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sustainable fashion

Product Potential


Product Potential

No one wants stuff anymore. Businesses have been created to help us get rid of our stuff, or share our stuff, or repurpose our stuff. We’ve been asked to decide: “Does it bring you joy?”

What does that mean for product companies that rely on people wanting (not needing) stuff the company sells? I like to think it means we will all make less stuff.

As a designer, I believe in creation for the sake of solving persistent problems and making lives better. I believe that making products beautiful is a critical factor of the overall success. And that there will always be a place in the world for products that answer those two criteria.

The best products are, and will forever be: Easy and obvious.

That is to say, once it’s introduced, it is such an obvious evolution that we can’t remember the world without it. And that we adopt it easily enough for that evolution to happen at scale.

Products are a vessel for change.

They inevitably take on a life of their own once they get into the hands of the user. The best designers will continue to be those who pay attention to that, and make an effort to understand the unplanned phenomena that emerge around their product. This follow through can help designers understand changing culture in a profound way.

Products are multi-faceted. They can be many things to many different people, and thus a vessel for many things, from self-expression and future shaping, to empowerment of people.

What does this mean in fashion?

When fashion products have such a short lifespan, it is difficult for them to grasp hold long enough to have an impact. Since the goal is for products to be easy and obvious, it would be an uphill battle to try and force different behavior around the consumption of fashion. But in order to impact that change, companies can make efforts on the back end.

If we want our products to be different, it can’t be superficial. Our process also needs to be different. From conception through production and onto consumption, the product lifecycle represents several opportunities for impact. Thus it’s role as a vessel for change. If we aren’t able to make change yet on the consumer level, we can at least make change through the design process (organizational level) and supply chain (potential global impact).

There was a time when garments were built to last; each item repaired and passed down through generations. With an older sister, hand-me-downs made up half of my personal wardrobe as a kid. The more disposable our clothes become, the less likely we are to give them a second life, either through repairs or through resale/donation/handing-down, and the less likely they are to last long enough to do so.

This is not to suggest that we all should own a sewing kit and learn to darn. Although that would be a great thing, it is unrealistic. Since we are not in the business of moving backwards, but going forward, we are better off not trying to go back to “the way things were before.” Instead, we can look to design new systems that create a new evolution, better than where we are, but equally better than the “good old days.”

Instead of being nostalgic for the way things were, we create a future that is undeniably stronger. This is the potential of products. There is a great responsibility on the shoulders of creators not to fill the world with waste, but to add value. As so many would-be consumers make efforts to rid themselves of stuff, now is the time to solidify that mindset by answering it with products of value.

Product has the potential to be a vessel for positive change in many ways around the world. It starts with the process. And while the consumer climate is demanding less, we have the chance to seal that relationship with the consumer, thus empowering an era of conscious consumerism at scale. Let’s not let the opportunity go to waste.



The Next Black: A Video

The Next Black, a documentary about the future of clothing, exemplifies the common goals of science and technology based advances in fashion and those of sustainability advocates. Sustainability is not a hippie notion, it's a side effect of technical and technological advancement, and is thus an inevitability. It should not be seen as a threat to luxury, or a demand for compromise, but rather as a way for us to be more efficient which is always good for the bottom line (the second most unsexy thing in fashion after the word sustainability). It's easy to brush off because it still seems so far from the reality. We have yet to even imagine the ways in which the industry will transform as our experiments and research in the textile development and manufacturing process become more advanced. 

"How did we end up with fast fashion? Where did this come from?" Rick Ridgeway, responsible for environmental initiatives at Patagonia, asks. The ability to produce fashion is the most likely reason. With that capability, manufacturers responded to the growing demand for new things at an ever faster rate. The desire from the consumer is driving it, and "that's where the change has to come from." So while it's technology that got us into this cycle, it's technology that will also get us out. 

There are some odd and likely un-commercialize-able ideas in the video, but oh, man, it's pretty cool to see how science-y fashion can be.

A conversation I had yesterday with a friend who was gathering perspectives on the future of fashion, particularly within fashion and technology, began much the way this video does. It is a train of thought that resonates, but also frustrates, because the answers still feel vague and far away:

While fashion moves faster and faster, the concept of clothing hasn't changed much in over 100 years...Maybe it doesn't make sense to disrupt a $1.7 T industry, but shouldn't there be something more progressive than design and style changes? Shouldn't there be innovation that alters the entire concept of clothing?

Shouldn't there? And if so, how do we get there?

"Fashion passes, style remains" Coco Chanel

Maybe we need to start selling style again, not fashion. Sell to last. Trust Patagonia when they tell you "don't buy this coat." Ignore the 5 "Must have" pieces in Vogue.

Every day that we continue to explore and experiment with strategies and innovations for the future of fashion brings us closer to a better, more healthy, and more sustainable fashion industry. It's anyone's move to make. 

Read more about the video here.



Fashion=SustainableFashion=Fashion Tech=Fashion

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

Fashion is a polarized industry. Subsectors that alienate parts of the community through stigmatizing language or seemingly foreign concepts have stagnated change. Sustainable advocates are out at one end, and high-tech engineers at the other end. In the middle are the companies that were established without leaning towards one or the other of these poles, but should consider both as they move forward. Although there is a disparity between the discussion of Fashion and Tech and the discussion of Sustainable Fashion, two separate communities, two separate vocabularies, two separate futures, from where I stand, the two are actually very much in line.

Both fashion tech and responsible fashion are complete with early adopters, skeptics, and campaigns for change. In both cases, the supply is out of sync with the demand. Eco fashion carries a stigma that alienates a large portion of the audience, and fashion houses hesitate to implement what can be high investment change in that direction. High-tech fashion in the product category hasn’t proved useful to the general public, and the fashion industry has adopted tech into their brand experience largely as novelty rather than internalizing it.

The concepts being discussed across all factions of the industry are in sync, it is the distinctive vocabularies that maintain the divide between them. Once we are able to change the narrative from subjective beliefs to measurable behavior, it will become clear that we all want the same thing: a thriving industry that can access new channels for growth, and then sustain itself. Responsible choices and technology can help on both counts.

Some brands have chosen to experiment with one or the other, but might find they are doing both:

It seems to me that there are many ways in which the two are mutually supportive and can build an audience based on combining their values. Fashion of the future is fashion with a conscience. Technology can answer so many questions in the ethics of the manufacturing and distribution, and both ethically conscious transformations and technological disruption offer opportunity for great change through which values can be rewritten and rebuilt upon.

Technology can help through commerce platforms – Bonobos, for example, can sell lower price and better quality and create amazing customer experience by eliminating the middleman between wholesaler and consumer– mechanical innovation – Recycling, for example, is becoming more advanced in the textile industry – and transparency – the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is proposing a QR bar code system that will detail the provenance of garments.

As a larger community, we are already in line with both of these two movements:

Without thinking about it, we all use technology everyday in ways that are unintimidating, and enhance our experiences. Fashion brands are being outpaced by companies coming from the tech world, which are disrupting the industry particularly through distribution channels and eventually in wearable tech. Consumers are growing accustomed to keeping up with these innovations, which are all conceived in answer to perceived consumer demand. Fashion design houses are finding they are limited in growth, unable to achieve the big brand scale of Ralph Lauren/Louis Vuitton. Fashion brands should be aware that technology offers new possibilities for business growth and scalability not limited to product but inclusive of service and experience.

Escaping the stigma of ethical fashion is also a question of changing the narrative. The mentality that the ethical fashion movement is trying to espouse is actually how just about half of the population shops without considering it responsible shopping: Men. If we use different narratives to bring understanding of what is means to shop responsibly, you might be surprised to realize you do this already. In this recent sustainable fashion discussion, we discussed that men already approach fashion as an investment, spending more and buying less. It might because they don’t like shopping and want to go as little as possible, but that in itself is a win against waste.

There are also many women who, like myself, begin adopting standard looks that require less inventory and more focus. Before I was aware of the dimensionality of sustainable fashion, I never considered myself an advocate. My choices were made based on my own desire to pare down, and settling into my own sense style. It’s a level of maturity that could be encouraged in shoppers that is completely outside of the lexicon of the sustainable fashion movement, but in which we find many of the same values.

As Coco Chanel states: “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Fashion is “of the moment,” and just as cultural shifts happen over time, adaptation in the most complete sense, that is from both supplier and consumer, won’t happen right away, but these movements are fashion nonetheless. Eventually conscious consumption will be a no-brainer, and fashion companies will adapt to agility in technology or be replaced. Everyone will do it, it will be the norm, and we won’t need to classify it with imperfect words. 

The best way to demonstrate that a movement is happening is to show individuals that they have already adopted the movement without realizing it, without overthinking it, and without identifying with a group because of that choice. This is happening right now in fashion technology and sustainable fashion. No one needs to be singled out for their choices, because both poles are joining together to create one common definition of fashion. That is the fashion of the future.