Brands are moving from fast fashion to ‘eternal fashion’, but are the new clothes always sustainable? | Jess CartnerMorley
Fashion has a new trend for spring. Well, sure, that’s how fashion works. Except this time around, the trend isn’t crimson or corduroy, or peter pan collars or platform shoes. The trending look for spring 2022 is the “everlasting wardrobe”. The season’s key pieces are clothes that promise to never go out of style: think crisp white shirts and well-tailored blazers; classic knits and timeless little black dresses. Disposable fashion is so last season. This spring, the chic comes with a lifetime warranty.
The irony is that the everlasting wardrobe never went away, it just went out of fashion. The fast fashion industry, which has exploded over the past 30 years, has turbocharged the trend cycle, abandoning the principles of enduring elegance in favor of a rollercoaster of twists (woah, combinations!), throwbacks (Crocs) and flip-flops (black is back, again) designed to keep an audience hooked. Are you tired of your jeans? Why not try leather pants! Throw away your neutrals, it’s neon season!
Many stylish people have ignored this all along, of course – even in the fashion industry, where front-row cheerleaders favor apple green one season and salmon pink the next, while still wearing mostly navy blue. Today, an urgent need for sustainability has put the dressing of investments back in the spotlight. But can fashion really arrive without an expiry date? Or is eternal fashion just a feel-good label to make us feel better about buying new clothes?
On an emotional level, the change of heart is real, both among the people who buy clothes and among those who design and make them. Fashion is about the future; without a future for the planet, there is no fashion. Everyone understands that now. But economically, things are not so simple. The fashion industry generates 2% of global GDP and employs over 400 million people. He has reached this size specifically by selling us more clothes than we need.
And the thrill of transformation has always been part of the power of clothes. From Cinderella to My Fair Lady, from Grease to Pretty Woman, the magic of a radical new look is ingrained in our culture. At the height of its imperial splendor, towards the beginning of this century, fashion leaned hard in the lure of the new. In the 1970s and 1980s, teenagers listened to the radio every Sunday to find out which pop song was number one that week; in the 1990s and 2000s, they went to the Topshop store every weekend to find out what the new Saturday night look was. But those were more innocent times, before we realized we were running out of carbon that we could never repay.
Eternal fashion is an easy sell for those lucky enough to be able to go from buying several new outfits from Zara at the start of a season to buying a designer dress. But for shoppers in the “value” segment of the market, where jeans can cost as little as £10, there’s no Chanel tweed suit (estimated cost: £8,000) or Hermès Birkin handbag ( around £10,000) at the end of the rainbow. Fashion has become a cheap treat, with a new blouse often costing less than a pizza to take away. Price wars in department stores have lowered the quality of clothing on sale in many stores.
Buyers have become accustomed to thin, cheap fabrics that tear easily, loose and uneven seams that cause seams to not hold, buttons that break or fall off. If your budget is tight and your fashion experience consists of shoes with soles that come off and sweaters that lose their shape after the first wash, it makes sense to spend no more than the bare minimum on clothes. At present, investment clothing is an elite sport, like polo or skiing, a luxury activity for those with extra money. At the lowest prices, the level of trust between the store and the buyer has eroded, and this will require some repairs. Eternal fashion is not just about timeless classics over fast-moving trends, but about making clothes that last.
The forever wardrobe really does exist, if it’s well-designed and well-made. An immaculate white cotton shirt, a striped sailor top, a simple black one-piece swimsuit, a camel trench, moccasins: they were there from the start, and they look more modern than ever. We may revert to the frenzied version of the industry we’ve known for the past two or three decades as an aberration, and fashion will once again become about beautiful clothes made to be cherished.
In a perfect world, the label of a “wardrobe forever” wouldn’t be weaponized as a hard sell by retailers to entice consumers with already bloated wardrobes to buy even more clothes. But the last train to a perfect world left the station some time ago. To use the buzzword, we can’t buy our way to sustainability, but neither can we make an industry that employs one in eight of the world’s workers disappear overnight. The clothes we want to wear forever and ever may seem the opposite of what fashion stands for. But from where I stand, they look like the last word in chic.