For a Sustainable and Fair World of Fashion, Art and Creativity
My thoughts and ideas on Dana Thomas's book Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes
Last year I saw a dress I kind of liked at the store of a diffusion line of a major designer that targets younger women with their youthful romantic designs. They are usually short for someone like me, but this one wasn’t. I tried it on in my regular size, which was too tight on my chest area, strange given that almost all women I know have bigger breasts than me, and the next size was too big, but I was offered a discount—who doesn’t like a bargain?—so I said that I would think about it. But I wasn’t sure I really wanted it. I was still on the fence when I received a text from the sales associate a few weeks later saying that the dress had gone on sale and I visited the store with a pair of shoes I wanted to try it on with. I still couldn’t decide!
The questions running through my mind were:
-Do I need another dress, especially one I am not in love with?
-Can I be as creative as I want to be with a dress? (I don’t like wearing something the way it exactly is, I add layers, style it or change it.)
-I love tulle but do I look ridiculous in it at my age?
-What am I saying with the dress?
I went inside the store one last time as I was passing by, to be told that it was the last day to buy it. I asked the sales associate what she meant by that and she replied that all in that rack with last season’s clothes that were not sold in this last sale would be sent back to Italy. I asked, and then what? And to my shock, she said that “most probably they would be burned”. I gasped and much like the story of the starfish thrown back into the ocean, decided right then and there to purchase the dress, to not only save the dress but also prevent the environmental impact of shipping one more item and what the actual burning would do to our planet.
Holding the book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, wearing the dress mentioned one last time before I put it up for sale.
Enter Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, by Dana Thomas, renamed for its paperback as Fashionopolis: Why What We Wear Matters. The book was a quick read with plenty of information that changed my world view of everything about clothes. Style and fashion journalist Dana Thomas, whose other books Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster and Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano contain incredible research and reporting with references to go back to, writes in a style that draw you in and not put the books down until finished. I read all of her books without switching to reading any other books, something I generally do, which says a lot about her engaging writing style. I have to say that while I absolutely loved all three books I learned the most from her latest book, Fashionopolis.
For example, I was shocked to learn that cotton in fact has an incredible burden on the environment, as do blue jeans! So my uniform of blue jeans and cotton T-shirts while we were all cooped up at home during the quarantine was not any more sustainable than those people who were wearing ordinary athleisure wear.
I also delighted in what great things were being done by certain people, designers and brands: Sally Fox, who is called the mother of modern organic cotton, Natalie Chanin and her fantastic work on slow fashion, NEST, the New York based nonprofit that supports women artisans around the world, Stella McCartney and her quest to make a major designer brand be more and more sustainable each and every day, Maria Cornejo and her dedication to responsible—and very cool—design that is locally produced in New York City, Sarah Bellos creator of natural indigo dye, Patagonia and Levi’s with their commitment to supporting the environment, both also offer re-sale of their of their products on their respective websites. (Which made me wonder wherever I had my old 501s in which I looked really great, including the one had with the “Big E” bought from a vintage store with my cousin a million years ago in Vienna.) While at times I was scared and despondent for our future I was also hopeful not only because of the innovators and major players’ production choices but also because it all depends on us as consumers who make an impact.
After reading the book, I started taking a closer look at fabrics. A lot of things I liked due to their nice print and flattering design I ended up not buying because of the cheap quality of fabric and as someone living in Miami think are too warm to wear. On every trip to the mall in the past, I always thought there were too many clothes out there. I always said this many clothes cannot be sold, this incredible number of surplus clothes which exist because of the economies of scale, that if not burned, go to landfills. And I also learned what certain fabrics, like rayon really are.
Dana Thomas recommends buying quality clothes, then re-use, re-purpose, upcycle and then rent or re-sell/consign –which I do and recommend to everybody for years. (I think everybody I know does this already). I absolutely love finding an outfit I had missed while in season or found to be too expensive, available at a better price on re-sale. But I realize it is easier for me considering I can afford to pay more hence support quality which all in all is expensive. How exactly do we solve the environmental problem that is Fast Fashion?
Thomas recounts the history of garment manufacturing and how globalism and low production and labor costs in developing countries where people have to work under the most horrible conditions, all to achieve low cost, with the tragedies of the Dhaka Garment Factory Fire which killed 117 workers who were trapped inside and injured more than 200, and the Rana Plaza Garment Factory Collapse which killed 1134 people, and injured 2500! Who can in all consciousness, go and buy fast fashion after reading this? Yet, what would happen to those people if they are left without jobs? Labor conditions should be improved everywhere but how? How can we have a sustainable model that works here? I really don’t know but I feel it has to be a location-centric.
When I was a kid you could tell apart a business executive’s daughter from a doorman’s daughter from the clothes they wore, but thanks to none other than fast fashion you cannot tell them apart now. But knowing what we know now, how can we achieve a sustainable fast fashion model? And how can you be fashionable without fast fashion if you don’t have the means, if you can’t sew yourself, without ruining the planet? Great designs should be available in all price ranges but without counterfeiting or direct copying, which is a big problem as Thomas recounts in Fashionopolis with the case of Mary Katrantzou. Of course I value creativity, proprietorship but does it only have to be for the rich? Somebody who can’t afford to spend a lot of money on clothes even at the prices of consignment stores and resale websites, yet want to be beautiful and stylish and fashionable, are they being asked too much? Do they not have a right to have affordable, quality, proprietary, beautiful and sustainable fashion choices?
It is a bit different in the art world but I think it can provide a guidance: For example, there can only be one and only one piece of an artwork which could be in a museum, but then there would be authentic lithographs, prints and posters, and even if you can’t own the original you could buy a licensed, official replica of it proceeds of which go to the artist, the owner, or the copyright owner depending on the specifics of painting. Just because you can't afford a wonderful painting doesn't necessarily mean that you can't enjoy its beauty in the form a poster in the wall of your home. So how can that be achieved in fashion?
In this sense the art world seems luckier than the fashion world, but there is something else artists and fashion designers are not as lucky as creators of music, in that while music writers get paid royalties for every time their music is replayed (although they do have the problem of illegal downloads), artists and fashion designers do not benefit from the re-sale of their work which in many cases are so incredibly unfair. Consider a work by an artist from their early days, sold at a low price which can be sold years later for a fortune but the re-sale doesn’t make a return either to the artist or the first gallery that invested in the artist way back when. Similarly, we see that certain vintage clothing by some designers gain incredible value years later. Wouldn’t it be great if the galleries and designers become involved in the re-sale, kind of like when I go to my car dealer and trade in my car for a newer model, which they also happen to sell? What is the advantage of controlling the second hand market too? That of trust in authenticity, but I would also prefer to buy and be more loyal to a brand that is committed to its creations and sustainability at the same time. (In the art gallery world, sales contracts should be drafted in a way that the gallery would have to be involved in re-sale to authenticate, and that the percentage of the return to the artist should be negotiated from the beginning).
What else though? Of course, haute couture will stay. Major designers’ haute couture collections, which the 1% of the 1% will always be able to and want to own created with the labor of specialized people with incredible talent in stitching, embroidery, artisanry should never ever be allowed to disappear. That rarefied world that supports so many jobs will have to be more sustainable though. The same goes for Ready-to-Wear collections. The people who wear them will continue to buy them and wear them. These companies will continue to rent stores for their boutiques, employ salespeople, security, delivery people without anybody having to lose their jobs but they have to be more sustainable, and given that their biggest margins of profits come from the front of their stores which sell bags, accessories, perfume and cosmetics, I don’t really think they would mind. They also will have to manufacture now with more sustainable practices from fabric selection, production lines, and their re-sale markets too.
What will change is the increased awareness of the environmental impact we have with the clothes we wear which creates a guilt, a consciousness, a desire to buy clothes only if they are sustainable. This demand would force all designers to re-think about everything they have to offer. As for fast fashion, which copies or let’s say are inspired by the collections of major designers, we should be appalled and reject anything that is not authentic, that is directly copied, i.e. stolen.
I envision of a return to the old days: Starting in the 1930s when designers in Paris prepared their collections and then sold their designs through licensing to American wholesalers and department stores which would reproduce the looks accordingly and sell them to the mass market. This system worked for years and I think it can now be re-created in a modern way. I can imagine an Application, a mix between what Unmade has been doing and etsy which has a lot of handmade products sold by people, with a more aesthetically appealing and easier to use design of the knitting website ravelry, where you can find a local tailor who would have the license of a certain look, a re-imagining of a diffusion line. They will be sewn locally, supporting local small businesses, and be cost-effective, sustainable, and proprietary. How will they be authentic? Well, upon licensing or getting approval, the tailor would be providing the relevant data to the designers' headquarters, the headquarters would then send one of those hologram labels they put normally inside their handbags, or inside their fabric tags to be printed. In this case however, to show authenticity, and to announce the world that you are authentic and support original designs, the hologram label should be attached to the outside of the garment, with perhaps also the signature of the person who has sewn it too. I wouldn’t want to wear anything with a prominent logo of the designer but if it is to show that it is re-done, upcycled, I would most certainly want to wear something that announces that to the world. Proudly! It can be done.
The same will be done for all the unsold Ready-to-Wear pieces that usually go back to be burned or to fill up more landfills (lately they also sell them on TheRealReal for second hand prices). The unsold pieces will be taken to the local licensed tailors/stylists who will upcycle/re-do these pieces to a whole new model, present it in the App for others after perhaps approval of the designer too, and they will send a different hologram tag, perhaps featuring an “R” after the brand. I think this could work with a luxury group’s or designer’s own App, or perhaps in different department stores’ websites and Apps who will support all this in local markets.
I understand all my ideas presume a desire from every human being to be sustainable, and honest, and that they care about the environment but I think the more we learn from books like Fashionopolis, the more people want to have a stop at this crazy production. I personally like to dress up, but I stopped even entering fast fashion stores, (I also avoid the use of plastic and drive a Tesla). I appreciate and value artistry and original creativity, and at the same time the ambition and drive to be more successful, but there has to be a way to achieve them without an environmental cost. A whole new generation cares more about the environment and I believe more designers have to consider how the Gen Z think and act. We all have to change to prevent the destruction of the planet.
Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags), by Michelangelo Pistoletto
All three photos by Sahir Ugur Eren, retrieved from Saltwater: 14th Istanbul Biennial
The cover of Fashionopolis features the image of the artwork Venere degli stracci by Michelangelo Pistoletto which I had actually seen at the Istanbul Modern, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, during a visit to the 14th Istanbul Biennial Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, in 2015. In Venere degli stracci, Pistoletto, an Italian artist from the Arte Povera school, shows a life-size sculpture of Venus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite, which symbolizes our Western ideals of art, beauty and aesthetics, facing the wall, not the spectator, with an immense pile of colorful articles of clothing, rags. I have to confess when I first read the title in Italian, Venere degli stracci, I guessed it meant “Venerate/worship clothes”—my guesses in Italian are very rarely correct—and turns out I was wrong here too and Venere is "Venus" in Italian and the title of the work is thus, “Venus of the Rags”. (However, the Italian verb venerari meaning, "to honor, to worship, pay homage" is in fact derived from Venere/Venus).
This juxtaposition of the goddess of ideal beauty out of the view from the front because of that rags that have become garbage says a lot indeed. Imagine Venus/Aphrodite, the beautiful, wise, powerful goddess who with her clothing should show her beauty and brains, able to convey who she is, a goddess who cares for the people and the earth, is instead, because of the unnecessary amount of clothes that turn into garbage, made invisible, her beauty unseen because of her choice of clothes. Women, the greatest consumers of fashion, makers of their own destinies who make the earth’s destiny at the same time, should stop worshiping anything that are rags that turn into garbage and prove that we are all beautiful and smart at the same time and demand and buy according to principles that support that.
In conclusion, I very highly recommend Dana Thomas’s latest book Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. It finally brought me back from almost a year of reading, reading and reading and nothing else just sadness and general depression like everybody else in this past year, to finally sit down and write. I read a LOT of books, but this is one of the few that I would recommend everybody to read.
Dana Thomas titled her book Fashionopolis, a name created by combining “fashion” with the Greek world “polis” meaning city, like the city-state in ancient Greece. Thomas in the introduction writes that the “Greek philosopher Plato put forth in the Socratic dialogue The Republic that an ideal polis should embody four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. If all came together harmoniously, the polis would attain perfect equality—a 'just city.'” The polis, the city is also a political body, from which the words policy and politics are derived. We most definitely need new policies when it comes to fashion and its impact on the environment and the politics of it all should change. All of us individually should think hard and also police our approach to fashion and demand all to do so. Read the book. I am sure it will change what clothes you buy. And who knows? Maybe you will be the one who comes up with a viable solution .