A questionable pace

Image by Stephanie Lou, courtesy of Intent Journal.

Image by Stephanie Lou, courtesy of Intent Journal.

An exploration of the slow fashion movement, featuring insights by design activist Kate Fletcher, and fashion designers Semaj Bryant and Emily Bye.

ONCE upon a time, in a land unspecified by the fable in question, a wise tortoise challenged an arrogant hare to a race. The tortoise, tired of the smug hare’s bragging, wanted to prove that slow and steady would win out over a hastier, wilder pace. We all know how the story ends. The hare shot ahead, thinking he had it in the bag. The hare took a misadvised nap, confident that he’d still surely win. But the tortoise had lumbered on, crossing the finish line first. Slow and steady won that race, but will it win its race in fashion?

The juxtaposition between slow and fast fashion has become more prevalent than ever; the tangle between the promotion of mass-produced clothing and the encouragement of slower fashion has become seemingly impossible to unravel. But consumers are now faced with a rude, inconvenient truth—fast fashion is, by its very nature, unsustainable.

As such, ethical conduct and environmental impact have begun to matter more in fashion. As New York based Semaj Bryant highlights, ‘People are realising that facets of the industry have hit a wall...they will have to be reworked or redefined in order to progress.’  Indeed, companies appear to have—finally—realised that cheap and trend-sensitive fashion, despite being highly profitable, also raises a plethora of environmental and ethical issues. And the consumer has noticed it too. Today, more and more of us have become impact savvy, resulting in slow fashion’s steady growth in popularity. First coined by design activist Kate Fletcher in 2007, slow fashion represents a more mindful approach to fashion. 

In a firm rejection of mass-produced clothing, the movement hopes to slow down the rapid rate of fashion consumption by educating consumers on the consequences of fast fashion—encouraging quality over quantity, and attempting to remove the notion of disposability in fashion. ‘Slow fashion is a call for balance and a sense of sanity within a system that has only become one speed’, says Kate.

To honour this philosophy, slow fashion producers recognise that they are all interconnected to a larger environmental and social system, and make their design and production decisions accordingly. Fast fashion, on the other hand, has always had other priorities. The globalised form of mass production began to gather pace in the 1990s, when brands sought out more ways to increase their profits. Today, in the face of a brutally competitive marketplace characterised by an extreme pressure to generate revenue and the desire for constant newness, the fashion industry is producing a colossal volume of product, faster and faster, and at relentlessly lower costs. The goal? For people to buy large quantities of inferior-quality fashion, and for them to buy it often.

Image  by  Ellie Rose Mclean, courtesy of Intent Journal

Image by Ellie Rose Mclean, courtesy of Intent Journal

According to Melbourne-based designer Emily Bye, these garments are generally of a low quality in their fabrication, not only to reduce costs, but also to speed up the overall manufacturing process. Famous for this business model are companies such as Zara and H&M—chains that pride themselves on their ability to churn out garments at an  extraordinarily rapid pace. With thanks to this flavour of mass production, fashion as we once knew it has been transformed. The zealous consumer has become accustomed to an endless supply of new and unseen styles, arriving fresh in stores each and every week. 

Even so, if you cast your eye across the history of the rag trade, this ‘give it to me now’ attitude is a relatively novel craze. In the words of Bryant, ‘the consumer is only a product of what we as an industry produce. At this point, they have been inundated with lower quality goods, [and so] people don’t feel they need to purchase quality.’

A far cry from the days when buying tailor-made was still a standard (and offered) occurrence, the typical modern consumer opts instead for what’s most readily at hand—or rather, what’s most readily on rack. Quality has become to our wardrobe what the recommended dietary requirement has become to our health; we know that it’s important, but we also sort of figure that we’ll get by without it. Meanwhile, somewhere in a foreign country of unspecified origin, a global fashion manufacturer is thinking much the same. Labels that favour the fast fashion model are aware of the importance of sustainable trade, just as they are conscious of the significance of fair labour codes of conduct, but they also sort of figure that they’ll make do without them.

It is this mentality that the Slow Fashion movement so fervidly rejects. As Emily Bye muses, fast and slow fashion will probably always remain mutually exclusive; ‘their values are just too different’. But in a world that is trend focused and seasonally driven, can slow fashion really prosper? Given the industry is in such a state of flux, it might be too soon to tell. Even so, one can’t help but speculate that something has to give. Despite the current dominance of fast fashion retailers, Semaj Bryant has an optimistic outlook. ‘I am hopeful… slow fashion provides an opportunity for people to put back into the industry what big business and mass production have taken out.’

It’s what we do with this opportunity that will make a difference to the future of the industry as a whole. Those who are already committed to the Slow Fashion movement understand the importance of redesigning the current unsustainable practices in the industry. Only then will we achieve a healthy balance; one where the way that we consume fashion is not in conflict with our natural and human resources. In the end, this is the only way the industry can carry on without compromising the health of the people, and the health of the planet as a whole. So what’s the moral of the story? Slow and steady might not win its race in fashion, but if we as consumers wise up, it may still earn a ribbon.

This story was originally published in Intent Journal.