Anyone with a vested interest in fashion, knows that the industry is in the midst of an existential crisis. Like the mythical dog “Cerberus,” the modern day hybrid that is currently terrorizing the fashion flock has three heads – social media, economic uncertainty, and climate change. While each cultural phenomenon has generated problems that might be considered manageable in isolation, together they create a formidable beast. Social media, which provides a real-time digital window into the inner sanctum of high-fashion, often creates unrealistic expectations. Just because a sample line has been sent down the runway, a high number of Instagram likes cannot alter the laws of physics. Weaving fabrics, fitting samples, and sewing garments, are still labor intensive processes. Therefore, this delay in customer gratification, when coupled with economic uncertainty, means that there is a palpable demand for fast-fashion knockoffs. And as we begin to see the effects of climate change, the current merchandise does not always sync up with weather that is becoming harder to predict.
Quality and price are the determining factors in how businesses fare in this new reality, as well as the Pantone shades they choose to express their particular malaise. As one might expect, there are many shades of blue. On the surface, the Chambray and Indigo drenched color palette is an ode to denim. While there is nothing revolutionary about the cotton twill weave, the rebellious spirit of the Sixties has returned, manifesting in civil rights protests, political activism, and distressed flares that are fresh out of the stone wash.
But where 2016 differs from the era of Jimi Hendrix, is in technology, as social media has emerged as the ultimate frenemy. Fast-fashion is a relatively new concept, as the fabric guzzling retail giants used to have to wait for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to go to press in March and September. But with the ubiquitous presence of the camera phone, fashion insiders share the latest trends as soon as they are unveiled. With so many proprietary designs being thrust into the public domain, as well as sales falling short of projections, the whole business model is up for revision.
There are at least two designers this season, who have not only recognized the consequence of over-sharing, but have implemented new strategies for dealing with the omniscient lens – Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger.
The team at Hilfiger created an Instagram hashtag #TommyNow specifically for the carnival themed event, while Tom Ford’s followers had the option to shop directly from his feed. The decision to show in-season merchandise indicates a pivot towards consumers, since buyers don’t actually write their orders until they see the collections up close at Coterie. As a result, both companies have figured out how to capitalize on the publicity that is generated by the Instagram news-feed, thus boosting sales instead of piracy. But climate-change, the third demon-head, is the foe that threatens to undo us all. It is also what gets the least amount of media coverage, which makes it all the more dangerous.
When we think of climate change, the oil and automotive industries are obvious culprits, but according to an article published in China Dialogue, denim, the “comfort food” of the American wardrobe, is one of the worst textiles for the environment. The process of dyeing and distressing denim is very water intensive, and then there is the cultivation of the cotton fiber itself. When we hear the word “organic,” we automatically think of food, and over the last ten years, we’ve been educated about the nutritional benefits of organic produce, but what we don’t consider, are the effects of chemicals and pesticides on the farmer, as well as the land. We also forget that a large percentage of the carbon emissions that we’re responsible for, which is a result of our consumerism, is being released into the atmosphere of the countries where our clothing is produced.
According to Fox, if we continue releasing carbon emissions at such a breakneck pace, we will breeze past the “point-of-no-return” at some point next year.
“At two degrees warming, sea level will rise between 5 and 9 meters. Most of the world’s populations, most of the world’s cities, are on coastlines. We will hit 2 degrees of warming by 2036. And many analysts say the window to keeping us at 2 degrees in terms of curtailing emissions, closes in 2017… At 2 degrees warming, 30-50% of all the species on the planet would go extinct.”
– Josh Fox, documentary filmmaker
If that isn’t enough of a stern warning, The Christian Science Monitor just published an article called “Earth CO2 levels: Are we at the point of no return?” while MSN warns that New York City is at risk of flooding every two decades. It may be hard to predict what our planet will look like in twenty years, but plans are already being made to turn Mars into the ultimate travel destination by the year 2030. Feeling overwhelmed by all of this information, my first instinct was similar to the one Fox had in his film, which was to shut down, or more specifically, to become a shut in and take photos of butterflies.
It is one thing to have a dim awareness of a potential threat that may occur at an unspecified time. It is something else entirely to have a time-stamped expiration date on the conspicuous consumption we all enjoy, and to watch in slow motion as our collective ship heads straight for the iceberg, even if it is melting. Fortunately for the rest of us, Fox did ultimately leave his house, and ended up making a very compelling film, weaving his narrative out of scientific facts and firsthand observations.
“As environmentalists, we’ve been talking for decades now about saving the planet, but as I think about it, the planet is probably going to be around for some time. What’s at stake now is civilization itself." - Lester Brown, Environmental Analyst
But climate change is actually more than just a terrifying end-game, it is a symptom of basic flaws in our cultural ideology. The faulty reasoning pre-dates the Industrial Revolution, electricity, and the invention of every carbon emitting machine. Ultimately, the seeds of our current predicament were sown with the genocide of the Native Americans. Having rejected the indigenous tribes’ belief in stewardship of the land and respect for animals as well as each other, the new settlers unpacked their beliefs along with their meager satchels of earthly possessions. Their conceit that only the lives of “civilized” human beings actually mattered, still haunts us to this day. And this isn’t the only delusion that we’ve inherited from our short-sighted ancestors. To them, this “New World” must have appeared vast and plentiful. But now we know better, and science as well as common sense tells us that our natural resources are in limited supply. As technology and air travel have made it easy for us to move about the planet, we have lost that sense of connection to the ground beneath our feet.
When a plot of land is depleted and fails to produce crops, we are deceived into thinking that the system works because we can simply buy our produce from another farm in another part of the world. Our economic structure dictates that money and oil are the ultimate measures of worth, but the human body is not fueled by petroleum or natural gas. So until we examine our core values as a society, and revise them at the most basic level, then all of our proposed solutions will be mere vanity projects. Painting the ship green and calling it “eco-friendly” may boost consumer confidence, but it won’t change the outcome of our ill-fated course.
I cannot imagine what aspect of culture Heidegger was reacting to when he chose the word “abyss” in 1971, but in 2016, plug into any media outlet and you can hear the cacophonous death rattle of our wounded patriarchy. Heidegger goes on to say that the role of the poet in “such a destitute time” is to lead the rest of humanity out of the abyss, “to sense the trace of the fugitive gods” and show “their kindred mortals the way toward the turning.” This made me wonder about the role of artists and designers, who are often faced with a difficult choice – feed the body or the muse?
Ironically, the first time I became aware that fashion could be eco-friendly was when fast-fashion behemoth H&M launched their Conscious Exclusive collection back in 2014. Given that most of the collection was already sold out only a few hours after its launch, I was lucky to find a beautifully embroidered vest in my size. And the store display was accompanied by Ever Conscious, the third installment of “Ever Manifesto,” a think-tank for sustainable design.
H&M also has a clothing recycling program and so whether their sustainability efforts are genuine or mere green-washing, I do give them credit for acknowledging the need to evolve their production practices. Eco-friendly might be a selling tool, but most consumers still haven’t made the connection between what they wear and the environment. But there are activists who are much better informed than I am, who would argue believe that their business model is fundamentally at odds with the core principles of sustainability.
Given that the environment is well behind price on the list of consumer priorities, I was surprised that once I started pulling the loose threads, the information came as easily as an unraveling sweater. What I discovered is a growing number of designers and small businesses that have not only looked into the abyss, but are actively pursuing better methods of producing clothes. That being said, sustainability itself is a general term and the whole movement is still in its infancy. Think of where the organic food movement was ten years ago, or the first time you thought about where your food comes from.
The easiest way to delve deeper is to listen to the podcast “Conscious Chatter.” You can download the episodes to your phone and each one focuses on a different issue, from what happens to your clothes when you’ve finished with them to the value (and stigma) of hemp as an environmentally friendly fiber.