Fashion Weeks: Mending a broken system

By Orsola de Castro

1 month ago

As we approach the middle of the fashion weeks calendar, I can’t help but feel that we are collectively stuck in a bit of a Groundhog Day situation: not just because fashion weeks themselves are stuck in a perpetual system of repetition, but because we are once again debating their role, and whether they should be in existence at this point in time, considering their carbon footprint, the message they send, and the industry they promote.

A recent article published in the NY Times has exposed the real cost to our planet of all the intercontinental transport, the materials in use for displaying and showcasing collections, and the general excess that they encourage.

“The report’s authors used representative data from 2,697 retailers, including Net-a-Porter, Selfridges and Galeries Lafayette, and 5,096 designer brands, including major names like Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors but also smaller labels, to estimate the carbon cost for the industry as a whole over a 12-month period.”

“According to the report, the travel undertaken by buyers and brands resulted in about 241,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year. That figure, said the report, is equivalent to the annual emissions of a small country — say, Saint Kitts and Nevis — or enough energy to light up Times Square for 58 years.” – NYT, from the Zero to Market Report

At the risk of repeating myself, because I have already stated my position, and the position of Fashion Revolution in this regard,  I am categorically against blanket cancellations, and all for the opportunity to intelligently, and urgently, discover new ways to showcase and trade our fashion.

Steps are being taken to this effect, and changes (in some cases quite unimaginable changes) are happening already. Admittedly, these changes are still exploratory, still unlikely to mitigate the damage or to have a tangible, measurable impact, but there is a clear appetite to improve.

We are transitioning, and transformative periods can only really be properly valued later down the line, once the dust has settled and once we can clearly compare and reflect on what has worked, and what hasn’t.

I know that time isn’t on our side, and that we need this exploration period to be swift, active and efficient, and above all, collaborative. But we will not fight excess with equally excessive measures – the only way we can resolve the problem is with balance and vision.

Notably, and in recent months alone, we are seeing some of the major events attempting a shift for the better: Copenhagen Fashion Week is introducing an incremental open sourced criteria for all of its stakeholders, the kind of criteria that raises important questions and offers a glimpse of what an ideal fashion week could look like; Helsinki Fashion Week is turning into a travel show, inhabiting other international events rather than expecting that the fashion crowd should travel to see them; Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai has a very serious and groundbreaking ‘Sustainability Day’, showcasing the kind of heritage and innovation that is so important to be accessed in a producing country such as India; and both London Fashion Week and the White Showroom in Milan are now open to the public, and lending their exhibition spaces for initiatives that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Fashion Revolution staged a Stitch and Bitch event last Sunday at London Fashion Week. The event brought in special guest panelists Hasna Kourda of Save Your Wardrobe, Elisalex de Castro Peake of By Hand London, and Fashion Revolution’s policy director, Sarah Ditty. We asked all participants to bring something to mend, to metaphorically connect broken clothes and broken systems.

Of course, events such as these (or the GFX Swapshop, which was also held at 180 the Strand) do not have a measurable impact yet, and we really mustn’t be complacent in thinking that we are changing the world, but we are infiltrating precisely the same space that would have been completely unavailable to us up until now. Makers, swappers, activists and campaigners have been patronised forever in the fashionsphere. Now, we are being recognised as the unstoppable force we have proved ourselves to be.

All around us, it was, of course, business as usual, but these little bubbles offering a glimpse of things to come were for once seen as viable alternatives, and were included within, rather than be confined to the outskirts.

More than ever we are seeing a new generation of global fashion designers, many with strong ethics and innovation at the core of their creativity, looking for visibility in an overcrowded industry – to stop them now from reaching their audience is to prevent sustainable products from reaching the general public, via the fashion press, and fashion retailers ready to stock them. Fashion Weeks need to support these young talents, on a global scale, because they, and not the old, traditional, mainstream brands, represent the trends for the future. And by trends, I don’t mean the voluminous shape of a coat, or the length of a skirt, but the looks that will fit in with our principles, as well as our body shapes.

When we talk about products, mass production and mass consumption, it is the mainstream that needs to slow down, produce less and ensure ethical and environmental compliance. It is their excess that needs to be curbed, not the wild imagination of designers, crafters and makers. If we had 10 innovative labels, or systems (such as renting, mending and swapping) in between every Michael Kors and H&M on the high street, we would be closer to an industry that promotes diversity, and real choice for consumers.

But most of all, all this talk of cancelling, of decreasing the amount of fashion capitals designated as showspaces, and of slowing down a system by negating rather than reconfiguring, smacks of the usual elitism to me.

So our western fashion week fun is wrecking the planet? So we need to stop gallivanting around flying to several international locations in groups of 50 people, sipping water from increasingly tiny water bottles, being ferried around (alone) in limos from one show to the next? Are we really saying that all the nascent, local fashion weeks worldwide need to be stopped in their tracks because we overdid it?

I hope that in the very near future, with technological advancements, with cheap night time rail services connecting capitals, with a renewed interest in heritage crafts and local heroes, with criteria and regulations, by collaborating and uniting, by halving our physical presences but doubling our efficaciousness, we will see new and genuinely sustainable formulas emerge for Fashion Weeks.

There are no doubts in my mind that this system is broken, but I believe equally strongly that something broken needs to be mended, not thrown away.