As we emerge from a decade that witnessed the birth of Instagram, the urgent real-world effects of climate change and the bankruptcy of industry kings — from Forever 21 to entire shopping malls — a message emerges: The future of fashion will be shaped by brands that are spry enough to navigate a world where mindful consumption is the new form of currency. From an over-the-shoulder look, it’s overdue. The 2010s were a haze of instant gratification: E-commerce, Amazon Prime and fast fashion’s inexpensive approximations of designer trends all made the shopping experience so attainably frictionless that the consequences are only now coming into focus. The giant apparel industry dinosaurs are nervous. The conscious upstarts are determined. Already, 2020 is promising a pendulum swing away from short-term, wasteful thrills and in the direction of one-of-a-kind pieces, investments in ethical practices and realistic ways to explore style while dramatically reducing negative environmental impacts — which is the real focus. If you aren’t contributing to a solution, you’re white noise at best.
This greater awareness that our quality of life is tied directly to our respect for the planet has brought a desire for sustainable materials, clever innovation and labor practices that reflect a broader expectation of fair compensation and ethical conditions. A certain sense of “If not now, when?” is only enhanced by the constant threat of a ticking clock on our existence, and one of our own making: Fashion is responsible for up to 35% of microplastic flows into the ocean, and chemicals from textile manufacturing contribute to around 20% of global water pollution according to McKinsey report “The State of Fashion 2020: Navigating uncertainty.” It’s a reality that isn’t lost on designers keen to explore creative solutions. To combat the 85% of clothing that’s estimated to be thrown directly into landfills, companies like Evrnu have emerged to help convert clothing waste into new fibers. A research and development company launched in 2014, Evrnu helps designers build garments that can be broken down and reused again. “By doing that, we not only eliminate the landfill, but we also have a reduction in the creation of virgin materials — cotton and polyester make up 90% of the global apparel market and require massive amounts of natural resources,” says founder Stacy Flynn, who points out that this more sustainable, circular process can also be good for a company’s bottom line and appeal to CEOs who previously focused on guaranteeing shareholder profit at any cost to the environment. The proof is already clear in their partnerships with powerhouses like Target, Stella McCartney, Adidas and Levi’s. “Leveraging products that already exist and shifting them into new products is a way for the business to stay intact and for us to draw down our impact on natural resources,” she notes. And the opportunity is directly proportional to the size of the problem for companies willing to step out of past cycles. “We can break down cotton, we can break down polyester, we have a recoverable stretch technology and we’re growing cellulose using bio-based technologies,” says Flynn. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible.”
Giving new life to discarded materials without expending the energy it takes to break them down is another path that forward-thinking brands are exploring. “You can still be dazzling while wearing ethical clothes,” says Paris-based designer Kévin Germanier. “I want to change the preconceived idea about what a sustainable brand should look like.” The pieces he dreams up for his eponymous label, Germanier, sparkle with upcycled glass beads and Swarovski crystals that would have otherwise been destroyed or forgotten. The innovative, disco-friendly designs have graced red carpets on actresses like Kristen Stewart and arena stages on K-pop superstar Sunmi. The Swiss-born Germanier was a junior designer at Louis Vuitton when Alexandre Capelli, chief environmental officer at LVMH, set the wheels in motion for his debut collection by encouraging Germanier to present for Fall 2018 Paris Fashion Week. “My first meeting of the day was the head buyer of MatchesFashion.com, Natalie Kingham, who bought the entire collection,” says Germanier. After parting with Louis Vuitton in 2018 to continue his vision, Germanier committed entirely to leftover materials sourced from “honestly anywhere” across the globe. Fabrics are usually deadstock or pulled from the end of a roll, and once “enough materials to make a collection” are gathered, the draping, sketching and embroidering begins. “We only use what we found, from the lining to the sequins,” Germanier notes. Similarly, his artistic instincts reflect new ideas that surface when industry excess is removed. “My creative process is fed by the limitations,” he admits. “The more limited I am, the more creative I feel.”
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible.” —Stacy Flynn, founder of Evrnu
This rise of similar plant-based fabrics like Piñatex, a vegan leather made from pineapple leaves, can be seen on a larger scale across retail platforms from Shopbop to Etsy. Still, there’s a place for materials that existed long before these innovations came into play. Consider designer Colin Horgan, for example. In addition to using local talent from his hometown in Kerry, Ireland to help produce the futuristic industrial punk collection that walked last season’s London runway, he explored creative ways to eliminate fabric waste. Zippered bodycon silhouettes and XXL moto jackets gave recycled PVC a new life: Through experimentation with bonding techniques, the treated fabric can be cut in any direction, meaning that every part is used without leaving valuable materials on the cutting room floor — and ultimately in the waste bin.
Now, major companies are finding new ways to recycle or upcycle materials. Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program has turned over 28 million pairs of sneakers into sports surfaces like basketball courts, running tracks and playgrounds. Adidas has partnered with Parley for the Oceans to turn thousands of tons of discarded plastic into sportswear. And Timberland launched their ReBOTL collection, which recycles plastic bottles and turns them into yarns that can then be used in their boots. It isn’t just limited to the giants, though. Smaller cult-favorite sneaker brands like Thousand Fell and Veja are making names for themselves with sustainable materials and practices. “The ‘how’ we do it is more important than the goal of having a beautiful shoe at the end of the day,” says Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp. “This is why we don’t want investors. At our very small level, we would like to challenge and question the culture of economic growth and capitalism.” The French label has become a favorite of celebs like Meghan Markle and Reese Witherspoon for its ethical production processes and sustainable vegan materials like agroecological fair-trade cotton, Amazonian rubber and CWL, an alt-leather made from cotton fabric covered with corn oil extract. If a sneaker is thrown away, it’s biodegradable. Next, they plan to join the list of companies taking recycling responsibility into their own hands. “End-of-life transparency” is what Thousand Fell co-founder Chloe Songer calls the process of showing customers where their products go once returned, whether it’s into a new shoe, recycled for other industry supply chains or simply broken apart for composting. Their materials range from breathable foam made of castor bean oil to aloe vera mesh liners.
Fast-fashion behemoths and luxury platforms are making sustainability a greater priority, too. H&M created their Conscious Collection and pledged to be “climate positive” by 2040, acknowledging that 70% of a garment’s impact on the climate comes from its manufacturing process. In the short term, they’ve partnered with Billie Eilish for a line of oft-oversized basics that, though highly publicized as sustainable for certain pieces, quickly received criticism on social threads and comment sections for “greenwashing.” (Only a few organic and regular cotton labels within the 16-piece capsule represented H&M’s “more sustainable” promise. Considering the fiber’s aforementioned impact on natural resources, distributing new cotton in 2020 is hardly taking a step toward an invisible carbon footprint.) Net-a-Porter, meanwhile, is curating an ongoing selection of ethical brands via Net Sustain. Highlighting locally crafted pieces, animal welfare, waste reduction and conscious production and materials, Net Sustain is beginning to define the new world of luxury fashion.
“79% of consumers are demanding transparency and information from fashion brands on their commitment to sustainability.” —Rhonda P. Hill, founder of EDGE
It’s this 360-degree view of the process that increasingly informed customers will continue to demand. “We’ve entered an age of purpose-driven and transparency demands from the consumer,” says Rhonda P. Hill, founder of the Portland-based platform EDGE (Emerging Designers Get Exposed) that spotlights the movement to reform our existing $3 trillion fashion system. “79% of consumers are demanding transparency and information from fashion brands on their commitment to sustainability,” Hill points out. “Levi’s (LS&Co.) and Patagonia walk the talk. They are pioneers taking action towards a circular fashion system and are communicating their actions.” Noting both companies’ clothing recycling initiatives, she knows firsthand of LS&Co.’s leadership in the field from her days with the company in the early ’90s. “They were the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct, known as Terms of Engagement, for their manufacturing suppliers,” says Hill, who worked as a product development manager scouting in Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia. “Based on audits, inspections and a quality control process, I could only place production with suppliers that met the TOE guidelines of environmental, ethical, health and safety and employment practices. The True Cost movie and movements like Who Made My Clothes illuminate the global concern and call to action to address human rights and the environmental crisis in the fashion industry,” Hill explains. “Close to 30 years ago, LS&Co. was already addressing these issues.” Today, companies at every level are pushing toward “radical transparency.” Patagonia’s “Footprint Chronicles” show the entire supply chain at the click of a button, while Everlane has made radical transparency part of its ethos, publishing markups on products and compliance audits where factories score everything from fair wages to reasonable hours. Their commitment has resonated with both manufacturers and customers. Launched in 2011 as a minimal venture capital investment, Everlane reached a valuation of $250 million by 2016, according to The Wall Street Journal.
This esteem for life and desire for a stronger moral compass has finally extended across species. Stella McCartney is widely known as a trailblazer for vegan fashion thanks to policies that omit the use of any animal products — down to the glue used to bind shoes and bags. Designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Vivienne Westwood have been fur-free since 2007, while storied houses like Gucci and Burberry eliminated animal fur just in the last couple of years. Launched last April, Creatives4Change asked the fashion community, from designers to photographers and celebrities, to pledge that they would no longer use or photograph fur, feathers or exotic skins in any of their work and content. “The public is more and more hungry for brands with ethics. They want to know their dollar is also going to buy them a clearer conscience,” says founder and photographer Alexi Lubomirski. In just a handful of months, major players like Diane Von Furstenberg and Phillip Lim, photographers like Inez and Vinoodh, stylist and former Vogue fashion director Tonne Goodman, and celebrities Kate Winslet and Jennifer Aniston have aligned with the mission. “Anyone who does not work towards a more sustainable future will seem very out of touch, very quickly,” says Lubomirski, who touts Movado for their vegan watch straps, Bolt Threads for growing leather from mushrooms and Candice Huffine’s Day/Won line of size-inclusive recycled activewear.
While fashion is finally chiming into conversations about climate change, so too is it contributing to socio-cultural discussions around inclusivity. As lines that once defined social categories further blur, more and more customers are looking for brands that reflect this shift away from labels, binaries or limits. “We’re well into the age of genderless fashion,” say Sam and Rebma Salad (a pseudonym) of the downtown LA-based label Meals. “Ready-to-wear collections from all the mega-brands seem pretty unisex, [but] the problem is, you still have to be rail-thin for most of it. We design our clothes for every body.” Their voluminous garments covered in roomy pockets fit for a trip to the farmers market aren’t particularly size-specific. Rebma is fully versed in non-demographic designs after almost a decade creating the inclusive denim label 69, supported by the likes of Rihanna and Chloë Sevigny. Both labels also cater to an omnichannel customer that shops online as well as at physical pop-ups and brick-and-mortar shops. “As designers, there’s a tremendous value in interfacing with the people who buy and wear your clothing,” they explain, noting that this year Meals is launching an open studio every Saturday in LA’s MacArthur Park for people to hang out, shop and eat. “It’s easy for us because we’re small,” they admit.
The antithesis of fast fashion, small companies like Meals who aren’t weighed down with antiquated systems and supply chains are thriving thanks to direct-to-consumer sales techniques. Perhaps the buzziest example of micro-brand retail is Depop, the digital platform that gives users as young as pre-teens a chance to create their own small businesses out of rescued and one-of-a-kind clothing. Indie designers Vaquera and Sandy Liang mingle with vintage curators named @internet_tears or @grotesquebabydoll. When each item on Depop averages around $40, it proves that the resale system, which companies like the luxury consignment platform TheRealReal pioneered, can work for items that don’t fall into the high-end category, which is essential.
As lines that once defined social categories further blur, more and more customers are looking for brands that reflect this shift away from labels, binaries or limits.
A slew of other independent brands are relying on social media and direct-to-consumer techniques to grow and experiment. The Chicago-based conscious streetwear brand ASc, whose pieces range from leggings in swirling liquid neon prints to snakeskin nylon bodysuits, prioritizes customer experience on platforms like Instagram. “We love the community aspect to spread brand awareness and to get quick and direct feedback from our clients,” says designer Anna Slevin. “These platforms also make the process of launching new product a lot easier, something that we rely heavily on.” And the zero-waste knitwear brand Knorts is exploring a rental program where customers can rent samples before deciding on a purchase — or “just for fun” — like a mom-and-pop form of Rent the Runway.
Beyond using platforms to connect with customers for direct feedback with no middleman, labels and influencers often gauge success by the performance of their posts rather than the garment sales themselves. Even further down the social platform spectrum, there’s a fantastical riff on the idea of dressing for your Instagram feed happening. Last year, the Scandinavian fashion retailer Carlings offered up an entire line with an invisible carbon footprint thanks to augmented reality designs. Rather than physical products, the Neo-Ex collection caters to the cyber world that selfies have created with clothing that can be applied to images like techy paper dolls. It caused such a stir that they followed it with “The Last Statement,” which uses the technology behind Instagram’s face filters to digitally apply a range of graphics onto one physical T-shirt purchased by the customer. As graphics are continuously updated, the same shirt could be used to display a different message every day, potentially.
Similarly, Happy99, a “virtual clothing brand” and the brainchild of two artists, creates spacey boots and platforms that can, for now, only be seen on-screen. Hyperreal photoshoots show their 3D designs superimposed onto models that look like AR adaptations of street-style stars. It’s a striking message: Why waste resources on real clothes if you’re living your life online? Even so, it’s another example of the immediate need for IRL innovation in an industry that’s second only to oil for its environmental sins, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. Ultimately, the desire for change will fall onto us — the consumers. If, as the viral Anna Lappé quote floating around social feeds (sometimes attributed to an O magazine piece from 2003) goes, every dollar spent is essentially “casting a vote for the kind of world you want,” it’s our pockets — or, more likely, Venmo accounts — that hold the power to shape fashion’s future.