‘Slow Fashion’ – a movement gaining momentum

‘Sustainability’ and ‘traceability’ are common words used across industry generally. Now they appear prominently in the ‘Slow Fashion’ movement with its emphasis on taking a more accountable approach to manufacturing and purchasing. Stemming from the ‘Slow Food Movement’, it is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace – it is about doing things at the right pace.

Slow Fashion is a spectrum of beliefs, not a hardened set of rules. First coined by Kate Fletcher, Design Consultant, in 2007, it has come to mean different things to many people. At its core, however, it’s an alternative to mass produced clothing, favouring sustainable, ethically produced and recyclable materials which do less damage to the environment than cheaper alternatives. Other elements include opting for clothing from smaller producers, artisans, fair trade outlets, choosing clothing that transcends latest fashion trends and which is repairable plus buying vintage and second-hand clothes when possible. Much of the emphasis is, as Coco Chanel once said, that ‘Fashion fades, style is eternal.’

As a movement, Slow Fashion is gaining momentum. According to Not Just a Label, Slow Fashion represents all things eco, ethical and green in one unified movement. Linking the fashion industry’s output with its impact on the environment, it aims to broaden consumer awareness of the process from material to design to production to delivery. Moreover, it wants to change the consumer’s relationship with clothing. For Maxine Bedat, co-founder of Zady, the question it wants people to ponder is: “How is a product made and what does it mean to me and my values?” The origin and make of a product is essentially what drives the sustainability issue.

Similarly to ‘Slow Food’, Slow Fashion emerged in direct reaction to ‘Fast’ counterpart. In many ways, it is the antithesis of ‘Fast Fashion’ with its negative connotations of often poor grade materials, shabby production values, low wages and questionable business ethics. Instead, Slow Fashion advocates Zady promote ‘No more clothing that ends up on landfills. No more production with questionable roots. Quality over quantity.’

Emphasising quality over quantity, Slow Fashion seeks not only to reduce the number of trends and fashion seasons but to promote the ideal of ‘Less is more’. It is not merely about choosing well-made clothes but ones with longevity, about investing in pieces which will last. Who then is leading the way in Slow Fashion? Some of the brands include Lily Ashwell, Carrie Parry, Pendleton and Zady. Each uses sustainable materials, aiming to design and produce every item in the home country. And in this respect, they pride themselves on relationships with local designers, local producers of fine materials and garments.

Slow Fashion is not necessarily a new departure but rather a return to the old. Over fifty years ago, nearly all clothing was made by home based industries – in the US, that was estimated at 95 per cent ‘but today that number is closer to 2 percent.’ Pendleton, for example, uses mills in north-west America which are over 100 years old to further its commitment to producing homemade materials and garments from sustainable sources. In adopting such styles of production, it aims to reduce water and energy use too.

If rejecting the notion of seasonable fashion, how then will companies launch new collections? In November 2014, Zady announced it will launch a collection of clothes designed and produced entirely in the US – one piece at a time. Doing so, it believes its ‘Essential Collection’ is an extension of the philosophy of sustainable couture.

Slow Fashion is laudable on so many levels but if it seeks to match and then surpass Fast Fashion, it has a rocky road ahead. Despite the emphasis on education and marketing, it is more likely it will be one model of production rather than the only one.

While sitting easy with other movements such as ‘Slow Food’ and ‘Slow Money’, Slow Fashion cannot turn back time to older methods and values if it is to keep pace with need let alone demand. Fashion exists in a very fast paced world where consumer desires are catered for and choice is king. Being built to last is a thing of the past, where short life spans and models mean people have to regularly update – not simply because they have to but because they want to.

Sweatshops and low wages in Asia are often referred to but without proper consideration. If it were indeed possible to raise wages, improve working conditions and use sustainable materials would this meet the philosophy of some ‘Slow Fashion’ advocates? The carbon footprint involved in transporting clothes into western markets would go against the more eco-conscious in this area. Perhaps a slow boat from China might be the way forward…

And in considering transportation from the east might this also impact on Europe to US movement too, curbing home-based Chanel and Dior in how far it might travel? What then of transportation? Some companies deliver within the US only but some do so by air. Discussion needs to occur then on what the limitations of travel should be and if it is indeed feasible without negatively impacting on the industry. In India, for example, if the exporting of clothes was reduced, the effect on the economy would be dramatic – mostly to the cost of the workforce.

Using the best designs, craftspeople and materials also have cost implications and some believe that the cost of Slow Fashion is prohibitive. While Anusha Couttigane, Conlumino analyst, believes marketing, media and education is essential and that eventually sustainable fashion will be available to all, it is a long (long) way from this point. Buying the latest fashion and buying new have cultural implications which cannot be dismissed. Supporters of Slow Fashion may believe education will teach many that less is more and vintage is preferable to always buying new. For many, however, wearing used or repaired clothes – whatever the quality and ethical considerations – is akin to donning hand-me-downs. And hand-me-downs are often what you wear if you cannot afford to buy new. Clothing is intrinsically linked with status and self-image; links the fashion industry has spent billions upon billions seeking to cultivate. There are so many emotional aspects at play here that one can only surmise that it will take more than education to diminish such feelings.

Slow Fashion has much to commend it and it will continue to gain momentum and supporters. Realistically, however, it will not and cannot erase its arch nemesis, Fast Fashion. Here’s hoping that the two can coexist with perhaps the balance being firmly tipped in favour of sustainable and better quality options – at affordable prices.

 Published online: 2014

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