• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Agency

Op Art

Some things I have been thinking about

About eighteen months ago, I had started to talk to my friend and colleague, Sarah Watanabe about the impacts of fashion on the environment. Through these conversations, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the culture of excess and consumption generated by the fashion industry. As well as working in an architecture practice, Sarah has her own fashion label, Monster Alphabets. Together, we lamented everything from inefficient production processes through to the increasing dominance of cheap, high street clothing stores.

 


Determined to take a personal stand, I set myself a challenge to see how long I could go without purchasing anything new. I managed to make it to ten months and in the process, totally transformed my relationship to fashion and consumption.

This challenge has made me much more mindful of my actions, has seen me spend a lot more time in op-shops and unexpectedly, ended up with Sarah and I collaborating on a sustainable fashion project, which we’ve named @monster_alphabet_dilemma.

Photo by Sarah Watanabe
Model Lili McAuliffe
Photo by Sarah Watanabe

These are some of the things I have learnt on my ten month fashion sabbatical:

  • The fashion industry creates so much waste – from the process of producing fabric, through cutting and offcuts, items made and not sold, items bought and not worn.

    A recent article in Vogue by fashion journalist and sutainability advocate, Clare Press, summarised a lot of what I had read. Press describes how many labels destroy unsold goods, and that at home in Australia we dispose of 6,000 kilos of fashion and textile waste every 10 minutes. The bulk becomes landfill, and the rest heads to op-shops – but event then there are unitended consequences.

    According to Press, Oxfam estimates that 70% of donations to op-shops end up in Africa, where ‘mountains of cheap old clothes are killing local textile industries.’[1] Mark Liu’s article, ‘Time to make fashion a problem for its makers, not charities’ suggests that, if we carry on the way we are, by 2030 the fashion industry will consume two Earth’s worth of resources per year.[2]

  • So many of the clothes that we are purchase are made by people – mostly women – working in poor and often dangerous conditions and for extremely low wages. This is despite the global attention given to disasters such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in which 1134 garment workers died.[3]

    Clothes continue to get cheaper and we continue our disconnection from the efforts made to produce these garments. Our expectations for increasing levels of finish and finesse at a low price fail to acknowledge the effort of low paid workers.

    To address this is tricky. Production by major chains is often outsourced and as a consumer it is difficult to know exactly what the production chain looks like. It’s fair to say that a t-shirt that costs $5 was probably produced by someone who was not paid much. Unfortunately, we still have these issues on clothing sold for a lot more.

  • There is also the lingering question around the impact of fast fashion and the suffication of individual expression. Fashion houses that once delivered two collections per year are now expected to produce four, six or even monthly capsule collections in order to maintain a position in the market. The cycle of consumption is like a treadmill moving faster and faster and insatiable for the fashion follower.

    Oddly, through all this output there is a growing homogeneity on the street as clothes barely worn are disguarded in order to keep up with the latest look. When we combine this trend with cheap fabrics, we are faced with pieces destined for landfill and fabrics that do not break down over time

Location: Anglicare WA Op Shop, Fremantle

Location: Anglicare WA Op Shop, Fremantle

The combination of these three concerns saw me spending more and more time in the op-shop where I made my final and most joyous discovery – that all the good fabrics are found in the men’s business shirt section! I was drawn to the largely monochromatic colour palettes, patterning, finishing details and fabric quality – things glaringly absent from the rows and rows of clothing on offer for women.

Sarah and I started to experiment transforming men’s cotton business shirts into something we could wear. By creating a set of repeated moves, we have reworked the humble business shirt into an entirely unique item of clothing for women. Despite the standardized construction method, each shirt feels bespoke, celebrating clashing patterns, pleating or frayed ends.

The garment cost reflects a reasonable labour rate for the time spent making them. We have created a type of tailoring that opportunistically preserves many of the time-consuming finishing details on the existing shirts , altering the final shirt through addition and subtraction. Importantly, the making of these shirts has almost zero impact, has minimal waste and we’ve saved a garment from landfill.

In summary, there are ways that we can reduce the impact of fashion on the world and its people, and they are simple. We need to consume less, keep things for longer and make sure that what we buy has been made ethically.

– Emma Williamson

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