This article was originally published by UN Environment and is republished with permission.
It was a cold, dark night. Navigating a bustling evening in Paris, Sarah Canner wound her bike through the busy roads on her way to a writers’ meeting. A recent commuter by bike, the film screenwriter had mustered the courage to take to the streets on two wheels.
As she pedaled through traffic, a bus narrowly cut her off. Heart pounding, she hit upon a realization. While she usually wore a brightly colored coat, today she had opted for a black one. With only a few lights to protect her, she was virtually invisible to other vehicles on the road.
She began a search for reflective safety wear. But finding stylish gear that reflected the fashion on the streets of Paris proved a challenge. The available options were loosely fitted and looked suitable for a crossing guard—not an everyday chic wardrobe.
“I also was thinking differently about clothing choices and our lifestyles,” explains Canner. “We often associate cycling with a sporting activity. But incorporating cycling into your everyday life brings with it real benefits. That inspired me to create clothes that are stylish, and functional. We should expect more from our clothes.”
So, Canner went back to school. “I wanted to inspire and empower women in particular like me who may be afraid on a bike,” she said. “I wanted to give them clothes they love wearing—and feel safe in—giving them confidence to take that first pedal.”
The transition from film maker and writer to fashion entrepreneur was less testing than expected. “Pulling together a creative solution to address shortcomings with reflective technology was exciting,” said Canner. “Creativity helps approach any problem differently.”
Reflective materials are coated with tiny glass mircrospheres. When light, such as a vehicle’s headlights, shines on them, they act like thousands of tiny mirrors, reflecting light back to its source and “lighting up.” Hence the name for Canner’s brand: Vespertine, meaning: “active at night.”
There are still hurdles to creating a fully sustainable reflective collection. While Canner makes most of her clothes from recycled polyester and merino wool, the original yarn used to knit her reflective scarfs, hats and headbands is virgin merino wool which is better quality.
Also, finding reflective material to recycle is currently not an option. “Reflective material has different strengths of luminosity. I want my clothes as bright as possible, and right now, that means using virgin reflective fabrics and yarns,” she explains.
Since microfibers can often find their way into waterways and contribute to pollution, designing clothes that don’t require much washing is central to her collection. Given that much of the clothing is outer-wear, such as coats or bibs, her emphasis is on durability.
Like other designers concerned with sustainable fashion, including Young Champion of the Earth Kaya Dorey, Canner believes that fast fashion needs to slow down. Essentially, the speed at which we buy and consume clothes needs a rethink.
“Some people consider my collection expensive,” she reflects. “But having clothes with superpowers is special. You don’t expect much from a US$10 piece of clothing that you will wear a few times and get rid of. My designs are built to last.”
Perhaps in the future Canner will be able to craft a fully sustainable collection. In the meantime, she is not taking her foot off the pedal. Her drive to help cyclists to be seen in the dark and have a presence on the fashion scene is gathering momentum.
She upcycled her reflective merino scraps into a knit kimono collection and has an upcoming collaboration with other designers who will integrate reflective merino scraps into upcycled sweaters sourced from thrift stores.
Michael Stanley-Jones, Secretary for the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, said: “The fashion industry can help us #SolveDifferent in the search for more sustainable ways of living.”
“Individuals and entrepreneurs are already driving this process. Designers are not only shaping the future of fashion—they have the power to shape our planet too. This is hugely exciting, and designers like Canner are helping to light the path ahead,” he said.