Rosie is a fashion editor, writer and consultant.
Talk us through your career; what led you to working in fashion media and how have your personal values influenced your focus on ethics?
I have been writing since I can remember, and have always loved the performativity of clothing as well—it is one of the best ways to express who you are and what you believe in. Pursuing Communications at Sydney University, I completed internships at both fashion magazines and newspapers, so I think I have always been less attracted to the fluff of fashion reporting and more interested in exploring the industry’s inner workings. To this day, I am most inspired by fashion editors like Robin Givhan, Cathy Horyn and Sally Singer, as well as the fearless reporting of Lucy Siegle.
After completing my degree I moved to New York City, where I was writing for fashion magazines both at home and overseas like Oyster and Vs. I also worked with fashion brands and exposed myself to the world of ecommerce for the first time—I really wanted to understand all sides of the business. What I quickly began to realise, though, is that it is a very broken system. From the revolving door of creative directors to the array of catastrophic social and environmental failings, it was clear that things needed to change.
As a result, I started gravitating towards fashion sustainability, and writing allowed me to explore its many issues. One of the companies I began working closely with was the inspiring Well Made Clothes, for which I have written fashion content since the site launched. I am constantly inspired by positive stories like this in fashion, but unfortunately there are still far too few.
Personally, I am someone who has always valued quality over quantity, so this is how I tend to approach fashion in my day-to-day life. I also believe that curating a personal uniform is far more stylish than slavishly following trends, so I live in timeless black dresses, vintage denim and organic cotton tee shirts. Probably the most defining aspect of my personal style, though, is my accessories.
I have always been interested in the alchemy of jewellery and believe that accessories are among the most versatile and long lasting pieces you can own. It is for this reason that I launched On the Collar (OTC) earlier this year; I wanted to communicate that it's possible to be stylish and modern, while also investing in pieces that will outlive the season. My favourite brands are those whose stories I feel connected to, so OTC is also about connecting readers with those makers. While handmade clothing is unfortunately something of a dying art, there are still a number of incredibly talented artisans making accessories by hand.
Intent is interested in the psychology of fashion and people’s relationships with clothing. How would you describe your own relationship with clothing?
I would describe it as a love affair. Clothing is something that has the power to totally transform how you feel, so I am always drawn to beautiful, quality fabrics and impeccable tailoring. I still look at clothing as a traditional art form, and believe you don’t have to wear couture to experience it. There’s a certain sense of reverence and ritual to simply getting dressed of a morning.
What does the term ‘ethical fashion’ mean to you?
‘Ethical fashion’ is such a subjective term, but I think that shopping responsibly comes down to reflecting your personal values. For me, this means seeking out brands that are open and honest about their production processes, gravitating towards a personal uniform that I will wear to death, and choosing high-quality, sustainable materials wherever possible. Everyone needs to establish their own personal values system and no-one is perfect, but I believe we can all make a significant difference through small changes. Sometimes just buying less is the most radical act of all.
"Everyone needs to establish their own personal values system and no-one is perfect, but I believe we can all make a significant difference through small changes. Sometimes just buying less is the most radical act of all."
Looking at the fashion system itself, what do you feel needs to change in order for meaningful change to occur?
Meaningful change is tricky within the current capitalistic system, because large corporations will always want to try and make more money. If the fallout from the recent election shows us anything however, it’s that there is great power in both individual and collective action. Consumer purchasing power is not something to be taken lightly, and we can all send a strong message in the way we spend our dollars. Consumer pressure has recently forced some of the bigger companies to start thinking about sustainability, and that is certainly a start. But greater education is probably the most critical change we need to see, in order for brands and consumers to really understand what the issues are and how to address them.
Fashion is undeniably a feminist issue yet often it is only the privileged wearer who is empowered. What are your thoughts on this?
Much like ethical fashion itself, the terms feminism and empowerment have both become quite twisted by marketing over recent years. The—comparatively—higher cost of responsible clothing is something that continues to be used as an excuse for not shifting our habits, but real change cannot happen until we re-examine our definition of ‘value’. If we are used to buying a new $10 tee shirt every few weeks, then of course its $50 counterpart will seem more expensive, but longevity should also be a factor in how we measure these costs. There are plenty of ways that women of all different means can take a stand through their stylistic choices, and buying less can actually be an even more powerful protest against fashion’s social and environmental injustices.
Increasingly, fast fashion companies are engaging with the term ‘sustainable fashion’ and launching ‘ethical’ capsule collections without necessarily considering the overall environmental and social impact of their business model or production methods. What are your thoughts on this, do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry?
The unfortunate reality is that fast fashion retailers do still dominate the industry, so without their help fashion will continue to be irresponsible. These companies have the money and power to shift consumer behaviour for good, so it’s critical that they reassess their business practices. That said, terms like ‘sustainability’ are still so misunderstood that it’s easy for those companies to greenwash customers—which is why greater education is so critical. It’s not enough to increase your use of organic cotton without also addressing the underlying unsustainability of your business model. As a result, a lot of the responsibility now rests with the consumer to focus on buying less to incite change.
"The—comparatively—higher cost of responsible clothing is something that continues to be used as an excuse for not shifting our habits, but real change cannot happen until we re-examine our definition of ‘value’."
Most fashion companies have a code of conduct outlining what they will or will not tolerate throughout their supply chain; however, lack of traceability and regulation means these documents can mean very little. Do you believe governments need to play a more significant role in both business accountability and consumer awareness?
I think it is absolutely critical for governments to drive both business accountability and consumer awareness. We saw this when Patagonia identified slave labour way down in their supply chain. The Taiwanese government proved vital in helping to correct the issue and in ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. But governments also hold a great deal of influence in terms of informing consumer habits, so in my opinion they have a responsibility to become more actively involved.
The business model is such an important key to driving long term change in companies and the way that they operate. Are there any particular business models or ways of approaching sustainability that impress you?
I believe that Patagonia’s business model and approach is still one of the most impressive in the industry. To be honest though, I am inspired by any company that is trying to make a difference. It can be especially difficult for small, independent brands to make clothing responsibly. They don’t have the same cash flow and resources as the big guys, which means that large minimums and the higher cost of sustainable fabrics represent quite an obstacle. With that in mind, I think it’s important to celebrate the smaller companies as much as the bigger and more visible ones.
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?
I think we have certainly come a long way in the past few years. Many of the creative directors I admire have spoken out against fashion’s breakneck pace and the fact that the creativity in fashion is being strangled. We have seen the launch of many more sustainably-focused independent brands, and even some of the fast fashion retailers now claim to be cleaning up their acts. As consumers become more aware of the issues facing the industry, however, I hope that we will also become less vulnerable to greenwashing and use our consumer power for good.
When looking to the future of the fashion industry, what excites and/or daunts you most?
I am most excited to see how brands will tackle sustainability in unique and creative ways. This is something we have already begun to see, with many brands now incorporating repurposed vintage jeans and materials into their overall design process. My hope is that we will finally rediscover the creativity of the art form behind fashion. Looking to the planet in general though, I am also fearful that if we don’t do enough to change the industry, then the cost of our tee shirts will be the least of our worries.