I recently read an interview with Julie Gilhart posted by BoF about “Conscious Consumerism“. Julie Gilhart was the former Fashion Director at Barney’s NY, currently a consultant to Amazon.com & their online clothing store. What immediately caught my attention was her independent passion to merge her own sustainable beliefs & lifestyle into the world of fashion through conscientious decisions and empowerment.
Known for her love of discovering, encouraging, supporting and connecting young design talent to retailers, Julie has significantly influenced the fashion industry, drawing attention to sustainable initiatives and designers alike.
For those of us who actively seek conscientious alternatives in our lifestyle, many of us remember when or what first triggered our change. As for myself, from a very early age I was concerned about the environment. I never littered, I was appalled by those who did (including friends of mine) and I went so far (& still do) to pick up the trash on the streets left ignorantly by others. I will never understand why some people think it was someone else’s job to pick up after them? Why should that job even exist…? Where in their upbringing were they told this is an okay’ behaviour…? It’s a strange sense of entitlement that I never understood.
Ok, I hear it too… I sound like my mother. However it’s true! And I believe it is this mentality that encouraged me and set my future on a “greener/ conscious” path. In university, I had this inner dialogue or argument trying to figure out how I could pursue my passion in design… fashion and somehow merge this with an environmentally sustainable approach. The wheels were turning and ideas were flowing even in my early days.
We live in this highly digital, social media driven, transparent world, where we have direct channels of communication to the “influentials” and to influence our own change via instagram, twitter, linked-in, facebook and so on… Circumstantial events on global scales have catapulted us to question everything… food, health, national security, safety, environmental factors and so on… In turn, we the public and the industry are demanding and making the supply chain transparent. Knowledge, awareness and desire for change in all industries is growing steadily.
Consider the word “organic”, ten to twelve years ago we rarely heard this term used next to food, health, and apparel. I’d venture seven to eight years ago “Organic” became a more frequent term and option in retail and niche sections of department stores. Knowledge and education on the idea was still relatively new and not necessarily convincing enough for change across for the general consumer. We, the general public were (and still are) romanced by fast fashion consumerism and the idea of “off the runway” styles. It was/ is “the thing” and totally accessible. It’s been in the last five to six years that the idea of “organic, eco, sustainable,…” started to mean something, to a point where we started to question and seek better alternatives. Now Organic is a way of life and an option available in health, food, apparel and so forth. However, I would say that although it is changing, the fashion industry was slow to start in this movement. Frequently I still hear professionals within the industry, from luxury to mass market say that there is little relevance or appeal of “eco, sustainable, organic, ethical” fashion. This is a misconception, as we well know by now that many designers (which I’ve featured) are actively & successfully developing beautiful designed clothing in conscious way.
“We’re in the situation right now where what has worked in the past isn’t working any longer”
Bill Cunningham (New York Times Fashion Photographer) is famously quoted for saying that “Fashion is a reflection of the times”. Poignantly said and accurately true, which as Julie Gilhart reflects, “We’re in the situation right now where what has worked in the past isn’t working any longer”. Conscientious Fashion is a muscle in flex, which the industry is still learning how to do, some better than others, however all with a similar positive goal in mind. Much of the success comes down to the creative channel companies choose to tell their story through their brand.
Now bear with me here… I recently read another article on the BoF about Sarah Beydoun of Sarah’s Bags, a Beirut woman who started an accessories handbag line in 1998 by empowering poverty stricken women with opportunities to work. These women developed the beautiful handwork to create one of a kind, conceptual, modern handbags and purses. However despite the company’s honest and inspiring story, the general consumer at this time wasn’t interested in the heroic or heart-wrenching story that came with each chic bag. They just wanted the bag. The company values & ethics in many cases was a story told later, which then could empower the purchase. As the article goes on, Sarah had to carefully brand her company not solely based on the ethics and beliefs of her initiatives that started the company initially, rather focus greater emphasis on the style & image of the brand in order to appeal to both types of customers. Today her company thrives as she sells internationally appealing to both women in a market that is concerned & interested conscious design.
In the past, we’ve seen many eco design labels that focused their efforts on the initiative & the niche consumer who cared about it. Which for the most part, produced uninspiring clothing, not even a style… except for lacking one. Never the less, Sarah’s Bag’s, among many other conscious labels are finding relevance in the market not only for their contemporary style but values & beliefs as well. I believe this movement started in 2008, shortly after the financial crisis. More importantly, conscious consumerism “ethics & sustainability” became more important than ever if not detrimental, via transparency through the supply chain after the devastating building collapse of Rana Plaza (one year ago), which killed over a thousand workers, left hundreds workers injured and many children orphaned. It’s clear that tragedy of such magnitude shouldn’t be the catalyst that brings upon change, yet as history repeats itself, this always seems to be the way. When it comes to inspiring and encouraging consumers everywhere to influence & participate in positive change, the fashion industry must continue to balance equal weight on thoughtful, contemporary & inspiring design, as well as those conscientious initiatives that relate to the core values of the company & it’s message for change.