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The GOOD Dinnertime Conversation

On the future of fashion

More of us than ever are concerned about how we consume clothing. Can we shop for sustainability? Is there such a thing as a guilt-free garment? In recent years, these questions have been asked more and more in the mainstream. But how do people inside and around the industry think about the way we consume clothing? For the second installment of the GOOD Dinnertime Conversation, guest editor Emily Spivack brought together a group of thinkers, makers, designers, and curators to talk about the future of fashion.

Along with Spivack, guests included Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which explores the rise of fast fashion and disposable consumerism in the global fashion industry; Gretchen Jones, a designer and former Project Runway winner with a track record of working with local craftspeople and employing ethical business practices; Jeremy Lewis, a fashion writer, editor, and the founder of Garmento, a fashion fanzine that celebrates fashion past and present as one and the same; Michael Phillips Moskowitz, the global chief curator and editorial director of eBay; Mary Ping, designer and proprietor of the fashion line Slow and Steady Wins the Race; Sarah Scaturro, the head conservator of The Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, in charge of preserving the collection’s costume artifacts; and Karuna Scheinfeld, the vice president of design at Woolrich John Rich & Bros.

Emily Spivack: As you look across the table at one another, you might notice that some of you have more in common than others. When I was putting together the guest list for this dinner, I tried to represent varying stages of a garment’s lifecycle. Some of us are more involved in the initial stages, and others are more involved at the point when it’s out in the world.

Michael Phillips Moskowitz: I think everybody around the table can recall that moment from The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep’s character explains the cycle of a blue garment from high fashion to mass market.

Spivack: Exactly. Which is why I’d like to begin the conversation by asking how you think about your own work in the context of a garment’s lifecycle.

Elizabeth Cline: I guess I see myself as Anne Hathaway at the beginning of The Devil Wears Prada. I wrote my book, Overdressed, from the perspective of a consumer at the whims of whatever the fashion industry dictated or was telling me to wear. And what got me interested in the world of clothing was seeing how my own shopping habits changed over the past 15 years. I grew up shopping in thrift stores. And then as the price of clothing dropped, and as styles began to change more quickly, and fashion began to move more quickly, I, along with many other people, got seduced into this world of wearing really insane-looking shit all the time.

Jeremy Lewis: And shopping.

Cline: Yeah, and compulsively shopping. I’m a creative person—I’m a musician and a writer, and I didn’t know anything about the fashion industry until I wrote my book. Actually, I loved clothes growing up, and then I came to a place where I loved them through the process of writing my book, but in a very different way.

Spivack: Mary, when I was first introduced to Slow and Steady Wins the Race, I was struck by the label’s sense of humor, and how you got people to stop for a minute and laugh at the seriousness with which the fashion world is taken.

Mary Ping: When I sat down with the map for Slow and Steady Wins the Race, I wanted to go against the grain so as not to just feed into the system, but to create a kind of experiment. Slow and Steady questions a lot of things about fashion while simultaneously building a collection based on concepts, categories, and classics. We call it a ‘living archive,’ in part, to address that question of design obsolescence.

Karuna Scheinfeld: My challenge is to create a product that people wear for a long time, that people value over time. Sustainability and consciousness have a complex relationship. But the thing I know for sure is that if we just don’t consume as much stuff—and we value and take care of the things that we have—we’re more likely to be better off, period. So it matters where it’s made. That’s the first thing that I see people not connecting to.

Spivack: When you look at a pair of pants, Elizabeth, I imagine you’re drawn to details about where it was made, how it was made, and the ethical dimension of the garment—how many of them are being produced and if they’re being produced sustainably—but I may be projecting because of your book?

Cline: There’s too much pressure on consumers to do the right thing. Like, I have a certain amount of money I can spend on clothes, and when I shop I’m not always going to be able to make sure it’s perfectly traceable, the fabric is sustainable, and the designer is local. A lot of things that I’m critiquing in my book and in my activism have to do with things that would need to shift on a corporate level and on a government-policy level. It can’t all be on me to vote with my dollar to change this reality. So I’m constantly balancing those two things—I want to look fucking hot like every other person in the world, you know? And the ethics have to be part of it, but that can’t be the priority because that’s not really what clothing is about. Clothing isn’t a political statement. It’s aesthetics.

Spivack: How about you, Jeremy? What’s the first thing you notice in a pair of pants?

Lewis: When I look at a pair of pants, my first question is, ‘Where were these made?’ Then I ask myself, ‘What’s the fabric? What’s the fit? How’s it stitched? What’s the price?’ And, ‘Where is it positioned in the store?’ I don’t usually review a collection from the runway; I review it as it ends up on the shop floor. I talk about the garment from a consumer perspective and explore what is useful about the garment. I talk about how it relates to the overall brand vision, about the design history. If there are any interesting [implicit] references, I’ll bring those up, too.

Spivack: I have this love-hate relationship with fashion and clothing. I’m constantly conflicted. I’m drawn to the universality of clothing, and how we can learn a great deal about culture through what we wear, but I’m turned off by the exclusivity and superficiality associated with fashion.

Gretchen Jones: I have a hate-love relationship with fashion. I’m a very slow fashion designer. I use clothing on a daily basis to communicate to the world how I’m feeling and the tribe that I want to be a part of. And I love runway. I love how runway translates to street style. I love how high street style translates to every day, which turns into more consumer-based brands, where you see things that should never have turned into a cultural current turn into one. But I hate how fast everything works, and I hate that I ‘shark’—my husband calls it ‘sharking.’ I look at every single collection at a rate that relates to our weird social media web world.

Lewis: I think this constant feed of fashion, culture, and images has killed fashion. The distinction between fashion and style is key. Everyone says that fashion should be democratic. No, fashion should not be democratic. No one should be consuming clothes that quickly on that big a scale. It’s a total abomination that everyone feels like they have to change their wardrobe every six months. It’s gross. But style, however, is universal. Everyone can have style. And style has nothing to do with being fashionable. Style is about you. I think that will never change.

Jones: I deeply agree with you on so many different levels, but I also love the movement of trends. I think it’s great that things continually change and that a trend is not a trend anymore. You’re as trendy as the identity you choose.

Lewis: As someone who loves clothes, I cannot tell you how excited I am that every three months I get to see new collections from every designer. But at the same time, the reality sets in and it’s like: How much waste is happening? Do all these designers need to do a whole new collection every three months? It’s just a huge amount of waste.

Spivack: I was teaching at Pratt Institute, and I took my fashion students to a big thrift store distribution center in Brooklyn. We saw the sheer amount of clothes that were being donated, sorted, resold, and discarded, and they had this intense realization: ‘Oh, this is where all the stuff that we might be designing is going to go.’

Phillips Moskowitz: Can I throw something else out?

Spivack: Sure.

Phillips Moskowitz: I think that every single time people today are exercising discretion in making a purchase, they’re voting. Because in an era of unprecedented choice, the things you do choose to buy, wear, or consume telegraph a message about who you are, what you value, and the person that you someday aspire to be. Those choices really are much more democratic than they are at the ballot box. Because where we go to vote, we have a limited number of choices.

Lewis: When we consume clothing, we are voting with the dollar.

Phillips Moskowitz: Sure. And I believe that as people become more conscientious and aware of the consequences of this purchasing power, they’re going to begin to usher in an era of conscientious consumption, or purposeful purchasing and intelligent acquisition, that, by extension, will resurrect the fortunes of couture and lead to more of these makers in various areas having legitimate businesses they can run.

Sarah Scaturro: I think people are becoming more aware of their consumption. However, I’m not convinced that awareness always translates into action. Fashion is seductive, and the combination of a built-in cycle of redundancy with the availability of affordable clothes makes it very hard for most people to turn away from it. Fashion exhibitions at museums are increasingly popular, and I think a major part of their appeal is the proximity to the “attainable-unattainable”—the fact that the garments themselves are art; however, we have an inherent understanding of the proximity of fabric to the body and, by extension, a resonance with the object on display. I’ve often overheard people express their wardrobe aspirations while moving through our galleries, saying: ‘I’d wear that!’

Ping: It’s great when people appreciate longevity. The inspiration behind longevity comes from my grandmother teaching me how to sew at the age of 4. She was imparting skills that she had as a child that were vital, but was also teaching me where real value lies. And this is what I hope will carry through 80 years from now, 100 years from now. Real value is not going to change.

Phillips Moskowitz: There will always be these superlative intellects, design talents, and visionaries who can birth ideas from scratch and make them real to the world. But I’m profoundly interested in what these new cultural ecosystems might look like with the advent of commonplace 3D printers, smarter materials, traditional craftspeople, and a global culture that has shifting, changing demands courtesy of what were once trends but are now a fleeting phenomenon on a 24-hour cycle. We’re consuming and adapting a trend within 72 hours, and it’s gone within two weeks.

Cline: It’s strange because we’re having all these conversations about all these amazing manifestations of consumerism that I really love and am excited about. But these conversations should be framed around the fact that we live on a finite planet. That by 2020, we’re trying to meet some sort of reduction in—

Phillips Moskowitz: Global poverty?

Cline: No, carbon production. I’m saying this partially because I hope this to be true, and I also think this is going to be true from a macroeconomic perspective. I don’t want us to go into a future where we can have anything we want at a moment’s notice. I personally don’t want to live in a world where our only power is to vote with our dollars. I do think that we’re overwhelmed with what’s happened with globalization in the last 10 or 15 years. But hopefully, the pendulum will swing back, and unions will exist again, maybe on an international level. Or there will be some sort of corporate governing body that will kick into play. But it can’t just all fall on the shoulders of individual people saying, ‘I only want to buy American-made.’ Or, ‘I only want to buy things that are traceable.’ There has to be some other mechanism that’s more effective than that.

Phillips Moskowitz: A mechanism that’s more effective for what? Saving us from oblivion?

Cline: Yeah!

Scheinfeld: The thing that I come back to in imagining future behavior in terms of our industry is—and I don’t know the precise quote but paraphrasing John Dewey: A moral choice is not a choice between a good and an evil, it’s a choice between two goods. Our consumer choices are so important. We establish our identities through the choices we make. And sometimes that’s about how we adorn ourselves, sometimes that’s about the stores we go to. But that process, I think, is becoming more and more central to understanding how we interact with one another—people are basically creating their identities through those choices.

Ping: I use this example way too much, but have you ever seen the movie Idiocracy? You have to see the scene where the one smart person wakes up after being unfrozen from this weird government experiment, and the future is literally garbage. Everyone is living in garbage, and they’re all stupid. And clothing comes out of oversized tissue boxes like it’s Kleenex.

Jones: Can I say something? This feels like a really ‘luxurious’ conversation right now that assumes that in 25 years there will be economies with food and energy and water and that you will have the luxury to just purchase anything to put on your body. I love that scene in Idiocracy. It’s great. It’s a luxury for me to support the designers that I love and adore. But what is going to happen to the experience of consuming fashion when people can’t afford fresh water or food? I am not comfortable saying I can even understand what’s going to happen in 25 years because I think resources and economies are going to be completely different. Housing is going to be different. Energy is going to be different. And the luxury that is this industry in the present is going to shift so much.

Scaturro: There will always be extremes in fashion—varying from sublime haute couture to ersatz, poor quality reproductions. From the Renaissance through the French courts of the 18th century, into the industrial revolution of the 19th century and up to today, history has shown that there has always been a divide between luxury and common objects. We need common fashion simply because it works in our everyday life, and is affordable to the majority of us who are middle or lower economic class. At the same time, the elite—both in fashion and in class—is compelled to differentiate itself and so will always demand a certain level of luxury and individuality. Since fashion no longer is top-down, and instead flows every which way, there will always be a certain amount of appropriation by all groups—I think the recent trends of normcore and athletic wear speak to this. This is a good thing. This means that any of us, wearing any one thing, has the potential to be fashionable. All we have to do is believe in what we wear and be invested in it, either financially or emotionally or both. My hope for fashion is to see more of the same diffusion, where at any one time there are a number of trends you could adopt or groups with which you identify.

Scheinfeld: The future is unknowable. We will adapt. We don’t know what that adaptation will look like. It may mean that polyester goes away and cotton is the most important thing. Or, it may mean that cotton goes away and bamboo fabrics become something that is used all the time because that’s what we can get. And we’ll adapt to that and we’ll evolve with that because that’s what we do as a species.

Lewis: And we’ll find some fabulous ways to use bamboo.

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