The founder of sustainable, function-led fashion brand Phvlo is on a mission to change the way our clothes impact the environment – and our busy schedules

Words: Anna Cummins

Image: Mike Pickles

Sometimes, all is takes is a fleeting moment of clarity to change your life. For London-based designer Johanna Ho, it resulted in the launch of Phvlo (pronounced “flow”) – a sustainable label that uses innovative fabrics to create functional, fashion-forward designs that she terms “sports couture”.

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In 1998, after earning a Master’s degree in fashion design from London’s Central Saint Martins, Ho launched her first, eponymous label during London Fashion Week – and Barneys New York snapped up her inaugural collection. For a few years, Ho operated a studio in Hong Kong, the city she grew up in. However, finding a foothold proved difficult. “I didn’t have a local audience that understood a local brand,” she recalls. “Everyone was still very Western-influenced.”

Then, in 2004, she signed a deal with a Japanese distributor to sell her knitwear-focused collections at 11 outlets in Japan. While it was the break she had hoped for, working on a large scale meant coming up with new designs every single week. “It’s not much different from fast fashion, and I started to lose my passion.”

But the worst came when Ho happened to ask her colleagues where unsold stock goes. “They casually told me it goes to the incinerator,” she recalls.

This was the moment Ho realised her brand had become part of a vast global problem. The fashion industry consumes a lot of water and produces more greenhouse gases than all maritime shipping and air travel combined. Studies estimate that textile dyeing and treating is responsible for 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution.

Ho finished up her contract in Japan in 2009 and came back to Hong Kong. “I decided I wanted to keep things small and manageable, get my passion back and be responsible.”

In the process of making the Johanna Ho label more sustainable, Ho discovered the industry definition of the term was shaky. “I was trying to do my part as a designer but on the flipside, retailers and consumers just didn’t care. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, proper education about why sustainable fashion is important. The majority in Asia is looking at price over anything else.”

Ho rethought how to approach her craft. In 2018, she halted the Johanna Ho label and opened Phvlo in its wake. “I realised I needed to be the educator. It has to be an all-round operation. From day one, I wanted to let people know that sustainable fashion doesn’t have to be all bamboo and leaves – it can be cool.”

Prior to the launch, Ho and her team had already spent two years researching a host of innovative fabrics, all deeply rooted in sustainability. The effort paid off. Phvlo’s seasonless designs incorporate ground-breaking materials such as Crabyon, an anti-bacterial fibre derived from waste crab shells in Japan, and the rainproof Minotech fabric, based on a traditional Japanese method of thatching cottages and garments, and which requires no chemical waterproofing treatment.

In pursuit of functional fabrics, Ho found inspiration in sportswear. “Why do performance fabrics need to be for sport? We don’t just sweat in the gym. I travel a lot, I run around a lot and I sweat a lot!”

Typical Phvlo pieces include a no-crease travel suit that is machine-washable, and a rain-repelling jacket with two sets of sleeves – one for the day, and a more couture style for the evening. “We wanted to design a versatile collection for the 25-hour person,” Ho says. “By that, we mean a Phvlo piece can keep you going for the whole day because our clothes are transformable. You get that extra hour in the day!”

In only 18 months, Phvlo has picked up so much traction that waterproofing giant Gore-Tex approached Ho for a collaboration, which will be released later this year. “We actually turned them down at first!” she laughs. “People were saying, ‘Are you crazy? Others will beg to work with them!’ But as a new brand, we need to be very careful who we partner with.”

Ho’s hesitation came from a 2015 Greenpeace report, which claimed Gore-Tex contains harmful substances known as PFC. However, she decided to work with them after the brand came back to tell her of its 2017 pledge to eliminate PFCs from its apparel. “It’s beautiful to be wanted by such a huge name with history and integrity,” Ho says.

So far, Phvlo is available online to UK addresses and is stocked at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and China, and London concept store Bluebird. But, after learning her lessons the hard way, Ho is taking things slowly.

“As we don’t go by a fashion calendar, some shops don’t find us so easy to work with,” she says. “We do designs based on when the product is right, when we think it’s 100% complete, in all aspects – from sustainability to the functionality. That’s when we feel comfortable.”

Find out more about Phvlo at phvlo.com.

Three awesome Phvlo pieces

Tayla twin set

Tayla twin set

A two-in-one set comprising a sleeveless, turtleneck vest and a spiral hem cardigan with a sash drape. Unbutton the drape along the asymmetrical opening to convert your look from sleeved to sleeveless in seconds.

Rain-repelling skirt

Treated with Minotech, a technology inspired by mino – a traditional Japanese rain-repellent garment made from rice straw – the skirt’s ruched sides can be adjusted on both sides, offering a variety of styles and length options.

Travel pillow jacket

This unisex rain-repellent jacket is reversible, warm and lightweight. The best part is the concealed pocket zipped into the collar. Roll the jacket up inside it to create a travel neck pillow for napping on long-haul journeys.