NEW YORK — “Sustainability” is out and “ecology” is in, so to speak.
“We do not want to sustain. We want to grow, to evolve, to adapt,” said Neri Oxman, a designer, architect, inventor and associate professor at MIT Media Lab who along with earning a PhD in design computation also earned her keep at the Museum of Modern Art, with her work being included in permanent collections in the museum. She focuses on digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology applied at scale and across disciplines — including fashion design.
The fashion industry is increasing its awareness, intention and interaction with academia in an ongoing quest for newness and innovative solutions that redefine sustainability.
Oxman was one of six women entrepreneurs harboring a social mission featured on a panel Tuesday night, which also featured Eileen Fisher, sustainability veteran and founder of her eponymous label; Tracy Reese, who is now designing again in her hometown of Detroit under her responsibly minded “Hope for Flowers” collection; Gabriela Hearst, whose upbringing in a remote town in Uruguay informed her label’s “long-term view” and “sustainability” mind-set; and Karina Givargisoff, founder of philanthropic-focused Mission Magazine.
The conversation was moderated by Abrima Erwiah, who cofounded artisan-produced lifestyle brand Studio One Eighty-Nine alongside Rosario Dawson.
The philanthropic event was hosted at Pen and Brush (a 125-year-old nonprofit for female writers and artists) by the U.N. Women USA New York chapter, the largest chapter of the U.S. National Committee to U.N. Women, on the cusp of the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
Setting the stage for more women protagonists (or the very least, basic human rights) is the mission of U.N. Women and its subsidiary networks. According to a May report titled “Unraveling the Fabric Ceiling” from PwC Consulting, only 12.5 percent of apparel and retail apparel companies in the Fortune 1000 are led by women; compared with nearly 18 percent for the financial services industries or some 20 percent in utilities and the aerospace and defense industries.
Fisher, who despite being the head of her business, is accustomed to taking a quieter stance in projecting her company’s mission. As she and her team shared to WWD, she has been taking to the stage more of late.
“I always felt we couldn’t tell our story too loudly, because we’re not perfect,” she said. Fisher talked about a couple of pivotal moments of revelation, the first being a stint living in Japan as a graphic designer wherein wabi-sabi (the art of imperfection) and the longevity of the kimono laid the foundation for her first fashion designs — and uniform dressing.
The second revelation was brought on by a trip to China where the designer witnessed how much water really goes into garment production, even for a simple T-shirt.
In so many words, Fisher turned to her team, but realized as the woman in charge it was her responsibility if she wanted Eileen Fisher to be a company that embedded sustainability into its core. The B Corp recently celebrated a 10-year milestone of its take-back program.
Each woman similarly had this cathartic moment of deciding to do something more. For Hearst, it began with a commitment, a symbol of six bangles stacked on her wrist — each representing the $100,000 she would raise for the charity “Save the Children” toward famine relief efforts in Turkana, Kenya with the help of her retail partners Net-a-porter and Bergdorf Goodman in 2017. The goal was met within two days.
For Reese, it was asking herself: “How can I do better?” She started over, a few times really.
She launched the Tracy Reese label in 1987 with the aid of a loan from her father, then again several years later. But at either time, “I didn’t control the purse strings. A lot of the overall decisions for my company were made by men.”
She started again with “Hope for Flowers,” which is two seasons old and responsibly designed. She also moved back to Detroit, helping to be part of the city’s resurgence with the ISAIC Factory, a sustainable community-minded apparel manufacturing hub. She aims to build an artisan studio next to the factory.
“I’ve always done it on the side, but now it’s part of my mission,” said Reese. She also partnered with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, among other programs, to ensure that art education is extended to youth today.
For Givargisoff, the statement was more of “this is bulls–t,” after experiencing multiple personal tragedies, including the loss of her brother and mother within a short period of time.
“I’d gone from burying my brother to going to a fashion show in Milan,” said Givargisoff, who wanted to make an impact beyond “steaming clothes, dressing people and shopping” as she was doing at the time as a stylist. Since launching what she claims is the first fashion philanthropic media company Mission Magazine in 2016, the independent magazine has produced three issues, all within Givargisoff’s East Village apartment, signing on advertorials with Gucci and Prada in its latest “Youth” issue.
“You’ve got a brick wall in front of you, I go under it, around it, over it,” said Givargisoff who ascribes her English self-assurance as the edge for helping her to “disrupt the publishing industry.”
At the end of the dialogue, Erwiah, in a patchwork Eileen Fisher Renew garment, tasked each woman with defining what the future should be.
“The level of consumption that we have reached is out of control,” said Hearst, with Oxman vying, “to make nature the ultimate consumer,” and see the world make a “very very immediate commitment to ecology,” asking the fashion industry, and consumers at large, to question the ethical implications of a seemingly “natural process.”
Oh, and banish plastics.
Rather than just “sustainability” or simply sustaining processes, this unnerving conclusion means “to move from building to growing, and nurturing to nature-ing,” Oxman said, nostalgically tying it back to her roots, essentially growing up in a garden (outside her home in Haifa, Israel) by the sea.
As the panel inferred, this race back into harmony with nature seems to be led by women, but true gender parity, as the U.N. Women and its chapters are fighting for, is not yet won, and time is of the essence.
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