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Art of Style

The designer interview: Mother of Pearl

Amy Powney (right) wears dress Mother of Pearl; boots Amy’s own. Vicky McClure (left) wears shirt and skirt Mother of Pearl; pumps Jennifer Chamandi

In just 13 years, AMY POWNEY has gone from sweeping the cutting-room floor at Mother of Pearl to taking the helm as its creative director, overhauling the brand in the process to make it as sustainable and ethical as possible. She talks to EMMA SELLS about creating fashion with feel-good values at the core

Photography Anya HoldstockStyling Naomi Barling

It’s fair to say that Amy Powney, creative director of sustainable London label Mother of Pearl, is not wild about having her photograph taken. But the fact that she’s being shot alongside British actor Vicky McClure is making the experience altogether easier. She and McClure, the star of Line of Duty and the upcoming I Am Nicola, have been fan-girling each other from afar for months now, but this shoot marks the first time that they’ve actually met, and it’s not long before they’re giggling over their mutual love of the Spice Girls and swapping numbers in hair and makeup. “I feel like we’ve been lifelong friends,” laughs McClure at the end of the day. The pair are cut from the same cloth: hard-working, straightforward, grounded and fun. It’s clothes that have brought them together, though; McClure wore an off-the-shoulder Mother of Pearl dress for a TV appearance earlier this year and immediately fell in love with the label. “It just felt like it was fitting for me because I’m not dressy-dressy, but it was interesting,” she says. “The shapes were good, and I was aware of [Amy] because of her ethics and I think that’s really important. If I support designers that are sustainable then I feel like I’m doing my bit.”

Powney, 35, has been at Mother of Pearl for 13 years now, working her way up from sweeping floors and cutting fabric before taking up the creative reins in 2015. At the time, the label was a solid, successful contemporary brand serving up nice clothes in colorful florals, but once she’d bedded in to her new role, Powney found that it didn’t feel like her; she was uncomfortable with the volume of pieces that they were producing and felt disconnected from its aesthetic. She’d long been interested in sustainability – her Kingston School of Art graduate collection was created entirely from organic and fair-trade fabrics – and was actively trying to build it into her day-to-day life, so doing the same with the label seemed the logical next step.

“I’m a real perfectionist. I didn’t want to go into sustainability and say, ‘Ooh, I’ve used some organic cotton’,” says the designer when we sit down post-shoot by an east London canal, determined to get some fresh air despite the imminent threat of rain. “And it’s hard because there’s no handbook out there on how to make a brand sustainable. But I wanted to know from start to finish where it was grown, who was making it, how much money people get paid, where it’s traveling from. I wanted to know the entire thing before I could stand up to the world and shout about it. That has to be completely authentic to me.”

Her thoughtful, considered approach doesn’t just stretch to the fabrics she’s using, although the vast majority now are sustainably sourced and organic. She’s slowed everything right down, producing fewer pieces from fewer different fabrics and across two rather than four seasons; the antithesis of fashion’s obsession with constant newness. She’s tweaked the clothes themselves, too, happily riffing on the team’s new mantra of “classic but never boring”, determined to offer up clothes that are as useful as they are desirable. It’s no accident that her midi tunic dresses, pearl-embellished denim and colorful printed blouses are hard-working forever pieces that you’ll keep and wear for years, rather than one-offs that tick off trends. Powney’s wearing one of those dresses today; she has a clutch of them in her wardrobe that she rotates day to day. “I’m just really passionate about making women feel good, both in the clothes and because they’ve bought something ethical,” she says. “It’s simple but I think life is happier when it’s simpler, I really do. It’s cleaner for your head and your mind.”

Jacket and pants Mother of Pearl; pumps Malone Souliers; necklace and bracelet Loren Stewart; ring McClure’s own
There’s no handbook on how to make a brand sustainable. But I wanted to know from start to finish where it was grown, who was making it, how much money people get paid… I wanted to know the entire thing before I could stand up to the world and shout about it. That has to be completely authentic to me
Dress Mother of Pearl; necklace Wwake
Dress Mother of Pearl; ring Catbird

Powney has been creative for as long as she can remember. Her mum worked in a fabric mill and used to bring off-cuts home, and her favorite childhood memories are of them sketching or making patchwork quilts together. Fashion came later, when she was a teenager and clocked how it fed into different tribes and identities. “I was the odd, weird kid living in a caravan who couldn’t afford the Adidas tracksuit,” she says. “It was the only thing I was unbelievably passionate about. The Spice Girls were wearing their three stripes, everybody at school was wearing them and I wanted to fit in. I did get one in the end; I had to get a job and buy it myself, and I’m really proud of my parents for doing that because it taught me a whole other set of rules, but it started my fascination with what image did for you, where it placed you or what you were allowed to be part of.”

You can trace her passion for sustainability back to the moment in her Lancashire childhood when her parents, inspired by British sitcom The Good Life, moved the family into an off-grid existence in a caravan in the countryside while they slowly built a home on the land around them. Unsurprisingly, 10-year-old Powney and her older sister were thoroughly unimpressed. “[We were] super not into that. Worst thing ever,” she laughs. “Now it seems brilliant, great for storytelling and it totally built my character, but at the time… It rains up north the entire time, so you’re living in a caravan in the rain and the mud and we had a generator so you couldn’t watch much TV. It sucked, basically.”

However, given the road that Powney is now traveling down, it clearly had quite an impact. “It’s totally connected but not in the obvious way,” she says. “I think the intrigue for me of not being able to just switch on electricity or turn the tap on and have water come out gave me a completely different outlook. I was a very inquisitive kid anyway, but I think not to have amenities like that makes you think about where this stuff actually comes from, and that’s infiltrated my whole life. It made me more inquisitive and more connected to questioning rather than just accepting things.”

Thanks to her relentless quest for knowledge and change, Powney has become something of a sustainable oracle, a go-to for journalists and editors in the industry trying to pick their way through information on the environmental and social implications of fashion. And, in her most recent project, she joined forces with BBC Earth: together they produced a short film designed to encourage all of us to consider the way in which what we buy impacts the environment; hosted a series of talks at London Fashion Week; and created a capsule collection, pictured here, whipped up from ‘Peace Silk’ (which is made without killing silk worms), environmentally friendly dyes and certified organic fabrics.

“For me, sustainability is a mindset,” she explains. “Once you’ve started questioning things and opened your eyes, it will naturally infiltrate into every single thing you do. It’s quite basic: just ask yourself, ‘Do you need it? What do you need it for? Is there a better way to buy this thing that I really want?’” What advice does she have for women who are trying to build a more considered wardrobe? “Number one: don’t buy so much, and buy the things that you really know you’ll love and wear and wear,” she says without missing a beat. “Number two: you can buy vintage. And number three: try and buy more sustainably, so if you can find brands that are doing it better, you should buy from them. And make sure you buy quality, so that if you do fall out of love with it, then you can resell it.”

Sustainability is a mindset. Once you’ve started questioning things and opened your eyes, it will naturally infiltrate into every single thing you do. Just ask yourself, ‘Do you need it? What do you need it for? Is there a better way to buy this thing I really want?’

She’s never lost sight of the fact that getting dressed is supposed to be fun and that, first and foremost, women want clothes that they can get excited about because of how fantastic they feel when they wear them. “Watching Vicky put those clothes on today and loving them, that brings me more happiness than any fashion show. She loves them all and she wants to wear them, and she didn’t do that because they were sustainable, she did it because she has to go out to the world and look good, that’s her job,” says Powney. “That proves you can still make fashion and make it sustainably, and hardcore fashion fans need to know that’s an option.”

Amy Powney (left) wears shirt Mother of Pearl; pants Alexander McQueen; mules Malone Souliers. Vicky McClure (right) wears dress Mother of Pearl; mules Jimmy Choo

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.