When I first imagined blogging about fashion or being involved in the modeling business, I was a teenager with somewhat naïve thoughts about what the industry was really about. I had grown up doing ballet and theatre, and to me, the catwalk and the photography studio were just extensions of the same type of performance, the same types of artistic expression. Beautiful fabrics, stunning makeup, gorgeous hair. In my late teens and early twenties, I studied technical theatre, and the intricacies of lighting design, sound production, stage management, and costume design only solidified my beliefs that despite the problems of the fashion industry – from the overuse of thin, white, young, tall models, to the ridiculousness of overpriced garments – there was really a space for creativity.
As I’ve gotten older, however, and learned to be a more careful critic of the industry, the more I find myself needing to position myself not as a fashion aficionado, but as someone who calls the industry out for the various forms of hypocrisy that it espouses.
I have previously written about some of these inconsistencies in an open letter to Vancouver Fashion Week.. In that letter, I suggested that VFW’s alleged commitment to diversity was not as noble as it seemed, given that the element of racial diversity still came at the expense of diversity in body types. The answer I was given, somewhat predictably, was that designers simply offer certain sample sizes in order to be able to present their work consistently to the public in a multitude of venues. There was no mention, of course, that the preferred aesthetic of tall and slim is also endorsed by the agencies who only choose to represent this particular type of model, or that there is an inherent laziness in not having the time to at least present a few select pieces in each collection on different types of bodies, and to put calls out for models who fit these proportions. Having walked the catwalk for Brilliant!, a charity fashion show that took place in Vancouver in fall of 2012, I know first-hand that a serious effort was put into selecting models of a variety of shapes and sizes (and ages!) from the pool of volunteer models (most of whom were just regular people) that auditioned for the show. And surprise, surprise, the participating designers were able to find clothing for all of us.
This week in Vancouver, another fashion week is taking the stage: Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week. On first glance, the event’s commitment to addressing the wastes of resources in the fashion industry, and the need for a more sustainable form of clothing production is admirable. Certainly, as we know from recent reports about companies such as Zara, whose products were exposed by Greenpeace as having hazardous chemicals in them, it is important to talk about how what we wear can affect our health, and the health of our planet. It’s key to address, as VEFW does through its use of collections that are assembled from pieces sourced from thrift shops like Value Village, that the creative use of second-hand clothing can offer just as many options for fashionable self-expression as buying items new. The depreciation in value for clothing is just as real as the depreciation of cars that are driven off the lot: we’re being gouged at the register, and many of us are willing to buy into the lure of name-brands and 800$ pairs of jeans.
However, there are a few things about VEFW that I take issue with, and I would caution anyone reading this not to simply take the view that because a “eco-friendly” standpoint is being promoted, that this event is not depoliticizing or ignoring other equally important issues.
- VEFW, as opposed to VFW, only uses agency-represented models for its shows. Thus, not only are freelance models being excluded, but the types of models that are featured in these shows are representative of the narrow standards of beauty that most agencies feature in their fashion/runway rosters: tall, thin, young, conventionally beautiful. Emphasis on the tall and thin.
- By having a very narrow body type on which to feature collections of clothing from thrift shops, a strange message is being sent out, namely that consumers are encouraged to have greater economic access to fashion by buying stylish clothing at second-hand clothing stores, or greater ecologically responsibility by buying from eco-conscious designers, but the aesthetic, the bodies on which they are featured at VEFW (and, indeed, the experience of walking the runway at VEFW) is something that only a select few can have access to. Exclusivity in the fashion industry is huge – it’s what the glamour of modeling and of haute couture thrives on, and VEFW is no exception in promoting this principle by its exclusive use of agency models.
- VEFW has a large affiliation with Value Village. Unlike a local, independent, non-profit thrift shops, Value Village is a highly-successful, for-profit corporation. The prices at Value Village are, often, still inaccessible for many, because they are priced in such a way that the company stands to make a multi-million dollar profit in sales each year. I’ve been a thrift-shopper since it was uncool and deemed as the lot of the poor or the unfashionable, and I’m still shocked that when I visit, I see items at prices that are still relatively unaffordable. While Value Village does have some fantastic finds (hello, I bought my favourite cowboy boots there for 7$, and my favourite jeans for 9$), it certainly is primarily interested in the accrual of profit, not necessarily only in providing a way of taking care of the environment by re-using clothing.
- The economic realities that have long-governed thrift shopping – i.e. that many individuals and families simply cannot afford to purchase new clothing items – are being completely erased. Thrifting or vintage shopping is super-trendy now, unlike when I grew up. VEFW’s Value Village collections seem to suggest that despite certain clothes being previously worn and less expensive, ensembles are still supposed to appear as though it could be an ensemble that rivals the most expensive designer clothing. Don’t look poor. Don’t look as though you have to shop at these stores by necessity. Erase the economic inequities that the fashion and clothing industries fundamentally revolve around.
- Essentially, my issue with Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week, as with all corporate or profitable initiatives that take up the ecological cause, is that I find it increasingly harder and harder to separate our interest in justice and care for our planet without justice, equality, and care for the people living on it. While VEFW is doing some amazing work around providing information about sustainability, starting conversations and offering workshops about the true environmental cost of producing clothing (i.e. the amount of fertilizer and pesticides involved in making clothing from non-organic cotton), I think there is always room for improvement.
And here’s why.
- I find it hard to accept that we can talk about fashion without talking about economic access and financial privilege. “Hobo-chic” is a politicized issue, because homelessness is not a fashion trend. Second-hand clothing is a politicized issue.
- I find it hard to accept that we can show eco-friendly clothing on models whose body types are representative of those that our culture values most, and those that our culture still holds up as a way to shame those who do not fit a particular brand of beauty or embodiment. The ecology of our planet and our biosphere is inherently dependent on diversity. How can we attempt to break down the monocultures of things like food production and energy production when we can’t even break down our monocultures of beauty in magazines, advertisements, and on runways?
- I find it hard to accept that we can talk about ecological waste without talking about the ways in which the fashion industry itself constantly promotes the quarterly purchasing of new clothing and accessories and accrues billions of dollars by brainwashing us into thinking we need new things, more things, prettier things, fashionable things. If we can’t admit that we’re selling “eco” as a product, and that we don’t want to stop making more things instead of using and wearing what we already have, how can we ever break the hold that rampant capitalism has on most of us? Aren’t our closets full enough already? How can we encourage people to participate ecologically in other ways, like planting gardens and taking care of our waterways, in ways that don’t require buying something, but rather involve giving something back?
I am not suggesting that we bring the fashion industry to a screeching halt, nor that VEFW should not be a fixture of the local fashion scene. I am friends and acquaintances with many models, makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion designers, and photographers. I love the beautiful things my friends create. I am in awe of how people are able to create clothing out of recycled items, out of earth-friendly materials. Upcycling things, rather than producing completely new things: totally awesome. And people need to make a living, and should make a living out of providing things that people desire (and possibly need). But there needs to be a balance.
By thinking critically about these issues, and acknowledging the ways in which certain parts of the fashion industry operate, I hope that I am able to spark a discussion how how we might approach an ethical, holistic fashion industry. Is it possible to combine social justice efforts with fashion in more than a tokenistic manner? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s entirely possible to take out all the “isms” (racism, sizeism, ableism, ageism, and, obviously capitalism) that converge in this industry, but I know that we can do even better than we’re currently doing.