It’s kind of like artisanal. Or organic. When you start talking about sustainable fashion, the question of what exactly that buzz word means is the first one you have to address. And because of that nebulousness, it’s easy for folks to make a cynical play at looking respectable without doing a whole lot to actually change the way they do business. You know them, because you’ve seen them many times before: the greenwashed mini-collections by megabrands that’d be a great thing if only they represented more than a vanishingly small percentage of the total product put out into the world each year. It can all get a little exhausting, not least of all because a lot of people are spending a lot of time trying to sell you on just how good they are.
Which is what makes a conversation like the one I had at this summer’s Pitti Uomo trade show with Maxime Fruit, creative director of the London label Maxime, so refreshing. There was no list of statistics on water usage or carbon offsets. There wasn’t some big marketing song and dance. There was just Maxime, telling me why, while he strives to ensure his collection is responsibly made and environmentally friendly, one of the biggest aspects of sustainability in fashion is simply creating clothing that can stick around for the long haul. “I want things that can last 50, 60 years,” he explained while walking me through his collection of boxy shirts and matched sets made from deadstock silk.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution—and with the consumptive urge that sits at the very core of the fashion industry, it’s not perfect. But there’s something deeply optimistic about a small brand carving out a space that lets creator and consumer both sleep a little more soundly, knowing they’re at least trying to do right by people and the planet while, yes, still doing this whole fashion thing. And while Pitti Uomo is a giant show with hundreds of vendors, and the S|Style space where I saw Maxime was host to just a handful of curated brands, there’s something equally uplifting to considering how such a big platform is holding up a group of smaller players for the fashion world to discover—and, hopefully, embrace.
S|Style “was born in 2020 in the midst of a pandemic to fill a cultural, social, and market need to talk, to discover, and tell a new approach to conceive collections and seasonality: respecting the environment and looking to the future,” says Raffaello Napoleone, CEO of Pitti Imagine, which oversees Pitti Uomo. “On the one hand, with this project, Pitti Uomo aims to completely subvert the concept [that] responsible fashion rhymes with fashion [but] without style. And on the other hand, it offers buyers and fashion professionals the possibility of scouting clothing and accessories with low-impact production requirements, with certified, recovered, recycled, and experimental hybrid fabrics.”
The project has been curated by Giorgia Cantarini, a fashion editor and “one of the most important experts in Italy of green fashion,” according to Napoleone. And while the selection takes into account social and environmental responsibility, “the focus remains on creativity and design.”
That’s how you get more specific ventures like the Waste Yarn Project showing alongside designers like Connor McKnight, with his focus on everyday luxury and the Black experience in America. Or Philip Huang, where the collection is informed in large part by the use of natural dyes and working with artisans in the northeast of Thailand. It’s also how you can see the toned-down, architectural offerings at Margn sitting next to the graphic- and appliqué-heavy designs at Dhruv Kapoor and feel a sense of connectivity you otherwise might not. Ditto that for the bright sportswear at MWorks playing against subtle casual gear of Curious Grid or the off-kilter tailoring of Bennu. These brands are all doing their own thing, but at the heart of it is the same thing: the desire to be sustainable without the scare quotes.
In keeping that idea and its execution more open—in simply, if tacitly, admitting that no one has a magical answer to a very real problem that needs to be systematically addressed by an industry that’s deeply hesitant to do so—the whole project seems a little more real and realizable. Do I expect the group of designers who showed at S|Style this year to fix things? No. At least not yet. But they represent a vanguard of folks in the fashion industry who are willing to intertwine grappling with the issue with the rest of their work. And if the industry at large keeps celebrating and elevating these sorts of creatives and businesspeople, ideally on ever-larger stages, then we at the very least have a better shot at finding some of the solutions we’re searching for.
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