 11 years old her parents moved the family ‘off grid’ to live in a caravan, getting their electricity from a small wind turbine and water from a well.

Her final year at Kingston University was devoted to sustainability. This is years before the term became a fad. While she was studying, she learned more about social impacts of fashion. Reading Naomi Klein’s bestselling book No Logo and ‘learning about sweatshops and child labour’ was a turning point. ‘I thought, “What is this hideous industry that I am going into?”’

She graduated in 2006 and began working as an assistant for Mother of Pearl. This was a deliberate choice to be a part of a smaller brand. ‘We made tiny quantities of clothes, so I didn’t think we were part of the problem,’ says Amy. By 2015, she’d risen to creative director. ‘Over the next few years, as the brand grew, the stores wanted more and more collections. The emphasis was on newness. The pace of everything felt slow. I started thinking, “There must be a problem here. How can we be making stuff so quickly?”’

It’s why, in 2016, she undertook the huge challenge of overhauling every element of the business and turning Mother of Pearl into a completely sustainable and ethical brand. ‘I didn’t know how it all worked. There was a lot of researching and googling,’ she admits.

She had to address three main issues in order to transform the brand. The first was to use fabrics with a lower environmental impact. For Amy that meant choosing natural, biodegradable fibres – such as cotton, wool and silk – and finding fabric manufacturers that don’t use huge amounts of water, energy and polluting chemicals. She says that there are many alternatives to traditional, harmful fabrics thanks to modern technologies.

Another challenge was to find ethical supply chain solutions. These are those that treat employees humanely while paying a living wage. Amy chose to return to the source of her raw materials. ‘People often focus on the factories where the clothes are made, but I wanted to start from the moment the seed is planted: the farmers, the pickers, the spinners, the weavers. We spent a lot of time making our supply chains the best they can be.’ The Mother of Pearl website states that all products are made in ethically run factories while also indicating how far back the supply chain for each has been traced.

It is the responsibility of brands to ensure that clothes don’t end up in landfills 

Amy realized that clothes should last more than one season. This was the third major change. While Mother of Pearl has never been a fast-fashion brand selling fad trends and throwaway clothes, Amy explains: ‘The idea of “fashion” changed for me. There’s no point using these great fabrics and supply chains to make clothes that won’t be in your “forever” wardrobe.’ Now she focuses on clothes you can wear ‘year after year’ –slouchy knitwear, flowing shirts, well-cut blazers, seasonless classics with a twist, often studded with the brand’s signature faux pearl embellishments.

It’s all very admirable, but can it translate to the high street? Amy believes so. Amy points out the fact that bigger retailers are more profitable.

Because they have greater buying power, they are able to achieve better results than smaller companies in terms of procuring sustainable fabrics at higher prices. ‘The supply chains we used for the John Lewis collections were as sustainable as ours at Mother of Pearl,’ Amy says.

But, she believes the most important thing high-street companies should do is keep clothes from going to landfill. ‘It means every brand should have a responsibility to help customers repair, resell or trade in the clothes they buy from them,’ she says. ‘It would have a huge impact on the environment, but there is also a business opportunity for companies, too. For example, if they create their own resale platforms, they can take a percentage of the next sale.’

She knows that for the average shopper, getting sustainable fashion ‘right’ can feel overwhelming. ‘If you’re not in the industry, “sustainability” can be confusing,’ she says. ‘My motto is: no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.’

 Amy’s five rules for dressing more sustainably

 1. Get your closet smart. Pieces that last are the key to creating a durable wardrobe. I suggest a core of 20 items you know you will wear again and again, then add ‘highlight’ pieces or special-occasion outfits with second-hand designer or vintage buys. An item must have the ability to be worn in multiple weathers and dressed up. A dress that I purchase must be versatile enough to wear underneath a rollneck.

Cos. is one of my top-of-the-line shops. You can find quality Tencel- or organic cotton clothing on their website, where you also have the option to buy preloved items.

Three Know your fabrics. While I prefer natural wools and cotton as my sustainable top picks, Tencel Lyocell, which is also made from wood pulp, uses less chemicals and has organic over regular cotton, are good options. While I’m anti polyester, as it’s plastic there’s already a lot of on the planet, so recycled polyester is OK.

4 Stitch don’t ditch I have been getting into Japanese ‘visible mending’ [known as sashiko, it uses decorative stitches to make a feature of a repair] for my daughter’s clothes. It looks cute and there’s something very therapeutic about sitting in front of the TV and repairing something.

Five ways to refresh your trainers. Not only is the industry full of artificial fabrics, but it also shows how fast white trainers can be tossed out. Styles made from natural materials such as wool runner mizzles by Allbirds can be machine washed to prolong their life expectancy.