Mary Fellowes is founder and CEO of sustainability consultancy Greenwith Studio. She is a former editor of international editions of Vogue, The Economist, writer and stylist to Oscar and BAFTA winners.
In the last six years Mary has focused on integrating sustainability into her work, creating the ﬁrst Oscars moment with a sustainably made gown by Prada for Olivia Colman. She has collaborated with Livia Firth and her Eco-Age consultancy on both editorial and Green Carpet Challenge projects, and consulted for The Waterbear Network, the world’s first interactive video on demand platform dedicated to saving the planet.
Not one to lockdown with a Netflix binge, during the pandemic Mary launched Greenwith Studio: a multi-disciplinary sustainability consultancy creating bespoke green solutions for entities across the fashion value chain. Her company are soon to release a white paper written for the British Fashion Council focusing on how technology empowers sustainability in fashion, especially for consumers.
@mary_fellowes | greenwithstudio.com
You're a polymath who has worked across top fashion and media brands for over two decades. We know you also recently studied at Cambridge University's prestigious Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and have been mindfully pivoting your luxury fashion career into sustainability for quite a few years now— frankly before this was a “trend.” What has inspired this career transformation?
No single incident inspired it. I grew up in an agricultural & rural community, where playing for us kids was being in the fields with farmers, and I have long lived my personal life in what would today be called a sustainable way, but to me it was just a way of life. For example thrift or charity shops was always just what we did with my Mum, and that carried through when I was in my teens - my friends were down at the mall or high street and I was at Portobello or Oxfam.
10 years ago I took a month’s sabbatical to go diving near Papua New Guinea with the marine biologist Dr Lawrence Blair — all my Vogue colleagues laughed at me for being a geek! However I have always just held onto what I knew was authentic and aligned with my values, and trusted my intuition.
If there was one single moment when I realised I just had to shift, and give up a healthy six figure salary, it was trying to convince designers to make sustainable gowns for actresses I was dressing for the Oscars and Baftas and Golden Globes (Phoebe Waller Bridge and Olivia Colman especially). I just couldn’t get the response I felt was true enough… so I realised there was such vast scope for change, so much opportunity to embed more purpose, and coupled moreover with an urgency that was non-negotiable. Essentially I couldn’t look myself in the mirror or sleep easy at night knowing I was endorsing and supporting a system that was destroying people and our planet. Rather than perpetuating the problem, I just had to be a part of the solution.
Where in the world do you feel the most inspired?
India inspires me hugely. Firstly, the warmth and genius humour, the colours, the happy chaos, the noise, the sensory overload (in a good way). But also from the ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ aspect. E.g. in the global north, we refer to a lot of countries as ‘developing.’ However, India to me feels significantly more developed in many ways. There are markets where you can go and endlessly repair or replace parts for electronics, they have a local tailor on every street corner, you can buy your food from the neighbour on the street where it is weighed and not sold in layers of plastic packaging and where odd shaped vegetables are not discarded.
They don’t have a welfare state, so communities tend to take care of their elders or the sick, or just form a net around those in need. I know under the bonnet it is far from perfect in other ways, such as income inequality and human rights, and especially gender equality….so it’s crucial not to over-romanticise. But with enough childlike curiosity, objectivity and humility, we always learn from how other cultures do things.
You moved into Barbara Hepworth's former studio on Hampstead Heath last year. What an iconic place to live. Tell us more about how your living space inspires your creative process?
I desperately need to be in nature. Up here, I swim in the ponds with the ducks. I walk my dog on the Heath and get blissfully lost in its mystical winding pathways. I wake up to only hear the birds, the main studio room is flooded with natural light. That way you are immersed in Mother Nature and guided by her. My studio is a case study of the same necessity being the mother of invention I mentioned above. It is cobbled together with a typical artists’ mindset — a creative and visually led approach to re-purposing. It is far from perfect in a traditional architectural or interior design point of view, but the imperfections and idiosyncrasies create space for imagination. In short, I can breathe and dream here.
"Sustainability" can mean various things to various people, and more transparency is needed in the communication of this word. How would you define it for us in a few simple words or sentences?
Let’s start with what it is NOT. Something is NOT sustainable just because slightly better eco-friendly materials or local/ artisanal processes around making are involved. Something IS sustainable when its creation leaves the planet and people in the same or a better state. In other words, when it doesn’t deplete natural resources, it doesn't exploit labour — instead when it empowers and uplifts.
When it measurably improves habitats and communities, that is the next iteration of sustainability, known as ‘regenerative.’ And from that, the target state is circularity. When nothing goes to waste or landfill, instead mirroring mother nature’s own perfect system where processes and organisms just endlessly go round and round in a perfect loop.
What are your favourite pieces from OYUNA's present collection?
It is almost impossible to choose one, as the tenderness, discipline and timelessness of her products are the next level. If I really have to choose, I’d say I live in her cashmere black trousers. They are sharp and tailored, but as comfortable as tracksuit bottoms.
Tell us about the oldest pieces you have from OYUNA — how do you style them for 'now’?
I use her pieces as minimal timeless backdrops — a blank canvas if you will… and change the accessories around. Some days I’ll channel The Row or 'old Celine’ by going for clean lines. Other days I’ll pile up a sweater with a mishmash cluster of thrift jewellery. I also love to play with texture — a backdrop of soft matte Oyuna with some sharp shiny metallics or patent or crystals makes for a great mix.
Do you have any crazy ideas for us on how to make classic pieces feel new again after years of love?
Whenever I have to go to a fancy dress party, I take extra time the week before to pull out my entire wardrobe and play dress up, just as I did when I was 4 years old. The insights it gives you by having a free reign over what would normally not be suitable for everyday outfits opens up the portals of the imagination. Suddenly I find myself putting things together I wouldn’t have considered before. It’s all about juxtaposition — you can create visual tension and oxymorons by throwing together items that might not belong traditionally together.
What are the most ephemeral pieces in your wardrobe? What do you have the most of, and go back to time and time again?
As clichéd as it sounds, Prada and Miu Miu. Anything that was made with intelligence, creativity, subtle wit, incredible quality materials, and not attempting to be ‘on trend’ but reflecting both a constantly revisited theme (in her case often the 1940’s or 1960’s-70’s), as well as being more poetic and profound — it generally doesn’t date.
How does a woman define these classic pieces for herself, in your opinion?
Classic is a word like luxury that gets bandied about too liberally. I believe that to be classic, an item’s design has to have its roots clearly anchored and presented in a recognisable sartorial archetype or trope. Such as the wide leg trouser (1970’s), the short trapeze dress (60’s), a mannish overcoat (Katherine Hepburn or 90’s grunge).
The trick is that it needs distilling down to its core elements — otherwise if it resembles a movie or theatre wardrobe item, the chances are it will be too retro and look too vintage (unless that's the message you want to get across — which is also fine and I do it a lot, it's just not for everyone).#
Is there anything you would like to achieve that you haven’t already? (*can be in life, in career, up to you)!
SO much. I always have something else to achieve — it is what drives me. Humility is key in that way - the alternative is going into retirement or getting bitter! I would like to write a book, front a TV series on fashion and climate change, and bolster my thought leadership.
Personally? Cultivate my cookery skills. Learn Arabic. Refine my Italian. Learn to make ceramics. Do much more life drawing. Scuba dive in Raja Ampat. Maybe even one day I will have my own sharing economy based, circular fashion line, but in a disruptive way and only when it makes the world a better place, and uplifts people and regenerates the earth. These are the kinds of things that keep me awake at night.
What is your favourite partnership or project that you've completed in the past few years? What felt so important or special about it?
Being profiled for my purpose driven work in the New York Times. Being commissioned by the British Fashion Council to author a white paper on the intersection of technology and sustainability for consumers. Attending and speaking at both Cop26 and Cop27. And being invited to lecture at Harvard. What felt important about both was that all my highest brain power could be deployed.
We have to always keep those mental muscles active and challenge ourselves. I really had to dig into my deepest layers of thought to communicate and articulate my views on how we have to change the fashion industry. Being given platforms like that is nothing short of an immense privilege.
It's been a tough but interesting past few years for our world. Tell us about a moment where you had a huge amount of fun?
The best fun was during the first lockdown — making a video with my then flatmate Bert, LGBTQ identifying and a nurse in the NHS, plus a performance artist. It was commissioned by Cartier's 'Over The Rainbow' initiative. We had all been stuck inside for months and in this dystopian existence none of us were prepared for. The day's filming ended and suddenly there was a gang of us crying with laughter and dancing like maniacs, completely sober, in my kitchen to Tina Turner. The sense of relief and release was nothing but visceral.
Also and always, my Dachshund puppy Tiger who is so naughty and funny, she makes me laugh every day. We play 'catch me if you can’ at bedtime when she has the Zoomies. It never fails to make me screech.
And having all my junior team who relentlessly take the piss out of me at work. When you are in a leadership role, it's so important to have some fun in the workplace. I can’t ever take myself too seriously, and once I show them I can laugh at myself, they can all do the same. And everyone then relaxes a bit and smiles.
What does Earth mean to you?
It means 2 things:
Literal earth, as in soil. It is where millions of nutrients, organisms and good bacteria live. It is what grounds us when we go barefoot. It is what allows us to eat, to grow and wear cotton etc. Alongside water and air, earth is the foundation of our existence.
And then there is Mother Earth, our planet. The source of all life. She has been around for millions of years but is now sick and sad, and all the critical damage we’re now seeing the results of has been done in about the last 70 years only. It’s so huge that when you try and think about it, it's overwhelming.
To finish off, I have a few simple questions. You can reply with a word or a couple of words…
Blue? Cotswold Legbars' eggs - the perfect soft blue.
Strength? Our late Queen’s inner strength.
Softness? Your cashmere.
Timeless? Respecting lessons from history.