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Fashion guide I: Slow Fashion

We’re wearing more clothes, more often and throwing them away. Wardrobes don’t even last a year. But fast fashion is being challenged by a slow down: less quantity, more quality.

As £3 jeans and $1 t-shirts have become a reality, it’s become very easy to buy and dispose and buy again. In the UK, 3 jeans are sold per second.

That’s 1.4 pair per person per year. And this is for an item made to last for decades (and made with, on average, a pound- or about a half kilogram- of chemicals). But today even supermarkets sell clothing and nothing is made to last for decades, let alone an entire season.

In 1997 the average woman in the UK bought 19 items of clothing per year, by 2007 that number was up to 34. Fashion researcher and consultant, Kate Fletcher, explained to faircompanies that as prices for clothing have dropped- in the UK by 10% between 2003 and 2007- instead of buying one shirt, we now buy three. “There are t-shirts for £1, men’s suits for £15. What people are doing now is just buying carrier bags full on a weekly basis.”

A revolving carousel of clothes

Consumers are simply buying into what is being offered by “fast fashion” retailers such as Old Navy, Target and Wal-Mart in the US and H&M, Zara, Primark and Peacocks in the UK and Europe.

As Mathilda Lee, editor at the Ecologist and author of Eco Chic, explained to us, these shops no longer change seasons twice a year, or even 4 times, more like 15 or more. “There aren’t any clothing seasons anymore, but a revolving carousel of clothes on the High Street.”

Labels can now turn a design into a product in just 12 days and the cycle of buying has sped up so much that in just 4 years, British shoppers have increased their clothing purchases by one third. As Lee points out most of these cheap clothes don’t even last a year in our wardrobes.

“Two million tonnes of clothing is bought every year and about three-quarters of that is dumped in the landfill every year. We have a huge waste issue where people wear clothes only a couple of times before discarding them.”

About 5% of the municipal waste stream in the US is clothing and textiles and the average American dumps 68 pounds of this per year (about equal to the 30 kg/person/year in the UK). To put that in perspective, Lee describes the problem as “200 million black bin [garbage] bags” of clothes thrown away in the UK every year.

A remedy for fast: Slow Fashion

This continual clothing over-consumption followed by wardrobe purging has become an international disorder- a fashion bulimia. Kate Fletcher sees our issues with clothes as just a symptom of a larger problem related to happiness, identity and how we communicate.

Whatever the problem, Fletcher, and others in the industry, have a solution: it’s called Slow Fashion.

Like it’s predecessor Slow Food– as well as Slow Movement, Slow Cities, Slow Design, etc-, Slow Fashion is not simply a call to slow down, but to focus on quality. As Fletcher explains, “Slow Fashion is not time-based, it’s quality based. So it’s a shift away from an agenda that’s just about quantity of stuff.”

Even major designers are recognizing the need for a new way of thinking about fashion. At a recent lecture at the Wallace Collection in London Vivienne Westwood asked for an end to “indiscriminate consumption” and espoused a Slow Fashion principle: “Yes, we have to wear clothes but if you have to choose something, save up and choose well.”

Clothes to Keep & Share

The idea behind Slow Fashion is that with more quality pieces we’ll hold onto our clothes longer. As an example, Fletcher points to the British brand Keep & Share whose owner/designer Amy Twigger Holroyd based her knitwear collection around long-term wearer satisfaction.

“We find it abhorrent that the vast majority of clothing is discarded before the end of its wearable life, and seek to reverse the effects of throwaway fashion by encouraging our customers to buy less, more special pieces, and to keep their items in use longer.”

To encourage clients to “keep” her designs longer, she tries to foster a relationship with customers and encourage them to seek after-care help like wash and repair services. The garment design is also important in encouraging longterm ownership and as Twigger Holroyd explained to us, she responds to a different fashion timeline.

“I think that there are different rhythms of change that you can respond to as a designer. I try to ignore the short-lived ‘surface’ trends that the high street seduces us so well with – instead being inspired by the deep, slow changes in our society and culture. It’s a really juicy challenge to design fashion that doesn’t go out of fashion.”

Holroyd also encourages her clients to “share” her mostly uni-sized pieces and Fletcher claims to be quite generous with her own pieces from the designer. “My sister is about to go on holiday and she is going to take some. I have friends who have borrowed pieces to take to weddings.”

To avoid impulse buying, Holroyd encourages potential clients to try before buying to be certain they want to make a long term commitment. “Why not borrow a garment for a week to see how it could fit into your life? Try it out at a wedding, a night out or even just a night in to see if it works for you. You don’t even have to wash it before sending it back- how nice are we?”

Slow Fashion Principles

Quality, in the world of Slow Fashion, is not simply a focus on durability, but like for the pioneering Slow Food movement, it encompasses a respect for organic and ethical sources, as well as an attempt to preserve local traditions and materials.

The women behind the fashion label Makepiece- designer Nicolas Sherlock, along with Manda Johnson-Holme and Beati Kubitz- are preserving the local wool and textile traditions of the Pennines, the mountainous region of Northern England. “Our landscape is shaped by centuries of ovine grazing, from bleak Lakeland peaks to the beaches of northerly Hebridean islands to lush southern pastures.”

For Makepiece, preserving local tradition means raising their own sheep. Kubitz acts as the shepherdess: “Beati keeps a flock of Shetland sheep for their naturally coloured fleeces – and occasionally brings lambs to the studio for bottle feeding!”

Since spinning is traditional to West Yorkshire, the wool is spun within 20 miles of the studio. The knitting process also helps to preserve local heritage as the label works with UK-based specialist knitters and “a small traditional lace knitting factory.”

Besides relying on local labor and traditions and avoiding chemicals by using natural and azo-free dyes, the Makepiece partners embrace the Slow Fashion tenet of designing clothes that last, creating “real fashion not passing fads”- though they stipulate that “when they’ve finally been worn to shreds, they can be composted.”

Using 19th Century construction techniques to assure a long life

The designers behind the handbag company Entermodal have taken this concept of preserving a craftsman’s heritage a step further by attempting to recover nearly lost techniques from over a century ago. Designer Larry Olmstead and his team have chosen “to use construction technology available prior to the Industrial Revolution of the eighteen-fifties.”

Their research of long forgotten products and techniques at museums and trade schools and with masters around the world have blessed them with a knowledge of workmanship “from a time when bags were made to last decades“.

Aided by 20 collective years making mountaineering and backpacking packs, they claim their bags are functional enough to last, but they also follow a “cradle to cradle” approach, acknowledging that their bags will at one point come to the end of their useful lives, at which point they can be easily diassembled for “next generation use of materials.”

To the woods for dyes and the rooftop for distressed jeans

Slow Fashion designers can’t avoid being intimately connected to their work. New York designer Susan Cianciolo, who produces many one of a kind handcrafted pieces, has been called “an unwitting early adopter of the slow fashion movement” by industry magazine Fashion Projects. Her clients seem to recognize her enduring commitment to her creations and she says they often ask her to re-work pieces after years of wear.

Ciancolo also personally dedicates herself to making sure things are done more naturally. From searching in the woods with her mother for materials to make non-toxic dyes to personally “finishing” a pair of jeans to avoid toxic bleaching, her commitment to her clothes and their environmental impact is legendary.

Vogue editor Jane Herman recounts, “she told me she would distress her jeans by leaving them on the roof of her building for days, which would get her in trouble with her landlord!”

In the cradle of Slow

Even decades old brands are embracing the Slow term in the land where the concept was founded. Brothers Roberto and Marzio Compagno created the label Slowear as an umbrella company for their four historic Italian clothing lines- Incotex, Zanone, Glanshirt (worn by Fellini cast) and Montedoro (a training ground for Armani)- after Roberto went to a Slow Food dinner in 2000.

Playing on the classic nature of their brands, they created the label Slowear not as a brand name, but as a way to guarantee quality and duration of their product lines. Emilio Paschetto, Slowear’s North American director, told The Wall Street Journal, they stand for “the opposite of fashion”. “Once you marry us, it’s forever.”

While the company seems to be getting some marketing mileage from their repositioning as Slow- not only The Wall Street Journal, but in the Christian Science Monitor and Vancouver’s Globe and Mail– and their more corporate structure seems anti-thetical to the Slow concept, at least some of their production is in keeping with the Slow Fashion focus on local traditions; their classic polo is handmade by specialists in the Italian textile town of Biella where residents have been producing wool since the Middle Ages.

A 28 eight day made-to-order waiting period

Slow designers are trying to get us to form a relationship with our clothes that is a bit longer lasting. For her Ciel label, designer Sarah Ratty has a name for those pieces she creates that she’s sure clients will never want to give away: “future heirloom.”

Clients of designer Davina Hawthorne must wait for 28 days from placing an order for one of her “timeless designs”. This time spent waiting as she “lovingly hand-crafts” her pieces is perhaps a reminder that her clothes should be viewed as something to “respect and treasure”. She also claims this made-to-order policy means no waste from over production.

Fashion professor and eco-fashion pioneer Lynda Gross thinks we all have some favorite garment that we’ve held onto for a long time and that we need to research why we keep the things we do.

“If we research why people keep things and define what are the qualities in those garments, we [can] design those characteristics into the product from the very beginning.”

Gross believes convincing people to hold onto their clothes longer is less about changing consumer behavior and more of a challenge to designers to tap into “the emotionality of the garments so the end user can connect to the product and keep it for longer.”

People are shying away from the 3 pound jeans (Slow clothes on the High Street)

Perhaps Slow Fashion will never go mainstream, but it can still have the power to change behavior. Kate Fletcher sees it as an agent of change. “To me, it’s a powerful metaphor to get people to think about things in different ways. Slow fashion as a title can have lots of different paces or rhythms or speeds within it.”

Mathilda Lee sees the next generation of designers as holding the power to change the High Street retailers. “If you get one of them looking at the idea of Slow clothes and pushing it forward the others will follow.”

And in the meantime, she’s seeing what may be the beginning of the end of the very fastest fashion. “I think that people are little by little starting to shy away from the 3 pound jeans because… you know how things go in trends. I think instead of the conspicuous consumption it’s seen as more trendy to not buy so much and actually take care of your clothes and buy higher quality, longer lasting clothes.”

Some designers focused on Slow:

For a more extensive list of Slow designers:

For more on the ethics of fast fashion and a list of more ethical designers: