Study Hall

Before there was New York Fashion Week, there was 7th on Sixth productions, a brainchild of Fern Mallis during her reign over the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 1991 through 2003.

As an interview last year with WWD recounted, what carved out Mallis’ spot at the CFDA were her strengths in awareness creation and fund-raising. But as the shows begin this week, many say the focus around NYFW this season is not on the latest runway trends but rather on the industry’s latest buzzword — sustainability.

“There is probably no story that is getting more attention this fashion week cycle than the role of sustainability in fashion,” said P.C. Chandra, a fashion industry brand executive and advisory board member at Alante Capital. He cautioned brands against “treating sustainability as purely a marketing-oriented CSR initiative,” especially in light of measurable sustainability indexes that are already gaining traction. Alante Capital funds companies that aim to radically improve social and environmental sustainability in the textile and apparel industry.

NYFW has been somewhat lost in the shadows as the likes of Copenhagen Fashion Week and Helsinki Fashion Week have taken the lead on ingraining sustainability at the core of their shows. In January, in advance of its shows, Copenhagen Fashion Summit and Copenhagen International Fashion Fair introduced a new platform C+ and standards of entry that will be required of designers by 2023. This is on top of practices like transporting editors and buyers via electric vehicles, banning single-use plastics and the like.

In New York, sustainability initiatives are either designer-led or “underground,” with smaller shows produced on the fringes of NYFW. While no protocol reorienting the shows to focus more on sustainability is seen from NYFW event organizers, organized “talks,” panel conversations and parties are where the topic is getting a big stage.

Still, many in the industry profess a saturation point has been reached with the many sustainability panels, but as Chandra said, “These anchor moments are when a fashion brand shares its biggest lifestyle stories, introduces its biggest innovations, or launches its newest campaigns. It would be silly for a brand to miss out on the mass and the digital media amplification effect of this week.”

He warned, however, that talk is cheap without evidence. “Imagine if a fashion brand has been making claims to have a sustainable product or operations, only to fail certification when it becomes a reporting requirement against a standard index,” Chandra added.

The Runaround

Recycle

Just like recycling, the runaround of sustainability-themed panels draws confusion.  Shutterstock / HollyHarry

In a slew of indistinguishable watercolored digital invites, it’s hard to decipher the true experts and the measurable impact of creating awareness, especially when speakers start to overlap.

One veteran in the sustainability space said: “I find the experts aren’t on the panels,” adding, “From a financing, logistics, and intellectual and moral standpoint — I see all these Instagram accounts and conferences and panels, and I’m like: ‘I don’t have time for that because I’m working on the stuff you’re spreading awareness about.’

“I get ‘awareness’ is good but ultimately those panels are an echo chamber. I challenge their definition of awareness. Or if one person or designer is invited to five panels during fashion week perhaps they bow out and suggest to instead invite an expert who may know more than them. There are communities and populations not being reached, and I don’t buy that they are spreading awareness at this point,” the source added, highlighting a redirection of attention to perhaps lower-income children to “help debunk the myth of used clothing being shameful, things like this that actually ‘spread awareness.”

Chandra countered saying, “I am inspired when I see fashion brands talking openly about how they became more sustainable, and not just that they are sustainable like the journey is some sort of big trade secret,” but under one premise — the story is coming out of the c-suite, less so from the public relations/corporate social responsibility-side of the house. Having led key initiatives at Nike, Ralph Lauren and Macy’s Inc., Chandra also shares his after-hours on Instagram attending the latest pop-up, conversation or even speaking on sustainability in fashion himself.

As for speaker expertise, Chandra believes the focus is on the heart of the message. “Integrity is even more important than expertise when it comes to sustainability in fashion. Not every brand has the financial resources and the in-house expertise of a Levi Strauss and Co., of an American Eagle Outfitters, or of a Kering brand to embark on accelerated sustainability transformations. It’s better for a brand to be honest with consumers and say they are committed to becoming sustainable, versus claiming they have already achieved this complex goal,” reiterated Chandra.

Of the brands looking to lean into sustainability in the next year names like Lauren Singer, the founder and chief executive officer of zero-waste lifestyle store Package Free Shop, are bound to crop up more as someone to secure for an upcoming panel.

In fact, she’s already confirmed for several panels over the next few weeks. With a strict packaging policy for its vendors, Singer’s Package Free Shop is clear about its environmental values. Stated on its web site is the vendor application policy, with a bolded message: “Plastics need not apply.” However, also stated is the encouragement that rejected brands can receive feedback to improve packaging and product to “align with our missions and values and we all want to grow together.”

Asked about her appearance on an upcoming panel with Evian, Singer told WWD, “Obviously bottled water is not sustainable. However, them talking about it is a good thing. Eventually they’re going to have to live up to it,” she added on how she hopes to foster dialogue with anyone — “especially those that are misaligned with my values.”

Discussion can no doubt foster change. Ultimately, as Evian global brand vice president Shweta Harit told WWD, the selection of speakers from the sustainability and design spaces for a panel being sponsored by the brand was intended to cull a “lively and interesting discussion,” with the aim of inspiring attendees to advance their own ideas. The event was centered around the latest news with its Virgil Abloh collaboration.

“We were particularly interested in people who are passionate about using their expertise to identify sustainable solutions through design practice,” added Harit.

“It’s the fashion industry’s dilemma, everyone wants to be cool,” said Rachel Kibbe, a textile waste consultant and circularity expert.

If pledges were last year’s sustainability statement, then panels are the new must-have — and who is anchoring a panel can be a brand’s ticket to credibility on the subject appearing good, or better, by association.

The New Cool

Celine Semaan

Slow Factory Foundation’s Céline Semaan, in a custom Study Hall event sweatshirt collab between Noah Clothing x Study Hall.  Courtesy

Everything about Slow Factory Foundation’s founder and creative director Céline Semaan is chic (wearing a dark blazer vest) and inviting as she smiles and glides about the VIP dinner at Selina Chelsea the night before her fifth Study Hall event, a free summit focused on the fashion industry’s next generation of ideals.

The event hit capacity at some 600 RSVP’s and addressed everything from climate optimism and biomimicry to waste-led design in an all-day session held at the New York Times Center called “Climate Positivity at Scale,” calling on an impressive line-up of speakers across disciplines.

She and her cofounder and partner Colin Vernon immediately identify unfamiliar faces and extend a hand or kiss on the cheek. They know everyone and everyone seems to know them, whether it’s activist and actor Yara Shahidi, or designers Christopher Raeburn, Phillip Lim, and Telfar Clemens — or businesswoman and fashion designer Tina Knowles — yes, Beyoncé’s mother.

Prior to the Study Hall programming the next day, Vernon in a tailored Thom Browne blazer, drifted between tables at the (vegan) VIP dinner, speaking with his hands, which lent a focus to his black-and-white painted nails and various rings. Addressing what to expect at Study Hall, he immediately described the sold-out summit as “very thick,” speaking to the breadth of influence across disciplines.

Comparing the conversations to “the tip of the iceberg” of the change needed, Vernon said: “The amount that it’s less worse is worth doing the work.” For its part, Slow Factory Foundation had been around for years, but opened its nonprofit wing in the last two years, as it’s required in order to partner with the United Nations.

When asked the delineation of Study Hall in a sea of sustainability-themed events and programming, Vernon said: “We are going to keep doing it because we’ve been doing it and we see clear action from it.” When he says action, he recounts the number of collaborations or partnerships, networks forged — through the efforts of the Slow Factory Foundation.

At Study Hall, there was a mingling of students and industry, with content also bearing a beginner’s and intermediate level of expertise. The shifting industry ideals represented at the event was best described by Sofie Schop, sustainability director of G-Star Raw, in a discussion called “Honesty Is Leading the Way (We Are Not Sustainable): “We’re on the exciting verge of a totally different industry.”

It’s an industry where responsibility is taken for the entire value chain — and only then can brands earn the marketing rights to their sustainability journey.

“It’s cool to be conscious these days,” Estelle Bailey-Babenzien, cofounder of Noah Clothing, said. “Thinking beyond fast fashion, using less and buying less. That’s the message that we’re trying to put out there,” she added.

On sustainability, Brendon Babenzien, the other cofounder of Noah Clothing, said: “It’s not something we would call ourselves. Everyone talks about how hard it is — and it’s not hard at all. We’re a small business and we do it every day. If you’re greedy — it’s hard.” He did acknowledge that “turning those big ships around is incredibly difficult,” referencing the challenge faced by the industry’s more traditional players.

“Well, Brendon thinks it’s easy,” said Christopher Raeburn, designer of his eponymous label and creative director at Timberland, in jest, adding, “I wouldn’t go that far. I think it’s a lot more accessible.” He, along with Babenzien, refuses the label of sustainability, saying: “The definition of sustainability is enduring at the same pace. We need to look at that,” hinting responsible design as the preferred language.

A day prior, Raeburn had highlighted to WWD the brand’s work in regenerative agriculture and recycled leathers as a key development going forward, which was also mentioned by Dominique Drakeford, a cofounder of Sustainable Brooklyn and partner of Fibershed, which develops regional and regenerative fiber systems.

Content aside, many of the invited speakers maintained a dissonance with the very panels they spoke on. Event sponsor Bolt Threads, represented by its chief executive officer Dan Widmaier, speaking during a changeover of panelists who discussed “the next same thing,” the company’s Mylo mushroom leather alternative. He called on attendees to question everything, expressing curiosity in lifecycle assessments. “You should be skeptical. Even of the things I say,” he added.

Another moment of criticism happened when marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson of Ocean Collectiv said: “It’s not about having more leaders, how about just join something. We don’t need a million more nonprofits and a million more people leading nothing. Policy follows culture.”

At the summit’s close, the spotlight was put on the One X One incubator, a fellowship program pioneered by Swarovski and the Slow Factory Foundation as well as the United Nations Office for Partnerships. Designer Phillip Lim who, as reported, is taking a break from showing at NYFW, said he is subsequently making the rounds of speaking opportunities like Study Hall as he reformulates his design journey.

“This moves me forward to where I want to be, which is finding a sustainable balance,” he said.

A week later, Lim will join Julie Gilhart, chief development officer and executive board member at Tomorrow London Ltd.; Melody Serafino, founder and partner at No. 29 Communications, and Jaime Perlman, who founded More Or Less magazine, championing “creativity over cost and consumption,” and fashion photographer Alexi Lubomirski, among others.

The panel, titled “Responsibility in Fashion: How Can We Do Better Together?,” will be held at the New York Edition on Friday.

Tansy Kaschak, journalist, activist and moderator of the panel, described the considerations taken in planning the session. “Except for Jaime Perlman, all panelists are based in New York and are not taking flights to join us. And our host, Edition Hotels, is leading the hospitality industry with its suitability efforts, especially with Stay Plastic Free, a campaign intended to eliminate single-use plastics from their hotels and beyond, and are continuously supporting efforts that protect human rights and promote cultural and social diversity and inclusivity,” Kaschak said.

Also this NYFW, the U.N. and sustainability-themed pop-up museum Arcadia Earth are partnering to launch their monthly interactive speaker series, with the first session being, “The Future of Fashion Is Circular,” with speakers including Arcadia Earth, consultancy Eco-Age, Diesel, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Simon Collins’ design education firm WeDesign. The event was held Thursday.

Arcadia Earth founder Valentino Vettori said, “Arcadia Earth is partnering with the United Nations for NYFW to convene on actionable steps toward a fashion industry that is systemically restorative and regenerative, a move to a new circular economy. All speakers and select audience members will be announcing their commitment to progressing this move, followed by sharing a step they’re taking to meet their commitments.”

For More Sustainability News, See:

Swarovski Announces ‘One X One’ Fellowship Accelerator with Study Hall, U.N. Office of Partnerships

The Fashion Runway’s Tech Evolution

Popular ‘Arcadia Earth’ Exhibit Extends Lease

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