If you’d asked a young Zuhal Kuvan-Mills- living on her family’s hazelnut farm in rural Turkey- where she envisioned herself being in 2018, would making waves as a rising fashion designer be her first guess?
“No, not at all!” laughs the talent behind local label Green Embassy. Casually dressed for our chat at the Vashti offices, the bubbly artist is proudly sporting a newly-thrifted red cardi- a far cry from her own ethereal, luxurious creations.
“I think I look a bit different to most designers, in my old jeans, old shirt and RSPCA (Op Shop) jacket!” She jokes.
With this patent down-to-earth attitude, Kuvan-Mills recounts the unconventional journey that led her into the world of fashion.
“I actually started as a veterinarian surgeon in Istanbul… then did further studies in conservation biology, then did a postgrad in education.
“I was purely academic, just teaching… this was until about 2004,” she recalls. “I decided it was time for a break.”
Unable to shake the pull of the crafts she had first learnt from her mother and grandmother, she decided to pursue her long-lost love of tailoring and textile making.
Cue the birth of Green Embassy.
“I was creative, had always done things like sewing,” the designer remembers. “Living in the Swan Valley with a few animals, I focused on textile arts for a few years.
“One day, I wanted to photograph my work, but instead of on the wall I displayed it on a woman’s body and someone thought it was couture! So the idea started there.” She laughs.
Green Embassy is Australia’s first internationally recognised organically certified fashion label, striving to uphold the rigorous Global Organic Textile Standards. Kuvan-Mills’ nature-inspired designs are driven by fair trade practices, zero-wastage production and organic, chemical-free textile creation. She even makes her own textiles where possible, with the help of 50 obliging alpacas.
“I process straight from the backs of my animals all the way to the runway,” she gestures. “I wash, I clean, I cart, I felt, I spin, I knit, everything!”
When asked why being environmentally-conscious in her designs was so important to her, she confesses. “I hated fashion. Absolutely hated fashion… I like the creative side of it, the art… [but] because of what’s going on with fast fashion- I was sick of it. After oil and gas it is the second biggest polluter.
“But I realised that if I am a teacher I can only teach 30, 40, 50 people (about conservation) in one go. If I am an artist, well, then I can exhibit- I wait for my exhibition time, only for just as many people see my work. And then I thought, what about fashion? Fashion can be the medium.”
Making it’s big runway debut in 2014, Green Embassy’s collections have made a big impact on the international stages of Paris, London and Beijing. Kuvan-Mill’s signature aesthetic of floating silks, structured organic cotton creations and felted motifs of roots and branches all come back to her initial vision.
“Art. Conservation. Sustainability.” That’s how Kuvan-Mills surmises Green Embassy.
The designer says she wants people to feel pride wearing her designs. “They are wearing an art piece, something to take pride in and keep for next generations of their family.
“Every piece I create is unique, I can never make the same one again because of the textiles. Each piece, even the same size can be different. It’s the total opposite of fast fashion.”
Kuvan-Mills’ 2016 collection, Silent Rainforest, was a dark horse highlight to the 2016 Vancouver Fashion Week. Featuring rich orchid-inspired tones, the designer says the collection was influenced by the desire to bring awareness to conservation efforts for Balinese rainforests.
“I used to teach about [rainforests] when I was in the UK. I was in Bali a few years back and noticed the amount of destruction that was going on there because of tourism, constant cutting and clearing,” she says. “I called it Silent Rainforest as a kind of tribute to [Rachel Carson’s seminal conservationist text] ‘Silent Spring’, but the way it’s going with the land clearing it really will be a silent rainforest.”
Since its success, she has debuted her 2017 Empty Oceans collection, featuring recycled plastics. “I found cut offs from the fishing industry, fishing nets in skips outside the factory. I just made this little simple top while I was having my coffee in the kitchen,” she laughs, “and then Pamela Anderson chose it to wear in a magazine interview!
“It was amazing to feel that kind of support coming from across the world.”
Her latest line is inspired by IUCN’s Red List of endangered animals. “I’m focusing on two species right now, the ones we are losing right in front of our noses: Carnaby’s Cockatoo… and another one in the tropics, the Cassowary,” she says. “I’ve been collecting feathers from parks and land and the rivers. I also work with merino wool and silk, which I try to find in op-shops.”
Kuvan-Mills is humble about Green Embassy’s success and is now focused on using her growing platform to further the eco-fashion movement in Australia.
“This little fibre, which all started with my alpacas, turned into this textile, which turned into Green Embassy, and Green Embassy was only a springboard, a catalyst.” She says.
“The label grew outside of Australia and gained success, and I focused on outside, but I was always waiting for a change back home.
“When I started, support for this was nothing…but now I’m starting to see a massive, supportive, and vocal community which is working without needing anyone.
“It’s here already, it just seems like people are waiting for something to happen.”
The designer hopes that her newest venture, Eco Fashion Week Australia, could be just that something.
“We started [the festival] last year and I was speechless. I ended up leaving many designs at home, as our schedule, our venues had all been organized for just a few things, and it suddenly got huge!” She gushes.
The festival is Australia’s first national-scale celebration exclusively for environmentally-positive fashion. This year’s event, hosted in Port Douglas and Fremantle, boasts 44 local and international eco-conscious designers, with nightly runway shows, clothes swaps and seminars.
“We have some big names coming in, but I’ll keep that as a surprise!” Teases Kuvan-Mills.
“Now it’s an international event, with good support outside of Australia, it’s finally giving opportunities for local young people, young designers…four, five years or so ago, when I started in Perth, I was told there was no such thing as what I wanted to do. Eco-fashion was just a hobby, it’s a bit of art, and that was the attitude.
“Now there’s a global movement that’s educating people to make the right decisions, especially now fashion can be more or less the same price as a cup of coffee.
“I think we are starting to connect more with what we are wearing. Showing love and value toward our clothing, you are kind of building a relationship. Being sustainable is just changing minds so people will start valuing locally produced, handmade and sustainable materials, so they start buying and supporting the local economy.”
Eco Fashion Week Australia is on from 15-21 November in Fremantle.
Written By: Kate Nightingale
Images: Green Embassy
Learn more about Green Embassy here.