Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion, and The Sustainability Equation: Ethics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Fashion

Congratulations to Francesca Granata and Sarah Scaturro for last night’s panel, The Sustainability Equation: Ethics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Fashion. The room was packed, lined with people standing, and the insights from Julie Gilhart, Senior Vice President and Fashion Director at Barneys New York, Mary Ping of Slow Steady Wins the Race and Caroline Priebe of Uluru were diverse and fascinating. As an unexpected delight, I bumped into Janet Hethorn, one of the editors of Sustainable Fashion: Why Now? It was good to see Tara St James of Study NY again; the blog post on her work is now long, long overdue. Watch this space.

My notes from the panel ramble all over the place. Furthermore, at times I was listening too intensely to take any. Both signs of an invigorating conversation, I think. Gilhart spoke about the philosophy at Barneys, and the importance of an emotional connection to clothing over product or brand. From a sustainable design perspective, she made a strong case for good design and embodied value as the most important drivers. I’d agree; we’ve all seen abominable things made from organic cotton, no? Thankfully it’s becoming rarer but for a while there seemed to be a lot of things out there that used sustainability as some kind of apologetic excuse for sloppy design and/or crappy manufacturing. Julie mentioned how the Barneys customer is still slightly suspicious of anything labeled organic; at least in some cases the company no longer promotes garments as such, but rather, as strong statements in design. That’s what attracts the customer to the clothes in the first place. Common sense, really. Apparently they are getting increasing requests for ‘green’ gowns for the red carpet. She recommends Isabel Toledo. Not an obvious choice to some but one that made sense to me. Toledo’s work has a lovely timelessness about it, without ever appearing generic or ‘classic’. Or maybe it is classic; it’s just not a word I particularly like. My personal favourite statement from Gilhart, one that gives me much hope, was a quip on how at Barneys they are constantly saying how there are just “too many collections, too many clothes, too much stuff”.Right on.

Caroline’s notion of wanting to design things that the consumer can eventually pass on to her granddaughter sounds deceivingly simple but think about it. It’s a powerful statement. Instead of maybe two, three, even five years’ worth of wear, she’s suggesting several decades. This stems from her having inherited her grandmother’s cashmere cardigans, which she wears herself. She has also reappropriated some of her grandmother’s patterns for Uluru. Caroline also talked about the need to integrate sustainability into business models from the outset, something she has done. At Fashioning Now, Rachel Bending of Bird Textile spoke along very similar lines; the audio is available on the FN website. As for the Uluru/Alabama Chanin interaction, Caroline prefers co-operation over collaboration; the former speaks of a sustained activity whilst the latter can suggest something temporary. She also noted how she seems to share everything she knows with anyone that wants to know. This is what I love about the sustainable fashion community; the secrecy and paranoia that seem to afflict the rest of industry are largely absent.

As for Mary, I think she should work with me. Why? Towards the end she spoke of having produced some leather t-shirts, and as a result she’s ended up with five containers of leather scrap (size of container unclear). “It’s such a waste”, she said. Yes. Mind you, her team is working on designing something out of the scrap, but leather is one area I haven’t delved into in my research. Mary, I’m likely to be in touch. I know I already linked to Slow and Steady Wins the Race above but because the site is such fun, here is the link again. On the whole, listening to both Caroline and Mary was a refreshing delight; reading through mainstream fashion sites it’s easy to break out in hives over the banal soundbites from some fashion designers.

Onto the exhibition, which I saw over a week ago. It is open until February 20, so make sure you see it if in New York. The beautiful catalog is only $10; get it! The exhibition is beautifully designed, with large text panels supporting each of the three sections. The design is by a team of Graduate Interior Design students from Pratt, led by Professor Jon Otis. The designers are Lexie Averick, Yi-Ting (Elvie) Chang, Laura Clifford, Jenni Hellstern, Amanda Meininger, Megan Niemczyk, Alex Pethtel, Juliette Pousset, Dena Saperstein, Jeehee Son, Jinwooh Song and Jordan Wagenseller. Congratulations; the space was a delight to move through. There are three broad themes under which the designers fall; of course, most relate to all three categories, but such ordering makes the concepts easier to understand. Because I’m lazy, here are the panels for you to read, and some not-great photos; a close friend once said I destroy beautiful things with photography. My photography lecturer over ten years ago echoed those sentiments. Anyway, here you go:


Uluru with Alabama Chanin: Detail of a recycled cashmere sweater appliqued with organic cotton jersey:

Rogan, one of the Loomstate designers: detail of patchwork dress of recycled denim, courtesy of Barneys New York:


Slow and Steady Wins the Race
: detail of a shirt:

Kelly Cobb’s 100-Mile Suit: feelers for some of the yarns and fabrics:


SUNO (detail of dress of vintage kanga):

Alabama Chanin
: Detail of an organic cotton jersey dress:

An organic cotton denim dress, dyed with natural indigo:

Finally, an audience member mentioned an ‘eco-fashion’ show taking place at NYU tonight. More details are here.

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  1. […] there a sense that any of the words specifically turn people on or off of products? I remember a panel talk from 2010 where Julie Gilhart, a pioneer of sustainability in the retail space, said that […]