How do you sell a fashion show audience and Chloé customers on clean nuclear fusion energy? That’s what Gabriela Hearst was aiming to do with her spring 2023 collection, as she continued to use her platform as a designer to draw attention to climate solutions.
Although one wouldn’t know it from the runway show, Hearst’s latest research project took her down the rabbit hole on fusion, and eventually to Cadarache, France. There, the intergovernmental ITER project (which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is building a tokamak reactor to imitate hydrogen fusion that delivers light and heat from the Sun, and produces clean energy on Earth.
“To me, sustainability is an energy issue…and until we find a way to get ourselves out of fossil fuels and coals, which move this world around 85 percent of the time, we’re done,” Hearst said during a preview at her studio, where representatives from ITER and commercial entity Commonwealth Fusion Systems
were on hand to talk physics and fashion. “These guys are working on the solution and I don’t think there are enough positive stories being told.”
“Gabi’s a freak, she read about us in fall of 2021 and started to write to ask if she could visit. I was stunned because she is the most well-educated layperson on the topic of fusion I have ever met. She had read about it and now she could see it. It was an inspiring collision of worlds,” said ITER head of communications Laban Coblentz.
“That’s one of the biggest compliments my nerdy self could ever get,” Hearst laughed, acknowledging that the hardest thing was telling her team their creative brief was about fusion energy. “But when they learned about it, I looked at them in the eyes, and saw they were full of spark, because they see there is a real solution here that is going to happen….This is also the largest intergovernmental science experiment. At ITER, you have India, China, [South] Korea, Russia, the EU and Japan working together, so this is a human story as much as it’s a science story.”
While ITER has worked with artists and photographers before, this is the first time they’ve brought in a fashion brand. “We’re at the cusp of fusion being the next form of energy but we need all the minds, and this is an amazing channel to reach people to raise awareness,” said Shira Tabachnikoff, internal relations manager at ITER.
How many they reached is another question.
Hearst said the campus, which is the size of 60 football fields, its maze-like layout and the circular architecture of the reactor inspired her blazing yellow, orange, fuchsia, black and white color story, some rounded silhouettes, industrial hardware and blueprint patterns mixed into the designer’s formula of casual feminine dressing.
Hydrogen isotopes were interpreted as rivets on denim, cutouts on leather or jersey dresses, jeweled disc embellishments on midriff-baring gowns and circular knits.
The brand’s bestselling low-impact Nama sneaker was reinterpreted as a platform high-top and sandal, and cork sandals were given the metallic treatment.
For now, ITER’s nuclear fusion for clean energy is still a moon shot. Private sector experts are working concurrently on the logistics to scale. According to Brandon Sorbom, chief science officer and cofounder of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, they’re aiming to have something on the power grid by the early 2030s, which would be clean energy at the household level.
On the sustainability front now, this collection marked the introduction of the Chloé Vertical digital id initiative, which puts QR codes on select products across all categories, allowing traceability from field to finished piece. Chloé has committed to rolling out a digital ID on all its products by 2025.
At a corporate level, Chloé has realized that communication on sustainability is critical. But on the design level, there’s still somewhat of a disconnect.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but a T-shirt might have been useful here, or some text like “Fusion Future” on a garment. The venue could have had more interactive elements introducing the idea beyond just a light show — perhaps with a QR code linking to videos or her mood board photos. Hearst could even put her favorite book on the subject in the hands of her guests. (That would be “The Star Builders,” she shared at the preview.)
Beyond all the celebrity fireworks, fashion needs designers who have intelligent ideas and world views, and Hearst is one of the rare ones. Her challenge is figuring out how to incorporate them into her designs in a more engaging and meaningful way.