Making fashion emotionally durable

“Can we break the cycle of passive consumption of fashion to create a more sustainable, durable connection with our clothes?”, asks  Jonathan Chapman,  Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Brighton and member of The People’s Design Lab Advisory Board.

Despite being an incredibly dynamic and vibrant cultural phenomenon, the fashion system is an extremely wasteful and destructive one. This is largely due to its ephemeral nature, fuelled by ceaseless hunt for change, novelty and just noticeable difference. Indeed, beyond the largely out of reach world of ‘high fashion’, the concept of seasonality is today, all but obsolete. Collections of ever-so-slightly different things spill out of the commercial fashion system, with an increasing familiarity. The everyday social habit of shopping connects us to one of the most ecologically destructive systems in the world; a system that wreaks havoc throughout natural world.

In a conversation with Yoshiaki Yoshimura (Creative Directing Manager of lifestyle footwear at Puma) he described how “there are times when fashion [in its current set-up] and the ideals of sustainability seem at odds; there are huge contradictions here, as one seems to be about pace and disposability, while the other appears to be about longevity and resilience.” He said, “sustainability for many is a relatively unknown context. How can we make it appealing, desirable and glamorous – that’s the most challenging part? It’s not impossible, but that’s the challenge. That’s the journey we are on.”

I asked Yoshiaki whether he felt an Emotionally Durable Design approach is just an idealist academic dream? I mean, does this thinking really have commercial potential? “I like to believe in this kind of opportunity as a designer”, says Yoshiaki. “It is showing more consciousness for the way people keep and own things. People love things that adapt and grow to fit the body, becoming more comfortable, and personal to them. These are important ideas, for sure. Through these ideas, we can create objects that are sold at a set price, but which become priceless, through use. It is definitely a viable possibility for industry to look at this, and personally as a designer, I think this is definitely an important approach to design.”

By way of example, he told me about ‘Visvim’, who have a service where they buy back all their stuff and sell it second hand to customers. Visvim also design and make shoes in such a way that they are actually repairable. Yoshiaki says, “when the outsole wears off, it can be replaced. The shoe costs more to buy, but this is part of the story of the shoe, and the brand, and people buy into it.” Yoshiaki goes on to say that “as a company, Puma is a hell of a lot bigger than brands like Visvim though, and our context is different from theirs. Having said that, they are doing something beautiful, and very respectable too, which we can all learn from.”

Are shoppers really prepared to put all that work into customizing, repairing and adapting their clothes? Isn’t it easier just to get it pre-formed, straight off the shelf? After all, it is far quicker – and often cheaper – to buy a ready made meal from the freezer section, than to shop for the individual ingredients, prepare and cook a meal, and then clean up afterwards. Despite the extra investment in time, money and effort, we see the value in a home-cooked meal, and go to great lengths to practice this.

Textile manufacturing is notorious for its inefficient use of water and energy, so anything that improves the efficiency of this process is worth a look. It is said that a typical mill may discards an excess of 60,000 pounds of fabric each week. Indeed, “making fashionable gear from someone else’s waste means you have to be flexible”, says Yoshiaki.

At Looptworks they have developed a design methodology that embraces this flexibility, through upcycling waste materials – sometimes from the cutting room floor, and other times through the collection of garments people no longer want. In the context of emotionally durable design, this kind of upcycling is interesting. Not just because it uses waste materials as opposed to virgin ones, but also because within each piece is a trace of the previous product story – a kind of ‘echo’ of its past, which carries-forward into the new product.

Created by Eugenia Morpurgo, the ‘Repair it Yourself’ (RIY) range of canvas footwear is assembled with reversible, mechanical fastenings rather then the permanent stitching or toxic glues, and comes with a repair kit. Indeed, we are no strangers to acts of creation. Assembling an outfit is, after all, a form of self-expression, of creativity and of making. Furthermore, the way we decorate our homes, arrange the furniture in our rooms and locate the pictures on the walls form to some extent an identity.

We each, to varying degrees, share a need to create. Much of this creative urge takes the form of shopping, combining that which we have bought in different ways, and then shopping some more! So how can we engage with fashion as a rich cultural phenomenon, whilst separating ourselves from the destructive systems behind its formation?

We can become active participants in the definition of fashion, rather than mute and passive consumers. We can look to the customization of clothing, and the rebirth of DIY culture, for example. These strategies encourage replacement of shopping with more creative personal and social experiences.

In customizing our garments, we may begin to tell our own stories, and craft our own narratives as creatives. This is, arguably, a far deeper form of personal and creative expression than that of assembling an outfit. Rather, this form of active citizenship relocates power firmly back into the hands of the people, giving us all an equal stake in the shaping of our world.

Jonathan’s blog first featured  on Textile Toolbox

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