The fashion designer who hates trends

She transformed her super-cool label Mother of Pearl into a leader in sustainability. Now AMY POWNEY wants to sort out our wardrobes, too. Interview: Hanna Woodside

‘You shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money to dress sustainably. I know lots of people can’t afford to pay £300 for one of my dresses,’ says fashion designer Amy Powney matter-of-factly. As creative director of London-based label Mother of Pearl – loved in fashion circles for its cool, contemporary pieces with impeccable sustainable and ethical credentials – Amy is well aware that the brand caters for a ‘small bubble’ of shoppers.

mother of pearl designer
Image: Megan Taylor

So for the past couple of years, Amy has taken her sustainable mission to the high street. In 2020, she launched the first of three exclusive collections for John Lewis, the retailer’s most sustainable offering to date, with the current range featuring organic cotton jumpers and midi dresses made from EcoVero (a more sustainable form of viscose) for under £100. ‘If sustainable designers don’t get involved with the high street, how will anything change?’ she says. ‘You have to take the opportunity to talk to a wider audience, and brands like John Lewis have a very strong voice to the nation.’

Amy is celebrating 15 years at Mother of Pearl, but her interest in sustainability began long before she started working there. Her upbringing in rural Lancashire taught her to appreciate the environment from an early age. When she was 11 years old her parents moved the family ‘off grid’ to live in a caravan, getting their electricity from a small wind turbine and water from a well.

Later, when she studied fashion at Kingston University, her final-year collection focused on sustainability, years before it became the buzzword it is today. As a student, she also learned more about the social impact of the fashion industry. Reading Naomi Klein’s bestselling book No Logo and ‘learning about sweatshops and child labour’ was a turning point. ‘I thought, “What is this hideous industry that I am going into?”’

After graduating in 2006, she started as an assistant at Mother of Pearl, deliberately choosing to work at a small brand. ‘We made tiny quantities of clothes, so I didn’t think we were part of the problem,’ says Amy. By 2015, she’d risen to creative director. ‘Over the next few years, as the brand grew, the stores wanted more and more collections. It was all about newness. Everything was moving so fast, it felt wrong. I started thinking, “There must be a problem here. How can we be making stuff so quickly?”’

It’s why, in 2016, she undertook the huge challenge of overhauling every element of the business and turning Mother of Pearl into a completely sustainable and ethical brand. ‘I didn’t know how it all worked. There was a lot of researching and googling,’ she admits.

To transform the brand, she had three key issues to tackle. First, using fabrics that had a smaller impact on the environment. For Amy that meant choosing natural, biodegradable fibres– such as cotton, wool and silk – and finding fabric manufacturers that don’t use huge amounts of water, energy and polluting chemicals. And thanks to new technologies, she says, there are now many alternative, environmentally friendly fabrics out there.

The second challenge was finding ethical supply chains, where workers are treated humanely and get paid a living wage. Amy decided to go right back to the raw material. ‘People often focus on the factories where the clothes are made, but I wanted to start from the moment the seed is planted: the farmers, the pickers, the spinners, the weavers. We spenta lot of time making our supply chains the best they can be.’ The Mother of Pearl website states that all products are made in ethically run factories while also indicating how far back the supply chain for each has been traced.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge at Cannes Film Festival in off-the-shoulder Mother of Pearl. Image: David Fisher/Shutterstock

The third important change for Amy was designing clothes to last beyond a single season. While Mother of Pearl has never been a fast-fashion brand selling fad trends and throwaway clothes, Amy explains: ‘The idea of “fashion” changed for me. There’s no point using these great fabrics and supply chains to make clothes that won’t be in your “forever” wardrobe.’ Now she focuses on clothes you can wear ‘year after year’ – slouchy knitwear, flowing shirts, well-cut blazers, seasonless classics with a twist, often studded with the brand’s signature faux pearl embellishments

It’s all very admirable, but can it translate to the high street? Amy certainly thinks so. She points out that larger retailers have more buying power, so they can achieve more than smaller brands in terms of sourcing sustainable fabrics at better prices. ‘The supply chains we used for the John Lewis collections were as sustainable as ours at Mother of Pearl,’ Amy says.

However, the number-one thing she thinks high-street brands should focus on is keeping clothes out of landfill. ‘It means every brand should have a responsibility to help customers repair, resell or trade in the clothes they buy from them,’ she says. ‘It would have a huge impact on the environment, but there is also a business opportunity for companies, too. For example, if they create their own resale platforms, they can take a percentage of the next sale.’

She knows that for the average shopper, getting sustainable fashion ‘right’ can feel overwhelming. ‘If you’re not in the industry, “sustainability” can be confusing,’ she says. ‘My motto is: no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.’


  • GET CLOSET CLEVER The key to a sustainable wardrobe is pieces with longevity. I suggest a core of 20 items you know you will wear again and again, then add ‘highlight’ pieces or special-occasion outfits with second- hand designer or vintage buys. For an item to make my core 20 I have to be able to dress it up and down and wear it in more than one type of weather. For example, when I buy a dress I need to be able to put a rollneck underneath.
  • SHOP BETTER One of the few high-street shops I buy from is Cos. It does quality pieces made from Tencel or organic cotton that last and has its own resale site where you can buy and sell its preloved clothes.
  • KNOW YOUR FABRICS While recycled natural fabrics such as wool and cotton are my top sustainable picks, good alternatives are Tencel Lyocell which, like viscose, is made from wood pulp but uses fewer chemicals, and organic rather than regular cotton. While I’m anti polyester, as it’s plastic there’s already a lot of on the planet, recycled polyester is OK.
  • STITCH DON’T DITCH I have been getting into Japanese ‘visible mending’ [known as sashiko, it uses decorative stitches to make a feature of a repair] for my daughter’s clothes. It looks cute and there’s something very therapeutic about sitting in front of the TV and repairing something.
  • REBOOT YOU R TRAINERS Not only does the trainer industry use obscene amounts of synthetic fabrics, think how quickly white ones get trashed. To make yours last longer, buy styles made with natural materials that are designed to be machine washed, such as the Wool Runner Mizzle by Allbirds (below).