Laura May Gibbs created the first collection for her label Nagnata in 2014. Five years on, the Sydney-based designer is pushing the market forward with svelte, functional pieces that are kinder to the environment.

Most activewear is made entirely from difficult-to-recycle synthetic fibres such as nylon and lycra – polymers that require toxic reagents and an enormous amount of energy to produce, and in the case of nylon, a supply of crude oil.

“At the beginning, I was designing for myself because I was wearing a lot of knitted wear and organic cotton shorts to my yoga classes,” the former Alice McCall designer says. “I hated feeling restricted in my pants and the feel of synthetic fibres.”

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Inspired by knitted swimsuits from the 1920s, her label’s core pieces include sweatshirts, leggings, T-shirts, bralettes, shorts, and knitted halter tops and sleeveless dresses. Most pieces are made from 70 per cent natural fibre and 30 per cent synthetic. It’s a tricky balance because natural yarns have less stretch and more prone to breaking.

The cotton range, which caught the eye of international buyer Net-A-Porter in 2017, uses 85 per cent organic cotton and only 15 per cent nylon or lycra. And a new season merino wool collaboration of woven check and houndstooth prints – developed in collaboration with The Woolmark Company – has a core synthetic filament wrapped in superfine wool, so only natural fibres touch the skin. “That’s why it looks and feels so different to the other activewear out there,” Gibbs says.

Nagnata has further reduced its environmental impact by using flat bed fully-fashioned knitting, a technique that knits pieces to shape and links them at the seams for zero yarn waste. The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that in the fashion industry, 10 per cent of all textiles are left on the factory floor.

“We know how much fashion from our wardrobe goes into landfill but what about how much goes into landfill before the garment is even made? Unless the yarns are getting recycled – which they very rarely are – they’re just going into landfill,” Gibbs says. “I want people buying into Nagnata knowing we’re taking care of what needs to be taken care of from an environmental point of view.”

Gibbs’s sister Hannah joined the label more recently, bringing expertise in photography and textile design after studying fine arts and working for womenswear label Tigerlily. The sisters regularly visit their knit sites in China and Hong Kong to see garments being made.

Besides cutting wastage, the label is also focused on longevity and challenging fast-fashion consumerism. Its timeless dresses, for example, are suitable for most non-formal occasions and don’t necessarily look like activewear, even if they perform like it. Like Outdoor Voices’ Exercise Dress in the US, they’re an increasingly common sight on the streets of Australian cities. (They also appeared at Melbourne Fashion Week’s poolside runway show in September.) “When you think about sustainability, it’s all about having a piece that is going to last a lifetime and transcend different occasions,” Gibbs says.

While many large brands, including Adidas, are responding to the demand for more sustainable activewear, Gibbs believes it’s new labels such as her own that are really supporting more responsible fashion by building sustainability-minded businesses from the ground up. In August, for example, Sydney-based active and streetwear label PE Nation launched its first sustainable athleisure collection – The Strike Set – using nylon regenerated from waste such as fishing nets and fabric scraps.

“The next generation of designers are way more conscious because they’re doing it right from the start. It’s a lot harder for mid-level brands to implement genuine change because it means uprooting their business structure,” Gibbs says. “Brands are making small changes but in terms of running it through every core item – I still think there needs to be so much more work.”

This story originally appeared in Melbourne print issue 28 and Sydney print issue 20.