Nearly every conversation about the fashion industry’s need to be more sustainable points to fast fashion as a key adversary, conjuring images of landfills brimming with pieces from seasons past, and highlights brands known for small-batch production and eco-friendly practices as alternatives. While this attention is warranted, luxury fashion—and red carpet fashion in particular—is often excluded from the conversation. Through an annual design competition and ongoing collaboration with the Oscars, Red Carpet Green Dress™ RCGD is changing that.
In 2009, actress and environmental advocate Suzy Amis Cameron found herself on a whirlwind press tour alongside her husband, director James Cameron, as he promoted the film Avatar. Given the attention and accolades the movie was receiving — and the fact that among the film’s central themes is an examination of how humans negatively impact ecosystems — Suzy decided to use the Oscars red carpet to launch RCGD.
“She thought, ‘This is a really big opportunity because the main question that everyone's going to be asking me is what are you wearing, aside from asking about the film,’” says CEO Samata Pattinson, who was appointed CEO of RCGD in 2019. “She wanted to open up that space [for] a conversation about sustainability and the environment.” Cameron started an annual design competition, challenging designers from across the globe to sketch a sustainable look. The winner, Jillian Granz, who was then a senior at Michigan State University, designed a blue peace silk gown made with a no-waste pattern. Cameron arranged for Granz to construct the dress under the guidance of costume designer Deb Scott, who provided materials from old costumes for the lining of the new piece. Cameron wore the dress to the 2010 Academy Awards, where Avatar was nominated for nine Oscars and won three.
Since then, RCGD has collaborated with designers to create looks for Naomie Harris, Sophie Turner, LaKeith Stanfield and others, and formalized partnerships with The Academy and sustainable textile brand Tencel. In addition to the annual design competition, the organization works with established and emerging brands to dress talent in sustainable looks for the Oscars.
Ahead, Pattinson, who won the design competition in 2011, talks about the organization’s milestones, what to expect from RCDG at this year’s Oscars, and why luxury fashion needs to be involved in the sustainability conversation.
You have a background in fashion design, PR and editorial, and won the RCGD competition in 2011. What was your experience like?
It was a bit of a whirlwind because I entered the competition without really knowing what it was about. I saw, "Can you design a dress for the red carpet?" and me being me, I was like, "Yep." But I didn't really read that second half where it said "with a sustainable twist." After I submitted my sketch I started to research what sustainable meant with regards to fashion, and thought about what I could do as a designer that loved playing with luxury fabrics. Maybe a week after I got a phone call from Suzy saying, "Hi, Samata. You entered Red Carpet Green Dress. My name is Suzy Amis Cameron and you've won." Before I knew it, I was running around trying to make this dress so I could fly to LA and meet Suzy and James. I had 11 days to make it. I ended up using certified silk that I sourced from London, and I did hand dyeing with cranberries. Model Aine Rose Campbell wore it to a Global Green red carpet event.
How does the global design competition work?
The competition is open to designers who are 21 and older [and] they can be anywhere in the world. They don't have to go to a specific design college, but they must have a passion for design, a passion for sustainability, and want to showcase their talent. We have a panel of judges that reviews sketches and makes selections for a shortlist, then they finalize the winners during another round of judging. They land on two designers, so we have a womenswear and a menswear designer.
And how does the Oscars initiative work?
Red Carpet Green Dress at the Oscars is [us] working with established brands and emerging labels that are at least five years old [to dress talent for the Oscars]. In recent years, we've worked with Louis Vuitton, Armani, Vivienne Westwood, Laura Basci, Galvan, Elie Saab... it’s varied. It’s quite challenging to find the right fit because it's not just a case of finding a designer; the talent has to be aligned and want to wear the brand as well.
How do you get the talent on board?
I'm so passionate about this. It’s like, “How can we get the talent and their team to see that having a moment with a lesser-known designer, or a designer from let's say Africa or Asia, is a really smart decision?” It's starting to happen now, but it's taken a long time for space to be made for brands that aren't household names. I'm really happy the shift is happening because it's taken a long time.
Some years we've had a very clear idea of who we want to dress, and once we align with that person, we come up with a wishlist of brands and start a conversation with a brand we feel is right. Some years, we’re already aligned with a brand through previous conversations where they’ve expressed a deep interest in having a strong, sustainable message. Then it's a case of, "Okay, now we're working with this brand, we should find the talent we want to align with and make sure they’re also happy to align with that brand." Some years we have talent approaching us without any fashion brand in mind just saying, "I really want to support the sustainable statement."
So many of the conversations surrounding sustainability focus on the environmental and ethical impacts of mass retailers. Why does red carpet fashion belong in the sustainability conversation too?
When we talk about sustainability in fashion, it means all of it; it means all clothes being made, regardless of whether they’re for the red carpet or high street. It’s not just a conversation for your H&M's and your Primarks and your other mass retailers who obviously create huge volumes of clothing. It's also one for your luxury brands who have an intense demand on natural resources like silks, leathers, and furs. They also have a responsibility to make sure they're not wasting. And they should be accountable and have transparent supply chains. Cashmere is a luxury material, but unless it's being sustainably managed the cashmere goats are battering the soil.
Why is it important to have this conversation on the red carpet?
For us, the red carpet is exciting. And if you ask me, too often sustainability as a conversation is about stuff that is quite depressing. For lots of us who work in fashion, fashion is an exciting, creative space. So what we're trying to do with [our] red carpet presence is re-inject that excitement that we have around fashion and the anticipation we have around clothes, but in the context of making an impact.
If we have Laura Harrier — the year that she was in BlacKkKlansman — in that stunning, sustainable Louis Vuitton dress, we've got an opportunity to have a conversation about artisans, and certified silks and slow fashion. Or if we have Lakeith Stanfield in his wild Tussah silk, we're creating a conversation about ethical fabrics, but also talking about the community that is involved in making them.
What does RCGD look for in talent to dress?
When we choose talent, not only are we accessing the big platforms they have [but] we're also signaling that there are many individuals and groups that can speak on this subject. Too often, when it comes to sustainability, the people we're hearing about it from all look the same. And I think it's an indirect way of saying "We authorize this message from this person." So why don't we authorize messages from people in the Indian community, the West African community, the Chinese community, the Lebanese community…? These are global communities that should be in this conversation. So it's not just about celebrity for me, it's about talent that has an opportunity to reach different communities. We can proudly say that over the years, but 42% of our ambassadors have represented the BIPOC community. That’s really important.
Tell us about the collaboration with TENCEL™, how did that come about?
For the past few years with the Oscars collaboration, we've struggled to find sustainable materials. Everyone keeps falling back on the same ones. And we're not bashing it — we've done the recycled plastic and certified silks and natural dye—but we felt like we need to innovate. So we collaborated with TENCEL™ because all of their materials are cellulose based. They're made from eucalyptus trees, which are sustainably managed. They don't take their wood from arable land [and] they've got strict quotas about how much they can cut. Production is intensely managed [and] they have a really great chemical-free process of making fibers.
We innovated with them to come up with three textiles. They're silky smooth with a liquid drape. They're biodegradable, compostable and vegan. They were meant to go on sale last year but then COVID hit, so we're planning to put them on sale later this year. We're kind of excited about that.
How was RCGD impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Last year was just a horrible year. The Oscars had just ended and we were getting ready to do the textile launch. Then COVID hit… then what happened a couple months after with George Floyd… it was traumatizing for all of us. We paused and said, "We're not going to launch these textiles. This isn't the right time."
Who did RCGD dress for the Oscars last year?
We had two dresses at the Oscars last year. We worked with Louis Vuitton to dress Léa Seydoux [who stars in No Time to Die] and director Elena Andreicheva, who won an Oscar for her short documentary Learning to Skate in a War Zone (If You're A Girl).
What can we expect to see from the Organization on Sunday?
Over the years, we've definitely shown the different ways that we can be sustainable. We've done vintage, we'd done natural dyes, we've done this, we've done that, which is all thrilling. But for this year, it's about a very important message surrounding what we want the future of sustainability to be about. I can't give too much away, but given what we all went through last year, there's just no way that we can be like, "Oh, business as usual—yay, we're back to normal." We're not back to normal and we're not going back to normal. We have to change. Normal wasn't working.