The phrase “sustainable fashion” isn’t just a contradiction in terms, declared New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman last Thursday, it also doesn’t make sense. Speaking at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark, Friedman referred to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “fashion as the “production and marketing of new styles of goods, especially clothing and cosmetics” and “sustainable” as “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Here, Friedman paused. “See the problem?” she asked. “On the one hand we have the pressure to be new; on the other, the imperative to maintain. ‘Sustainable fashion’ is an oxymoron. It’s ‘jumbo shrimp.’ It’s a ‘down escalator.’ It’s ‘terrible beauty.’ It’s ‘resident alien.'”
TOO FAST, TOO FURIOUS
The driving force of fashion, Friedman added, is planned obsolescence. In fact, everything “fashion” does is predicated toward teaching consumers to eschew the old and embrace the new. “Something is in, then it is out; skirts are up, then they are down; today it’s green, tomorrow, blue, which is itself by definition about something that is the opposite of sustainable,” she said.
Fashion has become disposable, a vehicle for “continuous consumption.”
Friedman, who at the same conference five years earlier called for a common industry lexicon, decried the dogged pace of today’s fashion calendar—the same one designer Azzedine Alaïa once called “inhuman” and a “one-way course towards emptiness.”
“There are now new fashion collections coming out four times a year instead of two, and sometimes even more than four, if you throw in special holiday or store opening collections, so designers are effectively running on a creative treadmill that is—c’mon, you know where I am going with this, say it with me—unsustainable,” she said. “No one can have that many new ideas. At least not ideas that are any good, or remotely original, or, frankly, worth buying.”
Fashion has become disposable, a vehicle for “continuous consumption.” To Friedman’s ears, the shouts of “more and more and faster and faster” sounds, more than anything, like a runaway train. “And you know what happens to runaway trains,” she said. “They crash.”
A BETTER CLOSET
Friedman spoke about her grandmother—and the new for a new phrase. “Once upon a time my grandmother saved and saved to buy a nice leather handbag, and once she had it, she had it for decades,” she recalled. “Her fur coat? Same story. Her cashmere sweaters…you know the little cardigans with beading on the edges that were so popular in the ’50s?…same. She knew how to wash her garments—by hand usually — and how to hang them, and how store them, be it for the next season, or the next generation. What she had—what she built—was a ‘sustainable wardrobe.'”
“The decision about what constitutes value is yours, and you need make it.”
It’s time for all of us to revisit that concept, she said. “It is about emphasizing the value proposition inherent in each item you buy and consciously selecting it, maybe because it has an ethically conscious aspect you appreciate, and you bothered to research the supply chain like my friend Julie Gilhart does, or maybe because you know the amount of handwork that has gone into it and you are amazed by the artistry or even know the artisans, like Peter Copping does, or maybe because you the know that that cashmere came from happy prancing goats running free on the steppes of Mongolia—whatever. The point is that the decision about what constitutes value is yours, and you need make it. And that implies some level of investment over—and in—time.”
Friedman’s research into the “IWWIWWIWI generation”—that is, millennials who “want what I want when I want it”—showed that Gen Y’ers don’t actually need to own things. And because they’re able to get their fix virtually, to some degree, through sites like Pinterest, they can make their actual purchases much more consciously.
That combination of technology and speed with deliberate purchasing strikes Friedman as a “very modern” sort of balance to achieve.
“Is it sustainable?” she wondered. “Not almost exactly. Not definitely maybe. Yes.”
Read the entire transcript of Friedman’s speech at Fashion Editor at Large.