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Lemlem Tigist Tier Dress.

Sea Change

Alexandra Weston on making waves in the fashion industry and telling stories through products.

What started as a corner-of-the-store project at Holt Renfrew has grown into a major part of the luxury retailer’s brand mission.

“I wanted to create something very positive and have an impact, carving out a really niche position within the company,” says Alexandra Weston, DVP of Brand and Creative Strategy at Holt Renfrew.

What she created was H Project, a boutique within Holt Renfrew stores stocked exclusively with products that are sustainably resourced, often handmade through artisan programs that promote healthy communities and aid women.

“H Project is the conscious curation of products that make an impact in the world. There is a dedicated shop space for it, and in order to bring more attention to an issue, we select one collection each season to highlight a unique theme,” says Ms. Weston about H Project’s Uncrate a Culture program, which expanded this year into something new.

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Alexandra Weston in Peru during a trip for Uncrate South America

For 2020, Holt Renfrew launched Uncrate Oceans, which takes the same concept H Project has used for the last six years to highlight a specific region of the world and apply it to the ecosystem that connects our world: Oceans.

Focusing on such a large issue has allowed Weston’s team to include a broader range of products than in previous years. For instance, in addition to handmade goods that minimize pollution and support specific communities of concern, this year’s catalogue includes a huge range of high-tech swimwear made from recycled ocean plastic.

“No matter what culture you come from, you’re connected to the ocean,” says Weston. She hopes that her projects draw attention not just to the threats facing our world but to all the positive work being done, not just to counteract what we’ve done in the past but to highlight what’s being done today to change the course of wasteful manufacturing.

Since launching H Project in 2013, Weston says she has witnessed a sea change in environmental and cultural consciousness in the retail and manufacturing industry, adding that buyers who didn’t know words like “sustainable” or “artisanal” applied to fashion are now looking for products that fit a new narrative. And new brands are answering the call with stories of their own.

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Weston meets with artisans In La Paz Bolivia at Augden’s workshop where all of the sweaters for Smythe x Augden are hand-knit.

Every product tells a story

H Project is best known for products that tell a story: the story of the people who made it or the story of the land where the materials came from, for example.

“Without story, there is no luxury,” says Weston. And while she has often focused on the touching stories of traditional handcrafted products with Uncrate, this year, she brought in a broader understanding that there are new types of stories to tell in the 21st century: the story of how a company protects fisheries, the story of how a physicist learned to re-spin blended fabric fibers to cut down on waste, the story of how plastic gets removed from the ocean and turned into something beautiful.

“I ask myself, does this product have a story to tell? What more is there to it? Whether it’s in the simplicity of its craftsmanship or the complexity of an innovative textile, the point is, it has a story to tell. And to me, that is luxury,” says Weston.

The choices for this year’s collection show her appreciation for powerful stories of all kinds.

Some brands tell the stories of where they come from, such as Lemlem, an artisan-driven collection of clothes and home goods made entirely in Africa. Supermodel Liya Kebede launched the brand following a trip to her native Ethiopia, where she met a group of traditional weavers who no longer had a market for their craft.

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Vitamin A Alana Bodysuit.

Other brands tell the story of innovations in manufacturing, such as swimwear line Vitamin A. Founder Amahlia Stevens worked with top mills in Italy, Canada, and California before finally perfecting the process and introducing EcoLux, the first premium swim fabric made from recycled nylon.

Carolina K is a luxury lifestyle brand created by Argentinian designer Carolina Kleinman. The brand has been a pioneer in working with communities of artisans in Latin America, and it’s known for hand-embroidered details made authentically by artisans from remote regions of Mexico, Peru, and India.

Kalita Al Swaidi, a London-based Iraqi Texan, launched Kalita in 2016, a line of flowing fashionable products made entirely from parachute silk and dyed by artisans in Bali.

“Without story, there is no luxury,” says Weston, who hopes that the stories consumers and designers start looking for are ones with happy endings.

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Kalita Asiri Silk-Habotai Tiered Maxi Dress
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