The hottest item in your wardrobe right now is not by Alessandro Michele or Demna; it is an idea. Circularity is the buzzword du jour in fashion. But what and where is circularity? Why should you care? These are reasonable questions. For now, you may think of circularity as recycling with aspirations: turning old clothes into new, on repeat, baked into the entire system. The problem is, this is the opposite of fashion as we know it. Fashion has spent a couple of centuries training us to reject and re-buy on a seasonal basis, but, understandably, given our climate catastrophe, the industry has now changed its mind and wants what humanity wants, which is to save us from wipeout. At the same time, it still wants us to keep buying as much new stuff as possible. This is not mathematically viable. Fully functioning circular systems could help but we are nowhere near that. Fortunately, I have solved the world. It’s called co-design. All we need to do is to love our clothes, keeping them alive, circulating, and fashionably mended. Trust me, this is more fun than click-shopping anyway.
The hard truth is we cannot continue blithely bulk buying and recycling last year’s frocks into the bin. The industry that produces our clothes sits at the pinnacle of the pollution charts, and treats its workers poorly, right down to full-scale human rights abuses – cleanclothes.org estimates some 60 million workers are grossly overworked and underpaid. We sustain these practices by shopping. And according to ellenmacarthurfoundation.org, every year New York City landfills 90 million kilograms of clothing which is equivalent to over 440 Statues of Liberty! (Donating unwanted garments is no better; a shockingly tiny percentage get reused.) The fashion industry, especially its “fast” part (read: mass brands that sell cheap), needs to change its unfettered growth model and fix endemic supply chain issues, but, meanwhile, we can all wield better purse power, and dress more circularly right at home.
Circularity in fashion used to be second nature. Everyone kept good garments going by mending and remodelling, since textiles were by far the most valuable items most people owned. When you rear and shear the sheep, wash, comb, card, spin, and weave the wool before even starting to sew, you are truly and literally invested in the resulting coat. This was still the case even 150 years ago, and it is really only in this century that clothes have become so utterly easy-come-easy-go. This is linearity, the industrial take-make-waste model that broke our planet, and fashion, is finally fixing itself and curving that line. Well, it is trying.
Luxury labels especially, but also mass market suppliers, are talking up a storm about circularity, and sustainability, and responsibility, which is great, but it’s what they are actually doing that counts. It can be hard to sort the empty promises and PR – known as greenwashing – from genuine change, and unfortunately it’s up to us to read between the lines, and act accordingly.
Becoming the co-designer of your own wardrobe begins with learning to translate corporate doublespeak and then partnering with the better brands – by buying them. Few of the big players are hitting their own CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) targets, because switching to a circular model requires far more than occasionally using 50 percent recycled fabric in a special ethical collection.
Circularity means rethinking the entire supply chain and being transparent about it. It means textile-to-textile recycling, sure, but also better, or longer lasting, design, using recycled or renewable materials and manufacturing measures such as zero-waste cutting. Most of all, it means decoupling revenues from material production by baking the four “Re”s into the business model: Resale, rental, remaking, and repair are essential to fashion’s future. This is not as farfetched as it might sound. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the four “Re”s – mostly “resale” – already constitute 3.5 percent of the global fashion market, and are rising at a rate that could reduce the industry’s GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by more than the annual output of France by 2030. You will spot the flaw in this scenario. It is all about the “re”. If we go on buying new clothes at the same rate, we may never get to breathe better than the French in 2030.
This idea of pledging to improve by years with zeros on the ends has been around a while, and it has yet to work. I’ve been reporting on this business for three decades, am on the board of two sustainability watchdogs, founded one of the first closet sharing sites, and am an historian of mending: I have seen this movie. As an example, Global Fashion Agenda, a major organisation promoting sustainability, got 12.5 percent of the global fashion market’s businesses to sign a 2017 commitment “to accelerate the industry’s transition to a circular fashion system” by 2020. In 2020, two-thirds of the targets they pledged were unreached, and most of the successes were about design, not emissions.
This syndrome is more serious when you, the co-designer of your closet, are seeking something ethical, responsible, and sustainable, invest in Spring/Summer Look 32 partly because its company promised to eliminate its emissions by 2030. That is pure greenwash, a PR hit – and a sale – from a broken promise. Other common greenwashings include “take-back schemes,” where you exchange old clothes for a voucher to make you buy more clothes from that company. And do they recycle those taken-back clothes? Nope. At best, only slightly and symbolically. “Carbon offsets” are merely guilt payments: emit many bad gases, but, hey, plant a tree. Then there are all the virtuous sounding words: “Conscious,” “For Life,” “Washwell,” “Earth Friendly,” “Better Planet,” “Green Wear,” all accompanied by reassuringly righteous phrases about aiming to minimise environmental impact, or helping to guarantee clean production, that are, on second glance, so vague they mean nothing.
Aside from the “Re” methods – I’ll get to those – hope in future fashion can be found, but often outside the mainstream, in fresh brands and indie labels that have their very foundations in the principles of circularity. Maybe they were started by millennials who grew up with climate crisis and human rights awareness; or maybe COVID reset the founders’ value systems – and thus their market perceptions. Another sartorial effect of the pandemic has been to spread the joys of closet sharing. According to a report on thredup.com, 33 million people shopped secondhand for the first time last year. And now, with owned clothes (the common term “pre-owned” is nonsense: someone always owns them), we reach the core of co-design.
To be a co-designer is to rethink your relationship to your wardrobe. No longer are your clothes just things sitting in drawers passively waiting their turn, they are altogether part of you. You work with them to create your looks, that is, how you enhance, or define, or present yourself in the world – in fact, who you are. We’ve been cast as consumers of fashion for so long, we’ve forgotten how to have fun with it. Consuming is a strange term to use for clothes, as if we were gobbling them up until they’re gone. (Come to think of it, that does describe the worst of the hyped-up market.) So, stop being force fed fashion, and be the co-designer of your style. This means taking ownership and responsibility for the clothes pets you have adopted into your home. When you’re bored with that new LBD, or any outfit, don’t dump it, resell it, or rent it out – it’s just a matter of time until a luxury peer-to-peer rental platform pops up near you. Or start one! Resale really is booming, and it has already lost any vestigial stigma or dreary feeling of secondhand being second best. Huda Kattan, the Dubai-based beauty billionaire, recently invested in the Luxury Closet, part of a “sustainable fashion aggregator” (read: posh second-hand sales), called Reluxable. Global Fashion Exchange produced the first high fashion swap in Riyadh last December – an addictive opportunity for cashless, painless style renewal that is bound to catch on.
Swapping, trading, and shopping your own closet – reviving the forgotten pieces you shoved to the back – all let you mix your own creativity with that of the designers and makers, but co-design really gets exciting when you reach the last two “Re”s of circularity: remake and repair. Remaking is the future. It does, admittedly, require serious needle skills, but I predict future designers will be almost as likely to use old (or deadstock) clothes as virgin cloth for their raw materials. It’s already happening. Several recut Frankensteinian pieces are on display as I write in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute show In America: A Lexicon of Fashion – enshrined in the pole position of that famous First Monday in May that is often called the “fashion Oscars.” In other words, remaking is co-designing par excellence. And then there is repair.
Mending must be the most humble, invisible, least alluring aspect of wardrobe maintenance, right? Not anymore. There is a full-scale mending renaissance underway, but it’s not the dull darning drudgery of yesteryear, it is visible mending: a deliberately obvious dress intervention that adds uniqueness, flair, and further fashion to everything it touches. If you haven’t seen creatively mended pieces yet, you will soon. The look has already been adopted by designers – or mimicked, since true mending can’t be faked on new clothes. Visible mending can be colourful or monochrome, subtle or screaming, embellished or plain – it is as varied as the original designs it enhances: the purest co-design of all. It starts when something irreplaceable, like your favourite old jeans, go holey, and you just try a contrasting patch experimentally. It looks fabulous, and feels even better: you saved your old friend. Also, nevermind mindfulness, menditation is the best magic stress reset out there. Before you know it, you are in vintage stores, seeking out things that have holes so you can visibly mend them. Just me? OK, that is advanced co-design, verging on Pathological Repair Syndrome, but beware anyway, mending is addictive. So is the hunt for other people’s cool cast-offs, finding an income stream from your unwanted investment pieces, and putting together an amazing look from things you forgot you own.
Circularity is in fashion alright: it just might have to start out in the wild, living in our closets until the industry catches up with us.