LONDON — “It’s staggering how little most of us know about what our clothes are made from, where they come from or who made them,” said Alex James, the British musician, cheese-maker and the star of a new documentary that reveals some ugly facts about fast fashion.
“Cheap doesn’t always mean good value in whatever you’re buying. As a food producer, I have to understand the entire process from soil to Sainsbury’s. I love fashion, too. I wanted to make this film because I think the better we understand where our clothes come from, how they are made, what they are made from and where they end up when we’ve finished with them, the savvier we can be on the high street,” he told WWD at the screening of his film, “Slowing Down Fast Fashion,” in London.
The 60-minute film will make its global premiere at the Berlin Fashion Film Festival in early June and will launch to consumers later this year to tie in with Wool Week.
In the film, James, the bassist for Blur who also has a cheese-making business on his family’s farm in the Cotswolds, in southwestern England, is on a mission to learn about fast fashion, which began in the Nineties when high-street stores began copying trends from the runways, and the possibilities offered by sustainable fashion.
He interviews the reformed shopaholic Elizabeth Klein, and together they visit various shops looking at labels. They point to the materials the clothing is made from; the various countries it comes from, and the low price points, and address low wages earned by garment workers.
“We’ve been trained to think that to pay more is a rip off, when really the only reason that they are able to sell for this little amount of money is because they sell so much of it and the garment workers are paid so little,” Klein says.
James compared fast fashion to food. “So when you buy a top for the same price as a burger and you think you’ve got yourself a bargain, ask yourself, how can it be so cheap?” he says in the film. He also raises the issue of retailers looking for faster and more cost-effective ways to produce clothing as they incorporate cheaper fabrics and labor into their products.
James also interviews various shoppers in the film, asking them if they knew where their clothing was manufactured or what the materials were made of. A majority claim they don’t know or they are not sure. He speaks with Pamela Nell, a psychology expert who sees retail therapy as “an instant fix, like a drug, and it will work for a little while and then it will stop working, and then we have to go buy something again to get that quick fix.”
He takes the issue to various brands, including Primark, which declined to participate in the film. James said he feels that if similar companies such as theirs would take a responsible approach to materials, it just might make a difference.
James also performs an experiment with two sweaters, one made from wool, the other made from acrylic. He sets fire to both and only manages to burn a hole in the wool sweater, while the acrylic garment bursts into flames because it’s made from oil-based plastic materials that are not biodegradable.
James talks about natural fibers versus man-made fibers, and notes that while cotton is a natural fiber, it still takes more than ten thousand liters of water to make a pair of jeans. In terms of the areas where cotton is grown, water is an important resource that can cause strain in a region if large quantities are used. He also touts wool as an ideal material for clothing as it is bio-degradable and speaks about NASA’s astronaut’s uniforms, which are made with wool and don’t smell even after months in space.
The documentary features footage of Prince Charles, a patron of the Campaign for Wool, taking part in a biodegradable wool test in 2014. He buried two sweaters in a flowerbed at his London home, Clarence House. One was made of wool while the other was of synthetic fibers. In the film, James unearths the sweaters and sees that the wool has naturally decomposed, while the other synthetic sweater remains intact.
In the documentary, James also talks with fashion industry figures including Vivienne Westwood, Christopher Raeburn, British Fashion Council chief executive officer Caroline Rush, Condé Nast International president Nicholas Coleridge and executives from Marks & Spencer, Topman and John Lewis.
“We contacted H&M and Zara but sadly they never replied,” a spokesman from Chief productions, which made the film, told WWD after the screening. “We tried multiple times to get in contact but we couldn’t either get through to the right person or an email wasn’t replied to. To Primark’s credit at least they replied and declined to take part.
“Our hope for the film is to get as many people as possible to think about what they are wearing,” the spokesman added. “Not just if it looks good but what it’s made of, what is its life span, and is it environmentally worth it. We’d like people to open their eyes to what they are wearing. They might think it’s a natural fiber, but they should assume it’s not. This will hopefully make people think about investment dressing and buying quality whatever its age.”
Raeburn, who attended the screening, said he was “very impressed, actually, that someone of the caliber of Alex had just taken the initiative. He has brought a different perspective to something that is clearly very important. With his background as well, it makes it so much more relevant, for so many people. I think it’s important to realize the role that you have in this type of conversation is to be honest,” said Raeburn of working on the film.
He added that he is moving from his Poplar and Limehouse studio to Hackney Central. “We’re moving to the old Burberry textile factory,” he said. “It’s a purpose-built, architect design space, but it obviously has real soul to it. And actually the focus for the entire company is very much seen in this film. It’s about being less, but better, and really working a lot more with key partners as well to bring as much sustainability and design merits to what we do. That is our everyday practice.”
The Campaign for Wool and Fashion Revolution, a nonprofit organization founded after the Rana Plaza disaster that wants companies to be more transparent about their sourcing, were both named as supporters of the film.