What comes to mind when you think of vintage clothing? It’s probably those untouchably cool hipsters who seem transported from another time, or the fashionista who’s always got one piece that makes her outfit pop. You might think of quality, as old clothes are often better made than modern ones. Cultural nostalgia is everywhere these days, but if the item came from a family member, the nostalgia gets personal, bringing back a flood of memories.
“When people give clothing away to Goodwill or throw it away, there is no ‘away.’ It just gets displaced.”
But did you know that wearing vintage—or even bargain-bin thrift—could help save the planet? Climate change is upon us: A huge region of the Antarctic ice cap is breaking apart and melting, which could lead to the sea level rising 10 feet or more. Scientists warn that severe, long-term droughts are going to tax already-strained water resources; in fact, at this moment, all of California is in the worst drought the state has experienced in decades. But it’s not alone, as more than 48 percent of the United States is going through a drought, with Oklahoma and Texas particularly hard hit.
Meanwhile, mass-produced fashion moves so fast these days that a piece of clothing bought at Forever 21 is usually discarded in three to six months. Manufacturing a piece of clothing has a tremendous impact on the environment—for example, beyond the carbon emissions caused by energy consumption, the typical pair of Levi’s 501 jeans takes 1,664 gallons of water to produce. Regardless of this ecological toll, the average American still throws 70 pounds of clothing and textiles into the trash every year.
“The problem is that we’re using too much, and we have a throwaway culture,” Brianne Richard, who’s putting together a web documentary series on vintage and sustainability called “Glad Rags.” “We don’t repair things; we replace them.”
But do fashionistas have to give up their passion for following current trends to protect the environment? Do we have to go back to the restraint of the Depression Era, when the majority of women could only afford fabric for one dress?
Not at all, says Lynda Grose, a sustainable-fashion pioneer who is co-author of the book Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change with Kate Fletcher. “At this age, my 13-year-old daughter is trying on identities through clothing,” she says. “Who am I? How am I different than my mother? How do I identify with my peer group and my friends through clothing? That’s a really important cultural aspect of fashion. You don’t have to slow fashion down to slow the flow of natural-resource use down. You can still meet the desirability for novelty or variety.”
One way to do that is to wear used new-to-you clothing, such as vintage. “When clothing stays in circulation longer, those material resources—that wild water that’s been diverted from the mill or the mountaintop that’s been removed to get to coal to fuel the plants—last longer,” says Grose, who created Esprit’s groundbreaking Ecollection in the early 1990s and is currently an associate professor of fashion design at the California College of the Arts.
“I can’t stand it when new-clothing retailers call a product ‘vintage’ because it’s just not.”
Dominique Drakeford, the CEO and founder of Drake Natural, a PR and community development company in New York City that only works with ethical or sustainable fashion designers, agrees. “Thrift and vintage are a great way to express your style and have no impact on the environment,” she says. “But most people just don’t know how to use it. And a lot of people who are into vintage fashion don’t link it to the sustainability movement, but it is a big part of it.”
If you’re not the type to dance to the beat of your own drum, you can still stay up-to-date wearing vintage—believe it or not. “Fashion is cyclical, which means trends become back,” says Richard, who has traveled around the United States to film vintage dealers at various flea markets and shops for her upcoming web series. “There are only so many styles you can come up with, and that’s why you see ridiculous things on the runway because everybody is trying to be unique. A lot of those things are just not practical—nobody’s wearing those, except for Lady Gaga. But you can go and look at what’s in style right now and say, ‘Well, high-waisted skirts are in, and those skirts have a history.’ Then you can go and get one from the ’70s that’s better quality and lasts you longer. And it might even be cheaper.”
Born and raised in Oakland, California, Drakeford often hosts events in her hometown like the “Secondhand, First-Class” Thrift Sale at the East Oakland Youth Development Center to teach kids how they can be stylish and eco-conscious.
“When I first say the word ‘sustainability,’ I see the kids rolling their eyes,” Drakeford says. “But as I start explaining it to them, and then I put on a fashion show with looks from thrift stores, the kids start to get excited, and they want to be a part of it. They’re like, ‘That look is fly!’ And it’s a way to get a one-of-a-kind style, so they’re eager to experiment with it.
“It’s important that people know that you can find stylish clothing at thrift stores,” she says. “Most people think that ‘sustainable fashion’ and words like ‘organic’ or ‘ecological’ mean expensive, so they think they can’t afford it. But you can find stylish sustainable clothing at all price points.”
Even if you’re buying largely used clothes, if you’re the typical American clotheshorse, you’re still likely to end up with a pile of things you don’t want anymore. Most people will just box these things up and drop them off at Goodwill or Salvation Army, and assume their old clothes will be sold in the thrift store. But the truth is, Americans discard such an excessive amount of clothing (not including the 70 pounds per person that ends up in the landfill each year) that the stores can only display a fraction of it.
In the 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, economist Pietra Rivoli writes, “The Salvation Army at one time tried to sell all of the clothing in its stores or to give it away, but …[t]here are nowhere near enough poor people to absorb the mountains of castoffs.”
Grose, who is on the board of Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin, explains that garments and textiles are recycled more than any other objects in a typical American home.
“People think it’s recycled when they drop it off at Goodwill,” she says. “But often, there’s so much stuff going through the system that only some of it can be processed. A lot of what’s processed goes out into the store. A good portion of that doesn’t sell on the shop floor, and it goes into another store called the Goodwill As-Is Store and sells for $2 apiece. Then anything that doesn’t sell goes into auctions for people who buy what they call a ‘gaylord,’ a big trunk of stuff. The leftovers from the auction go into bales, and those bales go to jobbers. So Goodwill does its best to prevent it from going into a landfill.”
“In the ’70s, only poor people wore used clothes. People didn’t collect them, even vintage.”
Jobbers—specifically, recycled-clothing wholesalers—buy the rejects from Goodwill and Salvation Army for 5 to 7 cents a pound, according to Rivoli. She writes that these wholesalers then sort the garments into three categories, items to sell as clothing, items to sell to rag cutters, and items to be shredded into a fiber known as “shoddy,” which is used in car doors and roofs, carpet pads, mattresses, cushions, insulation, and caskets. Shoddy can also be spun into low-quality yarn and made into cheap clothing.
Even with all this donating, the environmentally conscious residents of San Francisco put 4,500 pounds of fabric in the garbage an hour. A report by the San Francisco Department of Environment prompted the city to launch the first citywide textile-recycling program in the United States, with 160 bins around town. The city will take wearable clothes and shoes it can sell, but more importantly, things people didn’t know they could donate, like torn or stained clothing and used underwear and socks, which will be made into shoddy.
But Grose emphasizes that turning clothes into shoddy is absolutely the last step, as things made up of shoddy eventually end up in the landfill. “It behooves us to actually share garments with each other, then pass them to Goodwill or to a vintage store where they go back into circulation,” Grose says. “And then they come back in, and are perhaps repurposed into rags or whatever it might be. At each point, you can extract more value—energy for calorific value or economic value. You want to try to do that as much as possible before it goes into something like insulation.”
“How can we slow down the flow of natural resources through the fashion system and still have a thriving economy?”
The portion of the clothing that recycled-clothing wholesalers deem saleable is further sorted into specific categories tailored to their customers, a process detailed in The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. These garments are then baled and shipped to clothing dealers around the world. For example, many African countries like Tanzania have a big market for American clothing, specifically baby clothes and men’s clothing like suits and T-shirts. These African consumers are just as choosy and fashion-conscious as their American counterparts.
“People in Africa want a Nike T-shirt for the same reasons that we do, so it does depress the local textile industry,” Grose says, because the market for traditional clothing there will shrink. “When people give clothing away to Goodwill or throw it away, there is no ‘away.’ It just gets displaced.”
Thrift stores run by Goodwill and Salvation Army provide small-time entrepreneurs cheap material for their cottage businesses and charities. “If you went to the As-Is store in San Francisco, for example, you’d see an amazing cross-section of society,” Grose says. “There are all kinds of people, from artsy people reselling garments in vintage stores on Haight Street to people who lay out garments in sidewalk sales on Mission Street. I talked to a man in his 80s recently who is putting batteries back into stuffed toys he knows talk and then he gives them out to kids that he sees in the street. It’s the same overseas, where you’ve got all kinds of people that thrive or develop little businesses from these garments that have gone there.”
In fact, a lot of crafty people have set up small fashion-design businesses repurposing used clothes, vintage fabrics, old linens, and other fabric scraps and waste fabrics. But most of the time, these designers trade in labor-intensive one-of-a-kind items, and for the fashion industry as a whole, that business model simply won’t scale.
One solution is to reuse discarded things that are relatively uniform in size, shape, and color and thrown out in mass quantities. For example, it’s not uncommon to see bags, purses, and even belts made out of recycled tire inner tubes, old seatbelts, or folded candy or gum wrappers. For her part, Grose and professors from other disciplines like design and architecture are having their students from California College of the Arts look at the waste stream at Goodwill to see what could be repurposed this way.
“We challenged them to come up with concepts that will lend themselves to a system, so they’re not just one-offs,” Grose says. “The ideas should be repeatable products that could become small businesses for the people in the jobs program at Goodwill. One student came up with the idea of repurposing white plates and cups, by refiring them with new patterns. So plain white crockery is something that can be sorted out and put to one side. All kinds of ideas are coming up from the project, where they say, ‘I need all the yoga mats’ or ‘I need all Wellington boots’ then they’re systematizing it so that things can be assembled easily with relatively little labor cost.”
The fashion industry first took garment-making out of the home starting in the 1800s, but the average woman could only afford a few dresses and all their accompanying undergarments and accessories. In the 1960s, young British designer Mary Quant and her cohorts created the concept of fast-fashion. Trendy teenage mods would come down to boutiques on London’s Kings Road and Carnaby Street weekly looking for new, fresh dresses that were cheap and disposable—sometimes literally made of paper.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the world of style took interest in sustainability. Grose, who had been a conventional fashion designer in London and New York, was hired by San Francisco-based apparel company Esprit in 1987, and in 1989, owner Doug Tompkins—an outdoorsman who ran the company co-created by his ex-wife, Susie—grew increasingly concerned about the environment.
“The direction of an environmentally conscious style is not to have conspicuous consumption written all over your attire,” Tompkins wrote in a 1989 marketing campaign. “We believe this could be best achieved by simply asking yourself before you buy something (from us or any other company) whether this is something you really need. … We know this is heresy in a growth economy, but frankly, if this kind of thinking doesn’t catch on quickly, we, like a plague of locusts, will devour all that’s left of the planet.”
“There are so many things you can do with old clothes instead of throwing them away.”
Tompkins put Grose in charge of developing a new ecological line called the Ecollection, which paved the way for sustainable fashion when it launched in 1992. Grose and her team used organic cotton, undyed wools, shoddy, raw silk, dew-retted flax linen, and Lyocell, a regenerated cellulose fiber, for the fabrics, as well as recycled glass, reclaimed silver, and tagua nuts for buttons and jewelry, non-rusting metals for zippers, and cactus fibers for bags. Every part of the process, from weaving to dyeing to durability was carefully considered.
Unfortunately, because eco-friendly clothes have been historically more expensive to make and, therefore, more expensive to buy, the sustainable-fashion movement has been slow to take off. The Esprit Ecollection ended in 1995. Grose left Esprit soon after and, as an independent sustainable-fashion consultant, went on to work with companies like Patagonia and the Gap.
After Esprit, outdoor sportswear companies were the first to embrace sustainability, for obvious reasons. In the 1990s, Patagonia, owned by outdoorsman Yvon Chouinard, switched its cotton lines to organic cotton and started making fleece jackets from recycled bottles. Another outdoors wear company, Nau, is following in Patagonia’s footsteps, making clothing from sustainable fabrics. Starting in the 2000s, REI has pledged to become a climate-neutral and zero waste-to-landfill operation by 2020. Both Patagonia and its outdoors-wear competitor The North Face, founded by Doug Tompkins in the 1960s, have a clothing-repair service.
Today, certain retailers not focused on camping and hiking are starting to consider their impact on the environment. “A good example of a clothing company that’s keeping its garments in circulation longer today is Eileen Fisher,” Grose says. “They take garments back, and they resell them in their Green Eileen stores. They’ve washed them and shrunk them to make a kid’s line. And items that are stained, they’re overdyeing, and putting them back out again.”
Just recently, fast-fashion retailers have gotten in on the sustainability act. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, launched by Chouinard and John Fleming, who was Wal-Mart’s chief merchandising officer, established the Higg Index in 2012 to measure how sustainable so-called green clothing and footwear companies actually are.
Stores wanting to stock sustainable clothing have to keep in mind ways to reduce water use in production, as well as material waste, use of toxic dyes, materials, and pesticides, carbon emissions, and shipping distances. One major concern is how cotton, the most widely used natural fiber in new clothing today, is grown. It has a reputation for being a particularly thirsty crop, but Grose, who’s a part of the Sustainable Cotton Project, says that the reality is much more nuanced.
“When I first say the word ‘sustainability,’ the kids roll their eyes. But then I put on a thrift-store fashion show, and they’re like, ‘That look is fly!’”
“In Uzbekistan, that’s absolutely a correct statement,” she says. “The Aral Sea has been decimated by cotton cultivation and water being diverted from the rivers that flow into that sea. In west Texas and in West Africa, it’s not a true statement at all because the crops there are rain-fed and don’t divert any water by irrigation. Then in somewhere like California where water is expensive and cotton is a fairly low-value crop, water use is actually very efficient in cotton. You’ll find that cotton is a moderate water user in California, compared to other row crops like corn, alfalfa, lettuce, and almonds. All the nut crops take much more water than cotton.”
So it’s important when purchasing new cotton clothes to be aware of where the cotton came from, as well as how it was farmed. Unless the store has a sustainability program, this sort of information can be hard to find, but the Sustainable Cotton Project’s Cleaner Cotton campaign and the Better Cotton Initiative are good places to start.
“If you look at the data, pesticide use has generally gone down in America, especially in the southeast,” Grose says. “That’s because they’re using 98-99 percent genetically modified cotton, known as Bt cotton. Personally, I’m not an advocate of genetic modification. And if you look at the data for other pests, beyond the bollworm, which Bt cotton addresses, then you’ll find that pesticide use hasn’t necessarily gone down. If you look at herbicide-tolerant cotton in California, you’ll find that the chemical use has gone up through the use of genetic modification. There are still some highly toxic chemicals that are used on cotton.
“We all have garments that we’ve kept a long time. It’s often because it reminds you of your mother or a special time or an experience you had.”
“What you’ll also find is that organic cotton is less than one percent of global production,” she continues. “I often remind people that organic farming is just a tool, and it’s a really great tool in developing countries where there’s lots of labor available for hand-weeding and hand-picking. But it’s a less effective tool in a developed nation where that extra labor increases the price beyond what the market will bear. And it’s an irrelevant tool in an area where pesticides are not used to begin with. Then it’s like, well, what other tools can we use? That’s where cleaner cotton or biological pest management comes into play. And if water is an issue, then organic is not a solution because typically it yields less cotton per acre and uses more water per pound.”
Daniel Munk, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor, says that California cotton farmers are changing the way they produce the crop in response to the drought.
“We are moving many of our systems to a sub-surface drip-irrigation regime,” he says. “We’ve got drip-irrigation systems that are buried down roughly a foot’s depth. And one of the advantages of that is we apply water directly to the root system, we reduce evaporation, and we also reduce the weed growth, which is important to manage, because weeds use lots and lots of water. In some fields, we are also taking yield reductions. The yield drops aren’t so strong that we’re not making money on it, but we are reducing our water applications.”
Even still, cotton may be better than the alternative. “If you’re not going to wear cotton, you’re going to wear a synthetic fiber, right?”, Munk says. “And you’re gonna burn oil doing that. You consume water to produce cotton; you burn oil to produce synthetic fabrics.”
Another concern is waste fabric. According to TextileWorld.com, on average, 15 percent of fabric intended for clothing lands on the cutting-room floor, and ends up in landfills. Grose has also held workshops at CCA on creating “no waste” designs that use every piece of fabric cut from the bolt. For her documentary series “Glad Rags,” Brianne Richard interviewed the team at Hartford Denim Company in Connecticut, which won’t let a single scrap of denim go in the trash.
“When you’re cutting out the jean design from the roll of denim, there’s a lot of fabric that doesn’t get used,” Richard says. “So this one guy at the company, his main job is to take all those scraps and hand-make unique items. He’ll make jeans out of them, and it’ll be a patchwork look. When we were there, he was making a pair of booties out of them. And that particular company has a lifetime guarantee on its products, so they’ll repair anything that you have problems with, which is another thing that goes along with sustainable fashion.”
Levi’s, which put together a report on sustainability and the lifecycle of a jean, created a new line of men’s jeans in 2011 called Water<Less, which uses up to 96 percent less water than standard jean production. So far, these jeans have saved more than 200 million gallons of water. The company plans to make 9 million pairs this spring, saving almost 19 million gallons of water, and Levi’s is also testing a production process using 100 percent recycled water.
H&M is now taking and reselling unwanted clothing, giving the customer a discount (to buy more of their own cheap clothes often made in Bangladesh and India). H&M is also offering garments in sustainable fabrics like organic or recycled cotton, cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative, recycled wool, plastics and polyesters, organic leather, linen, hemp, silk, and Lyocell.
Capitalizing on the hipster cred of vintage, Urban Outfitters sells both old clothing and new lines with the word “vintage” in the name, as well new clothes made of vintage or deadstock fabrics. Both American Apparel and Urban Outfitters are selling items pilfered from garage sales, thrift stores, and vintage shops for inflated prices. Urban Outfitters, in particular, already has a bad reputation for stealing designs and appropriating Native American patterns. Now, the retailer is getting flak for finding cheap clothes and accessories from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s at garage sales and thrift stores like scraggily cut-off shorts for a few dollars, calling them “vintage,” and then marking them up 10 times the original price. And Urban Outfitters’ Urban Renewal line seems to be something similar to Grose’s Goodwill project: The Philadelphia operation takes found pieces like old jeans, overalls, and mudcloth, and cuts and patches them into new looks.
Because it can be difficult to find exactly the vintage look you want in your size, the online store ModCloth offers retro looks, often by independent designers, that come in a range of sizes, colors, and styles. While the company attempts to be eco-conscious—a portion of their clothes are made of organic materials or made in small runs in the United States—with the exception of its vintage section, most of ModCloth’s products are new. Other retailers like Rose Wholesale online are more brazen about co-opting the term “vintage” to describe mass-produced clothing.
“I can’t stand it when new-clothing retailers call a product ‘vintage’ because it’s just not,” Richard says. “And it can be confusing for consumers. They’re using it to describe a style when really the word has more to do with quality and with the age of something. It’s not a style. But popular fashion sites like ModCloth that sell vintage-inspired clothing are not necessarily a bad thing because they bring the looks that you see in vintage stores to a wider audience.”
While Urban Outfitters and American Apparel are keeping secondhand clothes in circulation, if you go to the thrift store or garage sale yourself, it’s far cheaper—and often more fun. Drakeford particularly loves to go thrifting with her younger sister, Jazmyne Drakeford, a 19-year-old freelance thrift stylist who also takes old clothes and refashions them into a line she calls Blvck Nostalgia, which she sells on Etsy.
“Oh my God, I love the hunt,” Dominique Drakeford says. “We go to places where you would never think to look. The first thrill is trying the stuff on. Sometimes you’ll try on something crazy and be surprised that it works. The second thrill is when you look at the price tag, and you go ‘Oh my God, this crazy shirt is only $5 or $10. I can’t believe it.’ The final thrill is when you get home, and you get to try all your stuff on with your other clothes, and put things together and see how it works. It’s like a fashion show.”
It’s amusing that these used clothes the Drakefords buy for $5 but sell for $50 at hipster retailers would have been completely worthless just 40 years ago. In 1974, when Kerstin Block started her vintage and used clothing store, Buffalo Exchange, with her late husband, Spencer, in Tucson, Arizona, nobody wanted to be seen in used clothes. Even as Americans were becoming more environmentally conscious, pre-worn clothing was considered déclassé.
“It was only poor people that wore used clothes,” Block says. “People didn’t collect them, even vintage clothes. People didn’t really go out and buy much used clothing in those days, and people didn’t want hand-me-downs and things like that. But we started out by having different kinds of things, ethnic styles and then also vintage clothing. And I wore these things. People would say, ‘That looks really great,’ and wanted to know where I got it. Then I’d tell them, ‘Well, it’s used, and I got it at Buffalo Exchange.”
Buffalo Exchange, which has since spread to 17 states, doesn’t deal in ethnic-style clothing as much anymore. Instead, the store buys stylish, wearable clothes that people are tired of, which mostly end up being clothes that are practically new, and a little bit of vintage. They offer the person selling the clothes 30 percent of the price they will sell it for in cash, or 50 percent in trade—making their curated selection of used clothes a better deal than what you find at Urban Outfitters. And Buffalo Exchange, which prides itself on being an eco-conscious company, also offers new clothes, but clothes that could go to waste otherwise.
“I need stuff that is really current because otherwise, our stores look dated,” Block says. “So about 15 to 20 percent of what we have is actually new merchandise that we buy from retail wholesalers and things like that. It’s usually surplus in the industry already, stuff that somebody else had made. When manufacturers make a run, they’ll often have some extras, and then we can buy the extras. But we don’t buy from big-brand manufacturers because they all usually dispose of the extra clothes. They don’t want it to get out in the market because they think that it’s going to dilute their brand if it’s sold in other places.”
This sort of waste is something Grose and other eco-conscious thinkers are trying to prevent. They hope to keep the fashion industry afloat while slowing down the consumption of natural resources. Grose advocates a “cradle-to-cradle” model of design, a concept introduced by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart in 2002. Instead of designing product to have a lifespan that ends, the “cradle-to-grave” model, they propose that products be designed so that at the end of their useful life, they provide “nourishment” for a new product.
“That’s where the innovation lies,” Grose says. “How can we slow down the flow of natural resources through the fashion system and still have thriving businesses and a thriving economy? People assume that it’s an anti-business strategy, and it’s not. It’s just that the businesses would be based on a completely different logic. Instead of being completely dependent on selling individual units, it would have to be more based on services, such as leasing items out, getting them back, and leasing them out again.”
One such successful leasing service business is Bag Borrow or Steal Inc., an online retailer that lets customers rent designer handbags, sunglasses, and jewelry, and then return them when they’re tired of them. In fact, buying and reselling vintage clothing can be seen as a long-term rental system.
“I’ve got a bag of clothes right now that I want to take back to the vintage store,” Grose says. “Each piece might be something that I don’t wear anymore, or maybe it’s a bit too small now, or I’m a bit bored with it. Because it’s vintage and collectible, it actually increases in value. Then you take it back, and they will give you money or they’ll give you a credit to buy something else in the store. Often, you’ll get back more than what you pay for it, depending on how long you’ve kept it. It’s like a long-term leasing service, but it’s not called that.”
For items to be used over and over again, of course, they have to last. But making and buying better-made garments is not completely the solution, as those manufacturers also need to make clothing people will want to keep. And if they design clothes to be trendy fast-fashion, those pieces should be biodegradable.
“Often people will say about any clothing in the context of sustainability that it should be better made,” Grose says. “But if you look at what comes into Goodwill, you’ll see lots of well-made clothes that are disposed of long before the end of their useful lives. I actually started collecting very durably made boots that washed up on a beach close to work. So it’s not enough just to look at the make and say, ‘Oh, yeah, if it’s made well, it’s more sustainable,’ because you’ve got to look at the user. If something that’s well made is then disposed of quickly, then it can be a problem if it ends up in a landfill or on a beach and doesn’t degrade. If it’s designed to be in a landfill, then it should be designed to degrade quickly.”
For example, Grose says there is a type of polyester that can be recycled in perpetuity, what’s known as “closed-loop recycling,” and it currently only makes up one percent of the world’s polyester production. But designers, she says, have to figure out if consumers will like the look and feel of the fabric, and if not, they have to adapt it.
“Most people think that words like ‘organic’ or ‘ecological’ mean expensive. But you can find stylish sustainable clothing at all price points.”
To assess how to make clothing people will hold onto for years, Grose, her colleagues, and students look at “emotional durability.” “We all have garments in our wardrobes that we’ve kept a long time,” Grose says. “And why is that? It’s often because it reminds you of a person like your mother or a time or an experience you had. Steven Skov Holt at our college talks about ‘sensory empathy,’ meaning that there’s something about it that appeals to the senses, whether it feels good or it’s a finish, or it grows with the user. For example, leather gathers a patina, so it gets better over time. Denim gets faded over time, and it even takes in the patterns of use that you have, like my husband’s back-left pocket has the markings of his wallet. It might be the markings of your keys, or certain whiskering because of the shape of your body. They’re very particular to you, and that develops this kind of empathy with you and your garments. So how can we design things that evolve with the person over time?”
Kate Fletcher, a professor in sustainable fashion at London College of Fashion, who co-authored Fashion & Sustainability with Grose, has an ongoing project called Local Wisdom that gathers stories and images of how people connect to their clothes in fashion centers in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. Participants are asked for stories about clothes that are easy to repair; that are shared with or connected to others; that are enjoying third, fourth, or fifth lives; that have never been washed; that have been adapted to meet changing needs; that are worn in a way that defy the maker’s intention; that show or tell the story of their lives; or that surprise the owner each time they wear them.
The stories on Local Wisdom are meant to challenge the fashion industry to reduce output and focus on how garments can be repaired and reused. Not surprisingly, many of these items are vintage, which might have been shared or handed-down from friends and family members, purchased from a thrift or vintage dealer, or simply found.
“A lot of the people that sell vintage have very personal connections to the things they buy and sell,” says Brianne Richard of “Glad Rags.” “If they’re buying things from estate sales, they might even be meeting the woman who wore the clothes. So they can tell their customer who the woman was and what she did, and then the customer can walk away with that knowledge and feel like they’re connected to that history. I have a very vivid imagination. When I see something that’s old, I like to imagine where it came from and who had it before and where they wore it. That’s what I love, the stories behind these things.”
Going to a vintage store is a little more expensive than thrift, and that’s because it’s a curated experience. Unlike certain hipster corporations, the vintage store owner has dug up clothes that are verifiably old, usually much older than just 20 or even 30 years. And while a lot of vintage clothing was also mass-produced, it’s unlikely that any copies of the exact same garment can be found in your city or town.
“What you’re paying for is the knowledge of the person that you’re buying from,” Richard says. “A lot of times when you go to a flea market or a shop, you’re talking to the person that purchased it. They know something about it. They know they can speak to the quality of it. They’re going to help you find something that fits you. They want you to leave with something you feel good about. Even though you might be paying the same amount as you would for new clothing or maybe a little bit more for something vintage, you’re getting something better quality but usually you’re also getting excellent customer service. They want you to find something that you’ll love. How do you put a price tag on that?”
Of course, the burden of sustainability doesn’t just fall on fashion designers and manufacturers, it also falls on us, as consumers. Sometimes buying new things is unavoidable: After all, certain items are difficult to find or taboo to buy used, including undergarments, simple basics, or even jeans that fit right. But repairing clothes instead of tossing them into the garbage keeps them out of the waste stream.
“I think we work too much as a culture, and it’s easier to just replace something,” Richard says. “But I actually feel a sense of satisfaction when I’ve saved something. In my parents’ generation, when they were growing up, you repaired your socks. You would repair anything.”
When it comes to repairing damaged vintage clothes, or altering them to make them more wearable, Richard says she was surprised to learn most vintage dealers were fine with that. The only clothes you don’t want to touch are highly collectible designer pieces, like a Paul Poiret gown from the 1920s. “Most of the people that I’ve talked to would rather it get worn than not,” Richard says. “So if replacing all the buttons is what it’s going to take to make it wearable, then they’re happy with that. Most vintage lovers make an effort to be as authentic as possible with repairs, and would use, say, vintage buttons as the replacements.”
Non-vintage clothes can also be altered for a new life. “I’m definitely one of those people who have too many pieces of clothing,” Drakeford says. “If you’re like me, you can look in your closet and say, ‘This is a big old sweater, but I can make it into a sexy crop top.’ There are so many things you can do with old clothes instead of throwing them away.”
Another solution is washing clothes less, as laundering garments over their lifetimes consumes far more water than growing the cotton or the dyeing process does. Recently, Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss, made waves suggesting Levi’s customers don’t need to wash their jeans. Grose recommends doing a smell test before you wash, only washing clothes that are stained or that smell bad, and only using cold water cycles. This is the sort of suggestion that would freak out people who already reject used clothes because they’re old, musty, and have been sweat on by other people.
“Really, washing your clothes less is the number one thing that you can do,” Grose says. “That, of course, bumps up against the cultural norm of cleanliness and hygiene. My historian colleague says right now we’re in a period where we’re clean and perfumed, and that’s what is considered good. But there have been times when people have been clean and unperfumed, times when people have been dirty and unperfumed, and times when people have been dirty and perfumed. All of those reflected the social mores of the time. Here we are in a time that being clean and perfumed is valued, and yet we’ve got peak oil and peak water, so we need to revisit these social norms. It helps to put things in context to know we haven’t always been obsessed about being clean and perfumed. Why is that?”
In the meantime, sustainable-fashion innovators are working on designing clothes meant to be washed less. “We explore these concepts in my studio class,” Grose says. “There’s a dress that’s got a random splatter print on it so when it’s stained, it enhances the garment rather than degrading it. You can design pieces where the silhouette hangs away from the areas of the body that sweat, or are layered, or tend to stain less anyway because of a fiber that designer chose.
“I had a student with the idea of only making white clothing, which, from a production standpoint, is much easier to do because you don’t have to track all these different color fabrics and lab dips,” she continues. “Then when someone bought one of these white garments, and perhaps got a yellow stain on it, they would bring it back, and part of the company’s service would be overdyeing it the stain color. Perhaps they charge that person for their yellow overdye. Over time, the garments become darker and darker, reflecting their history. You even could do a resist, which is a little bit like egg-dyeing, where you do layers of color and resist, and it becomes more patterned over time. It’s a really beautiful concept. There’s an infinite number of ideas.”
Grose proposes that stains shouldn’t be seen as gross or dirty, but simply memories that tell the story of the garment. About 10 years ago, Grose wore a yellow vintage dress to her friends’ wedding and dropped a strawberry on it, leaving a bright red mark. Instead of disposing of it, she embroidered over the stain with the names of the bride and groom and the date of their wedding. Her daughter’s friend, she says, didn’t even need embroidery to enjoy a stain as a memory.
“She told me she had a hot-chocolate stain on her sweatshirt, and she didn’t want to wash it off because it reminded her of a really good evening around the fire with hot chocolate,” Grose says. “I thought that was sweet. These are things people don’t really think about and sometimes they even dismiss, but they’re poignant. Really, humans are more than just technical consumers of materials. We’ve got much more going on, and that’s what makes life delightful and fun and connects us to each other.”
(Read more stories about people’s favorite clothing at Kate Fletcher’s LocalWisdom.info. Stay up-to-date on Brianne Richards upcoming web series at GladRagsDoc.com. Get a hold of Dominique Drakeford at Drake Natural, and watch her sister, Jazmyne, give thrift-shopping tutorials on her Blvck Nostaglia YouTube channel. Recommended reading: Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose’s “Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change”; Pietra Rivoli’s “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade”; Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.”)