A number of fashion designers are stepping back from the disposable world of fast fashion, instead focusing on a more eco-conscious, long-term approach.
Fast fashion, meet your alter ego: SLOW fashion.
Mired by a softening economy, dwindling supply of natural resources and fatigue from constantly chasing trends, a growing number of designers, retailers and consumers are turning their attention to an emerging trend called slow fashion.
Slow fashion takes its cues from slow food, an international movement started in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life. Worried about the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s declining interest in the taste and origins of the food they eat, supporters of slow food advocate that food should taste good and be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or one’s health. They also believe that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.
“Everyone in the industry is exhausted by the rapid pace of change, by ever-reducing lead times and the pressure to reinvent one’s self and products several times a season,” said Kate Fletcher, author of “Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys.” Fletcher cautions, though, that “slowing fashion down is a different business model to the one that we see at the moment.”
Indeed, Renée L’Abbé, creative strategist for product design consultancy Creative Research Unit in Vancouver, cited three points in slow fashion: the materials have “thoughtful” beginnings, in the sense that the designer studied where they came from and how they were derived; the clothes are constructed by well-paid workers, and they are built to last. Some techniques that designers can employ to create slow fashion are focusing on classic silhouettes, producing fewer stockkeeping units and referring to a palette dominated by black, white, gray, beige and one trendy color. “The success of slow fashion at the consumer level will be largely determined by how a company markets the idea,” she said.
The conscious decision to create slow fashion also sets limitations on designers. For example, because knitwear line Makepiece handles all its sourcing and manufacturing in the U.K., its yarn supply is restricted to wool, mohair and alpaca, which designer Nicola Sherlock transforms into a unique stitch. Fortunately, Sherlock also can purchase a herringbone weave made at a mill located only 15 miles from Makepiece’s studio in Todmorden in northern England. Beate Kubitz, the company’s business manager, also tends a flock of 70 Shetland sheep, which serve as the source for a felt lace as light as blotting paper. “Form and content go together,” Kubitz said.
For other companies, it’s difficult to ensure local production after most apparel manufacturing has migrated overseas.
One solution is to locate the source of the fabric close to the factory. For example, Portland, Ore.-based outdoor clothier Nau stitches its denim jeans in Turkey, where the organic cotton is grown. Even after a customer leaves a store with a purchase, Nau’s job isn’t done. It designs all of its products to be washed in cold water, eliminating the need for dry cleaning. “If you’re really thinking about sustainability, you have to think about the entire process,” said Ian Yolles, Nau’s vice president of marketing.
Slow fashion can take various forms. Levi’s 501s, couture gowns, vintage coats, classic cardigans by agnès b. and other items that can be worn for decades are regarded as slow fashion. An eco angle doesn’t necessarily guarantee automatic inclusion in a slow-fashion closet, however. An organic cotton T-shirt tossed after only three months of use epitomizes fast fashion.
To be sure, fast fashion isn’t going away. Hennes & Mauritz recently reported that store openings and lower buying costs boosted its first-quarter profits by 28 percent, as sales advanced 18 percent to 19.74 billion Swedish kronor, or $3.1 billion at current exchange. Inditex, the Spanish retailer that owns Zara, said it would continue to aggressively roll out stores, with 942 million euros, or $1.49 billion, earmarked for international expansion over the next 12 months. Inditex said it planned to open as many as 640 stores this year, up from 560 last year.
“Fast fashion is king,” said Larry Olmstead, designer and founder of a leather accessories brand called Entermodal in Portland, Ore. “That’s the reality. We can’t change that. But what we can do is try to work within it.”
A former backpack designer, Olmstead said he traveled for two years in Italy and England to meet with tanneries and farms before introducing his first handcrafted bag in 2007. Anticipating that a customer might use a bag for only a few years, he designed a series dubbed the “Thoughtful Collection” to be made with a single panel of leather folded into an origami-like receptacle. The leather can be later recycled and transformed into a smaller bag. “It’s trying to develop a relationship with your customer and community to recapture that material,” he said.
Moreover, understanding the behavior and needs of consumers and engaging them to change are crucial to the slow-fashion movement. “It’s why someone keeps something and wears it often,” said Lynda Grose, who teaches sustainable fashion design at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Grose pointed out there are options for fashionistas who don’t want to become anachronistic pack rats. BagBorroworSteal.com rents designer wares to addicts of “It” bags, for instance. Fast-fashion retailers also can become responsible for the excessive consumption they’ve spawned by recycling used clothing, she said.
In Southern California, the birthplace of numerous flashy trends, retailer Jeannine Braden promotes hand-finished designs by Koi Suwannagate, Uluru and Natalie Chanin, whom she likens to artists working with needles instead of paintbrushes. As such, to help promote slow fashion to her savvy shoppers at Fred Segal Flair and Post 26, both located in Santa Monica, Calif., she trains her staff to describe the clothing as if they are selling artwork. “Sometimes you need to say: ‘This is where the person’s head is at. It takes three months to make. This is why it’s expensive,'” Braden said. “You can’t be fickle with slow fashion. It’s heartfelt. You know it’s a craft.”
For Undesigned by Carol Young, the timeless design and quality extolled by slow fashion can be easily integrated into her customers’ lifestyles. “Most of them are busy professional women,” said Young, who designs her seven-year-old line out of her shop in Los Angeles’ hip Los Feliz district. “They’re interested in the arts and pop culture but they’re not fashionistas. It’s important for them to have their own personal style.”
With the downturn in the economy, emotions also come into play at the cash register. “Consumers are in debt and more thoughtful about their purchases, feeling empty and suffocated by stuff, developing concern for the environment and starting to question about how and by whom the goods are made,” said Caroline Priebe, who designs Uluru in Brooklyn. While she produces some of her silk, Italian Merino and cashmere pieces in Hong Kong and Shanghai, she regards her true slow-fashion designs as the woven items made in New York, sweaters hand-knitted in Peru and tops hand-embellished in a collaboration with Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Chanin.
Spinning a tale also goes with selling clothes. Just ask Jessa Brinkmeyer, a former fashion writer who in September opened an eco boutique called Pivot in Chicago’s Fulton Market district, where she sells $30 organic cotton tanks from Toggery and $385 ahimsa silk dresses cut on the bias by Ajna, among other wares. In a challenging retail environment, she said it helps for people to feel connected to what they buy by hearing a story about the designers, materials and collections. “Everyone loves if someone compliments you on your shirt or dress. It’s nice to have a story behind it,” she said. “If you say H&M, the story stops there.”
MAKEPIECE PHOTO BY ELIZIA VOLKMANN; ENTERMODAL BY CARLIN SUNDELL