The end of fast fashion

The global crisis has thrown a spotlight on fashion’s guilty throwaway culture, which together with a growing concern about climate change threatens to finally topple the era of fast fashion. It’s time to move towards a world of sustainable wardrobes and conscious choices says Claire Brayford

If there were a word to sum up the evolution of women’s fashion in the twentieth century, it would be liberation. First from corsets, then skirts, then high heels, shaking the final mantle of ‘prettiness’ via Miuccia Prada. She made ugly ‘exciting’ and changed the way women dressed forever.

Prior to Prada, designers would be known for a particular ‘look’ and slowly built customers’ wardrobes over seasons: the coat for autumn that complemented the dress from spring, and so on. But in the nineties, the Italian visionary brought a volte-face by introducing a radical new look with each collection.

Fast forward to 2020. Our insatiable desire for newness means 100 billion garments are created each year, one in six people globally works in fashion, and the textile industry alone creates 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. Autumn collections hit stores in the height of summer, the average piece is worn just seven times before it is thrown away, and it seemed nothing could break the cycle – until the world stopped. The comments of American Vogue’s Anna Wintour in April proved, unsurprisingly, spot on: ‘This is an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and look at our lives, and to rethink our values and really think about the waste and the amount of consumption and excess that we all, and I include myself, have indulged in. We really need to rethink what this industry stands for.’

The pandemic, coupled with a growing concern about climate change, is forcing a reevaluation. Our throwaway culture makes for uncomfortable though. COVID-19 has reset the clock, bringing the opportunity for a new word to sum up fashion in this part of the twenty-first century: slow. What we want now are designs brimming with craftsmanship; considered, comfortable and conscious clothing that you want to live in, linger over and love for a lifetime.

‘I do expect the fashion cycle to readjust to the calendar more – autumn clothes will be in stores in autumn, and not at the height of summer,’ says aclaimed journalist Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. ‘There will be fewer collections, with fewer items, and more drops. Everyone is going to have tighter budgets – designers, retailers, and shoppers. The amount offered and when it is offered will reflect that.’

And when we do shop – if only to dress up our Zoom calls – we will look at sustainability with conviction, not as an afterthought. The most sought-after denim? Aloe jeans made from recycled cotton and washed using a single cup of water by New York-based brand AYR  (which stands for All Year Round). New shoes? A pair of handmade loafers by British brand Dear Frances, crafted in a multigenerational artisanal factory in Italy where the design remains largely unaltered.

According to Caroline Issa, chief executive and fashion director of Tank magazine, slow fashion – although defined in many different ways – means brands like Gabriela Hearst, Emilia Wickstead, Roksanda, Bethany Williams, Phoebe English and Alvaro.

Meanwhile, – in partnership with Eco-Age – has launched its ‘responsible edit’, which offers a selection of curated, sustainable pieces. Among the Veja trainers, A.P.C bags and Stella McCartney jackets, exciting ethically-minded names like Another Tomorrow offer refined, easy tailoring and timeless separates – foundations of your wardrobe.

‘We are always looking for great design first and foremost, and then we look to the processes behind those pieces,’ Matches’ fashion and buying director Natalie Kingham explains.

Unisex style is also stepping forward, with contemporary British brands such as Toogood (created by sisters Faye and Erica Toogood) offering sustainable, seasonless design for men and women. There is greater focus on wellbeing too, hence Alex Eagle Studio’s painstakingly selected handmade pyjamas, cashmere socks and clean skincare.

Pre-COVID, circular retail – renting and resale on e-tailers such as Vestiaire Collective and My Wardrobe HQ – was a popular, sustainable option. But with the world now two metres apart, cleanliness and provenance need to be at the forefront. ‘Customers will be looking for the safest, most ecologically and financially sound option, and fashion rental will be just one part of this,’ says Sacha Newall, cofounder of My Wardrobe HQ. ‘We have facilities that reach medical-grade cleaning for all of our items.’

Yet perhaps the best ‘new’ clothes will be the ones we already own. As the Duchess of Cambridge has proved, it’s chic to repeat. ‘That’s why I still have so much optimism for the luxury fashion industry – creatives make beautiful things that we want to keep forever, and that won’t change,’ says Issa, who has enjoyed returning to ‘archive’ investment pieces that hold a special memory. ‘A 2012 Christian Dior couture necklace from Raf Simons’ first couture show, or my Frida Giannini Gucci shoes from 2008. It’s been so lovely to reuse them, even if only around the house, but also to remember why we love fashion – the things that made us excited, that last, that stay.’

For Issa, the secret to investment shopping is a combination of instinct and price; the latter an indicator of quality, fabric, workmanship and attention to detail.

‘In the long run, it pays to value the piece you bring home, and that should be reflected in the price you are paying.’

But the fact is that some clothes have never cost less. Helped by cheap labour and the low cost of oil, which is pumped into the fashion sector in the form of polyester (the most consumed textile fibre and one that needs to become the fashion equivalent of the plastic straw), there has also been an ideological shift towards throwaway fashion, especially with the rise of social media influencers.

‘We have all been conditioned to think it’s normal to pay $10 for a shirt,’ says Dana Thomas. ‘It’s not. We have wage suppression, and complain we can’t afford things, because we contribute to the entire cycle of wage suppression by buying such cheap junk. Want to talk about wage suppression and not affording things? Take a look at the people – the women – who make those $10 shirts. They are paid $100 a month as a living wage. Pay what it’s worth, and everyone along the supply chain will be paid what they are worth, too. It’s an ecosystem.’

With less desire for the new, we are also becoming fans of ‘repair’ and even ‘visible repair’, as can be seen on an Instagram hashtag. Well, if it’s good enough for Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton, who repurposed previous season’s deadstock fabric into her new spring/summer 2020 collection, it should be good enough for us.

Stuck indoors, we have found the time and joy to darn and mend, previously something we would have outsourced. Toast, long purveyors of slow fashion, have been offering virtual mending workshops, while London-based textile artist Celia Pym has stepped into the spotlight by turning mending and darning into a joyful craft to celebrate – adding a new layer to the story of the life of a piece of clothing.

So what will be the new normal as we switch out of the slow lane? Kate Fletcher, a professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion and the author of Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion, says: ‘This is the moment we realise that, without shopping, we already have all the clothes we need. We have clean air, quiet skies, birdsong – now we just need to live with the things we already have.’

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