What Makes Sustainable Fashion?

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The New York Times

NEW YORK
For all that the climate crisis has been at the center of the international conversation, as the New York collections draw to a close, the question of sustainability has been strangely absent from the catwalks.
Admittedly, paper invitations have largely given way to digital ones, and designers have hinted at the subject: At Sies Marjan, Sander Lak claimed inspiration from a Guggenheim exhibition by Rem Koolhaus opening this week entitled “Countryside: The Future,” about the ecology of the outdoors. Then he used material science to bring it in: Embedding leaves in cloudlike white dresses and suiting; adding tendrils of root systems to a big black overcoat; felting and fraying wool so it looked like mossy fungus.
But it was Gabriela Hearst who put waste front and center. Sort of.
Hearst, who last season announced a carbon-neutral fashion show, has long been one of the most vocal designers in the city about climate change and fashion’s responsibility therein. This time around she had borrowed giant bales of scrap paper from a recycling plant in Brooklyn and installed them as a backdrop, turning her store into the setting for a peculiarly urban hoedown.
Hearst had been thinking about repurposing and its role in a collection. She had sourced antique rug remnants from a Turkish market and turned them into a terrific woven jacket and sweeping greatcoat. She had gone through her storeroom and found two groups of unsold coats in her trademark exacting tailoring, cut them up and blanket-stitched them back together into two-tone cool. She had placed a big bet on some bolts of dead stock and sewed it into a slick tuxedo suit seamed in a braid and a one-shoulder dress caught up with a brass buckle on the collarbone.
But these were only a fraction of what was shown, sandwiched between swishy, deep-pile corduroy suiting with nipped-in waists, big pleated pockets and epaulets on the shoulders; extravagantly fringed chunky knits and hand-painted leathers.
That can make the upcycling and the bales seem like decoration – a superficial gloss laid atop a story that is actually same old, same old, no matter how tangibly desirable. It can expose fashion to oft-repeated charges of hypocrisy.
But that kind of criticism, easy to make, actually misses the point, one that is rarely discussed, but that the non-upcycled bits of Hearst’s collection made clear: If you make something signature, something women love, then you have made a sustainable garment because you have made something non-disposable.
That should be the yardstick against which all else is measured. That is the difference between an heirloom and landfill. And that should be the goal of all designers all the time.
So though it was easy to see the flower boas and headdresses made from live orchids at the Rodarte show and think “What an unnecessary sacrifice,” and while that was true, it is also true that designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy make singular, fantastical garments.
And similarly, it was easy to see the plethora of leather and fuzzy, collaged shearling at Coach and raise an eyebrow, since the brand enthusiastically got on the anti-fur bandwagon in 2018. Yes, as designer Stuart Vevers said backstage after the show, these skins are byproducts of the meat industry, but yes, leather production is also chemical-intensive, and if you’re going to feel bad for the animals, maybe you should think about their habitat, too.
Yet it is also true, as Vevers pointed out, that leather tends to be kept and gets better with age. And that in their unforced tactile detail and connection to Coach’s legacy past, these qualified as investment pieces.
That’s what Michael Kors was thinking about when he revisited a cape he first made 21 years ago. Originally modeled by Naomi Campbell, it was later worn by Joan Didion in a portrait by Tina Barney and now reimagined in an enveloping, striped cayenne-pepper-colored cashgora – part security blanket, part urban cowgirl. That’s what he was thinking when he paired almost every look with Wellie-like riding boots, just as he did in his first collection, almost 40 years ago.
It’s this kind of signature that was missing from Prabal Gurung’s uptown amalgamation of snazzy white tuxedos, leopard print, diva dresses draped on the hip, explosive peplums and feather fripperies. Each look on its own had a champagne polish, but lacked identity. And thus, staying power.
Which is why the kitchen-sink craftiness of Eckhaus Latta, awkward and alluring at the same time, has so much resonance. There’s something entirely personal about its weird juxtapositions and connections, even as the results have become more sophisticated: High-waist acid-washed denim jeans with pockets placed back to front; irregular patchwork knits and slithery magenta nylon; cropped triangular jackets over shrunken pleated miniskirts; and juicy orange and blue sheaths with space age-y oval cutouts at the clavicle. They are unmistakably clothes to live in over time.
Oh, and by the way, those runway shoes? They were Prada, Fendi and Gucci, secondhand, sourced from resale site The RealReal. And they will be resold accordingly.