For Sale: New Fashion Terms For an Old-Fashioned Industry

NYC fashion district

I received this email recently:

“On a different note I wanted to get in touch with you about creating some interesting content to share with the Creative Futures community.

To do this we were wondering if you or someone else on behalf of yourself could write an article or short synopsis on/around the topic you will be speaking on. This can be as long or as short as you like.

Here are some ideas of the focus of the content –

1. Why sustainability sells

2. How to successfully create sustainable fashion….”

I am really very excited to be speaking at Creative Futures on The 13th/14th May, where I will present an updated but well practiced talk on my story of a lifetime spent inside luxury manufacturing dustbins looking for remnants, and my research on the history and aesthetic of upcycling.

But I don’t want to write about that.

fast fashion sale

I want to write about PRECISELY the indications I was given by lovely Kirsty in her email (quoted above) as content suggestions.

1. Why sustainability sells

First of all I would argue that sustainability hasn’t been selling very well.

I mean, it might sell as a corporate, marketing, modern messaging inevitability that just about everyone is rushing to incorporate into their language in order to rebrand themselves as if they always were, in fact, incredibly sustainable.

But the majority of young designers, and they are the ones who, in my experience, are more likely to work sustainably, are struggling – and as a result you certainly don’t see enough sustainable fashion around, despite a marked increase in demand.

2. How to successfully create sustainable fashion

And one of the reasons why sustainable fashion hasn’t been selling its because of its name.

“Sustainable fashion.”

“Ethical fashion.”

The first thing any branding expert will tell you when embarking upon a new venture, is to give it a good name.

Let’s face it, “sustainable fashion” is not a very nice name.

hello name tags

Plus, it’s become a very generic name, as it implies that all sustainable fashion designer brands fit into the same category and market segment, which really isn’t the case. There is very little in common between a Bruno Pieters dress (high end, expensive, designer, traceable in every aspect, from the fabric through to the seamstress to the actual cost of making it which will justify its margins) and a People Tree dress (high street, affordable, made in organic and biodegradable fabrics by local communities in India) or between Patagonia and Brunello Cuccinelli.

As well as being not very nice, and too generic, it is also completely off the mark in actually describing what it is.

I have yet to meet a young creative fashion designer that didn’t start their career “sustainably.”

For example, just out of college, you cut your patterns attentively because fabrics are expensive (zero waste), you reuse last season’s leftovers and any remnant you come across (upcycling) and you get your seamstress round the corner to sew them up (local production), then you can’t afford more pattern-cutting so you tweak your old designs (classic, slow fashion), and you sew all night to finish your collection in time (artisanal, quality).


And, before the consolidation of this trend for aggressive growth, mass production, fast fashion and disposable luxury took over in the early 1980s, that young designer could genuinely expect to run a decent business operating from a local factory that would be mindful of its waste and energy use because that’s just what you did to be “efficient.”

Much as I understand the need for standing out and declaring our point of difference and the importance of reiterating our social and environmental messaging as designers, I find it deeply tragic that the modern trend for mass consumption and overproduction has usurped values that are intrinsic to this craft, and we have had to rename it as “sustainable fashion” because the industry has grown so far away from those methods that it doesn’t recognise them anymore.

But back to the name-what should we call it then?

Aspirational Fashion? Because it’s about aspiring to give a better life to the people who make our clothes, and all fashion and textile workers throughout the complex supply chain, such as cotton farmers and mill dyers, rather than just aspire to get a better life for ourselves.

Outerwear Fashion? (see also Resort, or Sportswear)

Because it endeavors to preserve the environment so that there is an “outer” where you can “wear” stuff (ex. mountains with snow and glaciers, rivers good enough to raft in and oceans fit for surfing, fields to bike on and petrol-free beaches for yoga, or jogging, or whatever else one does on a sandy beach.)


Luxury Fashion?

Because it ensures that local artisanal skills and handmade traditions are maintained, modernized, remain relevant and passed down through generations rather than deliberately allowing them to become extinct in some frantic search for the next machine made “it” bag.

So to me, this insistence on calling it “sustainable fashion” or “ethical fashion” is just reiterating a corporate marketing conspiracy that doesn’t want to encourage designers who have principles, to design according to those principles. It’s a part of a very deliberate trend which was imposed on us to make us buy more, forcing us to discard quality, values, design and sentiment, in favor of cheap, available, standardized and mechanic.

Fashion, the fashion I am talking about, has been relatively unavailable to the consumer for a long time, just like the artisans, obsolete and irrelevant. This “ethical fashion,” this “sustainable fashion” that complies to what fashion really is, that is borne out of passion, skills, heritage, artistry, and bravery, IS fashion. It’s everything else that isn’t.

So let’s use names properly.

We are fashion.

Everything else is “unsustainable fashion” or “unethical fashion.” (To describe it, chose whichever one you dislike the most).

Orsola de Castro is a fashion designer and campaigner. In 1997 she founded luxury upcycling label From Somewhere, and has since created upcycled collections for both the niche and mass markets, including Speedo and Topshop. 

Together with her partner Filippo Ricci and Anna Orsini from the British Fashion Council, she co-founded Estethica, the renowned showcasing platform which launched at London Fashion Week in September 2006, and in 2013 she co founded Fashion Revolution, a global coalition of academics, designers, organizations and key opinion formers demanding increased transparency in the fashion value chain. 

Images: RobynHobson, maialisa, fotocitizen, gr8effect