Corporate Fashion Still Monopolizing Progress For Indie Designers

Mainstream fashion media and corporate-sponsored design houses continue to shun environmental progress.

Fashion week has always been an exciting time of year for the fashion industry. It’s an amped up version of “Project Runway,” where designers scramble to present the most eye drawing collections, fighting every other designer showing for the attention of the press. It’s a lot of work, a lot of hype and the best man or woman wins orders from Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, or maybe even a capsule line at Target or H&M if they’re really lucky. Innovation is heralded and beauty is showcased as fashion struts its stuff to show the ordinary people how to dress exceptionally.

So if this is the case, why does Ralph Lauren’s Runway Collection, season after season, get the New York Fashion week cover of WWD and raving reviews from all the fashion press? He literally designs the same retro looks year after year: 1920-30’s, Great Gatsby-esque, horse riding get ups for the rich. Feather boas? Have you ever seen anyone in public pull that off without looking slightly ridiculous? This is what the fashion industry heralds as innovative, new and headlining.

The fashion press applauds loudest for the very same fashion houses that do the most advertising. Coincidence? Imagine if an oil company donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a politician’s campaign and they just happened to be in the same business that the politician fought to give special tax breaks to. This is the exact same way the mainstream fashion industry runs: donations and lobbying, also known as paying for advertising.

The Business of Fashion pulled from a Guardian article, quoting Alexandra Shulman the Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue saying “Vogue makes most of its money out of advertising — and it does make an awful lot of money — so we’ve got to have a good relationship with our advertisers. They’re not going to place £100,000 a year and then say ‘Feel free not to use any of our goods’  — life’s not like that. So although there is this feeling sometimes that creatively it’s not pure, well magazines are a business, you’re not sitting there writing poetry.”

Marrying Sustainable Fashion With Mainstream

While the mainstream fashion press is busy paying lip service to old school fashion house’s fat wallets, they barely acknowledge that sustainability for the future of fashion means a lot more than traditional press and sales. Outside of the advertising winner’s circle, there are plenty of designers, press, and bloggers who acknowledge, report upon, work for and really do see the change of the sustainable design community’s efforts.

Even Oprah has something to say about it. Yet the fashion industry doesn’t want to outwardly acknowledge the shifts going on towards sustainable consumerism perhaps from a fear because they’re afraid that following, or even promoting ethical and sustainable business practices would mean a few things:

1.  The admittance that things have been and continue to be done unethically in almost every step of the process.

2. The end of days for business processes that are comfortable, which might equate to a loss of sales and/or jobs for people who don’t know how to evolve.

3. Quite possibly the end of all the excess that is fashion week because it would require focusing on doing things based on a whole new model.

Eko-Lab, A/W 2011

Melissa Kirgan co-designer for sustainable label Eko-Lab asks why sustainable fashion and mainstream fashion need to be two separate entities when they both ultimately share the same goal: to sell a product.

“No matter how ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ a design is, if it is not bought there is no business. For us at Eko-Lab the number one important focus is to make an amazing product, our beliefs and ethics are to be valued as building blocks in the heritage of our brand.”
Yet Kirgan relays her own story of a trip to Bendel’s Open Call to present her line which was an eye opening moment for her and partner Xing-Zhen Chung.

“When we presented our product it was well received and we were given many complements, when we began to share the origin of our fibers and their organic qualities there was an instant change in tone and we were told that was not their customer,” says Kirgan, adding that while fashion is glamorous, it’s function is to create an illusion of how the wearer wishes to project themselves to the world.
“While sustainable design appears to still suffer crunchy connotations. If you must make these into two groups (mainstream vs. sustainable) then sustainable design is going to need way better branding.

Better Branding and Changing Existing Fashion Industry Models

Every sustainable designer has had to look in the mirror and face the need to reinvent the wheel. When it comes to the fashion business, no matter what, designers (sustainable or not) are still adding to a massive waste stream. If we actually believe fashion can be a platform to stop planetary, environmental, and health degradation, it’s going to consistently be a painful reinvention for designers to go through, (especially if they like the idea of a steady paycheck and health insurance). Very few eco-designers make it after two years. 

This might also be why you don’t see most eco-designers, showing up at the Lincoln Center Tents, (which cost $20,000 a runway), where every season the “notable” designers present with a new and cheerful line of must have items.

Are there designers who support and propel a healthy future that the population would rather hear about? Of course, but the only way most people might see them is if they go searching for it outside of the daily barrage of advertising. Even with Oprah’s blessing, the eco-design world is considered “the fringe,” not something that appears regularly on mainstream fashion’s radar. But even with their “fringe” status some of these designers are somehow staying in business, making a huge impact, and offering consumers an option to opt out of the game of Fashion Monopoly that no one but the big corporations win.

Stewart + Brown

Howard Brown of Stewart+Brown is one of those designers and says the ethical fashion movement needs to remain true to its core mission; to lead by example and shift the paradigm toward sustainable business and production practices.

“Opportunistic grandstanding and hollow gestures from the fashion establishment do nothing meaningful to change the status quo yet compromise the mission and integrity of the ethical fashion movement. The path towards sustainability does not pass through fast fashion retailing. Remember what Bucky Fuller said, ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.'”

Image: MokeSDoke