The Post Recession Fashion Industry: Shut Up and Listen to The Future

SeriesPart 5: The fashion industry is emerging from its cocoon post-recession, a changed sector where consumers are more cautious, manufacturers are on their toes and designers are struggling to stay afloat doing business as usual. In this five-part series, we take a hard look at the fashion world, speaking with industry leaders, luminaries and experts. This week we ask: Can we predict the future of fashion?

Futuristic predictions of fashion are as varied as they are improbable. Will we all dress like we’re in Mad Max? Or will the evolution of fashion identity be more subtle, with the significant changes having more to do with technology and production? And no discussion of the future of fashion can ignore the issue of resources. Indeed, with nearly everyone I interviewed for this final chapter in our series, one word came up again and again: Water. (Roughly 20% of the earth’s water pollution comes from the fashion industry.)

Karla Magruder is President of Fabrikology, a company that offers customized service to the global apparel industry based on “extensive textile expertise through education, sourcing, brand building and business development.”

Magruder considers a variety of factors that may influence the future of fashion.

“One of the lessons from Cradle to Cradle is the example of the tree: It grows a bunch of leaves, they are beautiful, they fall off and then go back into the ground to make compost,” Magruder says. “Ideally, textiles become something like that. In the meantime, we have a lot of learning to do. The Sustainable Apparel Index will help companies make good choices about textiles (as well as other things) to reduce their environmental effects.”

Magruder believes the increasing scarcity of water as a resource will be a major issue not only in how companies process textiles but in how they develop the raw materials. She also sees a shift in consumer use and care of fashion products, including chemicals that are used and what happens with old, unwanted clothes.

“It’s a re-education of sorts. It took a lot of education from retail that we needed new clothes every day or week,” says Magruder. “Now, as we start to reexamine priorities we see that shopping doesn’t bring happiness, for a whole lot of reasons from credit card debt to the environment.”

Celeste Lilore, Co-Designer and Founder of RESTORE® CLOTHING, sees a high-low future of innovative development and old-fashioned resource efficiency.

“I think we always have to keep one eye on ancient wisdom and the other on modern technology,” says Lilore. “I also think we will have to adapt for water scarcity and this means using textiles that require little water to produce to manufacturing fabric that is self-cleaning or requires infrequent laundering.”

Lilore and her husband, Anthony Lilore,  launched RESTORE in 1994. Industry veterans, the founding and growth of RESTORE has been a natural progression of their own environmental ideals. The company began using recycled nylon from Repreve when it became available in 2009 to further their mission. Celeste says one of the best aspects of working with Repreve is that it is a domestic fabric with verifiable certifications to ensure integrity.

Lilore believes that while consumers want to do better by the planet, they want others to act as the filters so they don’t have to do the environmental homework.

“At this point, being transparent is the best thing brands can do,” says Lilore.

RESTORE hoodie made of 100% recycled content

Bahar Shahpar and Tara St. James, founders of GUILDED, a company working exclusively with vendors, suppliers and partners whose sustainable business practices are in line with their principles, say transparency will enable the distribution and availability of vital information.

“As we try to move the fashion industry towards a more sustainable future, the most pressing issues are ones that affect all aspects of the movement (environmental, social, and economic) equally. Whether we’re striving towards cleaner water, more efficient use of resources, less waste, better working conditions or higher quality products, we need to rebuild the industry as a transparent system. Information is what allows us to see the problems while also giving us the tools to solve them,” says the pair.

Shahpar and St. James say that while it doesn’t make sense to “relegate the past to the dusty bin of antiquity,” the future of fashion doesn’t need to be driven entirely by technological advances.

Tara St James and Bahar Shahpar, Founders of GUILDED

“The current dominating force of fast fashion will inevitably outrun itself, with quality decreasing and quantity increasing to a point of diminishing returns – so we need to thoughtfully innovate, combining the best methods of our past with our most forward-thinking technologies.”

The two say a truly modern and sustainable future will connect artisanal techniques with molecular fiber science, cooperative community production with individualized economic models, and traditionally localized markets with interactive global supply chain networks.

The company currently has representatives that address many of these niche challenges, and they’re not alone.

Lynda Grose, in addition to being a consultant, designer, and author, is a  fashion educator for sustainability at California College of the Arts. Grose might suggest that to further fashion in a sustainable manner, we look to the classroom rather than the board room. Grose has her students entertain possibilities for future fashion sustainability through a variety of perspectives, including reading Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring and in learning principles of ecology by visiting California cotton farms.

“Students conduct their own research into the social and ecological impacts of cotton and the impacts of other fibers documenting their sources and citing quotes and facts and then reflect on their findings, comparing and contrasting those to what is currently marketed,” says Grose, who adds that much of what the students see for themselves as “absent strategies” are then used to employ and forge new directions. Utilizing this “lead rather than follow” model, students can then better contribute to the international discourse on fashion and sustainability.

Timo Rissanen, designer, professor of zero waste fashion design and sustainability

A multitude of scenarios are possible for the future of fashion. As Grose notes, the industry is at present focused on cleaning up the existing supply chain and establishing and enforcing terms of engagement for workers within the current system. Future scenarios, on the other hand, help her students project and imagine the impacts of long term trends including water scarcity, climate, technology, population, crop land trends, trade, energy and politics.

“These ideas inevitably fall outside current industry strategies which are focused on making what exists better rather than building new systems and models, yet many progressive companies also look at future scenarios to align their current business practices over the long-term,” says Grose. She believes that colleges have become an enormous resource for businesses, where new ideas can be explored and incubated with little financial risk.

Still when we think of fashion’s future, we can’t help but wonder, what will it look like? Will today’s imaginations deliver the likes of Battlestar Galactica or Blade Runner?

The women at GUILDED have their own ideas.

“We can see it now: recycled metal bodysuits, hand-forged by a new world order of artisan guilds funded by a global microloan superenterprise, and designed to interact with hybrid circuitry implanted in the wearer’s skin to regulate body temperature and mitigate environmental contaminants, deeming seasonal wardrobes obsolete.”

Image: Tout Le Cine, Inspiration Spam, Saga

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.