Already credited with giving a boost to eco designers such as Prophetik and Komodo, Firth has also recently announced a new phase of her challenge: now she’s pushing others into it. Firth is helping to pair 10 “top luxury designers” with 10 celebrities. Stella McCartney, Gucci, Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen and Alberta Ferretti are already on board. To get big names like this to sign up to a “green challenge” is no small feat. Designers don’t like restrictions — especially not when they’re working on a dress that will function as the Hollywood shop window for their brand.
The Firths met 17 years ago on a film set in Colombia. She was 25, he was 34, filming Nostromo for TV (not his most successful project) and recently separated from the actress Meg Tilly. Livia Giuggioli was a production assistant on set. They married in 1997 and have two sons: Luca, 10, and Matteo, eight. She credits her husband with her “political awakening” and says that when she met him “I was still very much a kid.”
Livia grew up in Rome, one of four children. A traditional Italian upbringing informs her views on the environment, says Lucy Siegle, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? and a friend of the Firths, who have both been involved with the Observer Ethical Awards. “It’s an innate thing with her. She has a sensibility regarding fashion and consumerism and she has traditional Italian values. She has been connected to social justice issues for a long time. I would say that for her it’s not so much about going green, it’s about being ethical, about equality, fairness, the supply chain.
“The Green Carpet Challenge happened almost by accident. She said to me, ‘I’m going to have to do this red carpet thing and I just don’t want to phone around all those fashion houses.’”
On the red carpet you are expected to wear a designer dress specially designed — and usually borrowed — for the occasion. “She needed to have something to raise her interest,” says Siegle. “Imagine trawling around after your husband to all these awards ceremonies. So it became a way of narrowing the parameters, by wearing only sustainable style. It’s a way of marketing ethical ideas in a glossy, high-end way.”
In 2008, Firth opened Eco Age, a shop in Chiswick, west London, where the Firths live, for “curious consumers.” It is eco-chic at its most discreetly lavish: the Web site was designed by Saatchi & Saatchi’s Italian team. The shop sells what you’d expect — US$940 white cashmere cardigans and a US$510 Italian leather handbag “tanned using a traditional technique based on the bark of the native chestnut tree and the mimosa flower” — but also what you wouldn’t: scented candles and US$40 scarves.
Firth is described as being down-to-earth and having a sense of humour about herself. Annika Sanders, the designer founder of Junky Styling, a London-based brand that works with upcycled clothes, was working behind the counter of her shop in Brick Lane when Firth walked in one day carrying one of her husband’s old suits. “We upcycled it into the 1950s-inspired dress she wore to that Paris premiere. It was a navy blue, very high-end designer suit of Colin’s. But the moths had got hold of it. It was hard to salvage and would have been unsalvageable as a suit. We managed to save big pieces of the fabric and panel it into a pencil skirt and bodice.