- Posted September 3, 2013 by
New York, New York
This iReport is part of an assignment:
From hobby to job
Leaving Mainstream Fashion To Start My Own Ethical Fashion Boutique
This March I officially abandoned the pursuit of a mainstream fashion career to launch an online boutique and editorial for ethical fashion. The steps leading up to the decision were a long time coming and to me, they seemed organic. But it surprised me how many people were baffled by the concept of ethical fashion. “How can fashion even be ethical?” people asked, and, “What does ethical fashion even mean?” No matter how clear the mission was to me, it took a fair amount of explaining to gain understanding and support.
First I’ll have to back up a bit. Moving to NYC at age 27 to attend Parsons’ two year fashion design program was nothing short of a dream come true. Unfortunately the experience shifted from dream to nightmare in milliseconds: sixteen hour days, seven days week, while working two to three day a week at full time internships. No words describe the experience better than ‘fashion boot camp.’ Thanks to the experience I now know what it is to not sleep for three days straight, and that I will weep for approximately two of those three days. The weep will turn to full blown cry when a teacher chastises me for blood marks on fabric from a 4am delirious pin accident. I also know I’ll never not sleep by choice again.
The internships lacked resources and indulgently overstocked themselves with the steady flow of NYC desperate-to-get-a-foot –in-the-door free help known as Interns. I recall one internship that had more interns than chairs. Suffice it to say, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ made good on its warnings. I also learned that if you want work somewhere, you probably should not intern there. Rarely given challenging tasks, interns are mostly errand boys. It’s hard to see the kid who comes in, dumb from only two hours of sleep and muslin strings hanging off her clothes, who then fucks up the coffee order, as a viable potential employee.
I also learned that industry victims were not limited to interns, but included everyone from the top down, the overworked golden boy design directors and moguls with their own houses, hanging onto empires by tooth skin. While I’m not saying the fashion industry killed Alexander McQueen, I’m not saying it didn't.
Part of the problem is the pace of the yearly fashion cycle. It is relentless. Last I checked there are four seasons on planet Earth, on planet Fashion there are as many as seven seasons. Fashion works a entire year ahead of schedule, on several seasons at a time. Another and perhaps larger part of the problem is the consumer. We are addicted to fast fashion. We not only want, but feel entitled, to fashions we see on the runway, immediately, for dirt cheap. This leads into the whole dirty secret behind much fashion production-- the hidden underbelly rarely mentioned until recently. The industry’s faulty spine undermines the integrity of the entire structure and bolsters consumer addiction to the cheap and fast.
Fashion houses abuse precious human and material resources spitting out almost double the amount of clothes a person could ever need (if one even believes we really need four separate wardrobes each season). In fashion the means are secondary to achieving the ends--environmental and labor standards are overlooked and keeping margins high is born on the backs of emerging economies insufficiently compensated, and without the infrastructure to handle the demand. What’s worse, most of this tremendously poor quality stuff is disposable, fated for landfills sooner than later. So the cycle continues.
I’m no exception. A Mt. Fuji pile of hardly worn, cheaply made clothes followed me as I made over ten moves in my 20's. I sometimes gave away or threw away (gasp) significant portions of the mountains. Somehow as soon as it was time to move again, I was in the same situation, just more mountainous. After graduating Parsons I began to wonder what I was signing up for.
I was searching for a reason behind it all. A greater purpose. I needed more than financial stability; I also wanted meaning and integrity behind my professional life. I wanted to be part of a solution and not a problem. It became more and more apparent that the system I’d experienced during and after Parsons, so damaged and ruthless, was largely due a broken culture. I became interested in companies working outside of the mainstream fashion framework. I began covering companies who realize the fashion industry’s affairs are out of order, that maybe the consumer is also broken and, most of all, maybe there’s a better way.
Making it my mission to search the web for great designs that were also produced with quality and integrity, I learned several important things. First off: integrity and ethical production is a complicated subject and not as simple as just buying an organic cotton t-shirt. Fashion is one of the world’s largest employers and the issue deserves a great amount of thought and discussion--the problem has been a long time in the making and will take a long time to unravel. Also, Eco-fashion is not the same as Ethical Fashion. Ethical Fashion is a broader term which includes Eco-fashion as well as social and labor issues.
Secondly: aesthetically pleasing, ethical design truly adding to the current fashion conversation is damn hard to find. It’s not that the consumer doesn't want it or that ethical fashion doesn't exist. That’s why I started my online boutique for ethical fashion, HELPSY (www.shopHELPSY.com). It is my job to find the exceptions and curate them well. Attractive, education centric platforms with design at their core must exist if we are to convince consumers that purchasing ethically is not an esthetic nor is it pity-purchasing.
Since the tragedy in Bangladesh fewer people are asking me, “What is ethical fashion?” or “Can fashion even be ethical?” More are finally asking, “What can we do?” Finally large fashion companies are mobilizing to untangle this complicated, wild west of a system, which spans global boarders, cultures, governments and economies. Sadly it took the death of over 1,000 people for us to wake up. But the fact questions are finally being asked reinforces my belief that consumers, and the fashion industry alike, are ready for changes which respect human, material, and spiritual resources-- I am proud to be a part of this movement and will do all I can to increase its momentum.