Greenwashing can leave people skeptical about terms like sustainable and slow fashion. After all, it's been 25 years since sustainable fashion rose to popularity, and we've yet to see a global reduction in fashion waste. The terms sustainable and slow fashion are not interchangeable, but they're often conflated and misunderstood. In a 2020 article for British Vogue, a writer calls slow fashion "the slo-mo movement, the anti-hype trend." Even the fashion industry can get slow fashion wrong.
"Slow fashion is defiantly anti-trend," explains Claudia Manley, a professor and author of Fashion Writing: A Primer, forthcoming from Routledge in 2022. "At least in the way that fashion likes to think of them. It also belittles the ongoing commitment to sustainability and ethical consumption," she says, referencing the British Vogue article. "However, if that story sparks something in a reader who then starts to interrogate their own shopping habits and the values that are held in their wardrobes, it's not a bad thing."
Slow fashion brings dressing to the individual level where one not only considers the sustainability of their purchases but the longevity (and possibly the motivation to buy) of an item.
Slow Fashion: Myth or Movement?
Lindsay Jones, designer of the independent label Mused, and head creative design assistant for Zac Posen, points out, even with the rise of sustainability in ready-to-wear and the luxury markets over the past two decades, the "fashion industry remains one of the top ten sources of worldwide pollution." And although brands tout eco-friendly slogans and pledge sustainability, it's not unreasonable to dismiss this jargon as marketing. Besides, what does sustainability in fashion mean any more, anyway?
Says Rachael Wang, a New York-based stylist and early champion of ethical and sustainable fashion, "Not much! But people are smart, and we can continue to wade through the greenwashing to connect with the fashion that means something to us."
That's exactly where slow fashion comes in. "Sustainability is part of slow fashion," explains Manley. "Sustainability focuses primarily on the environmental and human cost of fashion. It looks at whether production of clothing actually harms or helps individuals and the environment but also brings fashion to the individual level where one not only considers the sustainability of their purchases but the longevity (and possibly the motivation to buy) of an item."
The Evolution of Slow Fashion
Slow fashion took its cue, Manley explains, "from the slow food movement, which was a response to the growing prevalence of fast food and industrialized agriculture. It was a response to fast fashion and has grown into a philosophy that privileges and celebrates the handmade, the mended, and the sustainable in fashion. It is an attempt to bring thoughtfulness into our wardrobes rather than the mindless consumption that fast fashion encourages."
By design, says Jones, "slow fashion is a much more hands-on process [than fast fashion.] Fabrics, production, all of it is done locally with exacting quality control. The aim is to make a garment designed to last. " She says for clothing to be considered "slow" it should last "at least a decade or forever." She adds that slow fashion garments are "designed to be deconstructed and repurposed over the years."
Wang explains slow fashion as a set of processes that's intentional in its design. "Shopping locally and connecting with the people who make our clothes is an amazing way to build community." She goes on to say that "thinking about the origins of our clothing inspires us to consider the planet, the future of the planet, and all the creatures relying on its wellbeing."
What makes slow fashion a movement is its driving philosophy to counter consumption based on fashion cycles, trends, and the capitalist machine. Sheyna Imm, a New York-based stylist with an emphasis in personal styling explains. "Following the trends and emulating the it girls of Instagram makes it hard to have your own identity." She goes on to say that sustainability, within the fashion industry has lost some of its meaning. "You have designers pumping out collections twice a year, even those who say they're green. But they're doing it because people have this impulse to buy, buy, buy." She notes this type of relationship to clothing rings empty. "Replicas of what's on the runway makes everyone look cookie cutter."
Slow fashion, by contrast, encourages the consumer to "hone in on sustainable pieces," says Imm. "Stylistically, this gives you an edge because you're taking the time to find the unique pieces that fill the spots of what you're feeling. By curating your looks and being more intentional, you can create a more individual look and wardrobe experience for yourself."
Slow Fashion in Practice
There's a DIY element to slow fashion, but not everyone has to make their own clothes. "Clothing has always been a form of self-expression and an outlet of creativity for me," says Manley, "but it's really only been in the last ten to fifteen years that I've embraced making my own clothing. I do not make everything I wear; I appreciate (and sometimes covet) designer items and like to integrate my handmade wardrobe with some of the designer items in my wardrobe. One reason is that I like to show that slow fashion is not a 'one or the other' movement. You don't have to reject ready-to-wear clothing, and you don't have to make/mend/thrift everything you wear."
Slow fashion asks people to take the time to seek out conscious brands that fall in step with the anti-consumption, slow fashion movement. "There are brands that are working to push forward an ethical agenda that pays workers fairly and considers the waste, emissions, and impact of their design processes and supply chains," explains Wang. She says conscious stylists "will continue to support them."
Shifting to a Slow Perspective
Ultimately, slow fashion is about intention, not impulse. "Take a moment and be mindful before that impulse purchase," says Imm, who teaches personal styling clients how to shop. "We take a pause," she says, "and then I ask them, is this just a want because it's trending on Instagram, or is this something you feel like you need? Is this something you can literally see yourself wearing again and again? How many different ways can you wear it? Is that going to be something that can hold a place in your wardrobe; is it something that you can pass on to your grandchild?"
Before buying something, Imm has her clients imagine three different ways to wear it. "Consider how you going to style that in. Then ask yourself, do you see yourself grabbing for this piece? Or is it something that's just going to sit there?"
In this sense, slowing down is an intentional act of mindfulness, applied to your wardrobe. "It’s taken me years of training in couture ateliers to learn how to do this," explains Jones, who compares draping and tailoring to sculpture. "It's all a slow process." The artistry is a step, says Jones, that's "skipped in fast fashion." She says factory-made clothing, "generated from a CAD and spit out like pop-tarts," lacks the intimacy of what she does. "I don't want to discredit the factory workers and the sewers," says Jones. "Their work is very laborious and takes talent." The difference, she points out, is in the intention that goes into making clothes. "When clothing is personally made," explains Jones, "it can influence others. It brings energy to a moment."
Jones notes that couture isn't limited to the atelier. Rather, it's a state of mind that embraces slow fashion. You can have a couture experience by "thrifting, deconstructing things. Learning how to style things."
Approaching dressing with intention is process-oriented. Imm says you have to "train your eye on what to grab," and consider the impact of your decisions. This trickle-down effect can influence not only your own relationship to clothes, but to the entire life cycle associated with what you wear.