How the industry is teaching a new era of customers.
“Imagine... that a cashmere sweater that’s recycled in the West ends up in the tropics” vintage seller, Shira Degani of Degani Vintage, proffers on her firsthand experience of how wasteful fashion’s lifecycle can be. Her Guatemala City-based vintage shop now offers clothing care classes, designating her part of a group of industry insiders who are making fashion education simple, while still rigorous, and accessible in hopes that consumers will have access to knowledge that can curb some of the industry’s ills — waste, hyper-consumption, sizeism, and racism all included.
Fashion’s consumption problem — which includes 3.2 million tons of combusted textiles and contributes to 4% of the global waste — has generated increasingly centralized conversations on sustainability. Many of the solutions to this excess have focused on the production cycle: reducing material waste, and testing new eco-friendly fabrics, it also has led to the shaming of fast fashion, and even green-washing in some cases. While some of these changes may have helped, there are still many consumers for whom both shopping and wearing clothes in more sustainable ways is a Tetris puzzle. And so, some insiders have chosen to use education as a tool to transform the industry.
Degani started her vintage shop (both online and brick and mortar) to help redirect the flood of second-hand clothing she was seeing offloaded abroad and correct notions about the sustainability of donated clothes. She was tired of seeing how much of North America’s fashion waste was pushed off into her hometown and felt compelled to teach customers around America how to utilize clothing more thoughtfully. In order to do this, the seller not only sourced pieces for her shop, but also added an educational component to her offerings: Cashmere care classes, mending classes, and cobbler guides are some of the tools she uses to teach those buying her wares how to properly care for them long term. “Many of the pieces sent here (to Guatemala) have small flaws that could be easily fixed but aren’t. Sharing knowledge on how to care for clothing and choose quality pieces helps keep clothes longer in people’s closets”, she says.
This idea of getting the most use out of our clothing is also what inspired contemporary label Tibi’s founder and designer, Amy Smilovic to start Tibi Style Class with the brand’s style director, Dione Davis. The goal was simple: share their expertise around clothes (how to shop for them, the difference between 4-ply silk and other silk) and style (how to wear colors together, or how to take a blazer from a gym class to brunch with friends) to help customers shop with fewer regrets. The team hopped on IG live and shared their opinions on silhouettes, fabrics, and how to buy clothes with intent. Week after week, they highlighted why customers don’t need to invest in everything mainstream fashion media has deemed an “it” item.
A year later, with coined terms like Creative Pragmatist (people who value creativity and pragmatism and reflect it in their style choices) and Tibictionary, the Tibi team has found a way to connect with consumers who were struggling to find words to navigate their style amidst fashion noise. All with the goal of creating customers who understand their style better and are less likely to waste time and money on items they don’t wear or turn over quickly, which in turn help reduce waste. Also, by speaking directly to customers via their style class, Smilovic and the team were able to streamline their own design process and operate more nimbly making only items they absolutely believed in — a critical step for small designers who may sometimes feel the pressure to compete with big brands and ultimately overproduce.
Understanding fit may sound simple but in vintage store owner Subrina Heyink’s experience, most people struggle with buying clothes that fit the way they want it because clothes aren’t made to fit them and fatphobia has created a harmful relationship where people approach body measurements with shame. Standardized sizes like small, medium, or large serve their purpose, but at many times can be inadequate due to variety in sizing across brands. Heyink — who has seen firsthand how finding good vintage pieces above certain sizes is next to impossible — asked her audience how her vintage shop could better serve their fashion needs and received overwhelming responses that finding denim that fit was a problem.
“I’ve always approached fashion from a problem-solving angle and so I spent some time coming up with a way to solve some of the fit issues my clients were sharing with me. Once I decided I was moving into alterations as well as offering jeans to buy as is, it was important to educate everyone on how to pick a pair that will fit them exactly how they want,” Heyink shares.
To address this problem, she created a denim guide and attempted to educate her followers on alterations and body measurements. Customers take their rough measurements, purchase denim from the shop, receive their pair of jeans with a measuring kit, remeasure themselves and discuss their desired fit then mail back the denim for alterations if they desire. All of this may seem time-intensive, but Heyink has seen customers respond well to this service. She believes that shopping with measurements-in-hand will help clients reconnect with their body’s unique shape, abandon fatphobic stereotypes of fit and what styles fit a certain “body type” and love the clothes they own more.
While Heyink, Degani, and Smilovic’s approaches have focused on a less formal way of educating the average consumer, Céline Semaan, founder of human rights and environmental justice institute Slow Factory, is contributing to fashion education with a different but still as impactful method. Slow Factory launched their Open Education classes in the pandemic with a curriculum that’s now widely used in universities around the world and has over 20,000 students enrolled.
Classes focus on fashion’s relationship to issues like colonialism, are taught by Black and Brown scholars, and open to anyone who is interested, as it was particularly important for the team to remove ableist barriers to education like standardized testing.
“For most of its rise and dominance as a cultural and influential industry, the fashion industry benefited from the opacity, the lack of transparency, and the lack of information surrounding sustainability and the impact it created on climate,” Semaan tells TZR. “With Open Education we expose and create accessible information and knowledge that allows the public to understand the consequences of the current system and ways to build and design regenerative systems that have both planet and people as the main priorities.”
Semaan’s point about information is echoed by Degani who says, “As soon as education becomes a part of a larger brand's mission, quality will follow — an educated consumer will become more demanding in their expectations of construction, materials, durability, and multiple uses'.' She continues, “even when brands like Louis Vuitton have aftercare [programs to care for and repair products], it’s not widely publicized and many consumers do not shop with this knowledge. I want to see that change.”
Ultimately, while one solution, even one as broad as education, cannot fix all of fashion’s structural issues, it can help bring about even more change.