In the fashion industry, can quality, tradition, and authenticity in sustainable fashion trump fast fashion?
Walk into the United States Geological Survey headquarters in Washington D.C. and the building exudes a feeling of serenity and harmony. The soft sound of running water from the entryway’s water wall, the worn color of the wood side panels, the abundance of perfectly placed nature photography, the ginkgo leaves imprinted on the ceilings all work together to increase the beauty of the experience.
As you tour through the space, you learn the water wall balances the humidity in the area and draws particles out of the air; the wood side panels are reclaimed from the bottom of a nearby river and the difference in coloration indicates the stratified depths of the planks; the nature photos have proven to increase work productivity; and the ceiling is actually made of gingko leaves. Your admiration for the space increases exponentially. You fall in love with its beauty first, and then you fall in love with the story and value of the craftsmanship.
Architecture and fashion are parallel because fashion is our first architecture, “our living architecture” said Yoehlee Teng, a veteran designer of New York City’s Garment District. The complex supply chain and many hands that go into making the clothing we wear is a story that needs to matter to us. From farming and harvesting the raw material to processing the fibers and making the clothing, social and environmental considerations are tightly knit.
In the last 25 years, it is estimated that about 80 percent of apparel manufacturing jobs in the United States were lost to overseas production in countries notorious for low wages, child labor, and unsafe, exploitative working conditions. Today Bangladesh is the second largest garment producer in the world, second only to China, and holds minimum wage at $68 per month. Bangladesh’s garment industry employs four million people, mostly women, in 4,300 factories, and generates 80 percent of the country’s total export revenue.
Following the tragic Rana Plaza Collapse in April 2013, where over 1,100 garment workers lost their lives working in a building that was known to be unsafe, little change has been seen. Organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign are urging the government of Bangladesh, the brands, and the retailers that buy from the country to take urgent steps to ensure every garment worker is paid a wage they can live on. Yet, fear of losing business to another bidder often overshadows these attempts.
On top of the shift to overseas production in a race to the lowest bidder, cutthroat, almost impossible deadlines to manufacture the latest trends from runway to shelves in under three weeks for fast fashion retailers like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara place inhumane, deadly pressures on factory owners and their employees.
Currently, the industry is viewed in terms of fashion and sustainable fashion, much like green building saw only a decade ago. There’s a divide between the two as if it were one against the other. There is no one solution, and the only way forward is to incorporate a multi-faceted approach to the range of social and environmental costs associated with manufacturing our clothing. It’s a spectrum of thoughtful ideas and actions.
At New York Fashion Week in 2013, Vaute Couture held the first ever runway show by an all-vegan fashion label, shaking up the industry and proving style and ethics can go hand-in-hand. Models wore clothing made from faux fur and leather alongside organic, recycled, and high-tech fabrics while carrying adoptable dogs as they walked the catwalk.
Another label paving the way is Everlane with their radical business model, which provides pricing transparency along every step of the manufacturing process. Based in San Francisco, Everlane’s classic, year-round staples are sold only online, which allows them to sell their clothing for a reduced price because they eliminate overhead costs associated with a traditional retail space. Moreover, through strong relationships with their overseas manufacturers, the company’s hands-on approach ensures the highest integrity throughout both their process and final product.
Luxury brand Maiyet is framing their sustainability story through the lens of quality and craftsmanship. Partnering with artisans in developing economies around the world in places such as India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mongolia, and Thailand, Maiyet harnesses traditional techniques like Indian wooden block printing and African ethically sourced, hand-sculpted jewelry made from bone and horn to create exotic and refined pieces that stand the test of time and dazzle the imagination.
While many fashion companies are building stronger relationships overseas, more are looking to local production as a way to achieve a greater model of sustainability.
It-girl brand Reformation, created in 2009 by Yael Aflalo, designs and manufactures their collections in their downtown Los Angeles headquarters. Sourcing overstock and sustainable fabrics like organic cotton and lyocell, their supply chain has a fraction of the environmental impact of conventional fashion. Through their tongue-in-cheek brand personality, Reformation has built a cult-like following to inspire a sustainable way to be fashionable.
Old-world crafted products are getting a modern aesthetic from husband and wife team Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough, founders of Raleigh Denim, who learned the history and techniques of traditional American jeans making.
Employing the second patternmaker ever hired at Levi’s, all of their patterns are hand-drawn and made on old sewing machines from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. For Raleigh, time, tradition, and talent is central to their brand. In conventional denim production today, a pocket takes about eleven seconds to place, whereas Raleigh carefully places theirs in twenty minutes to honor quality craftsmanship.
Consumers are more than willing to pay a premium price for clothing from brands whose values align with their own. And the more we support ethical companies by voting with our dollars, the more we urge other retailers to uphold the same standards.
Design comes first, but the story must follow closely behind, and sustainable fashion is about the stories our garments tell from field to closet.
A new sector of fashion is emerging, one that carefully considers quality, tradition, and authenticity.
“We will not just be seduced by the ‘fashion’ but also by how the fashion is made,” said sustainable fashion industry leader and former Barney’s buyer, Julie Gilhart. Within this new sector, they’ve got a story to tell.
Are you listening?
Immersed in the field of sustainability for over ten years, Juliette has led visual water awareness campaigns in Los Angeles, conducted conservation field studies in South Africa, and has been shoulder-deep in a cow’s rumen for nutrient cycling research. Currently, Juliette works as a freelance brand architect specializing in graphic design, web development, and brand identity for emerging sustainable businesses.