Fashion has a poor reputation. It should be clear how toxic the industry is. The fashion world is in deep crisis, and the pandemic has shone a light on the misery again. A lot of environmental challenges face the industry. This topic is discussed a lot. But the will for change seems to evaporate. There are many facets of sustainability. To coalesce the economic, ecological, and ethical aspects of the problem seems impossible.
In 2020, the global apparel industry is worth 1.5 trillion USD and is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions and almost 20 percent of wastewater. Over the years, companies have invested a lot in ecological solutions, and many strategies exist. One possible way is to use more natural fabrics because synthetic materials have a strong impact on the environment. Approximately 70 million barrels of oil are used to produce polyester every year. But here’s the crux—natural fabrics aren’t necessarily less damaging to the environment. To grow cotton for only one T-shirt uses 2,700 liters of water.
Recycled materials have become a reasonable alternative. Today, old tires and plastic bottles become fancy outerwear, and a lot of designers use waste to create new collections. Nevertheless, the recycling process is complex and can damage the environment, too. It requires more energy to recycle PET bottles than to produce natural fabrics, and the release of microplastics can be unhealthy. Further, many garments aren’t made from one material, and so separation is difficult and sometimes impossible. In the end, globally, only 12 percent of fabrics are recycled.
It isn’t only about which fabrics are used and how clothing is produced. What happens to pieces that can’t be sold or those we don’t want to wear anymore? Luxury fashion firms incinerate stock worth millions to avoid flooding the market with discounts and to keep the exclusive value of their brand. These luxury labels also face pressure from shareholders, so the labels expand and produce unnecessary surplus.
It seems like a good thing to donate clothing to people in need rather than just to throw it away, but we should question the impact. Today, even local second-hand and charity shops can’t handle the piles of clothing. We export the majority of our excess. Our “out of sight out of mind” mentality is responsible not only for damaging the environment in African countries, but also slowing down their local economies. The West has been stifling Africa with cheap, second-hand clothing for too long. In Ghana, so-called obroni wawu (dead white-men’s clothes) are so cheap that local textile factories and self-employed tailors can’t compete. African countries need to be able to boost their textile industry. Therefore, in 2018, Rwanda banned the import of second-hand clothing from the US. Other east-African countries are about to follow. However, they fear consequences and restrictions from the US market.
We have no way around it. Companies need to invest in sustainability strategies to lower carbon footprints. A wider range of sustainable production processes must be guaranteed in the long term. Predictive algorithms and structured photographic data can help forecast trends to target consumers and avoid destructive overstock. Major companies can predict customer preferences rather than guessing. Virtual designs can replace expensive sample collections. While dressing avatars, designers can visualize their collections and minimize resource use and costs. Doing so will become more popular, especially during the pandemic, when showroom visits must be at a minimum.
Overall, customers have become more critical and demanding with regard to sustainability and ethics. Maybe that’s not enough. Perhaps all these sustainable concepts are a disguise for continuing with entrenched patterns and justifying excessive consumption. We need to be more critical and seek transparency because greenwashing has become a powerful marketing tool. However, with a wider range of offers than ever before, quitting fashion and adopting ascetic behaviour seems to be hypocritical and unrealistic.
But what triggers us to buy new clothes again and again? Fashion is the most visible form of consumption. It helps in creating individual and social identity, to express and communicate personality. Style reflects changes in the times and serves as a modern sense of belonging. In the past, clothing was a representation of status or class, but today, with the rise of social media, the long-maintained exclusivity of the fashion world is gone. Due to societal shifts, fashion has been democratized.
The industry has opened up to new groups. With new forms and expressions of masculinity, men have increased interest in fashion. Julia Twigg, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and Sociology, explains that “fashion and dress is cultural territory linked with women and gay men, the two categories against which dominant hegemonic masculinity is constructed.” Men have increasingly invested in their personal style because fashion has become more accepted.
Figures of the UK menswear market prove the claim. Back in 2017, British men outstripped women in sales, with a market growth of 3.5 percent. Additionally, men are willing to spend more money on clothing than women, and they’re more likely to spend over £100 on their purchases than their female counterparts. After solid growth over the years, the UK menswear market is slowing as competition and uncertainties regarding the pandemic continue to rise.
With globalization and modern thinking, modest fashion has become a trend with more than Muslim women. Today, one has a lot more choices for covering up without renouncing fashion. This trend is more than headscarves and hijabs in chic materials. Luxury online shops, such as Net-A-Porter, and high-street retailers, such as Uniqlo, have beautiful selections and collections. Dressing modestly and loving fashion offers no contradiction. According to a report from Dinar Standard, consumers spent 283 billion USD on modest fashion in 2018. The sector is expected to grow 4.8 percent year-on-year, with sales expectations up to 402 billion USD by 2024.  Outside faiths or cultures with modest traditions, perhaps this style fits well into our insecure and nerve-wracking time.
It’s still difficult to find the right balance between expressing identity through fashion and being sustainable. Nonetheless, I sense a tang of revolution. Maybe all we need is to go back to the beginning. Bespoke tailoring offers the advantage of reducing fabric waste to a minimum. Every piece is made on demand, so no overproduction occurs. For example, John Pearse, tailor and former owner of the legendary boutique Granny Takes a Trip in London of the 1960s, says he has always been involved in sustainability. He distances himself from the term fashion with pieces that are “made to last.” Pearse’s clients, also stars, use his tailoring services in his Soho Studio to care for and repair their clothes.
But with measures such as home offices, curfews, and lockdowns, people’s dressing habits have changed drastically in a short time. No one needs a tailored outfit when working remotely. Further, in politically and environmentally uncertain times, does “made to last” matter? It doesn’t seem reasonable to spend a lot of money on tailored clothing in the current situation. Nevertheless, this trend contrasts with a counter movement. Besides the incredible rise of home- and streetwear over the last years–especially in the luxury segment–people have a desire for slow fashion and couture. Folks are playing it safe, tending toward more formal wear. We mirror our melancholy and mixed feelings regarding our future in our clothing. When everything seems risky, you want to dress appropriately. John Pearse confirms, “Surprisingly, I see an increase in the desire for bespoke tailoring, especially with young people. Maybe with this pandemic, this is the world’s end, but you have to see the long view. As soon as this is over, my customers will queue up again.”
We have moved away from tedious classicism and strict power-dressing. When it comes to tailoring, a pleasant, carefree attitude joins a new era of wearing a suit, and not only for men. Today, the suit offers a diverse range of characteristics, leaving plenty of room for expressing personal style. Subcultures from the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Teddy Boys and the Mods, contributed to this trend. For both, the suit was an important part of the wardrobe. However, the modern use isn’t the same. Carefully chosen symbolism and sophisticated codes interpreted from the past are mixed with a contemporary aesthetic. In the past, subcultures aspired to glamorous things in life, whereas it’s more about an intellectual look and a personal language of style today. When you walk around London nowadays, you see more suits than before. These young people want to appear interesting more than to be dressed in the latest fashion. It’s about expressing individuality in times where everyone could be dressed the same way.
Beyond the fashion statement, the longing for couture also has a romantic aspect. We mustn’t forget that fine tailoring is a craft that should be celebrated. Tailoring has ecological sustainability, along with holistic social sustainability and cultural responsibility. With a slight sentimental note, now is the time to think about the worth of a piece of clothing. It has been obvious for so long, but the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of culture and the arts. Traditional craft is at risk, and it’s important to uphold such expertise.
In darker days, modern romantics seek refuge in creativity and craftsmanship. These tools have become critical to cope with present uncertainties. When talking about the trade of tailoring, Savile Row in London is known for its tradition of British craft. It’s cultural heritage is solemnized. Essential is the love for exquisite fabrics, patterns, and the perfect shape. Reflecting this regained sense for craft, contemporary artistic lifestyle has also revived other forms of art such as dance, painting, and literature. Today, poets have become the new rockstars.
The incredible feeling of the perfect fit is priceless. Maybe that’s another idealistic reference since all we want is to feel at ease and escape the problems of the modern world. Tailoring is a reasonable compromise and combination of the joy of traditional craft and the lust to play with fashion. This romantic approach is still niche, but it feels like falling into dreamy nostalgia in crazy times like these.
However horrible this pandemic might be, perhaps now is the time for a restart. Maybe we can start over again with more sustainable solutions throughout the production chain. Today, we have more opportunities to produce clothes less harmful to our environment than ever before. If companies and customers become more mindful, change is possible. Can fashion get back its cool? We’ll see. I’m curious what lessons might be learned.
Nadine Sakotic is a trend researcher based in Zurich and working in the field of fashion. Particularly fascinated by menswear, Nadine brings cross-disciplinary aspects to her research. She studied Fashion Design in 2012 and gained professional experience in fashion marketing thereafter. In 2019, she graduated with a Master’s (MSc) in Product Management Fashion & Textiles at the University of West London. Since 2019, she has lectured at the Schweizerische Textilfachschule in Zurich.