Category: Inside Story

Will Fashion Collapse Too?

This I Wear | Will Fashion Collapse Too?

On a long flight to Seattle earlier this spring, I re-watched The Big Short, the story of the 2008 financial collapse that led to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. If you haven’t watched the movie, unfortunately I’m going to spoil it for you: the movie ends by sharing that the financial crisis we saw in 2008 could happen again for the exact same reasons with new fancier names.

There are a lot of things that are too good to be true that we somehow trick ourselves into believing…or ignoring.

The housing bubble. The Dot-com boom. Fat-free anything. And yes, the $10 dress.

After I finished watching The Big Short for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how broken the financial system is and how incredible that our government allows this to happen. On second viewing, I realized a similar movie will be made on the fashion industry if we don’t change course now.

I’m not the only person in the fashion industry to take inspiration from The Big Short. New York Times Fashion Editor Vanessa Friedman recently used the movie to argue how to make sustainability “sexy” at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. But I’d argue that the fashion industry can learn something much deeper from the movie – i.e. that all bubbles will burst.

The machines of the Industrial Revolution made the mass production of clothing inevitable. On the surface, it seems like a good idea: create jobs, make production efficient, and give consumers whatever they want when they want it. It helped too that there was a steady supply of rural migrants who were willing to work low wage jobs in hopes of a better future.

Thus begins a familiar pattern: consumer demand and cheap labor leads to rise of sweatshops and polluting factories in absence of government regulation. People die. Those who are still living protest. Local government regulations may be established. Eventually, that community has more money (or options) and demands higher wages. Companies move production elsewhere to lower costs, and the whole process starts again. This vicious cycle traveled around the world as economies developed: England to the US to China to South East Asia. Portugal and Turkey are in there somewhere too. (Sub-Saharan Africa is set to be next, so let’s end this cycle before it starts there.)

The fashion industry has been behaving badly over a few hundred years. The 2008 collapse was the result of bad behavior over 20-30 years. But make no mistake: the fate will be similar. Unfortunately, there will be more casualties (businesses, people, environment) before there is change.

When will we be forced to pay the actual cost of our clothing (or even, an inflated price for our clothing)? When will nature impose its boundaries enough to break this system – through drought, flooding, water scarcity, material scarcity, etc. – to make the $10 dress actually impossible? Have we already reached peak production?

The $10 dress is the equivalent of the subprime mortgages. It was never realistic, and the fact that it has lasted as long as it has should keep us up at night. It’s “dog shit” as The Big Short’s protagonists would say.

Some long-term focused companies see this and are moving as fast as possible to secure alternative textile supply chains with a focus on regenerated post-consumer materials. This means the clothing you’ve been donating to Goodwill could have much greater value eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later. There is a race happening right now to be the first on the market with industrial scale textile regeneration technology. Reclaimed clothing made from a single fiber (example, 100% cotton) will be first to go up in value as the tech is closer. Recycling technology for clothing made from blends (example, 50% cotton, 50% polyester) will take longer. The business case for recycling textiles is clear, and the necessary technology is almost there.

Fiber prices have long been affected by a volatile commodities market, and they will only become more volatile in this changing world. We’ve already seen this: cotton prices go up significantly whenever there is a drought, and petroleum-based fibers like polyester are impacted by oil prices. As we look to the future, it’s important to remember that textiles start on farms – whether tree pulp or more recognizable fibers like linen, cotton and silk – and farms on arable land may need to prioritize food production to feed growing populations, especially those impacted by water scarcity. (That is, unless we make significant progress on existing problems of food waste and water availability.) Eventually we’ll see the price of virgin fibers so high, brands won’t be able to afford them.

Textiles won’t be the only aspect of the fashion industry that will be forced to evolve.

Take color, for example. There is a strong (and overly romantic) push right now for a switch from chemical to natural dyes. But don’t forget that natural dyes come from farms too. These will continue to exist at the artisanal level, grown in small gardens. But mass production could be considered unethical, because just like fibers, they’re grown on arable land and require water and other precious resources. There is opportunity, however, to use dye materials that are byproducts of the food industry, such as onion and avocado skins.

In the future, we’ll have to change our expectations of color. What is color anyway? Is it just a medium for the industry to keep us buying the “new”? Color will come from those regenerated textiles that have already been dyed. Perhaps we will find ways to use waste from other industries as dyestuff. Perhaps it will come from light, embedded computers, or even bacteria. Perhaps color will become irrelevant in the future. Who knows?

And how will your closet change?

The capsule wardrobes of today will become the norm in the future. We’ll have less stuff because the price of clothing will rise. Or perhaps, we’ll have a second wind with mass market cheap clothing if the regenerated textile technology decreases the cost of materials. But how many times can textiles be recycled and remain useable? Gwen Cunningham of the Circular Economy has said that the goal for textile recycling would be 2 rounds of mechanical recycling followed by 1 round of chemical recycling, and will likely require virgin material to be blended in to maintain textile strength. How long would it take us to run through our seemingly endless stock of clothing that already exists on the planet – both in our closets and in our landfills? If Americans are throwing away 68 pounds of clothing per year as the oft-cited stat from the EPA states, it could take awhile. But remember that the clothing that we’re making today, as compared to the clothing that was made as recently as the 1990s, is of much lower quality, so we may not be able to expect as many rounds of recycling before the fiber is useless.

All of this paints a difficult but opportunity-filled portrait.

If you’re in one of the big “banks” of fast fashion, enjoy it while you can and, for everyone’s sake, change it if you can.

For those of us who are already working to change the fashion industry, think about the big picture. What expectations and behaviors will we have to change globally as we shift to a new era of the industry? How will our concept of “fashion” – by its very nature focused on the new – need to shift? Can these shifts be made before we’re forced to make them?

If you’re trying to break into the fashion industry, especially as a designer, know that you have more power than you may think you do. If you learn to design for disassembly and design into creative materials, you’ll be ahead of the game. (For inspiration, check out The Great Recovery.)

If you’re not in the fashion industry but you’re interested in this, I have no doubt that it will be the individuals without a background in the current fashion “system” who will change it. Start thinking how you can get involved.

And for all of us who buy clothes, know that there’s only so much longer for the “stock” prices to stay this low. Perhaps clothing is the safest investment you can make right now.

I’ll be writing again soon to share a special announcement. Don’t want to miss it? Sign up for the email list here.

[Photo: Ben Rosett via Unsplash]

The Business Case for Secondhand

This I Wear | Secondhand

I think we can all agree that there is too much stuff in the world today.

If you don’t agree with that statement, read this again after spending an hour at your local H&M to see how much stuff people are buying. Alternatively, you could choose to google “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” or better yet, stop into any charity shop and see what nervous ticks the staff have developed since the release of Marie Kondo’s “The Magical Art of Tidying Up.

But for those of you who do agree, my guess is that you’re already trying to do your small part in encouraging a world of “less stuff” in your own way.

I also thought I was doing my part until I realized I could be doing a whole lot more because, well, #economics. And by that, I mean I had an enlightened moment of understanding that I was all supply and no demand, and that this was not gonna get any of us any closer to a “less stuff” world. Let me explain.

Here’s my usual routine when it comes to closet cleaning: Clean out closet. Decide if what I cleaned out warrants hosting a swap party. If not, donate clothes to my neighborhood charity shop. Cue that feel good feeling of knowing that I kept my stuff out of the landfill for at least a little while longer.

Oh how I have been naïve.

After my most recent “tidying up” inspired by Marie Kondo, I was all set to do the above usual routine when I heard a podcast talking about all the places to sell your clothes online. Beyond selling my really nice pieces at a local consignment store, I had never explored selling my clothes. I soon found myself browsing sites like The Real Real, Tradesy, and Threadflip that all specialize in online secondhand clothing and accessories for women, and I was floored by the amount of (really really good) merchandise on these sites. If fact, there is enough merchandise on these sites to keep all of womankind clothed and happy for all of eternity.

That’s when I realized that my usual routine was missing a really crucial step: shopping secondhand.

While I am very careful about knowing what I’m buying when I do shop (Was it made ethically? Where was it made? Are the materials sustainable and/or recyclable? Etc.), I’ve still been buying mostly new. And that isn’t really helping us solve our “stuff” problem, because we’re still creating more stuff and using more resources to make all these new things. So while the stuff might be ethically made, what about the unnecessary harm done by further cluttering up the world and using up our resources?

So if I really believe in the importance of valuing our resources and creating less waste, my habit of donating or selling my clothes is only solving half the problem. To make the secondhand market work, I also have to become a consumer of it – taking as much as I’m giving, and looking for what I need on the secondhand market first before I look to buy something new. (Luckily, between local consignment and vintage shops and the online secondhand retailers, this is even easier than trying to find something new that is ethically made.)

The same argument can apply to a million different scenarios when it comes to solving our stuff problem. If we’re recycling but not buying products made with recycled materials, we’re not really creating demand for those materials to tell the market we want more recycled products. Likewise, if we’re powering our house on solar energy but still driving a gas-guzzling car, then we’re really not committing to renewable energy.

Baby steps are important. Yes to making sure our stuff stays out of landfills, that we opt for renewable energy when we can, and that we buy responsibly made goods. But we could be doing so much more if we looked at our behaviors in a more holistic way to see what unintentional signals we may be sending to the market about what we as conscious consumers want. #economics

And anyway, perhaps the only good lesson that fashion has taught us is that vintage is just way cooler and we should know that the old will always becomes new again. So while I will by no means be a perfect secondhand shopper, I’m definitely going to do my best to close this loop.

Photo via ReDone Denim (source here!), a company that is definitely proving there is a business case to be made for secondhand fashion.

Indigo in Brooklyn

This I Wear | Indigo Dyeing

My only critique of the indigo dyeing class that I took this past Saturday was that the soundtrack to the class was not Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, which I am listening to now as I write this. Otherwise, my class at Buaisou Brooklyn was perfect.

Even if you aren’t familiar with natural dyes, chances are you know indigo. It is the original source of the color of your denim. It can be found across cultures and regions of the world. But the truth today is that most of the indigo color that we see is from synthetic (petroleum-based) indigo dye, which was invented just to keep up with our insatiable demand for the deep blue hue.

Indigo is a pretty special plant. While I mistakenly thought it was the root that is used for the dye, it’s actually the leaves, which are fermented. Unlike other natural dyes, indigo also requires no mordant, i.e. a substance added to fix the dye so it doesn’t come out in the wash. It’s no wonder that there is a unique culture that surrounds this plant and its age-old history.

Buaisou is a relative newcomer in the indigo world, created to preserve the indigo culture in Japan and its historic cultivation on an island in the south of the archipelago. They now own a farm in a region that used to be overflowing with indigo farmers, and they travel the world leading dyeing workshops.

In Brooklyn, though, workshops are available weekly, and I joined one after my boyfriend signed us up (he’s awesome like that). Even with a pizza-induced food coma from nearby Roberta’s, the class was so much fun. After a brief intro, each student is given two pieces of plain cloth to dye and total artistic freedom. If that sounds intimidating, it’s not. You literally cannot mess up, so it’s perfect for beginners and more experienced creatives. The only other choice you have to make is if you want to wear gloves when you submerge your pieces in the dye vat or whether you want the street cred of blue hands.

Natural dyes are a tricky subject when it comes to sustainability. The critics would caution that because they are natural does not mean they are organic and free from pesticides, and that devoting good farmland to cultivation of plants grown for dyeing isn’t sustainable because we need to produce food on that land to feed a growing world population. Natural dye advocates argue that natural dyestuffs can be byproducts of food production (example, onion skins and other vegetable waste) and lessen our dependence on petroleum-based dyes. Both sides have their merits.

Indigo is a special story and many of its advocates, including Buaisou, focus on cultural preservation as the art dies away with aging farmers and master dyers.

I believe that indigo production and use at this small artisan level can be sustainable and is most definitely worth saving. Perhaps you’ll try it for yourself to learn more and decide.

Check out Buasiou’s Brooklyn class schedule here. You can also check the site to see if they are hosting a workshop in your city. And as you can probably guess, their Instagram accounts are stunningly beautiful – follow @buaisou_japan and @buaisou_brooklyn.

New Reads for Summer

This I Wear | Summer Reads 2015

Last summer, I set my expectations too high. I planned to read three books but only succeeded in reading one of them. Dan Barber’s Third Plate was too big to carry in my bag during my commute, so I gave up. Fashion and Sustainability read too much like a textbook, and I lost interest. But I successfully read Let My People Go Surfing and luckily that one was fantastic and a very easy read.

Despite a small sense of failure on my reading last summer, Summer Reading remains my favorite hot weather tradition. This year, I’m making failure impossible and recommending a book I’m already nearing the end of and one that everyone but me may have read already.

Women In Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton
This is not the book you throw in your bag for some subway-commuter reading because there’s a lot of pages.. Yet it is such a delightful read that you will find yourself stealing away small moments just to read a few pages. In fact, I read the majority of it so voraciously that when I realized I was nearing the end, I made myself slow down to make it last longer. The book itself is the result of surveys to hundreds of real women plus interviews, photo stories and random encounters, all on one topic: women and their relationship with clothes. It is a storytelling masterpiece in many small snippets and bits, and if you like my blog, you will LOVE this collection of stories.

What’s truly wonderful about the book is that it’s impossible not to identify with at least some of the women, which also makes it easy to laugh when an interview subject says something that hits truly close to home. The book is also not about sustainability or minimalism, yet the topics come up in beautifully surprising ways from stories of trying to develop a personal uniform, learning about where clothes come from, understanding quality, and our emotional connection to clothes. I think I may in fact give this book to every woman in my life this coming Christmas, because there is something about it that so deeply expresses how clothing and fashion relate to how we view ourselves as women across many different cultures, ages, and orientations. Did I mention that I love it?

And if you read it and want to take the survey yourself, it’s still accessible by clicking here.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
Perhaps all of you have read this book already, but I have been holding out for the sole reason of hoping a friend would let me borrow her copy, since I knew people were buying it in droves. I happen to love organizing, and I’m asked repeatedly if I would consider doing it professionally (not at this time, but I’d love to work with you on a one-time project – email me!). But there is always something new to learn and from what I’ve heard, Marie’s process of helping people find joy in what they do keep seems totally refreshing and inspiring. I think I also have a fear that she is advising everyone to throw things in the trash as I’ve been reading news stories of the sheer volume of now-orphaned “stuff” as a result of this book. I’m also very curious if she has tips for people on how to avoid buying more things once they’ve tossed everything out, since that is important too.

So those are the two books I’ve got lined up for the summer. I hope you’ll share your recommendations in the Comments, especially for some light summery fiction (nothing too intense please!), since I’m almost always in the non-fiction section. Happy reading!

Trend or Timeless: Skinny Jeans

This I Wear | Trend or Timeless: Skinny Jeans

It was not that many years ago when I bought my first pair of skinny jeans. I remember them and miss them so intensely. They were black, slightly stretchy Gap jeans, and they had brass zippers at each ankle that went up the calf. I remember them down to the thoughts that went through my head in the dressing room as I was deciding whether or not I was someone who could do skinny jeans. Not because of my body type but because of my fear of being trapped in them.

“Well, at least these have a zipper, so if you start feeling claustrophobic in them, you can unzip the legs while you break free,” I assured myself.

And I did use that as an escape route on multiple occasions, often if I wore them when it was too hot. By the time I got up the stairs to my apartment, perhaps I’d be sweating so profusely, I’d unzip the side zips before I attempted to peel myself out of them. I never knew if I was really going to make it out alive.

Oh how I loved them as did my two roommates at the time, since we all had the same pair. But I wore them to death, and so we parted ways after I squatted down to pick something up and the crotch ripped. It was time.

Embarrassing moment aside, I’ve been on the skinny jean train since then. If it wasn’t for skinny jeans, I might never have met my other dear friend, the thong.

But with everyone pushing boyfriend jeans on me for what has been a surprising number of seasons when you really think about it, I wonder how long the skinny will reign? At this point, I feel like they’ve been around for ever, but of course it is all relative in the world of fashion.

What do you think? Will the skinny jean join other classics and be considered timeless style? Or will it go down as just another trend? How long can something does something have to be in style to become timeless? (Or is that irrelevant?) Also, what kind of denim are you wearing these days?

Happy Fourth of July to all and I hope you’ll be wearing the most American of pants, the noble jean, as you celebrate this weekend!

[Photos, left to right: here, here, and here]

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