My first post in this series explored the kinds of textile waste that the fashion industry produces as by-products of various activities. The follow-up post examined the larger systems that govern fashion design as well as the fashion business as a whole. Fashion’s underlying economic system is geared towards waste creation at many levels. Alabama Chanin is one example of a company whose business model aims to eliminate waste throughout the business’ operations, while functioning as a profitable entity within the larger economic system. Other similar examples exist. In Sweden, Ninna Berger of Restructional Clothing has created a system of design and manufacture that explicitly values time embodied in discarded garments. Berger’s company grew out of her MA project at Konstfack in Stockholm, completed in 2007.
In this post I look at fashion design that actively aims to create ‘timeless’ design, as opposed to design that responds to very fast trends. The idea of an object being timeless is not a stable, universally agreed upon notion; neither is the idea of a design classic. Much less clear, then, is how one might go about designing something that can endure over time, materially as well as in relation to human needs. In saying this I stand in the proposition that fashion fulfils a number of human needs, of which protection from elements is one. Many other needs, such as belonging to a community, may seem less tangible. Research on our relationship to time in a fashion design context, particularly where design meets use, has been scant, and I will take the opportunity of this post to raise some questions that I hope researchers will engage in.
Figure 1. Alabama Chanin cape, 2013, photography by Abraham Rowe
What does the issue of time in design have to do with waste? A significant problem in fashion is that of post-consumer garments – the clothes we no longer want. These are very rarely worn out – in fact some are not worn in by the time we discard them. We are going through more garments annually than we have ever before. Redesigning the system that fosters these increasingly brief relationships with garments is a formidable design project. My focus here, however, is on redesigning fashion design practice within that system. What might fashion design for endurance be like as a practice? And what of the garments themselves – what might they be like?
Figure 2. Detail of Alabama Chanin dress, 2013, photography by Abraham Rowe
Analysis of Alabama Chanin garments offers some clues in response to the latter question, thereby also hinting at a response to the former. I speculate that the time spent designing a garment and refining it is somewhat correlated to how long it may remain engaging, relevant and desirable for the user. A former student once shared that in her role as an assistant designer for a large brand she had approximately 20 minutes to design each style in a collection. If the designer has such limited engagement with each garment, can we expect the end user to engage with it? In contrast, many Alabama Chanin garments are results of years of development: perfecting the fit, testing different textile manipulations on a garment style, refining the construction finishes. As each garment is made through hand sewing and to order, on the face of it the garments are expensive. And yet it is easy to speculate that the cost per wear has the potential to be rather low. These are garments to cherish; they are fashionable and timeless at the same time. Yet this is not how most people evaluate the cost of clothing. We judge a garment’s value by the number on the price tag. Thus, over the past two decades the price of clothing has been pushed ever lower, with tragic consequences to people and their environments along supply chains.
Figure 3. Alabama Chanin dress, 2013, photography by Abraham Rowe
What then of the designer’s mind set? If the designer is creating garments without attaching them to a particular season, as Natalie Chanin’s and Ninna Berger’s teams seem to, how does this manifest in the garments that are thus created? I acknowledge that this may seem an insurmountable challenge to many designers – the workflow of an average design room is very much guided by the season. Perhaps the issue to address is that each new collection is, for the most part, started from zero, from nothing, as opposed to using the previous collection as the starting point. This is where Alabama Chanin departs from dominant practice: every new garment is either some perfected version of garments from before, or it possesses elements of work that took place previously. It is impossible to ‘time’ Alabama Chanin garments; a style created a month ago sits comfortably next to one from five years ago. The benefit to the user is that she can build her wardrobe over time, complimenting previously purchased garments with new ones rather than making them obsolete. Berger’s work is similarly non-seasonal. Continuity between each body of work is created through repeating the design and making process of taking apart second-hand garments and reassembling them.
Figure 4. Garments by Restructional Clothing, 2013, photography by Sanna Helena Berger
Where Alabama Chanin creates new designs using proven, successful elements from previous design, Restructional Clothing works within the parameters of found and donated garments. Both companies are relatively small and make use of local skills and expertise in the manufacture of their garments. A question often asked in relation to such companies is, how can these practices and ideas be scaled up? The underlying question usually is, how would a large brand replicate them? Within the conventional pursuit for the lowest price at speed, such practices may not be replicable or scalable. Certainly we are short on credible examples. In the context of large-scale centralisation – like that found in corporations – scaling up may not be feasible. However, I do believe we can scale up these practices and business models in a decentralised fashion. The fashion landscape has plenty of room for many more entrepreneurs replicating aspects of these businesses – aspects that are appropriate for their specific contexts.
We do not know yet what fashion design geared towards holistic waste elimination is like as a practice. Here, I do not refer solely to pre- and post-consumer fibre, yarn, fabric, and garment waste. I argue that waste of time, of human effort, and of human life must be equally eliminated from fashion. Alabama Chanin provides abundant clues pointing towards these goals. The following call from Cameron Tonkinwise (2005: 7), for us to design in time, provides a frame for the clues: “Design timely things, things that can last longer by being able to change over time. Design things that are not finished, things that can keep on by keeping on being repaired and altered, things in motion.” I invite you to take a moment to speculate on fashion design that results in garments in motion, garments that can change over time without loss of value. We can then take on the task of redesigning fashion design, with the goal of creating practices and ultimately an industry that is no longer coupled with waste making.
Tonkinwise, C. 2005, 'Is design finished? Dematerialisation and changing things', in A.–M. Willis (ed.),Design Philosophy Papers. Collection Two, Team D/E/S, Ravensbourne, pp. 20-30.