In a region known as much for its high-fashion May bloom as its lush countryside and local bourbon, designers from around the world are invited to imagine a vividly more sustainable future of fashion using hemp, a crop that (incidentally) Kentucky is eager to sow.
In March, Lexington’s Future of Fashion 2020 will showcase forward-seeing runway and ready-to-wear looks from local and international designers, centered around sustainable products such as hemp. The two-day event includes music, dance, and DJ performances from diverse local and global artists, runway shows of contemporary high-fashion and wearable looks from US and international designers (inspired by the event’s theme, Salvador Dalí), and the Sarah Jane Estes Design Competition, which allows only the use of materials that are 60% hemp or greater.
The prize for the best pairing of avant-garde and ready-to-wear looks, selected by local and celebrity judges such as Kentucky artist, entrepreneur, and America’s Next Top Model favorite Laura Kirkpatrick, includes $1000 and a feature in a fashion editorial in Sophisticated Living Magazine. Designers can sign up through November 30, and are given access to guidance, materials, and equipment if desired.
According to the event’s organizer, Lexington-based designer Soreyda Benedit Begley, it also offers a chance for both well known and up-and-coming designers to share their visions for a fairer, far less wasteful yet even more exuberant fashion industry.
In a phone interview, Benedit Begley said that her lifelong interest in clothing design, her years spent working in a ‘fast fashion’ sweatshop in Honduras, and her awareness of today’s environmental and agricultural challenges drove her to revive the event after a successful run in 2013 – this time, with a clearer focus on cultural inclusion and sustainability.
“I talk with people all the time about how fashion is elitist, how elites seem to hoard it, and how many people that aren’t familiar with the language of ‘fine art’ are intimidated by this. But fashion and style really comes from people on the street: it’s for everyone, it’s personal and individual, and I want people to take ownership.”
Benedit Begley has also found that young people who are in or interested in the fashion industry “are wanting to not only shape fashion for the future, but also our global economy and systems,” she said. “Fashion has the ability to create change when it comes to human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous rights, and the environment.”
Like other members of her family, part of coastal and northern Honduras’ Garifuna ethnic group, Benedit Begley spent her teenage years sewing 12 hours a day to produce Western-style ‘fast fashion’ apparel for exporting abroad.
As someone who grew up dressing dolls with outfits made from straw and tree bark on her family’s farm, she loved the creativity of this work. “But it was exhausting,” she said, and she saw that cheap used clothing from the West was quickly replacing the indigenous styles around her.
As she grew up, Benedit Begley found that her artistic ambitions went beyond sewing other peoples’ designs, too.
After leaving the factory, while was working in a national park near her home by the border of Nicaragua, she met her husband, an American archaelogist, and they soon relocated to Kentucky. Once there, she joined the arts community in Lexington, and found success with her unique, culturally influenced designs and wearable art.
Then around 15 years ago, a customer asked Benedit Begley to design the gowns for an eco-wedding, sending her on a research journey that led to hemp. “I looked at silk, linen, and many other materials, but hemp came out on top every time.”
What she found wasn’t the stiff, scratchy material that hemp backpacks and totes have sported for decades. At that time, “Pure hemp was still a little rough, so I went for a 55/45 hemp-silk blend,” she said. “It was really beautiful, and so elegant; my customer was so happy, so I got more samples, and have presented it to clients as the eco-friendly option ever since.”
Today, designers can access a wide variety of soft, durable fabrics made purely from hemp or blended with materials like silk and cotton, Benedit Begley said.
For example, she said, California-based Hemp Traders has dozens of options, including a 100% hemp material that “would be perfect for pajamas.” She’s also been excited about the possibilities of other local and sustainable materials like re-purposed silk, or alpaca wool, which folks like writer, fiber artist, and official FOF2020 photographer Laverne Zabielski weave for themselves.
As markets began to change in her area and globally, Benedit Begley decided she “should get more involved,” she said. “In Kentucky, hemp is so hot right now. It’s what everybody’s talking about – at the government level, the business level, socially.”
“Most people [I see] at hemp events are farmers, and there could also be a creative industry, but it won’t happen without representation,” she said. “So I thought, we should try it too.”
“I believe hemp can change the world, affecting so many things: our food, our deforestation, even our allergies … I believe what we’re putting in [and on] our bodies has a lot to do with that,” Benedit Begley continued.
“I do think there’s a little more consciousness now about making these kinds of changes, because the climate situation is a big wake-up call,” she said.
“We have no choice, and it’s sad we had to get to this point to realize that. But better late than never, I guess.”