Fast fashion is getting its comeuppance with a surge of interest in its opposite, slow fashion.
Fast fashion is the promotion of high-volume, low-quality, super-trendy clothes meant to be purchased and worn just a few times, while the cycle quickly repeats. In contrast, the slow fashion ethos reacts against all things quickly and cheaply produced, the hyper-trendy and the environmentally degrading.
The idea of slow fashion followed the slow-food movement, which started in 1986 when Carlo Petrini rallied support against a planned McDonald's in Rome by advocating for traditional dishes such as penne, not fast-food burgers. From the '90s the slow-clothes movement has been on a slow build, and in the last 10 years "there's been more of an acceptance, more of an embrace and more of a sensibility about what slow clothes are about," says Tom Julian, director for strategic business development for the Doneger Group, a fashion trend and merchandising consulting group in New York City. Slow clothes "played well with the Recessionistas after the crash, and the idea really took hold."
"In our globalized and hyper-connected, instantaneous world, slow fashion is a return to the tangible and real," says Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady, a slow-fashion e-store specializing in artisanal clothes and accessories. She and her partner Soraya Darabi launched the website in 2013.
It's "about process, quality and honesty, a distinction from what many apparel companies have been pushing recently: insecurity, trend-based, high-speed, low-quality, and with it a very broken supply chain," Bédat says.
It's the increased disposability of much of today's fashion that slow fashion tries to counter.
Some statistics: According to author Lucy Siegle's "To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World?" Americans purchase, on average, 68 pieces of clothing and eight pairs of shoes annually. That's about 25 billion garments each year, well more than the 7.3 billion people who inhabit the planet.
Slow-fashion advocates say this clothing tsunami drains the environment on both ends — at production and disposal. (Textile industry production is responsible for nearly 30% of China's pollution, according to Siegle, and then ends up jamming landfills with mostly synthetic polyesters that take centuries to decompose.)
Slow fashion and its various slow-movement cousins (in food and travel, for instance) share many tenets. These include transparent production and supply train processes; living wages for workers and crafts people; an emphasis on quality over quantity; promotion of small businesses and doing as little environmental damage as possible.
"Slow fashion, like the slow-food movement, focuses on producing in a socially and environmentally responsible way," says Natalie Chanin, owner of Alabama Chanin, a hand-made line of intricately appliqued, organic, U.S. grown-and-made cotton jersey garments based in Florence, Ala. She outsources the sewing to independent contractors in the surrounding rural areas, and also has an open-source policy, offering workshops for people to learn how to make Alabama Chanin garments themselves.
Some might ask: Isn't all this simply haute couture aimed at a different market? Not really. While it borrows many couture principles, such as quality over quantity and the use of specialized hand craftsmanship, slow fashion is more egalitarian, priced to be more accessible to the average person. And it is eco-conscious.
"Not all haute couture is slow fashion," says Rahul Mishra, a designer based in Mumbai and Delhi who in 2014 became the first Indian to win the International Woolmark Prize. "Slow fashion needs to be done in eco-friendly ways. The perception of couture being similar to slow fashion makes [slow] perceived as the expensive option," which isn't always the case.
Slower fashion is similar to couture, though, in its promotion of hand-skilled artisan craftsmanship and labor. Mishra uses the traditional rural Indian hand loom and hand-embroidery weavers in his beautifully detailed clothing. He says that unlike machine-made garments, which are cranked out in uniform shapes and sizes, "when a garment is produced by multiple hands and involves many hand processes, you get imperfection, which is like a footprint of the handwork."
"In a real sense these clothes have got life, where in mass production, fast-fashion clothes are produced with perfectly fast fibers, like petroleum-based synthetics, which are so perfectly made and tailored that they lack life, that liveliness," Mishra says. "I like the fact that my clothes show a degree of imperfection and have a life."
John Patrick, creator of the clothing line Organic by John Patrick, calls the mainstream fashion industry "a system that has gone haywire, pumping out product on demand."
"The current fashion calendar seems antithetical to a creative industry that could be or should be rallying against a dog-chasing-its-tail timeline," Patrick says. "It's vulgar to promote waste and consumption."
To buy "slow," he suggests that consumers read labels and ask questions about purchases; patronize small, independent businesses; buy less; share items with friends and trade rather than toss when you're finished with an item.
"Altering fashion is in a way an oxymoron because it's fashion that is always changing," he says. "Sadly, with water shortages and the increase in prices of raw materials, less product will inevitably be available and less-is-more will happen on its own."