Last week at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, journalist Vanessa Friedman of the Financial Times, who recently landed the most influential job in fashion journalism as chief fashion critic of the New York Times (she starts in a few weeks), gave the following keynote around the subject of sustainable fashion. In it she pointed out the impossible dichotomy at its centre, revealed her own approach to personal style and put forward a new way of thinking about fashion and our relationship with our clothes. It was great. A clarion call for good sense, voiding the excess hot air that generally accompanies most forms of fashion communication. Thanks to Vanessa Friedman for sharing.
By Vanessa Friedman
Reduce, revise, regularise
“I have to warn you: I don’t have video. I don’t have power point, but I do have props — we’ll get to those in a moment. First, I have a confession to make: I am not going to talk about what it says in the program I was going to talk about. As a writer, I should have known better than to reveal the title of a speech before I had actually written the speech, but – the best intentions, and all that.
And I fully intended to get up here and talk to you about language, specifically the language we use to discuss the ethics of clothing, and how it is vague and unclear, and while that might work for the Constitution of the United States, where the “right to privacy” has been fungible enough to expand according to social change over centuries, it does not work for consumers, who have no idea what we are talking about when we talk about eco this and ethical that. That’s why my speech has the title it has, which is shamelessly recycled from Greenpeace.
I was going to ask you to reduce your words, and revise your language and regularise the vernacular across borders and brands. And then I was going to charge everyone with going away and writing their own ABCs of Sustainability, which they could email to the Danish Fashion Institute so it didn’t clog my in-box. Would have been good, right?
But the more I thought about it, and the more drafts I wrote, the more I realised there was a problem with the language that was far more granular, and that I could not overcome. And it was this: Sustainable fashion doesn’t make any sense. It’s a contradiction in terms.
Look it up. According to the Oxford Dictionary: Fashion is “the production and marketing of new styles of goods, especially clothing and cosmetics.”
Sustainable is “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” See the problem? On the one hand we have the pressure to be new; on the other, the imperative to maintain. Sustainable fashion is an oxymoron. It’s Jumbo shrimp. It’s a down escalator. It’s terrible beauty. It’s resident alien. Anyone else have any other examples? Accessible luxury?
You get the point. And if you think dictionaries are too removed from life and colloquial language to be useful, think about your own experience. Think about your experience buying, say, jeans. One season, you really want…a skinny jean! But three months later every magazine and blogger and celebrity is telling you skinny jeans are out – get rid of em! [Cue: a pair of skinny jeans get tossed to the floor] and it is all about flared jeans now. [Cue: a pair of flatted jeans go flying] And three months after that it is boyfriend jeans, and then stonewashed jeans, and then dark denim, and so on. [At this point Vanessa has tossed her once neat and tidy pile of jeans all over the stage, one at a time]
Ugh. I made a mess. Is that sustainable? Not on a journalist’s salary, let me tell you.
The driving force of fashion today is planned obsolescence – something is in, then it is out; skirts are up, then they are down; today it’s green, tomorrow, blue – which is itself by definition about something that is the opposite of sustainable.
And it’s not just the aesthetics of the clothes themselves we are talking about here; it’s the machinery that backs it up.
Because in order to sell all these new clothes and make the end point nearer and nearer, there are now new fashion collections coming out four times a year instead of two, and sometimes even more than four, if you throw in special holiday or store opening collections, so designers are effectively running on a creative treadmill that is – c’mon, you know where I am going with this, say it with me – unsustainable. No one can have that many new ideas. At least not ideas that are any good, or remotely original, or, frankly, worth buying.
And to keep growing revenues and reaching customers, brands are opening more and more stores in second tier and third tier cities, and different neighborhoods of the same city, an accumulation of outlets that at a certain point starts to cannibalise itself and is thus – what? – unsustainable.
Everything fashion – and admittedly, I am talking about the established fashion industry, the big brands — does is predicated toward teaching consumers that they need the new and last season is the old, and this goes for high fashion and the high street, where I have even heard some friends advise others that if they have worn a garment to death, they should just get rid of it, and not even bother trying to clean it. The cleaning costs more than the piece of clothing.
Today fashion is disposable – and it is supposed to be. And it seems to me that should be unsustainable. Because what the situation we are in now — more and more and faster and faster — sounds like, more than anything, is a runaway train. And you know what happens to runaway trains: they crash.
We all know how we got here – and while some will blame the corporatisation of fashion with its associated need to show ever-increasing quarterly results, and others social media with its constant demand for new content, and others the minute attention span of consumers, and I would say it’s really all of the above. Agree or disagree, however, the question now is: what do we do?
Most of what we’ve heard about today involves addressing the situation as it is: given the charge towards continuous consumption, and granted, lots of livelihoods depend on it (and lots of tax dollars are generated by it), what can companies do in the manufacturing and cleaning process to make the actual production of these garments better. That’s what the panel was on earlier this morning. And that is fine, except it ignores one half of the consumption equation – the consumers – and presupposes that nothing is going to change; that this sort of endless desire for new stuff, which is tied to the making of new stuff is the status quo now, and you can’t go backward. Which is true. You can’t change history. But you can learn from it.
And here is what I have learned: we need a new phrase. Once upon a time my grandmother saved and saved to buy a nice leather handbag, and once she had it, she had it for decades. Her fur coat? Same story. Her cashmere sweaters – you know the little cardigans with beading on the edges that were so popular in the 50s – same. She knew how to wash her garments—by hand usually — and how to hang them, and how store them, be it for the next season, or the next generation. What she had – what she built – was a Sustainable Wardrobe.
And that, it seems to me, is a concept that makes an enormous amount of sense. That is a term I can get behind. And that is, I say to all of you, what each and every one of us, as consumers, should be doing. It is about emphasising the value proposition inherent in each item you buy and consciously selecting it – maybe because it has an ethically conscious aspect you appreciate, and you bothered to research the supply chain like my friend Julie Gilhart does, or maybe because you know the amount of handwork that has gone into it and you are amazed by the artistry or even know the artisans, like Peter Copping does, or maybe because you the know that that cashmere came from happy prancing goats running free on the steppes of Mongolia – whatever. The point is that the decision about what constitutes value is yours, and you need make it. And that implies, I don’t think you can really get around this, some level of investment over, and in, time.
And that changes how you think of your clothes. It changes what you demand from them, and from the people who make them, and from yourself. I have a suitcase of the same four dresses and two jackets and leather trousers that I have been gradually building for the last ten years, and at this stage that exact group of clothing, give or take a pair of boots or bag, goes with me every single fashion season. And I chose what’s in it because it is comfortable, and I can fold it up and stick it in a suitcase and then pull it out and NOT have to dry clean it or iron it multiple times over a month, and it can get me from shows to cocktails to dinner without changing, and because when people see those clothes they never have any idea who made them.
That’s my value proposition, and it works for me, though I did realise once that if my suitcase ever got lost I’d be in serious trouble, because there was no way to replicate what was in it. But the benefits far outweigh the risks.
And here’s what’s interesting: I know I am not the only person to be thinking like this. When I speak to designers, “wardrobe” is a word that comes up again and again. Some brands – and I am not going to name names here, but some major international luxury brands – are thinking less about what new store they can open, and more about adding special features to existing stores; less about a whole new product dump and more about making products that are so special – from the handwork to the materials – and so limited in nature that they are the opposite of disposable. And they are doing it because it is in their economic interest just as, I would argue, it is in the economic interest of the consumers.
We hear a lot about – and this is my favourite new acronym – the IWWIWWIWI generation – the I want what I want when I want it millennials, which is the sort of thing that seems on the surface antithetical to this sort of wait and plan and research and want approach. But the other thing the research about millennials shows is that they they also say don’t actually need to own things; that social media is such that consumers are increasingly getting their fix virtually – by pinning – with their actual purchases made much more consciously. And it strikes me that, with its combination of technology and speed and very deliberate purchasing — that is a very modern kind of balance to achieve.
Is it sustainable?
Not almost exactly. Not definitely maybe. Yes.