Be the change you want to see in the world - Gandhi

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Designer Profile: Suzanne Lee

I love this lady, a woman after my own heart. What could be more amazing than growing clothes by means of bacteria.

I posted pictures from Gary Harvey's 2007 collection and I do adore the newspaper dress but I also feel like that collection perpetuates the stereotype of what eco-fashion can look like, which is not the most fashionable clothing sometime - most of the time when it first evolved. I completely appreciate and agree with the idea of reusing clothing and re-making clothes into something new, but I do think that it should look like it has not been made from used clothing. Whenever I have designed a 're-made' piece, to me the challenge is in making it appear new; that you can never tell it's been pieced together from old clothes.

I would like to swing the pendulum to the extreme opposite and showcase Suzanne Lee who has developed Biocouture. This Central St. Martins graduate is growing clothes. Gluconacetobacter xylinus(previously known as Acetobacter xylinum), spins a cellulose material when immersed in a vat of green tea and glucose. 

The fabric takes around 2-4 weeks to grow into a thickness that is usable. At this point it is dried and either cut and sewn in a traditional methodology or can be shaped over a wooden form. Once it has dried, the material feels like either paper or vegetable leather depending on treatment methods.

The clothes are not commercially available yet, but have been on display in various galleries/museums. The process is still in development to increase its durability. Suzanne has also been experimenting with different dye methods, such as the use of fruit and vegetable dyes to keep the process as toxic free as possible. At this stage the fermentation liquid can also be partially recycled.

the designer at work

cross sectional view of cellulose growing

traditionally sewn jackets
bodices formed by placing over a bustform, pattern created by beans

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Democratization of fashion

The democratization of fashion brought us many benefits and drawbacks. The benefits were amazing; cheap and fast fashion that allowed everybody to look like they just stepped off the runway. Brands like H&M, Zara and Topshop exploded globally bringing about many great innovations in supply-chain management, distribution and of course fast fashion at prices nobody could say no to. 

This could not have been achieved without globalization. Off-shore manufacturing allowed for considerably cheaper production  of apparel goods which in the beginning was seemingly beneficial for both parties.  Fashion was the first to industry to move into developing nations to help stimulate local economies. The thing about apparel production is it cannot be mechanized, so it is constantly in need of cheap perpetual labour. 

This has its benefits and drawbacks to these developing nations. Yes it provides many woman with a skill and a paycheck but at what price? Labour laws, occupational health & safety and environmental due diligence are not a priority, in fact they barely register on the radar. We reap the rewards of cheap fast fashion and are shielded from the actual devastating effects of this industry. 

A quick rundown of the drawbacks. Dyes, special treatments (enzyme washes, acid wash, etc.), bleaching, finishes (crease resistance uses formaldehyde), scouring, spinning and printing all use harmful toxic chemicals. Chemicals that are carcinogens and can affect both the workers and us. Water use is extremely high in these processes not to mention the water we use for laundering. It is also energy intensive and uses unsustainable resources such as oil for synthetic material production. I could spend days go into the problems, but I'll pace myself here. 

"Not in my backyard!" I love this phrase because it just goes to show how entitled we feel here in developed nations. If we had to actually take these jobs and live next to the toxic rivers gleaming fluorescence in new hues daily, we might just reconsider our penchant for fast fashion. 

Devils advocate: We work hard for our money, we didn't create this industry and aren't responsible for how it evolved. We have no control over what happens half-way across the world and are helping the economies of the developing world, look at what China has achieved. It feels so good to be able to afford the latest fashions and who doesn't love fashion. It's fun and an expression of one's self. 

I don't think anybody could have anticipated that the industry would evolve the way it did, but it has and now we should deal with the consequences as if they are in our own backyard.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Why did sustainable fashion even appear? Was it always an unsustainable industry and if not, what happened? 
So what is fashion? A current popular style of dress, current trends in look or practice, a term generally applied to clothing.
The long short of it is that fashion has existed since humankind started to adorn themselves. Maybe not in the sense that we understand it today, and it’s a blurry line to me anyways, where function vs. fashion began or ended. Not only did adorning one’s self in a similar manner to others suggest membership to a particular group but also differentiated one’s self among the group. We can see this paradoxical role in action both at a macro and micro level.

Resources have never been distributed equally amongst people and this is quite evident when looking at the way one is dressed. Not so much today but in history, prior to the democratization of fashion that began in the early-mid twentieth century, that was its primary role. It not only distinguished continents, countries, and regions, but the common from the crowned, the white from the blue and the artist from the accountant. Your clothes, jewellary and style – fashion, were in direct relation with one’s access to resources, which was also indicative of one’s role/occupation. But the fashion cycle was slow; it would change often in times of economic or social change but could also last a thousand years.

You either fell into one of two groups: you can afford to buy textiles and have fashionable, beautiful garments made or you can afford very little and make do with the bare minimum, few garments, re-made, used textiles/garments. There was a clear distinction and it was apparent about where you belonged. Clothes had to last; most people could not afford a lifestyle that adhered to frequent style changes. Not to mention you had to have it made, it wasn’t as simple as a walk down the block to your local H&M. We are also only exposed to the fashionable elite, the upper echelon, when looking at historical clothing because they were the only ones who had their portrait painted or were important enough to be captured in some way as a representation of that era. 
Skip forward a bit otherwise I could end up writing about the above for pages. Democratization of fashion brought about mass production. Cheaper fashionable clothes for everyone, this was new a phenomenon that really started to gain momentum.  How could it not, fashion was built on creating desire and fantasy; wanting what we couldn’t have for centuries and now here it was for everybody. We could all have a slice of pie.

But the cycle didn’t stay steady, it got faster and clothes became cheaper and of lesser quality until they literally became disposable.  Disposable in the sense that they were designed and created with a short life cycle in mind. To be thrown out before they actually needed to be.
Enough writing for today but here’s some photos, finally. This is Gary Harvey, this pictures are from his exhibit from the Estethica exhibition at London Fashion Week in 2007. This collection was designed to change people’s perception of second-hand clothing while creating fashion with a conscience. The collection only utilizes material from places like secondhand clothing stores to avoid waste, people "wear it one or two times then discard it because it's suddenly deemed aesthetically unimportant and out of date when there's years of life left in the garment." His collection "was a comment about thinking about the real cost of the garment that you buy, about that cost being natural resources, exploitation of labour, the biodegradable nature of garments." I know it's from 2007, but I love it.
the newspaper dress
I was so happy to see this dress by chance last time I was in NY almost a year ago. Stunning.

the macdress

denim dress, made from 41 pairs of Levi 501's. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What is sustainable fashion and why should we care about it?

The word fashion conjures many associations such as new, current, style, desire and innovation. The fashion system is built upon newness, the introduction of new styles, trends, colours, shapes and materials every season. So how exactly does sustainability come into all of this when fashion and sustainability paired together give rise to an oxymoron. How do we even start to define this new buzzword that has gained prevalence over the years? There is much confusion over this new term, trend, movement or anti-trend depending on your perception of it. Is it strictly an environmental issue? Do we include social aspects, such as fair trade and sweatshops? Economics? Agriculture? Consumer behaviour? Is it enough if a garment is made with organic fibres? Is natural better than synthetic? Believe it or not, recycled polyester actually has a smaller environmental impact than organic cotton, say whaaaat! Not only is there a problem in defining the term and a lack of an international consensus on the definitions out there but also that consumers don’t even know whom to trust anymore in this age of information. Scientists, newspapers, bloggers, magazines, newscast, podcast, twitter, the Internet and radio, everybody has an opinion and everybody’s an expert; whom do we trust and how do we make sense of all this information?

So who am I and what do I have to offer? Am I an expert? Getting there. I have been involved and championing for sustainable fashion for about 8 years now. I have a degree in Science and in Fashion Design. I have worked in the industry as a designer for a large retailer and for myself. Currently I am working on my MaSc. in environmental science where of course my area of focus is sustainable fashion apparel. So I think I’ve earned a little bit of street cred to be able to offer a thoughtful, educated and experienced opinion. I will not just blather about sustainability but will also showcase designers and anyone else doing amazing things in this industry.

The thing that I love about fashion and design is that it is challenging, innovative and you’re constantly moving forward but keeping an eye on the past. To me, achieving sustainability is the ultimate design challenge. Designing clothes in new ways that minimize waste or have zero waste through innovative pattern drafting. Re-designing the current supply chain management systems so that the use of non-renewable resources are minimized or better yet eliminated. Closing the loop so that our waste (clothes) can become food somewhere else. Imagine compostable clothes, where they can be broken down by organisms and provide nutrients to an ecological system. Some materials already can be composted but we lack the infrastructure to take advantage of them. Not to mention we haven’t yet figured out what to do with the buttons, zippers and other notions that are not biodegradable.

The burden is not just on the designers, retailers, factories and textile engineers but also on the consumer to support and engage in sustainable behaviours. But whose job is it to educate us, the consumer? Is it up to us or brands, retailers, media or government to provide us with the necessary information so we can make informed purchases?

Devils advocate: Is this taking the fun out of fashion and shopping? Does shopping really need to be bogged down and become more complicated by having to think about where it came from, who made it, is it bad, and what will I do with it when I’m done? It’s hard enough trying to decide what colour you want to buy or should you go for the beautiful drapey silk pleated trousers in that oh so right shade of salmon or for the same amount of money get two basic tees in a nice viscose/cotton blend and that scarf you’ve had your eye on? Keeping up with the up and coming is a job in itself never mind adding its impacts to the mix!

I think we often forget that our dollar is worth more than our political vote these days. We vote with our dollar. When we give our dollar over to a company, we are not only saying, I love what I just bought (or else why are we buying it?) but I approve of your business, subconscious or not.

Wow, I wasn’t anticipating that long of a sidetrack while trying to define sustainable fashion. So I won’t today but I will get around to defining it soon! To be continued.....