Society is quickly redefining what it means to be chic, fashionable, or edgy in our evolving world. The coolness of luxury used to be linked to excess and exclusivity. Bigger was better. Greed was commonplace to a certain extent and our clothing reflected that. There were no limits on what we could have in fashion — synthetic chemicals provided neon-colored dyes whose unnatural hues exist nowhere within a rainbow’s spectrum. Similarly, we designed polyesters to perform in ways no natural fiber ever could. When it became “cool” for denim to look lived-in, we even engineered and streamlined the destruction of brand new textiles. When we wanted to offer everyday, accessible cashmere or fur, no one said no — desperate suppliers filled the orders at rock-bottom prices no matter what it took. Trends galloped from runway to storefront, leaving us dizzy and manic. We couldn’t expect to continue that trajectory without losing balance or resources.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20: the excess in our closet mirrors the waste that’s been piling up in our atmosphere, waterways, and even in our backyards (though disproportionately more in those of the developing countries where the bulk of our apparel is produced.) We are in the middle of a panicked shift, not only for the fashion industry, but for entire systems and constructs. What used to work isn’t working. What used to feel morally right feels wrong. What used to make us look and feel good doesn’t. We are living the consequences of our unfettered consumption. Fashion seems gratuitous amid the growing list of climate concerns, political unrest and global injustice. People are constantly inundated with bleak news — we really have no choice but to take some of it in. It can be overwhelming, debilitating and even depressing.
The delight of shopping may have fizzled, but our industry is alive and undergoing a transformation. Fashion’s allure is, quite simply, no longer coupled with decadence and gluttony. The “cool factor” today is deeper and multidimensional, considering these five aspects: appearance, authenticity, awareness, activism and accessibility. We can’t ignore the dramatic way generations are shifting: A recent McKinsey & Co. study (“Fashion’s New Must: Sustainable Sourcing at Scale”) put “the search for truth” at the center of all Gen Z behavior. This is so indicative of how we will see consumption change in the very near future. In fact, it’s already happening.
Appearance still matters — we are human, after all. But also trending, ironically, is antifashion. That’s right: Non-trends are trending. Authenticity is valued amongst multiple generations — that might mean wearing vintage fashion, making and mending one’s wardrobe, or the simple act of not hiding behind a logo. Feeling comfortable in your own skin — that’s cool.
Also fashionable? Awareness and activism. As individuals become more informed on climate change, inequality, social justice and corruption, we are embracing innovative alternatives to consumption, like resale and rental (i.e The RealReal, Rent the Runway). Brands that embrace mindful materials, manufacturing, and marketing are benefiting. Aerie’s popularity has boomed with their commitment to representing diverse body types, without airbrushing. Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret’s hypersexualized runway show drew increasing criticism (and was called off last year) and its sales continue to suffer as empowered consumers reject their passé images of objectification. A growing list of supermodels and celebrities, like Amber Valletta, Rosario Dawson, Emma Watson, Meghan Markle and Gwyneth Paltrow, are using their platforms to raise consciousness and endorse sustainable fashion, both on and off the red carpet. Fashion activism is the way we convert our awareness to action. Brands that remain silent are not safe — consumers want to know where we stand. Speaking out on common values can be a selling point and add to a brand’s cool factor.
Finally, more and more sustainable products are just as accessible as their conventional counterparts (even Target and QVC carry sustainable textiles) leaving consumers to ask themselves, “Why not?” when faced with a choice. I was so inspired by this concept, I named my new collection of sustainable apparel Yes And. Because yes, you have all the things you want from fashion (modern style, quality, fit, color, hand and price) and, at the same time, make a positive impact in the world. No one should have to compromise value OR values in order to look good.
Yesterday’s thrill of overconsumption is obsolete. It’s officially cool to be kind and conscious: We are now being rewarded personally and professionally as citizens of humanity and our Earth. I find that I don’t have to do as much convincing these days when it comes to “selling” sustainability: There is nothing sexy about a dead planet. Sustainable fashion has the collective power to regenerate ecosystems, turn waste into worth, and empower lives — from farmers and workers to brands, retailers and consumers. That’s a win-win trend that can’t grow old.
Marci Zaroff coined the term “eco-fashion” and is an internationally recognized eco-lifestyle expert, educator, innovator and serial eco-preneur. Her new sustainable fashion line is Yes And.