A letter to Man Repeller: Sustainable fashion CAN be fashionable

Brother Vellies 2016

Yesterday on style blog, Man Repeller, ex-Zady consultant and sustainability expert Nadine Farag, posed the question ‘Can sustainable fashion ever be fashionable?’. An exciting and relevant question that encourages a plethora of conversation. In short, my answer is YES!… We’re just not there yet.

Let’s get back to basics

Farag begins answering her question by acknowledging that the very premise of of the slow fashion movement is to go back to basics; “sustainable fashion is about taking a slower and more measured approach to clothing production. Eschewing trendier designs in favor of clothes with longer lasting wearability”.

Although the movement is making progress, I wouldn’t even go far to say it is in full swing and the general consumers appetite for ethical fashion is still relatively small. Although the ethical fashion industry still has a reputation of designing for substance over style, brands from all over the world are starting to emerge with a new agenda. Designers are building the foundation of their brands on beautiful, contemporary design, with a focus on classic garments.

Chloe creative director, Clare Waight Keller, spoke about just this when she described the essence of the Chloe brand “Those things are taken care of and designed in such a way that even if it is a big investment, you’re going to wear it over and over again. There isn’t a throw away mentality. I think [Gaby Agnion, Chloe’s founder] liked that iconicness with some of her pieces. The [crepe de chine] blouse was one of the first things she felt to strongly about.”

Classic silk and crepe from Chloe Fall 2016

When a brand launches with a key shape or fabric on which to build their future collections, they are not only producing clothes with an ethical mentality but they’re cementing their brand’s identity. It is widely recognised that it is easier for a brand to launch with ethical values than for an established brand to introduce them later on, but with so many contemporary brands having only launched in the last few years, they just haven’t hit their stride yet.

Let’s get to know each other

But design isn’t the only consideration; “Production-wise, the supply of sustainable materials and components is still relatively limited.”

Knitwear designer Eleanor O’Neill at Study 34 couldn’t agree with Farag more “There are not a lot of [manufacturers] around, so that’s the first challenge, finding them. Then you need to be compatible. You need to value the same things as well as offer value to each other.”

The manufacturing industry is under a huge amount of pressure to keep costs low and production high, so when young brands are asking for a lot of time with small orders, it isn’t always easy to find a manufacturer willing to take a chance on you. A consumer’s expectation to pay more for a garment could close that gap somewhat but with the high street making little effort to change, that is a process that could take decades.  

Fashion is art

For me, the real issue surrounding the whole fast fashion industry is our attitude towards clothes. Why does true style mean we have to own more clothes than we could possibly wear in a year? Just like a workman who shouldn’t blame his tools, fast fashion is a cheat to having ‘style’. Ethical fashion attempts to readjust our relationship with clothes, which is actually readjusting our relationship with personal style.

I find no shame in owning a beautiful dress that you only wear a few times in your life if you truly enjoy it. Clothes can be like art and simply owning them can justify their purchase but that doesn’t mean it’s journey to your wardrobe has to be one of exploitation and sacrifice. Yes ethical fashion is about reducing the amount you buy, but it’s also about asking where it came from; what is the social and environmental impact?

Brother Vellies 2016

Brands like Vogue CFDA winner, Brother Vellies, have proved this. Beautiful, colourful, often impractical shoes that consider their story as important as the design. Working with local materials and artisans to produce their shoes, Brother Vellies have achieved this balance of style with a soul.

Similarly, New York based brand, Cienne NY, source “the finest materials from artisans around the world and produce [their clothes] in high-end factories in the heart of New York City’s garment district.” Loud prints and bold colours are their signature but by keeping their collection to a succinct couple of printed fabrics, they are able to order in higher volumes and produce a larger collection of shapes.

The afterlife

The fast fashion model in its current form is simply not sustainable but with only 30% of the carbon footprint coming from the production of a garment, our focus needs to be on the ethical care and afterlife of a garment. If we want to buy trends as a small portion of our wardrobes, we need to reuse and recycle more than we do now. Ultimately, ethical fashion is not meant to be judgmental or punishing. It is meant to be conscious.