Fast Fashion vs. Sustainable Style

Credit: Clive Reeves
Credit: Clive Reeves

Mass production is out. Ethical clothing is in.

We’ve all been there. You’ve got a party to attend at the weekend, or maybe a date. Your wardrobe is so full of clothes that the doors won’t even close properly, but in your mind you haven’t got a stitch to wear — so you hit the high street on Friday afternoon to pick up something that’s cheap and only just hit the rack. What could be the harm?

Fast fashion was initially seen as a good thing, as expensive designs were swiftly reproduced at a lower price point and made more accessible to the middle-market consumer. But what started out as a means of levelling the playing field has led to an untenable pace and scale of production, and made shopping a competitive sport.

It started in the United States in the 1960s, but fast fashion has really taken off over the last 10 years, as social media and online shopping have become the norm. Now, when you see an item you like, it takes only a couple of clicks to track down the cheapest option on the web and complete a purchase. The simplicity and addictive nature of the process, coupled with the relatively low quality of cheaper clothes, mean that the average garment’s lifecycle, from runway to rubbish tip, grows ever shorter.

“We live in a culture where people will see something on Instagram or on a celebrity and they want that immediately,” says Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. “I see how ferociously the pace of trends move now and that has definitely been driven by the internet.”

But that could all be about to change, as fashion lovers are wising up to the environmental impact of mass production. For instance, pretty much every aspect of textile manufacturing and transportation yields pollutants. The farming of cotton, often marketed as an “all-natural” material, still requires significant volumes of harmful pesticides. And while European law prohibits the use of many of the toxic chemical dyes previously involved in clothing production, that ban doesn’t extend to Asia, where almost 80 per cent of our clothes originate.

In turn, fashion houses are slowly starting to realise that younger consumers have an increasingly different set of priorities; they want to protect the environment, and they prefer products that are ethically made. The people with buying power have whole wardrobes full of stuff, but now they’re looking for something different. “We’re seeing a backlash against fast fashion from consumers in the millennial generation,” says Cline, who believes that there are huge opportunities for brands that are willing to embrace sustainability in their business.

To see my work on display in my city makes me so proud.

Rhys Ellis is a designer from Birmingham who has incorporated the consequences of our throwaway culture into his first collection of showpieces, constructed entirely from thousands of repurposed coffee pods. Inspiration struck while Rhys was studying in Milan, where he saw somebody in a market crushing capsules and reselling them as earrings. It got him thinking about what else could be done with these otherwise unrecyclable materials.

“Because this is my first collection, I wanted to make a conscious statement,” he says. “This is how I mean to go on.” The dresses are currently on display on the top floor of Selfridges in Birmingham as part of its ‘Material World’ project, which looks at the provenance of clothing and explores new sustainable avenues of production. For Rhys, things have come full circle with the Selfridges partnership: “I used to work in this store when I was studying,” he says. “To see my work on display in my city makes me so proud.”

The coffee pod dresses are currently on display on the top floor of Selfridges in Birmingham as part of its ‘Material World’ project, which looks at the provenance of clothing and explores new sustainable avenues of production. For Rhys, things come full circle with the Selfridges partnership: “I used to work in one of the concessions in this store when I was studying,” he says. “To see my work on display in my city makes me so proud.”

Rhys came to fashion indirectly. He always intended to be a footballer, until a back injury sustained while doing his A-Levels forced him to find a new passion. “I was like a lost soul,” he says, “I had no idea what I was going to do.” He decided to explore his knack for sketching, completed a foundation course in sculpture and textiles, and ultimately pursued a BA in Fashion Design at Birmingham City University. Now based in Shoreditch, he has contributed designs to the ‘Transforming Fashion’ exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and Le Bord des Mondes Exhibition in Paris.

Rhys finds inspiration in the works of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. He admires creators who aren’t afraid to experiment and throw out new ideas. Because if there’s one thing the fashion world sorely needs right now, he says, it’s innovation.

I want to introduce sustainably made, wearable pieces.

New technologies and alternative textiles are slowly emerging; wearable technology and ‘smart fabric’ are disrupting sportswear, while brands such as Chanel are dabbling in 3D printing. But the fashion industry at large is yet to embrace the possibilities offered up by these newer mediums. “It hasn’t really taken off yet,” says Rhys. “It needs a big brand like Burberry to kick-start it, and everyone will follow.”

In the meantime, he’ll be working on his next collection. “I want to introduce sustainably made, wearable pieces,” he says. “The commerciality of fast fashion can’t last; too many clothes are being produced, and they all look the same. A few more years and everyone’s going to be bored of it, they’re going to want pieces for themselves. You can see smaller designers pulling back already, and just doing bespoke orders.”

Rhys is hopeful that a shift away from the ‘what next?’ mind-set, towards sustainable manufacturing and ethically sourced materials, will help consumers to appreciate real artistry. “I think everything should be crafted properly,” he says.

Will it be the brands that can entice customers with exclusive apparel and reduce their impact on the environment that will be the most sought-after in the new, socially conscious marketplace? It looks like a return to “slow fashion” might be on the horizon.