Clare is a fashion editor and author of 'Wardrobe Crisis, How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion'.
Intent is interested in the psychology of fashion and people’s relationships with clothing. How would you describe your own relationship with clothing; has it evolved over the years?
I was a kid when I first worked out that you can communicate through your clothes, and change your persona through them. We had a dress-up box, and my mother and grandmother loved fashion, so there were many opportunities for sartorial role-playing.
My school friends and I would get dressed up in elaborate outfits based on rambling narratives: we’d spend hours trying to look like Madonna or Debbie Harry, or a French aristocrat about to be guillotined. Or a businessman in my dad’s suit and shoes—we used to steal them from his wardrobe, draw on fake moustaches and try to get served in the pub. Clothes to us meant fun, games, silliness, self-expression.
Op shops were a great source of material. We were into DIY, setting upon clothes and accessories with scissors and safety pins and a hot glue gun. That was pretty much all we did for years: make stuff to wear, beg my mother (who is amazing at sewing) to whip us things up on the machine, put together outfits, pretend to be characters.
As a teenager I was excited by the idea that you can influence how the world sees you through what you wear. That’s why I’m into fashion as an adult—for its transformative powers, visual thrills and storytelling properties.
Fashion and fun are deeply linked in my mind. In this context, the cold hard facts of the fashion industry’s brutality are all the more jarring. It’s this tension, I think, that powers my writing about ethical fashion today. The idea that something so enjoyable can have such a dark side.
What led you to start exploring the fashion system, and what has changed since you first began this journey?
I’ve been a fashion journalist for seventeen years and that, for me, has always been about unpicking and explaining the fashion system, as well as placing clothes in context—fashion is a cultural barometer of our times.
I’ve certainly written my fair share of fashion news stories about the latest ‘It’ bag or designer collaboration, but I’ve always been interested in what underpins that: how the industry works, what it means—ultimately, what it’s for. A decade ago I used to write fashion essays for The Monthly on things like the evolution of the Aussie fashion industry and the value of eccentricity.
But it’s only been in the last four or five years that I’ve started to read and write about sustainable and ethical fashion, and to try to learn more about it. The more you learn, the more you want to change the system.
How have your personal values shaped your work?
It’s been a circuitous route. I was an idealistic young person. I studied politics at university and wanted to change the world. Then life got in the way, while I established myself in magazines. I’m not saying I didn’t give a shit about, say, the environment—because I have always cared about that—just that I didn’t make it my professional focus. Maybe I felt more able to ignore it.
Now I’m a rant-y changemaker highly focused on using my voice to start conversations around sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry. Partly it’s to do with getting older. It helps to have some authority—hopefully I’ve earned some of that today, if only by virtue of being around so long. I’ve worked my way into a position where no one is going to fire me if I call out a brand for unsustainable production or lack of transparency. Actually, they might! But if that happens, I’m in a position to stand my ground.
“The more you learn, the more you want to change the system.”
What does the Slow Fashion movement mean to you?
I know it’s polarising, and that some people find it too simplistic a term, but I love that phrase because it’s immediately evocative. It’s beautiful and expressive, and makes me think of slow dancing and the slow food movement, of taking your time to find your way and let the creativity flow, or dreaming and meandering.
Slow fashion is the obvious antidote to fast, or ‘disposable’, fashion. It’s about garments and accessories that were built to last, and have been designed and produced at a reasonable, thoughtful pace.
We know this idea is resonating with designers who risk meltdown over fashion’s relentless demand for more, quicker. People like Demna Gvasalia, who helms Balenciaga and Vetements, have spoken about it. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele has spoken about it. Many inside the industry are aware that it’s careening along at an unsustainable speed, and some stakeholders are trying to find ways to apply the brakes while staying profitable. As a result, we’re seeing brands experiment with reducing the number of collections and fashion shows they present, showing men’s and women’s together, for example. Innovators, like Bruno Pieters with his Honest by line, are rejecting the old seasonal system entirely.
My personal interest is in fashion, rather than apparel. I’m drawn to sophisticated design—collections that grow out of considered ideas and context, and are visually arresting. While I can appreciate the story and thinking behind, for example, a minimalist basics collection or a cool new eco denim brand— and I definitely love writing about those things because they resonate with shoppers—that’s not what excites me creatively.
I’m fascinated by the likes of Viktor and Rolf, or Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons. I don’t need to own their clothes to feel inspired by their work. Viktor and Rolf in particular. Did you see their recent NGV show, which featured looks from the upcycled ‘Vagabonds’ Autumn ’16 Couture collection? For Spring ‘17 they expanded on this theme, using not just leftover fabrics from their own house but rescued bits of preciousness from couture’s past.
One dress featured the pocket from an old Courrèges dress. Titled ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, it was inspired by ‘fragmented pieces’ being ‘put back together again’. It was about so much—evoking our collective fashion memory, creative solutions to waste, finding preciousness in the discarded, rethinking value—but first: beauty and great design.
In these portraits I’m wearing the work of a young designer called Nessie Croft who graduated from RMIT last year. Nessie is sustainability-obsessed and sees fashion as a vehicle to start conversations around that. She uses dead stock, vintage or recycled cloth. This sleeveless trench is made from curtain fabric she sourced in an op shop and painted with a water-based solvent-free paint that makes it appear leather-like. The bodice is made from the old curtain lining rendered precious with hand-beading done by master craftsmen in Pakistan. Watch out for her new label, which is coming soon: Coreprêt.
Ethics in fashion can be quite personal and shaped by one’s own values. Can you tell us about your book, Wardrobe Crisis? Did the process of writing this book help you develop your own interpretation of ‘ethical fashion’?
I knew little about sustainability, the technical side of fabric production, or supply chain issues when I started researching the book, so I go on a journey of discovery with the reader. I interview some incredible experts (including Katharine Hamnett, Yvon Chouinard, Kelly Slater, Orsola de Castro, Simone Cipriani, Paul van Zyl from Maiyet, Rosario Dawson) and share their insights. In terms of my interpretation, figuring it out is an ongoing process, which I write about in my ‘Sustainable Style’ column on Daily Life. There’s always more to learn.
"Fashion and fun are deeply linked in my mind. In this context, the cold hard facts of the fashion industry’s brutality are all the more jarring. It’s this tension, I think, that powers my writing about ethical fashion today. The idea that something so enjoyable can have such a dark side."
The business model is such an important key to driving long term change in companies and the way that they operate. Which business models or ways of approaching sustainability do you find particularly interesting and why?
Circularity. I believe it’s design and technology that will save us. We’re at the start of an exciting journey towards new innovations in recycling and closing the loops in textile production. We’ll be hearing a lot more about it. Also, the scope of digital printing to eliminate waste—although the robot revolution obviously raises issues when it comes to workers. Some estimates suggest robots will wipe out half of the world’s existing jobs. What will these redundant workers do to earn a crust in a digitised future economy?
Has there been any progress over the past few years (throughout the fashion industry or society as a whole) that has been heartening to you on both a business and personal level?
Oh, absolutely. And there’s more happening every day. At Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival recently, there were loads of options. The majority of Australian designers on the Vogue runway, for example, were either Ethical Clothing Australia accredited or sustainably produced (Scanlan & Theodore, Bianca Spender, Bassike, KitX), and that wasn’t even the point of the show. That’s so exciting; it normalises ethical fashion.
As an editor, I’m looking for sustainable or ethically produced collections to report on, and that’s getting easier every season. So new labels like Queensland-based Outland Denim, and A.BCH in Melbourne make me happy.
What have been the greatest lessons you have learned during your time working in this space?
That ‘ethical’ is such a broad church. There are many different issues that fall within its remit, from the big stuff like the environment, animal welfare, worker conditions, down to smaller things like the craft of crochet or the process of upcycling a dress. How do you make sense of it all together? It’s a big ask. If there’s a lesson in that, it’s to pick your battles. Focus first on a single thread of this giant conversation, starting with the one that most resonates with you, and try to make change there. Baby steps.
Another big thing I’ve learned is how far we have to go. When you’re operating in this space you meet many inspiring changemakers, and it convinces you that values are shifting. But outside of those circles, I’ve been surprised to discover how many people have no clue about ethical or sustainable fashion. They’re the shoppers we need to engage with. You can’t do that by making them feel guilty. Finger wagging is counter productive. You inspire with positive messaging.
Photography Jasper Kitschke
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Learn more about Clare