Making sustainability fashion forward

Credit: Vogue Italia

Anastasia Nevarez-Pyrkova

Anastasia Nevarez-Pyrkova explores sustainability trends within the fashion industry.

This year the January issue of Vogue Italia replaced all photography with a variety of beautiful illustrations by contemporary artists from different fields, including painting, graphic design, and comic book design. The unique, collectable magazine was produced with two explicitly stated intentions: firstly, to reduce the environmental impact of photography, which uses “20 flights and a dozen or so train journeys […] Lights switched on for at least 10 hours non-stop, partly powered by gasoline-fueled generators […] Plastic to wrap the garments. Electricity to recharge phones, cameras…”, to quote a statement from the editor. Secondly, to raise money (by means of the costs saved) for a charitable cause in the arts and heritage sphere, that is, for the restoration of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, a historic house museum in Venice.

Of course, the primary aim of Vogue Italia, or any product in the fashion industry, is not sustainability or charity. Although small actions and gestures can be incorporated into their practices, realistically the world of fashion, by nature, is a wellspring of material production. I am not, however, looking to criticise. For me personally, I see sustainability in fashion as a beautiful opportunity for interdisciplinarity and a source of great creative inspiration, regardless of the agenda.

Scientific research and technological advancements have constantly informed innovations in visual arts. Studies into optics and illusion in the Renaissance paved the way for the development of perspective; surrealism had roots in the advent of psychoanalysis; and even photography, as a creative medium, was a byproduct of experiments with light. Today research into environmentalism can inform the practices of artists and designers, providing them with new puzzles to try and solve. Going back to Vogue Italia, with knowledge of the environmental impact of photography and awareness of contemporary art, the company produced a magazine which was inventive, refreshing, relevant and collaborative. They took a modern issue and used it to their creative advantage – two birds with one stone. Following this example, I want to look at other areas of fashion, focusing on haute couture, which likewise have adapted to these new frameworks.

Another element that needs to be considered if criticising the fashion industry is the role and responsibility of the consumer – because it is endless obsessive materialism which perpetuates this cycle of consumption. Lecturer in fashion and retail, Mark Summer, argues that purchases are driven by natural, irrational and hedonistic impulses, despite any good intentions we might have to be conscious and green. He proposes that rather than trying to control consumerist behaviour, companies should accept and work with these “consumer-driven models” and focus on making their production processes as sustainable as possible. Chinese company Sechs Element also recognises the responsibility of the consumer but, unlike Summer, believes that companies can educate their buyers. The brand works both on supporting sustainable fashion designers and on inspiring clients to shop less but to buy products that are more enduring and valuable. This is an idea which is very much embodied in the sphere of haute couture, the epitome of “slow fashion”.

Despite the general neglect of sustainability in high fashion (at least in the past), there is something to gain from its quality-over-quantity tradition. The time, inspiration and craftsmanship which haute couture requires elevates it from an ephemeral, disposable product to a wearable work of art – bespoke pieces which are unique and meaningful. As Vivienne Westwood promotes “Buy Less, Choose Well, and Make It Last” – buying clothes can be a thoughtful process; a wardrobe can be small but distinctive and carefully curated. Haute couture even has the potential of a second life as a collectable, at an auction or in a museum. With the artistry put into a piece, it is given value.

Of course, haute couture is not a feasible option for the majority of people – being an industry with approximately only 4,000 clients in the world. But it can still serve as a model for high street fashion and product design in general – demonstrating that with quality and ingenuity, we can value purchases as special and long-lasting.

Another fun and radical novelty in recent haute couture is so-called “digital fashion”. Taking waste reduction to a whole other level, Dutch label The Fabricant sells immaterial garments tailored specifically to customers’ virtual photographic selves. Of course, it is quite absurd to think of someone paying thousands to be photoshopped into a non-existent, albeit unique and beautiful item of clothing; but this is the kind of inventiveness and attunement to the capacity of modern technology that can lead to a change in mindset. Again, it supports the notion of fashion as art – in a way it tries to distill its creative potential from its practical use. Designers and customers can satisfy their artistic needs endlessly in the digital sphere by “wasting nothing but data and exploiting nothing but imagination.”

Sustainable progress in haute couture may be slow and actions may be merely symbolic but even so it is fascinating to watch designers respond to new challenges with such creativity – which they will have to continue doing as long as we keep feeding our consumerism. Some of the solutions proposed are quite quixotic, but they give us content with which to imagine possible futures. With technology today suggesting that every material can be regenerated, maybe waste will become obsolete and fashion will become an infinite cycle. Maybe everyone will wear the same one outfit but have a myriad of garments online. Maybe the industry will collapse and designers will teach everyone how to create their own clothes. I personally dream of everyone abandoning fast fashion and instead investing in a few beautiful, well-made garments. If we’re going to maintain this reputedly unsustainable industry, then it might as well be done with craft and creativity.


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