The fashion industry has always been largely apolitical. Not in the sense of not wishing to take sides – although there’s also that, as to do so would alienate part of the market – but more in that it doesn’t really give a damn about politics either way as long as business keeps on rolling.
What counts is profit for shareholders, and some nice shiny clothes to keep the worker drones happy. Ethics don’t come into it.
But we live in interesting times. Changes are afoot, and it does genuinely feel like the fashion industry will slowly be forced to get its act together.
There’s still a very long way to go of course. And we shan’t be celebrating until fast-fashion behemoths such as Zara and H&M have been forced to radically overhaul their methods – or face extinction.
True, many major brands are making moves to become more ethical and inclusive in their practices; even H&M to some extent. But this is still a drop in the ocean compared to the changes we’d like to see taking place.
As with any revolution though, it first takes a few brave individuals to stir things up at ground level before there’s sufficient popular momentum to topple the ancien régime.
With this article we want to take a closer look at some of the changes that are taking place. But above all we wish to celebrate a few of the brands helping to bring about this ethical revolution. Brands that refuse to give in to exclusionary and oppressive standards of beauty. Brands that don’t take the easy – yet environmentally damaging – route of fast apparel production.
In short, brands that are taking a stand.
Not because it’s fashionable. Not because the market has pressured them into doing so. Not because it means greater profits. But because they can; because they care; because they wouldn’t be willing to do it any other way.
First though, let’s take a look at some of the issues and complications ethical fashion brands currently face. As we’ll see, the path to a truly ethical and sustainable fashion industry is by no means a straightforward one.
Over the last couple of years the fashion industry has paid a great deal of lip-service to the topic of inclusivity. Sometimes this has meant producing clothes that specifically cater to once ignored sectors of society, such as those in need of larger sizes; or by finally producing “nude” underwear in tones that are “neutral” for people other than caucasians. Mostly, though, it’s manifested itself in subtle changes to the types of models brands now cast for runway shows and campaigns.
A common complaint from the public is that fashion advertising doesn’t show how clothes would look on “real people” (as if professional models were androids or something). This has prompted numerous labels to alter their approach to casting in recent years. And now even major brands such as COS feature a wide variety of models who, while often still quite attractive, are frequently not the classic good-lookers of old.
Other companies have taken a far more radical approach though. For example, UK highstreet fashion retailer River Island recently ran a series of campaigns titled “Labels Are For Clothes” featuring a very diverse cast of models – some of whom also have a disability of one kind or another.
While a campaign of this kind would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, it’s important to bear in mind that River Island is not a charitable organization working for social equality, but a multimillion dollar business intent on selling clothes. The primary purpose of advertising is to garner publicity, and we can safely assume that whoever dreamed up this campaign did so precisely in the hope that it would be talked about due to its novelty (and here we are proving them right). Nonetheless, even cynical business moves can sometimes contribute to positive societal change.
In most cases though, the shift to “normal” casting often just means slightly different models than before, but still with the same body types. So while you may no longer be left seething with jealousy at a model’s divine facial features, the fact that the same old skinny frames are to be found under the clothing means that most consumers are still none the wiser as to how the items might look if they themselves were to wear them.
“Real people” casting can be a tricky thing to balance though. On the one hand it seems that the public is indeed tired of being shown clothes worn only by the young and improbably beautiful. Instead many people would evidently like to see garments hanging off flawed and relatable body types that are more similar to their own.
Clearly the hope here is that future collections might change so as to be more flattering for a wider range of body types. But beyond the clothes themselves, there’s also the problem that in order to convince the public to purchase their designs – designs which in actual fact may not differ massively from those of competitors – fashion brands carefully construct an aspirational image that they hope customers will find alluring.
Indeed, the fashion industry sells 10% clothes, and 90% fantasy. For all its flaws, fashion is a form of escapism. One that many people enjoy.
Each of us has something unique to offer; our own story to tell. One that might correspond with the needs of a certain brand – whether a fashion brand or otherwise.
The hope is that in the near future anyone with a strong personality who is willing to put in the hard work can become a model, regardless of their “flaws”.
One area where the fashion industry has already shown a very definite improvement in recent years is in regards to casting models from a broader range of ethnic, body shapes, ages and cultural backgrounds.
From personal experience I know how hard it was to get non-caucasian models approved for campaigns even just a few years ago. Of course, nobody was so honest as to admit that they were deliberately rejecting people of color from my casting options. Instead they would usually suggest that a certain physical feature somehow made that particular model unsuitable for the job (“wild” hair for example). Yet the subtext was clear.
Now the same people are falling over themselves to make their casting more “inclusive.”
What happened? Have the people who work in the fashion industry suddenly developed greater political and self awareness? Or did they merely discover the “brown dollar?”
The greater connectivity brought about by social media and the growth of “emerging” markets outside of the traditional North American and European sales territories have forced fashion brands to target a much broader demographic in their marketing than ever before. However, while an increase in the casting of people from once-marginalized groups should certainly be welcomed, please excuse us if we don’t applaud the fast-fashion industry for doing what it should have been doing all along: reluctantly giving in to economic pressure is not being progressive.
Rather than blame lying exclusively with the fashion industry though, the root of this problem is arguably to be found in society more generally. Photographers and brands tend to cast models that look like themselves and the people they know. If they are surrounded by a homogeneous clique of cronies with backgrounds, experiences, and tastes that are largely similar to their own, this will be reflected in the images they produce. And it doesn’t take too much in-depth examination of society at large to notice that it still remains fairly segregated.
So if it’s taken so long for us to see wider diversity in casting, this is because it’s taken equally long to achieve diversity among the industry’s power holders. Indeed, if anything this area now lags way behind casting, as economic concerns have forced brands to broaden their target markets, while those who design and market fashion items are on the whole still drawn from the same entirely predictable pool of candidates.
However, as a slowly increasing number of individuals from diverse backgrounds enter the industry, and achieve positions of ever greater power and influence on both the creative and managerial sides, we can expect to see this reflected in marketing. What personal motive could Virgil Abloh conceivably have for sending a troupe of exclusively white models down a runway? When considered in this light, it’s obvious that change is inevitable; if still somewhat slow in coming.
We’d still do well to be cautious though. To be sure, we fully welcome such changes if they lead to greater acceptance of diversity and draw previously marginalized groups more firmly into society’s center. Yet in replacing outdated and exclusionary standards of beauty it’s important that something better is put in their place; not merely something different.
I.e. there’s always the risk that any new concept of beauty we might establish just ends up becoming an equally oppressive standard: one to which those who don’t fit must inevitably compare themselves unfavorably, just as before.
It’s certainly time that Eurocentric ideals of beauty lost their hegemonic position, but replacing one exclusionary ideal with another equally uninclusive one would be an odd kind of progress. There’s beauty to be found in every individual, all it takes is progressive brands, editors, stylists, and photographers to reveal it.
Online fashion platform Net A Porter recently announced the launch of a more ethical section of its e-commerce site called Net Sustain, featuring 26 brands selected for their sustainability credentials. In order to be included on Net Sustain, a label’s products must meet Net A Porter’s criteria for sustainability.
In establishing Net Sustain the online retailer states that it aims to “give a voice to the brands that are truly making positive changes by providing them with a platform to highlight their best practice.” Sounds good, right?
The problem is that there is no universally agreed upon definition of sustainable fashion . Indeed it’s a term that often causes more confusion than it clears up.
This is arguably the case with Net A Porter labeling a product as sustainable for no reason other than the fact that it was made locally – regardless as to how much water was consumed or whether nasty chemicals were used in the production process.
What’s more, given that Net A Porter is an internationally accessible website, it’s also difficult to see what practical advantage an item being made locally really offers: is a product still “local” once it’s been purchased by a customer and shipped to the other side of the world?
Nonetheless, the launch of Net Sustain is undoubtedly a positive move. At the very least it indicates that this enormous retailer has some confidence in the market’s demand for sustainable products.
It’s also worth noting that if Net A Porter’s sustainability criteria seem somewhat vague, the company is far from alone here. Indeed even many brands who genuinely strive to become sustainable often seem to lack a clear understanding of what the word means. Not only this, but even once a brand has managed to identify which criteria will truly make a difference to the sustainability of its products, it can nonetheless be extremely difficult to put such a shortlist into action.
The first obstacle a brand dedicated to producing a truly sustainable product will have to overcome is purely economic: doing things the right way costs more. Often a lot more. This puts ethically-conscious brands at a serious market disadvantage right from the outset.
Worse still, a choice that may at first appear to be more ethical – for example using only recycled nylon rather than water-thirsty cotton – can often turn out to bring other problems of its own – in this case the shedding of harmful microplastics into our water system. But even without looking in depth at all the potentially harmful processes involved in the production of a fashion item – from producing raw materials, dyeing and finishing the cloth, to cutting and sewing the garment – merely the fact that the item will need to be shipped from its place of manufacture to the end user means that most products will fall short of true sustainability.
Nonetheless, anyone who is genuinely trying to produce clothing that is more sustainable deserves our support. Not only our support, but a certain degree of understanding that until the relevant knowledge, technology, and infrastructure become more readily available, producing a product that is 100% sustainable is still a pretty tall order right now.
With that said, there are many brands out there working hard to make a difference. In the next section we round up a few of the most interesting ones.
Considering the issues outlined above, it’s with a somewhat cynical ear that we greet the news that major brands are now hiring models from a much broader range of backgrounds than ever before. Similarly, the rush to become “sustainable” – or at least to appear sustainable – on the whole feels like little more than a cynical and desperate business maneuver on the part of an industry that senses that its days of free and reckless living may finally be coming to an end.
While clearly these moves were very long overdue, giving in to public pressure when the tide has already turned is about as convincing as a declaration of eternal love from someone with a gun pointed at their head.
More persuasive is when small brands – often ones that are run by just one or two people – stake their future on developing a different kind of fashion industry. While huge fashion groups such as Inditex are frequently targeted by activists for unethical practices, smaller but equally unethical brands largely slip under the radar of such criticism merely due to their size. This means that if a small brand does decide to set itself up in an ethical manner, this is probably motivated by a genuine commitment to the cause, rather than merely due to a cynical desire to “greenwash” their public image.
To be clear, change on a mass scale will only come about when multinational fashion brands are forced to alter their business practices. But if even a significant minority of the fashion-buying public were to switch to purchasing only from smaller ethical brands, rest assured that the big players would soon start to put their businesses in order.
Not all household-name brands are faking it though, and so we also include here one or two well-known labels with convincing ethical fashion credentials. By purchasing from these and smaller ethical fashion producers – instead of greedy and irresponsible companies who show no concern for society or the environment – we can help to secure a better future for all.
Although IOU (or I Owe You) has been producing ethically-minded women’s, men’s, and unisex clothing since 2011, this is the year that things have really started to take off for this Madrid-based collective. The label has won a host of international awards – both for its commitment to sustainability and simply for the quality and innovation of its designs – and creative director Kavita Parmar has been in demand as a speaker on ethical fashion everywhere from the United Nations to TEDx and the Istituto Cervantes.
IOU’s fabric is hand-loomed from organic cotton and colored using natural plant dyes in India; and then designed, cut, and sewn into stylish garments in Madrid. Whereas some past collections have tended to revolve around brightly colored handspun Madras check, the forthcoming drop for SS20 features a lot of subdued (but certainly no less attractive) natural indigo and forest green tones, while taking in some tasty military influences.
Although some of the more authentically sustainable brands offer products that occasionally veer a little too far into hippy territory, Hund Hund’s style-credentials cannot be doubted. Indeed fans of scandi-minamilists COS would likely not be left wanting if they were to instead jump ship for this Berlin-based label.
But while Hund Hund’s clothes would not look out of place on Paris or Milan runways, what really sets this brand apart from the average high-end fashion operation is a clear dedication to running their business ethically. For a start, the label’s campaigns and lookbooks tend to feature more idiosyncratic and diverse casting than most of their contemporaries: “real,” but nonetheless edgy and aspirational.
However, it’s with the unique concept of “radical transparency” that the brand truly distinguishes itself. So as to avoid too close scrutiny of their business practices, many brands deliberately keep their supply chain as opaque as possible. Instead Hund Hund not only specify where and how their clothes were produced, but also offer an itemized breakdown of precisely what this production process cost them, and how much profit they make on each garment sold.
As the brand points out though, by selling direct to customers via their own e-commerce platform, buyers pay a much lower markup on the clothes than they would if purchasing via third-party dealers (i.e. clothing stores).
Backed up by a strong visual identity, convincing marketing chops, and a slick e-commerce store, Hund Hund also looks well placed to “scale up” its ethical business model for a wider audience.
Usually when a brand decides to move its production from Europe to Asia it’s in order to reduce costs. Rarely does it result in improved quality of workmanship.
Not that countries such as India and China aren’t capable of producing excellent quality garments of course. It’s just that most brands who make such a move tend to be more interested in cutting corners in order to maximize profit.
Story Mfg. are an unusual case though: by shifting all production to India a few years ago this British brand sought not to push down overheads but instead to benefit from the expertise of South Asia’s highly skilled textile producers and traditional craftsmen. As a result they now claim to spend more money producing their clothes in India than they did back in the UK.
The brand’s cotton fibers are organically grown and woven into fabrics by hand before being dyed at the same natural-indigo facilities in southern India as used by IOU (above). Distinctive hand embroidery and crocheting techniques are applied to the garments at the same location.
Story Mfg.’s date-palm embroidered pieces are a definite hit with us here at Elytiz. As is the beautiful dye-resist technique of the Canna Shadow Jacket. But by going all tie-dye and adding “popular recreational leaf-motifs” and “suspicious fungal growths” to many of their garments, Story has recently taken more of a deadhead-stoner direction than was the case with past collections.
Nonetheless the brand continues to produce a number of very stylish items each season that will likely also appeal to a less “gap year” demographic. And even those pieces that are perhaps best suited to a festival field circa 1991 still continue to impress due to the quality of production and use of innovative design twists.
What we really like about Story Mfg. though is the brand’s evident sincerity and dedication to producing high quality fashion items in the least environmentally and socially harmful manner possible. While all the talk of handmade natural processes undoubtedly makes for good marketing copy, it’s obvious that this is only secondary to the brand’s desire to simply do things the right way. Story is run by a couple of intelligent people looking for a better way to produce one of life’s necessities – something to be proud of.
In addition to the indigo-dyed denim of it’s name, Dutch brand Kings of Indigo also offers a wide range of attractive ecru items, both in heavyweight cotton and linen. Embroidery, too, is a central feature of many KOI products. Although there’s nothing of Story Mfg.’s pothead traveler vibe here; instead KOI’s motifs tend to feature sea, surf, Niponica, and classic Americana themes.
While the brand’s brightly colored Japanese-inspired designs are eye catching enough in themselves, where KOI really sets itself apart is in its evident commitment to sustainable production processes. Although not as “radical” as Hund Hund, the label nonetheless pushes for greater transparency by listing the origins of its fabrics and the country of production under each product.
Yet where King of Indigo is really making progress is with its core range of jeans and denim-wear. Having been rated as the most sustainable denim producer in Europe just a few years back, KOI has since implemented numerous other measures to help ensure greater sustainability. Indeed too many for us to list here, but you can read more about the brand’s ethical certifications and initiatives on the website.
Another Dutch denim brand, and some more trailblazing innovation towards sustainability. Not only have MUD Jeans acquired heavyweight certification – such as the Nordic Swan Ecolabel, and GRS standard for recycling – but the brand has developed a system whereby you can lease, rather than purchase, jeans from them for a monthly fee.
Tired of your denim after the rental period? Just send them back to MUD for a new pair. At which point they’ll be recycled by the brand and made into another item.
Whereas several of the brands we feature here originate in Europe but have found their way to India in search of traditional know-how, Bodice Studio is based in New Delhi and run by local designer Ruchika Sachdeva. The brand’s outlook is fully international though, and Sachdeva’s unapologetically forward-thinking designs have garnered acclaim from British Vogue, Elle, and the New York times among others.
What really put Bodice Studio on the fashion industry map was securing the prestigious International Woolmark Prize a few years ago with a beautiful collection of womenswear. The winning line incorporated everything from traditional Ayurvedic plant dyes to handloomed textiles sourced from a weaving cooperative in the Himalayan foothills.
There’s no faux-ethnic kitsch or adolescent drug references here though. Bodice Studio’s designs are sharp, clean, and contemporary. And whereas many South and Southeast Asian fashion labels tend to go for strongly European casting, the brand’s promotional materials and runway shows feature plenty of homegrown beauty alongside international models.
It’s worth noting, however, that Sachdeva makes no claims that Bodice Studio is a “sustainable brand,” Instead she rightly points out that incorporating more sustainable practices is just a byproduct of approaching fashion design in a conscious and responsible manner. Something that all brands should in any case be striving for.
Katherine Hamnett is the angry aunty of ethical fashion. It’s rare enough today to find a designer willing to put their business on the line by taking a political stance of any kind. But Hamnett has been making strong political statements since the early 1980s, both by means of her clothing and via more direct activism. Whether in the form of bold graphic t-shirts emblazoned with slogans protesting against nuclear arms and Blair’s invasion of Iraq, or more recent ones featuring pro-refugee proclamations and denouncements of Brexit, Hamnett has always worn her politics on her sleeve.
She’s also long been a critic of racism within the fashion industry, and was lobbying against the role of sweatshop labor in manufacturing as far back as the early ‘90s. In short, Hamnett is no bandwagon jumping arriviste.
As she also happens to make nice clothes, Hamnett’s is a brand that’s easy to get behind on aesthetic grounds too. Aside from the iconic slogan tees, come to Katherine Hamnett for elegant, pleated staples in organic cotton; slouchy suiting; and some very nice military-inspired outerwear
Reflecting the degree of ethical posturing that goes on in the fashion industry, the last few editions of Pitti Uomo have made quite a lot of fuss about sustainability – hosting talks and exhibitions on the theme – yet have sadly featured very few sustainable brands among the actual exhibitors. While the blame for this rests with the fashion industry more generally, and not with Pitti itself, it’s nonetheless disappointing to walk around the trade show and discover that the industry isn’t putting its money where its mouth is. Indeed, if the options on offer at Pitti are indicative of the fashion industry as a whole, all the current noise about sustainability is largely just empty marketing talk.
The only GOTS certified brand I could find in Pitti Uomo 96 – Madrid’s Unfeigned – was tucked out of the way in a neglected hall at the back of the show. Which is a real shame, because this young menswear brand deserves all the support it can get.
Unfeigned has clearly set out to do things the right way, when it could so easily have taken the easier but much more damaging route. Not only has the label received GOTS and OCS certification for its exclusive use of organic fabrics, but also voluntarily adheres to the GRS recycling standard. However, the brand’s founder, Rafa Gomez, has gone a step further, establishing his own Unfeigned Textile Standard in order to personally guarantee the sustainability of all other products and materials he uses in his supply chain.
And the clothes? Very nice: simple, well-designed, everyday basics that all men need in their closets. In beautiful colors and fabrics to boot.
For most people, Patagonia needs little introduction. But while you might be fully aware of the brand’s popular line of outdoor clothing, you may be less conscious of the company’s dedication to fair labor practices and reduced environmental impact.
Patagonia’s in-depth statements on corporate responsibility are refreshingly frank. There’s none of the usual fashion industry spin here. No romantic idealization of the life of a garment worker. Just simple facts and an evident desire to make the manufacturing process as fair and as satisfying as possible for everyone involved – right through the supply chain.
We also like that many of the tough lumberjacks and hardy agricultural workers featured in the brand’s promotional materials are not your usual beefy dudes, but a variety of real women.
Need high-performance outerwear or rugged workwear, but don’t want to give your money to irresponsible and selfish companies? Patagonia should probably be your first port of call.
New York designer Emily Bode repurposes old textiles into stylish and often eccentric garments for fashion-forward men. Made as they are out of anything from old woolen blankets, a 1960s tablecloth, vintage African handspun, or a 1920s French mattress cover, many of Bode’s creations are one-offs.
As you might expect though, such unique pieces go for decidedly high prices. Nonetheless, these are beautiful items for those who can afford them.
Just how long Bode will continue with her semi-sustainable modus operandi remains to be seen however, as this June saw Bode drop its first runway show – in Paris no less – and the label is currently in the running for a number of high profile awards. The big time is calling, and it will be interesting to see if Emily Bode can scale up without losing her ethical cred.
There’s a long way to go before the fashion industry becomes truly more responsible and sustainable. Hence, we have written a Manifesto dedicated to the stakeholders of the image and digital industry: MAIDE with CARE. Come and join us to make a real change and tell us about your favorite ethical brand in comment, we’d love to have you help uncover mindful yet fashionable players!