I’m sure I am not the only one to cringe at the shallow nature of that question. Our concern with sex appeal is human and understandable, but our on-going thirst for perfection is not. So why is this question worth asking? Because it’s the final hurdle consumers have to jump. Seeing ethical fashion as desirable will help consumers move away from the convenient (and annoyingly pretty) world of fast fashion, thus allowing them to settle into the gentler flow of slow, or ethical, fashion. Sounds simple enough, but it really isn’t.
The notion of a fairer fashion industry is so appealing, that a heavy emphasis is put on how it needs to take responsibility for its trading practices. There is a quiet complacency about placing the blame on the industry alone. But let’s consider other sources of responsibility. Foregoing cruelty on humans or animals within the lucrative fashion industry is as likely to be achieved by our genuine, communal taste for ‘slow fashion’ as it is a ban on said dubious trading practices. Simply put, it is up to the consumer to take the lead. True, we purchase what is put in front us. But what is put in front of us is based on our preferences. In many ways, the consumer has the power to change the system. So why does being a conscious shopper still sound like an ‘alternative’ lifestyle choice? Whether in conversation or online, the general consensus on ethical fashion seems to be something along the lines of “It’s a nice idea, but the clothes aren’t…to my taste.” Arguably, the debate hinges on whether or not ethical fashion is considered “in,” or even “sexy.”
The Oxford dictionary defines ‘sexiness’ as something or someone who is sexually attractive or exciting. Another states Informal: very exciting or appealing.
To the fashion-conscious, what falls under the umbrella term of ethical fashion is far from exciting and is actually not very appealing to look at. When the term is uttered, visions of eyebrow raising, ill-fitting second-hand garments appear. But the idea that ethical fashion is not that fashionable is old news. So if fashion is meant to make us feel good about ourselves, is the brash high street’s retiring cousin worth perusing? Besides, how does one define ethical fashion?
Ethical fashion can be described as an industry in which everyone in the garment-making chain is treated fairly, animals are not used for aesthetic purposes and the materials used for the collections are sourced in a sustainable way. Due to this process, the end product may be a little pricier than our expectations would allow us. But the alternative is a world where someone else pays the price for our insatiable hunger for affordable decadence. As it happens, this is the world in which we live. So who shops ‘consciously’? On the one hand are the ethics warriors who purchase thrifty, second-hand and vintage items. They proudly wear their consciences for the world to see where they stand. Notably, the garments purchased through these varying outlets can be affordable, but the trade-off is not having ‘the latest’ in whatever trend seems the most, well, “now.” Admirable though that may be, this stance may not fall in with everyone’s idea of stylish. On the other hand, there are those who fall into ethical fashion by default.
Fast fashion isn’t primarily associated with menswear. It thrives on women’s fashion. For it to break the male industry as ruthlessly as it has the female one, there would need to be significant catalysts. For example, more interest in male fashion from the male perspective, encouraged by icons, events and shifts in societal attitudes. Supply and demand. Interestingly, the revival of unapologetic male style is focused on the traditions of male fashion: tailoring. The word itself rejects the notion of anything fast. If, therefore, the fashion industry had a collective mind (ahem), we could safely assume (at least for the time being) that it doesn’t seem like buying cheap is as integral to the male fashion agenda as it is to womenswear. Of course, there are certain brands who cater to casual attire, but most male professionals have to go down the local or bespoke route – whether these garments are found in the corners of the 16th Arrondissement or on Savile Row. There’s also the fact that menswear is not brought out with as much frequency as womenswear – yet.
Finance – or lack thereof – is also a deterrent. Although it makes more sense to shop from season to season (for each season and not the weekend), the lure of accessible fashion is a great antidote to investing in beautiful items that are needed, not coveted. It seems supporting independent designers and businesses, whether they are in the UK, Europe or anywhere else in the world, is overrated.
That fancy shop you reluctantly wander into in Florence is for the likes of the jet-setting types, and you’re no ponce. An ugly justification for the fast fashion industry: the pricier independent brands are not for “people like us.” Fast fashion has been sold to us as though it was created with the consumer in mind. That is, the consumer of developed countries. At the birth of its appeal (circa late ’70s and ironically post civil rights movement etc), fast fashion seemingly answered our universal woes regarding couture worship and the harsh realities of expensive fashion. Convenience became synonymous with ‘vital’ at any cost. Basically, what started out as a nuisance for one group within the global family became a living nightmare for another.
So what can help change our collectively unhealthy perception of ethical fashion? Like any other form of promotion, it takes the charming influence of those in society whom we deem worthy of being influenced by. Through celebrity endorsements, for example, the perception of ethical fashion is slowly beginning to unfurl from murky, self-righteous and boring to noble, attractive and even ‘trendy.’ Influencers use platforms like blogging and social media to engage audiences with conviction. This is probably the best way to tackle the issue, as it allows the message to be received in a guilt-free manner. Instead of judgment and near-martyr-like deprivation of style, audiences around the world are seeing opportunities to source kinder ways to look their best.
But here’s the thing: it’s not about saving the planet. No-one can single-handedly conquer the world. It’s just about all of us. Stella McCartney said it best. In an interview featured in the True Cost movie, McCartney passionately urged us to remember that we, the consumer, have the power. Thus, we should understand that we have a choice. Therefore, if the realities of fast fashion are niggling at the back of your mind, but what you perceive to be the realities of ethical fashion make you feel equally just as nauseous – just remember that there are options. And, no, you don’t have to go to Europe or take a second gap yar. Taking the time to do a little research is the best recommendation, but even that doesn’t have to be extensive. Fast fashion may seem to engulf, but ethical fashion surrounds you. It could be in the form of a treasured hand-me-down, a discovery of independent boutiques while abroad or that much-loved Instagrammer’s favourite vintage e-boutique. Not to mention that brands like Winser London, Munthe, Norse Projects, Amour Verts, Stutterheim, Wool and the Gang and The Reformation pair a contemporary aesthetic with classic craftsmanship seamlessly – as do countless others. Therefore, slow fashion is not a silent and patient movement, but a stealthy turnaround on an unpalatable system, evidenced in the deliberately conscious ways new designers are setting up shop both in our backyard and across the pond – the world over, in fact. It may have taken its sweet time, but, frankly, we’re starting to run out of excuses.
By Patricia Yaker Ekall
Cover Photo Credit: The Acey