What is Sustainable Fashion? (Part II)

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Donna Karan has said it best when she encourages those in fashion to really think deeply about why they are making the garments they are making and what purpose are they actually serving? I think the other issue informing my criticisms (of the panel discussion at Pratt) is that I think the only way we can make actual and significant headway on the sustainability front is 100% through cross-disciplinary collaboration — and by that I mean an actual think tank with architects, environmentalists, lawyers, and academics as well as professional fashion designers discussing the new future of fashion.  The discussion over something as important as sustainability has to come from a variety of avenues, not just from within fashion itself. That’s when the sentiments become a little difficult to read.

It’s true that there is a great distinction between the art and craft of garment-making and the fashion industry proper, but it seems that those who benefit from the latter in their pursuit of the former need not be so dismissive of the hand that feeds them.  It just feels a little odd when successful designers start complaining about “the system.”

Julie Gilhart noted that the Barney’s CEO is so concerned about the “bottom line” and that’s part of her difficulty in introducing sustainable designs to the Barney’s customer. But doesn’t that also indicate that everyone’s job really does depend on the fashion industry maintaining the status quo? Isn’t it then necessary that available fashions constantly change, thereby presenting the customer with a continual series of different options to purchase?

Fashion as it exists in the United States really is an enormous industry – providing millions of jobs and dealing in loads and loads of money. Do those who are at the highest level of that totem pole really and truly want to see everyone running around in re-usable linen shifts? I highly doubt it.

I also wonder if there isn’t something innately human about the desire to change our skins. Would any of us really be content with one or two garments, even if they did stand the wear and tear of time? Again, I have my doubts. And I think it’s little false to suggest otherwise. Perhaps the solution lies in thinking very seriously about how we can satisfy our thirst for the new in a physical environment that is quickly forcing us to settle for less.

Designs by Kelly Cobb, "Ethics and Aesthetics: Sustainable Fashion" Exhibition, Pratt

Designs by Kelly Cobb, "Ethics and Aesthetics: Sustainable Fashion" Exhibition, Pratt

Another point I’d contest is this idea that individualism really has that much power over the fashion industry. Are the days of the “it” dress or “it” bag really over? Is it really so true that everyone just wants unique, well-crafted, individual pieces? While that idea sounds incredibly refreshing and yes, perhaps in New York and other highly style conscious places the quest for the “special” item may be in effect, I just don’t think that applies to all women everywhere.

I just wonder if the idea of the “new” combined with our need for group conformity are simply too much a part of why we dress the way we dress. And if group conformity (and the perpetuation and following of trends) is really at the heart of the fashion equation how long will we be satisfied without wanting what the girl next door is wearing?

So what is the answer? I agree with the Pratt panelists that a return to quality craft and individualism is a huge part of the solution. It’s typically when we feel the responsibility and the gravity of our own choices as individuals that we may come to really thoughtfully consider how our fashion and consumption practices affect others. It’s as individuals that we become accountable.

When blindly following trends we literally become one of a pack and we cease to feel a responsibility for our actions. So it does feel like more collaboration and cooperation on the design end, more individual responsibility on the consumption end, and we may see ourselves reaching some kind of solid grasp of the solutions to the problems of creating, promoting, and attaining sustainable fashion.

Julie Gilhart reminded the audience at the Pratt panel that we are now at a point where these issues of sustainability are simply unavoidable. That is definitely true. We are faced with a moment of crisis in all areas of consumption, but I think we need to ask a lot more primary questions about why we design what we design and why we buy what we buy. It’s only after dealing with these larger theoretical issues that specifics of this problem will come into focus.

For more reading check out these resources: Ecotextile News and the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

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