Feature image: By Sharime, taken at Bali’s Tegalalang rice terrace in Ubud.
When I started becoming more aware of the issues with the current fashion cycle and the humanitarian and environmental tragedies it encompasses, one of my biggest mistakes was being worried that there was very little I could do to make a change in such a global, systemic problem that is entrenched within the business models of some of the world’s largest apparel companies. It’s one thought that held me back from starting a discourse about this to begin with as without a solution, being aware without being able to take action is painfully paralysing. I thought (incorrectly) that there was not really a palpable solution to such a grossly mismanaged problem. What I’ve realised via the passage of time, research and self-education is that it’s about being creative and changing your posture towards the issues at hand.
To be honest this applies to everything we face in our lives, and funnily enough it has always been one of my life’s mantras: it’s not what you wear; it’s how you wear it. This saying has encouraged me through dark seasons and beautiful periods alike, we are all dealt difficulty at some stage and the impact it has on us is relative, but ultimately “the tempered steel of virtue” (Romans 5) is wrought in the pressure and we can reap “beauty from ashes” (Isaiah 61). Anyway, back-tracking from that side note (oops) these are the issues that immediately came to mind upon realising the depth and breadth of fast fashion-specific problems:
1. The vast majority of the world cannot exist on a wardrobe of Stella McCartney (an amazingly ethical, sustainable and desirable brand), Chanel and Monique Péan alone (again, an amazing designer who uses fossils and the like to make some of the most unique/eye-wateringly expensive jewellery you’ve ever seen), though trust me I wish I could.
2. High-low dressing is seen as ‘cool’; even the people who can afford to fill their wardrobe with labels purely from the luxe end of the market often choose to mix high-street or vintage with high-end as it’s better to be a little bit down-to-earth and accessible (I say this all very much tongue-in-cheek).
3. When I think of “ethical fashion” I won’t lie, I still think of hemp, hippies and something rather puritanical, it doesn’t really seem like a sexy concept. There is nothing inherently wrong with hemp or hippies at all, it’s just on a personal level and speaking from the point of view of someone who very much lives and breathes fashion as an art form and a consumer, I desire more and I desire variety.
4. What the fast-fashion market provides is convenience, ease, affordability and a lot of the time clothes that look pretty darn good (at least on Instagram) even if not when you touch and feel them up close.
Addressing all of the above, I totally get what a lot of you might be thinking; though I don’t speak for everyone, the majority of my friends—girls and guys alike—think about what they wear, are interested in fashion and are also intelligent, empathetic and incredibly talented and driven individuals. Personally, whenever I get dressed for various occasions in life my mood and motivation varies, there are times when I want to feel sexy, occasions I want to feel empowered and in charge, others when I’m very happy to blend into the background and I value comfort over creative statements, times I embrace the uber-feminine and others where you wanna feel a bit badass (just me?). We are multi-faceted, complicated and creative people and these are the very reasons why fashion is such a powerful force of things. It is one of the most commodified forms of art and expression, a curious mixture of commerce and creativity. This psychology and power is why the action plan to tackle the aforementioned issues needs to be two-fold, both psychological and practical shifts are required.
The Psychological Shift
Psychologically, we need to realise that to be honest, we don’t need so many things. We need to learn to treasure what we have if we don’t already, and one practical way of doing that is investing in our clothes, accessories et. al more. This can be literally, by saving up and buying lesser quantity but higher quality items which will last longer and be more likely to incite more usage, more maintenance and a lesser sense of disposability. For me, imbuing my clothes with stories to tell (more on that later) encourages me to shop less and remix more. Ultimately, the goal is to buy less at a much slower pace.
Even the more ethical luxury fashion industry has an extremely westernised (literally all the Big Four fashion weeks being based in the Western Hemisphere) business cycle which has shifted gears to a more frenetic pace. As recently as five years ago, most luxe brands only had biannual shows according to the seasons (Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer) whereas now, Cruise/Resort/Pre-Fall collections have made the cycle a four-show-seasons-per-year extravaganza. The funny thing is that people’s tastes and buying habits are what has informed that cycle (as well as the time needed for production) wealthy customers often went to resorts and on cruises/yachts during the period after the shows and when the clothes actually hit the shop floor and so were buying more during those ‘in-between’ periods for their holidays. Additionally, after living in the season-less heat and humidity of Southeast Asia for the last few years I can confirm the hilarity of a global industry still operating on these extremely Euro-centric principals; there is huge business opportunity for year-round summer wardrobes in SE Asia and most equatorial countries. The reason I provide this mini fashion history lesson is to prove that consumer tastes shape the industry, as ultimately it is a business that operates on the basic principle of supply and demand. As much as it requires creativity and beauty as the source, the Creative Director and CEO of a brand have a symbiotic relationship, one doesn’t eat without the other. Luxury fashion also always informs fast fashion, if you look at any high street store’s stock you will see questionably similar designs to Gucci, Céine and so on, and as luxury fashion has sped up its pace to accommodate consumer desire, fast-fashion has followed suit and become ever faster. Due to its high turnover rate from factory to shop floor, much lower quality of materials and workmanship, fast-fashion companies can replicate designs faster than designer brands can produce them (creating a lot of intellectual property issues, but that’s another blog in itself) and therefore the constant desire for new is ever-perpetuated.
Notably, ‘The Business of Fashion’ recently reported that many high street brands are already predicting profit losses during a usually bolstering festive period as mid-range brands that combine sustainability alongside profits as bottom lines for their business are taking market share from them. 18-35 year olds are some of the biggest spenders within and the target consumer in the fast-fashion market, due to income range and being the most engaged with a lot of social-media driven trends. We are also some of the most savvy and inquisitive consumers, having more access to information than ever before, so essentially we drive retail trends, rather than allowing them to drive us. Let’s never underestimate the power of influence, both personal and collective.
The Practical Shifts
I’m going to break this down into four main sections as personal style is by definition not one-size-fits-all, so here are some of the steps towards creating and investing in a new way of being in vogue that will hopefully work for a variety of people and tastes:
1. Maintenance and TLC
2. Rewear, reuse, recycle
3. Vintage, pre-loved and designer thrifting
4. Brands to believe in
I love what my good friend and former work-wife (sob) Cheng Jee Yan has to say on the matter: “Don’t let a price tag determine the worth of your clothing. It’s more about how these pieces can work for you in the long run.” She inspired me by telling me about the TLC she showers on her clothes no matter the price tag by hand-washing them; always looking for the slightly more expensive raw materials even when buying from a fast-fashion retailer (cotton percentage, silk, wool etc. as opposed to acrylic, polyester and viscose) and taking things to the local seamstress or tailor when they get a snag or hole rather than chucking them in the bin, recycling or sending them onto a charity shop. Maintenance is really the key, if you treasure that high street jumper as much as your designer coat, it can last as long. Going to your local tailor or cobbler and getting your shoes soled before they get worn down (especially if they’re leather soles, they will not last on the mean streets of any city as beautiful as they may look) and that snag repaired will cost you minimally but maximise the life span of your pieces. I know it can seem like a pain, but to be honest, there are many cheaper pieces in my wardrobe that I wish I maintained before they were beyond repair. Finding a replica piece that I like as much as that much-loved one can be pretty hard, and will cost more than it would have done to repair it, plus I have made good friends with my local seamstress and cobbler, so there’s an added relationship bonus too.
Rewear, reuse, recycle
Firstly, let’s lay down some hard truths, buying mindlessly and thinking it’s okay as you can just pass it on to your local charity shop when you’re bored with it/don’t have enough room in your closet for all your new things is a lie we’ve all been fed a little too long. In the UK alone—which is but a speck on the world map—the equivalent of 29,000 worth of London buses of good, wearable clothing goes to landfill each year. This is because the amount we donate to charity shops cannot often be moved on the shop floor, and can also end up being shipped en masse to LEDCs (less-economically developed countries) and negatively impact their internal tailoring and manufacturing industries and economic infrastructure.
Whilst shopping in charity shops is great and something I do enjoy (you’ve got to find the good ones) it isn’t the golden solution to the bigger problem and that’s something we should be aware of when we’re shopping. Stop and think to yourself, will I wear this enough to justify me buying it? For more expensive items, cost-per-wear calculation is useful to consider and will help you to invest wisely in more versatile pieces.
I’m not entirely sure if this is just my family, but we pass things down and around between us. I am in possession of all manner of good quality pieces that have found their new home from Canada, Malaysia and round the corner with my brothers and I. I inherited a whole host of amazing coats, bags and clothes from my mum that are timeless and due to the circular nature of trends, now somehow fresh again. You can apply this principle of re-wearing and re-gifting amongst your friends if your family are potentially (in your opinion) sartorially challenged, or participate in reselling on eBay and other higher end resale sites such as Vestiaire Collective.
Vintage and pre-loved
For me, buying vintage clothing is something I advocate and is almost second nature. I fell in love at 15, when a much cooler than me friend brought me along with him to the now well-known haunts of Spitalfields, Brick Lane etc. Beyond Retro on Cheshire Street remains a firm favourite, I remember thinking I must go there after hearing that my teen girl crush Rachel Bilson (these were The O.C days, the best) frequented there when she was in London. Now they’ve developed a second branch on Great Marlborough Street (much smaller and not as great but more central) and an e-commerce store. The online boutique is great, as to be honest one my major qualms with vintage shopping is that it requires time investment. Though that can be the funnest part of it when you’re in the mood with time to spare, if you need to find a unique outfit ASAP trekking and rummaging is not a plausible solution. Believe me I have been there, when you just need an outfit for a special occasion and you don’t have time to extensively source, hence why I am super happy about the outcrop of online vintage stores that have become more accessible (eBay, ASOS Marketplace, Peekaboo Vintage also have some good finds). Uniqueness is one of my favourite things about vintage, as particularly for special occasions, I hate the thought of turning up wearing the same thing as someone else, it actually strikes a little fear into my gut as melodramatic as that may seem, so this possibility is MUCH lessened by buying something which was first seen 25 or more years ago. Funnily enough a lot of my most memorable and special outfits have been from vintage stores, my 18th and 25th birthday outfits respectively, and I love the idea of giving something a new lease of life and imbuing it with a story to tell. Plus, when it fits just right, you feel like it was meant to be and the piece found you (yeah, I’m a romantic like that).
Another big plus of my fave, Beyond Retro, is that they have started their own line making really cool velvet backpacks, denim dungarees and more using scrap material from items that weren’t in sellable condition in their original form. I’d much rather spend my money on something I know has been sustainably sourced (and is just as affordable) than the newly made high street version of the same thing.
I am fully aware of what some people may be thinking, as I’ve had conversations with a few friends about this, vintage or pre-loved/second-hand or whatever you would like to call it, is just such a turn-off for some. Being Chinese, I completely get that cultural concerns can exist, as the thought of wearing someone else’s clothes can be a big hell-no due to superstition and stigma: “who knows what kind of life they lived/how they died?” and so on and so forth, so it’s a personal choice to know and decide what you’re comfortable with.
Some people also wonder about hygiene, which I do get, there are some vintage markets where you wander in and you can smell the must which is instantly off-putting. There are some plausible solutions, the designer vintage and pre-loved markets are sizable and definitely offer a more comfortable shopping experience. Having spoken to one of the founders of such a space in Singapore, she told me everything is stringently cleaned and certified, and that actually one of her biggest donors often dropped off completely unworn items (crazy) like Vuitton bags, de la Renta dresses and more that she had been given but didn’t like (another life truly) so they were essentially brand new. There are also some great mid-range spaces in the pre-loved market. Globally there will be different options, but a few I know are listed below.
Paris: Vestiaire Collective is an excellent reselling and and buying site, kind of like a high class eBay, they ship all over. Paris is also famous for its Marché aux Puces (flea markets), if they’re good enough for Iris Apfel they’re good enough for us all! A great one for fashion is in the 18th arrondissement at the base of the Sacre-Coeur, Marché Saint Pierre.
Singapore: The physical store vintage concept is largely undeveloped (partially due to how young the city is) but New2U near Bugis MRT is a great charity shop initiative to give back whilst you shop (they donate proceeds to the Star Shelter and other women’s initiatives), other good online spaces are ‘The Fifth Collection’ and Style Tribute (currently some amazing Armani and Givenchy jackets) who ship worldwide.
London: Recent discoveries include William Vintage (this is super luxe though, we’re talking Chanel evening dresses), The Dresser just off Connaught Street (near Marble Arch) for second hand designer and mid-range (so good, check out their website here). Also, if you’re looking for higher end options and want to give back simultaneously, head to an affluent area e.g. Kensington High Street, Fulham Broadway or even Parson’s Green (I’ve spotted some amazing pieces near there en route to visit my grandad) and take a look inside their charity shops, you can find some amazing and luxe treasures at Oxfam, Barnados and Farah!
One final issue with shopping vintage can be sizing, not that I really go looking for vintage shoes, but the average shoe size they sell is UK4 and sometimes pieces can be on the smaller side. In this case it’s better to scour higher end shops which for some reason, tend to have a better range of sizing. Side note: I did once buy a pair of never-before-worn boots that I LOVE from a mid-range, pre-loved store in Paris that were exactly my size—it was a serendipitous moment—I’ve been trying to remember/Google the name of this great place but so far it has eluded me! I’ll update when I remember as there were a lot of seriously beautiful things in there.
Brands to believe in
Rather than naming and shaming brands to avoid, I’ve decided to focus on the positive brands that are built on the foundation of transparent supply chains, ethical working conditions and environmentally sustainable principles. I’ll leave the luxe and contemporary labels for another day, for now here are good mid-range brands to invest in:
Reformation: They have really cool, very on-trend pieces that have a celebrity following, if you like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Rihanna (on a more demure day) etc’s style, you’ll find something to shop here. I love the story of the founder, Yael Aflalo as well, she actually founded her first business and used a completely fast-fashion structure, outsourcing labour to factories in China. It was only when she went in person to visit the factories where her clothes were being made that she shuttered the brand and decided that there must be a better way to do business, that has manifested in the incredible Reformation. They even have a RefScale that tracks the impact each garment has on the environment in terms of water, carbon dioxide and fabric savings that can be reused. They currently have a pop-up store in London if you’re in town (the company is based in LA but ships internationally)! It’s really gorgeous and well worth a visit: 61 Monmouth Street in Covent Garden, open until the end of December 2016.
Shop and read more here.
Everlane: For excellent, high quality basics in all colours see Everlane. They are transparent with their supply chain, profiling the companies they use all over the world to produce their clothes and challenging their customers to know their factories, know the costs that go into making and marketing clothes and to always ask why.
Zady: I love tailoring and pieces which are versatile for work and play, Zady provides this! They champion conscious consumerism and are part of the #30wears movement founded by Livia Firth, which challenges you to wear pieces of clothing that you buy and already own at least 30 times. Apparently the average piece of clothing bought these days is only worn 7 times (!) before being discarded or given away.
PeopleTree: It’s not the most cutting edge design wise, but PeopleTree is a stalwart British brand for ethical and sustainable pieces. They have really good quality knitwear and pretty handmade jewellery which is great for gifting. The founder, Safia Minney is one of the pioneers of the sustainable fashion movement and an all round inspirational woman.
Grana: I discovered this brand in Singapore, where they had just started shipping to at the time (the company was strategically founded in Hong Kong as they have one of the most accessible ports for shipping and fabric trade). They make really beautiful silk shirts, cashmere pieces and other essentials, really good for work wear! They’re super picky about fabric and quality but still manage to keep the prices affordable, a lot of the time, having an online-only business model is key for this, as brick-and-mortar retail space is what raises margins dramatically.
In weeks to come, I’ll be expanding into more specific verticals for ethical jewellery brands, shoe companies and maybe even a little gift guide. I would really love to hear of any other ethically-propelled, mid-range labels you know of though! So please do share any you know and love!
In great news, I discovered that after ‘The True Cost’ came out last year, so many were affected by Shima Aktar’s story that the director initiated an appeal to raise enough money to put her daughter through school. Beautifully, they managed to (otherwise I would have put the link to donate here) and now her daughter has a chance she may never have had without collective help. Proof once again that we can affect change, even if it may seem like a small drop in the ocean.
Recently I donated to ‘The Fashion Revolution’ which I mentioned in my last piece, it advocates for workers’ rights, greater supply chain transparency and for brands to tell consumers where and who made their clothes. They have just launched their first ever magazine of which the proceeds go back into their work, for more information and to purchase, see here.
Till next time,