As many of you know, April 24th is Fashion Revolution Day. To celebrate, here at Manufacture New York we're having a special event: Mend, Repair & Empower where Nica Rabinowitz and Adriana Lentrichia of Artifact Textiles and designer Mimi Prober will show you great ways to reclaim the power over your clothing's life cycle (and discover how to design/re-design some seriously awesome textiles and garments). Whenever I think about upcycling my own wardrobe I grab Sass Brown's book ReFashioned and flip through it for inspiration. I thought it would be fun to get her take on upcycling and how awareness of ways we can be sustainable has grown in the past few years. Read her answers to my questions below and register for our event here!
Katya - When I explain upcycling to some people the look in their eyes tells me they are imagining an Etsy project gone bad. But when I show them your book ReFashioned their eyes light up and they totally get it. That book was published only 2.5 years ago, but I'm wondering if you think there's been a greater awareness of the possibilities of upcycling your clothes since that time?
Sass- I think there has been some expansion of awareness of upcycling but not nearly enough. I had a perfectly intelligent person ask me the other day what I did, and when I said I work in ethical fashion, they asked me to repeat it about half a dozen times, before finally saying "what is that?". Clearly they knew the meaning of both words, but somehow together they couldn't understand the meaning. I think we have a long way to go on this journey of promoting, sharing and changing our industry. The wide range of designers who have embraced conscious choices are doing their part, but sometimes I feel like we have reached a glass ceiling on reaching consumers. We are constantly faced with preaching to the converted. A report just a couple of weeks ago said that those that are not interested in sustainability look down on those of us that do, mostly as a knee jerk reaction of reverse snobbery of sorts; they don't like others thinking they are superior to them or more ethical, so the response rather than interest is rejection. That worries me a lot, as its very difficult to talk about those making change in our industry without talking about why that change is necessary.
Are fashion design students coming into FIT with a sustainable mindset more often?
That's hard for me to say, as I am not directly in contact with many students as Associate Dean. There is certainly a much greater push on the Universities side to make many more sustainable options available for students, and FIT is not alone in that push. Students are definitely seeking me out more frequently for advice, often from around world en route to a Masters or other degree.
And do you think that there is an expectation from the faculty that they (the students) should be thinking that way? Or do you think it's considered optional for designers to think about?
I think that depends upon the faculty. There are certainly committed and knowledgable individuals, but this is also an old and conservative system, that is not changing as quickly as some would like. The major goal of most fashion design students is still to be the next global brand, with sales around the world. That is a model that is not sustainable, but its still considered the pinnacle of success in our industry.
Many people still consider ethical fashion an option, a trend, or even a niche, but the truth is its far beyond that, its simply an imperative at this stage.
While I never loved fast fashion I didn't realize just how harmful it was until I saw The True Cost documentary. Now I literally make everyone watch it, because it was such an "A-HA moment" for me. Did you have an a-ha moment or was it a gradual realization?
I think film has a different way of reaching people than the written word, its more visceral, more immediate, that was the power of the True Cost. I dont think I had an aha moment in my career, more of a gradual transition made up of important moments. One of those was my first visit to Brazil on behalf of FIT, when I met with a Women's cooperative called COOPA-ROCA that ended with me spending the next 5 years of my summers and winters volunteering and working with them.
Anyone inspire you when you were first learning about sustainable fashion?
Oh gosh so many -that's why I wrote the books and started the website to write about all those doing inspirational work. It's hard to remember who first inspired me now, although I know Orsola de Castro's work with From Somewhere was one of them. She's also the founder of Estethica part of London Fashion week, so its not hard to look up to her. I think at that time it was likely Junky Styling, who I loved also. Now I'd say its more like Simone Cipriani, the founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative who works with luxury brands and African Artisans.
What's your thought on fast fashion brands that have a sustainable arm like H&M or ASOS? It feels a bit to me like McDonald's offering a salad...like you have some healthier choices but the menu is still pretty bad. Thoughts on this?
Love the analogy of McDonalds! I've always tried to applaud the efforts of those making change, and to a degree that includes H&M. If anyone has the ability to bring ethical fashion to the masses its them. This is a journey, and while there may be an end point of ethically made clothing, slow fashion, lesser consumption, no chemical use, complete circular economy. We are so far off from that right now that I welcome any and all steps to get us there. That does not mean I approve of H&M's mass expansion however, I don't. But imagine the impact if they were to turn the entirety of all their collections to ethically sourced and produced collections? While that would still not be the end of the journey, it would be a very powerful step in the right direction. I've always been about lessening consumption, buying better, investing in local design, emerging designers, global craft and artisanship, but a colleague in the UK posited another alternative recently which made me think, and that was: Why does consumption have to be the enemy, what if clothing was entirely circular, recyclable or 100% biodegradable, if discarded clothing was not the end of the story, but a valuable input and raw material for something new? It's food for thought, and it would take a mass retailer like H&M to make that happen.
Do you have any favorite upcycling tips or tricks?
I'm so into visible mending these days, darning the worn patches on my bag, patch working dresses that have holes or stains, adjusting, refitting and recutting pieces I dont wear often. Its methodical and slow, and brings me quite a bit of satisfaction to do it.
For major inspiration you can also check out her book ReFashioned that showcases the best in cutting edge fashion with upcycled materials.
And if you want to try your own hand at upcycling join us at Manufacture New York on April 24th to Mend, Repair & Empower!