Ethics Aesthetics

Mary Ping’s Slow and Steady Wins the Race
photography by Diana Pau

It was a very encouraging sight. A crowd gathered in a standing room only space on a chilly January night to hear a panel discussion about sustainable fashion. The talk was hosted by Francesca Granata and Sarah Scaturro, curators of “Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion“, an exhibition currently on view at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery. Their thought provoking exhibition explores some of the diverse ways local designers are approaching sustainable fashion. They range from designers who use recycled and organic materials to those who opt for production strategies that challenge the seasonal cycles of fashion. The show’s organizational themes “Reduce, Revalue, Rethink” sound like a spin off of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (a mantra that for better or worse was probably drilled into all of us at some time during elementary education) but “revalue” and “rethink” relate to clothing in specific ways; think of valuing good design and durable quality materials, and questioning the disposable fast fashion cycle. The panel discussion I was lucky enough to get a seat for last week brought together two designers represented in the exhibition: Slow and Steady Wins The Race and Uluru, as well as Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barney’s New York. One of the highlights of the discussion for me was seeing how makers, curators and retailers agreed that there is sometimes a negative stigma attached to sustainable design. Even Gilhart admits that many of her style savvy conscious customers still wince at label ‘organic’ and its hippie-connotations:’ “They still think its going to be a burlap sack!” But thanks to initiatives like hers at an influential store like Barney’s, these ideas are slowly beginning to change – largely because they focus on seeking the best examples of design.

recycled appliqued sweater by ULURU stitched by Alabama Chanin
photography by Kate & Camilla

Although sustainable fashion has been able to piggyback off of the momentum of related environmental and climate change concerns, these designers are thinking big-picture and are more focused on creating a good product than self-consciously promoting “green design”. Neither Slow and Steady Wins The Race nor Uluru actively market themselves as “sustainable” but their principles are evident to anyone who takes an interest in their creations that employ recycled and repurposed materials, and throw a wrench into the constantly churning wheels of the fashion cycle.

Finally, a point of discussion that is articulated in different ways in the exhibition gave me pause…so much so that I’m rolling it over in my brains still. Part of the notion of revaluing involves “excavating an emotional connection to clothes,” finding that personal link between yourself and the material, whether through a family heirloom or something tied to a significant memory, whatever it is that makes you want to keep and cherish a garment. I warm to this idea intuitively, but the idea of emotional attachment is, in so many ways, the antithesis of ‘cool’ – it’s the opposite of a fashion cycle. Distance and detachment are necessary to be able to replace the old with the next best thing, and have been integral in the fashion system since the start. And tough I believe the whole thing has spun out of control, I’m curious to see how this new consciousness is going to play out, if this kind of revaluing can actually be taught, or if consumers can be won over by good design. Its easy to sit back and say time will tell, but as resources are being depleted, and economic decline is putting the pressure on, it may not be long before we find out.

- Sonya Topolnisky