It has been a long winter. And while I’ve been hibernating, I’ve been collecting ideas for posts. But as Spring and all of its newness and fresh ideas flood in, I realized it’s been awhile since I’ve given a good solid shout-out to those people and companies that have been inspiring me and teaching me a thing or two. And I’m still really feeling the mending vibe.
My favorites? Three solid sources, all teaching me how to take care of my clothes a little better. Enjoy!
As a college student, I worked in a beautiful boutique in Washington, D.C. And as a college student, I was rarely able to afford the beautiful things we sold, even with an employee discount. Each item I bought usually was preceded by longing stares for weeks with crossed fingers in hopes that a customer wouldn’t buy the last one before my next pay day.
This scarf dates back to my time spent in the shop. I was still in my early stages of finding my passion for environmental issues, and anything that was labeled “eco” was an instant point of obsession. Not only was this scarf promoted as a “green” product, since bamboo grows quickly with no fertilizers or pesticides, but it had the luxurious shine and feel of silk. So I bought it, and I loved it.
During the following year as I researched alternative textile fibers for my thesis, I found that it is true that bamboo does quickly replenish itself and grow without the need for chemicals. However, I also discovered that the process of converting bamboo into a textile fiber was filled with chemicals to make it into what we know as rayon or viscose (Note: Rayon/Viscose can be made from a number of wood-based fibers). Could the good outweigh the bad in this case?
Actually, no. According to Patagonia’s fantastic guide to bamboo, “The solvent used for this process is carbon disulfide, a toxic chemical that is a known human reproductive hazard. It can endanger factory workers and pollute the environment via air emissions and wastewater. The recovery of this solvent in most viscose factories is around 50%, which means that the other half goes into the environment.” My scarf might have been made all the way in Nepal, but I certainly don’t want the Nepalese drinking water contaminated with these chemicals.
It quickly became clear that my scarf and a lot of the bamboo textiles appearing on the market at the time were by-products of green-washing. Or, at my more optimistic moments, I perhaps attributed it to just a long chain of unintentional ignorance that made its way down the chain to me, the consumer. But mostly I just felt swindled. How could I have so blindly trusted this fabric that had seemed almost too good to be true? This scarf was an imposter.
Yet I continue to keep this scarf around. It serves as a reminder that I have to keep asking questions. It reminds me that there are a lot of things that we just don’t know yet – as businesses, scientists, shoppers and just plain human beings. Luckily, we’re getting better information all the time, especially when we pursue it. And if this scarf did go through all those scary chemicals to become the silky fabric that keeps me warm, I have a responsibility to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t cause any more trouble than it already has.
Japan rose to the top of my travel list after I couldn’t help but feel the stereotypical envy of a friend’s Facebook photos, taken while sitting in a hot spring looking out over beautiful green mountains. I want to go to there.
But recently I’ve become totally enamored of Japanese traditional arts, which seem to perfectly marry beauty and practicality regardless of the medium.
It was the beauty aspect that inspired me to sign up for a Sashiko embroidery class at the Textile Arts Center here in New York. Sashiko is a traditional Japanese embroidery, and its geometric and linear patterns are beautiful yet misleading in their complexity. The trick is that for even the most detailed design, the maker can find the longest linear route for her stitches and rarely begin a new thread.
By the end of the three-hour class, I had half of a potholder embroidered. And a few weeks later, I had a completed potholder with a very obvious untied stitch that I am convinced will fall out if someone was to even breathe on it.
But while my beginner’s potholder might be fragile, the real beauty of Sashiko is that it was meant to be tough. The style of embroidery began as a way to mend and reinforce elbows and knees and other clothing spots prone to uneven wear. But like all Japanese arts, someone along the line realized that it might as well be beautiful too, and Sashiko is a perfect example of combining utility and beauty. As the craft matured, it evolved from just a mending technique into its own art form.
One of the most popular uses of Sashiko is to repair worn knees in denim. Instead of trying to hide the mending process to make them look brand new again, the jeans evolve into something new that shows both their age and their rebirth. It is not unlike the Japanese art of Kintsugi, when broken pottery is pieced back together with gold. The repaired item becomes more valuable than when it was brand new.
Mending can be an art. It can tell the stories of a garment’s life. It can increase value, even if often just emotionally. It can turn something that even we did not appreciate into something treasured. And perhaps it can even help us see the “flaws” of our clothing as exactly why we love them most.
It’s a classic meet-cute: you’re in a store, you look around and suddenly you lock eyes. The two of you cannot stop looking at each other. You think “should I or shouldn’t it?” You feel butterflies, but you go for it anyway. You make the move, and it’s clear from that day forward: it was love at first sight.
Quick: name all the items in your closet where it was instantaneous love. It’s probably pretty easy. And if you go by my shopping motto (if you don’t absolutely love it, don’t buy it), then most of your closet is made up of those “love at first sight” pieces.
But what about those pieces that you don’t fall in love with immediately? The sneaky ones that you were on the fence about or bought in a pinch, but over time, you realize you are wearing them everyday? But one day, you wake up and realize “I’m in love”, even though you never saw it coming. Don’t we all wish we could predict these unexpected love affairs?
If my shopping motto is “if you don’t love it, don’t buy it”, my Valentine’s Day motto is “everyday should be Valentine’s Day”, which I learned from a particularly insightful friend years ago that has both caused me never to feel inclined to celebrate Valentine’s Day and reminded me to show love everyday.
And every day, I love denim shirts.
When denim shirts first became popular around 2010, I was really skeptical. I thought it was overly hipster. I thought it would never catch on. And I definitely thought I would never wear one. A few years later, I am now the proud of owner of TWO denim shirts and a frequent wearer of (*gasp*) denim on denim. How did I never see this coming, when today, it is practically my uniform?
On the day I bought my first denim shirt in 2010, I was in an H&M with a friend who was in from out of town and her friend. I was having trouble keeping up with their shopping and wandered off on my own. There was no meet-cute, but instead a few skeptical glances exchanged, lots of internal monologue, and finally the reach to grab it of the rack. When I rejoined with my friend in the long line for the fitting room, I was so unsure of my denim shirt idea that I actually remember not wanting her to see what I had picked up. I was totally embarrassed of trying out this trend. So instead, I abandoned her in the fitting room line and bought the shirt WITHOUT TRYING IT ON (this is just not how I operate). The whole scenario was filled with shame, confusion, and impulsivity.
But to everyone’s surprise, including my own (and probably H&M’s), I am still living in that shirt nearly 4 years later, since I still love it and it has lasted against all odds. Truly it has been an unexpected love that shows no signs of slowing down, but instead has constantly reinvented itself.
For all of us searching for love in our closets, I can only say that I have yet to solve the mystery of how to let ourselves grow into styles, to take risks, and to follow our seemingly irrational gut, especially when I believe so strongly in shopping intentionally. Only time will tell if I will be still looking like a Canadian cowboy by the time I close this case.
Share your unexpected loves in the comments below or tweet @ThisIWear.
When we speak about ethical fashion, usually we refer to what went into the item – how it was made, who made it, and with what. But what about the ethics of design?
Not too long ago, a friend shared with me the story of how a New York-based designer, a true champion in the current “Save the Garment Center” initiative, had mistakenly labeled a fabric print as Aztec when in reality, it was a classic design from the South Pacific cultures including Fiji. I don’t have the full story and I don’t know if the matter has yet been resolved with an apology or a renaming of the product in order to give proper credit. However, as soon as this was brought to my attention, I realized how much of an issue this is today.
The “issue” is intellectual property, in this case patterns and designs, of indigenous peoples around the world. And as the fashion industry (as well as the home goods industry) increasingly expresses interest in “artisan” goods, it’s important to ask if the goods were actually made by artisans or just inspired by their designs. And if they were just inspired, the next question to ask is if the company paid the artisans for the licensing of the designs.
Because in reality, there is no shortage of examples of the fashion industry stealing from artisans, indigenous peoples, and small makers.
One of the most prominent cases is of the Maasai, a tribe in Africa known for their speed and agility as well as their beaded crafts. In 2011, The Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative was established to pursue legal action against companies that use their tribe name to describe their products without asking for permission or giving payment for the licensing. It truly is a sign of the times when the goals of the initiative include talk of a “cultural brand”, but at the very heart of the issue is that 80% of the Maasai are living in poverty, and major brands from Jaguar to Nike have been vastly profiting off of the reputation of the Maasai in branding their products.
The first time this struck me, though, was reading about artist Tanya Aguiniga’s interest in helping bring clarification to the distinction between Native American-inspired and Native American-designed and –made through her “Artists Helping Artisans” program. The distinction made headlines when Urban Outfitters used Navajo-inspired prints in their collections and labeled them as Navajo and then claimed they weren’t doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, at least at the time, the Navajo designs weren’t copyrighted, though they could press Urban Outfitters to remove their name from the offending products.
I think of this often when I see jewelry or other accessories commonly produced by artisans in bigger mainstream shops and wonder if they were actually made by artisans or if they were copied without any acknowledgment (or payment!) given to the original artist. You only have to watch a few episodes of “Man Shops Globe” following Anthropologie’s buyer Keith Johnson to see that there is a fine line between supporting global craftspeople and going home to mass produce something “inspired” by the designs seen during travels. But you can also see something on Etsy or at a local craft fair only to see it in replicated in a major retailer’s costume jewelry line the following season to know that this problem is not exclusive to the global handicraft market.
If major designers can sue for counterfeit handbags and designs stolen and produced by mass retailers like Forever21, it’s time to protect the little guys too.
With current trends in artisan goods skyrocketing, make sure you’re buying artisan made and not artisan inspired. When you see an ethnic print, ask questions about the origin. And let’s make ethical design, just as important as ethical production and trade.