What Being a Broke Fashion Entrepreneur Taught Me About Slow Fashion

Sometimes speediness isn’t always the answer. In fact, in the world of fashion it’s actually a problem.

Slow fashion sounds boring. Mostly because “slow” is the opposite how we’re used to everything working nowadays; speedy wifi, overnight delivery, instant messaging, immediate and unlimited access to pretty much anything you want to listen to, watch, or read. Remember when you had to go to Blockbuster to rent a movie? In the era of Netflix and iTunes, having to leave your home to go to a location, in the hope the movie you want is there (you’d have to come back another time if they didn’t have an available copy) and then bringing it home to watch is just insane. So in this day and age, anything that’s “slow” sounds archaic and inferior, but that’s not always the case.

We now know that fast food, although convenient isn’t necessarily good for either our health or the environment. And the clothing version of drivethrough, known as “fast fashion,” seems to create similar dilemmas.

Fashion cycles now move at a higher speed than ever, with brands churning out styles at a frequency up to 15 seasons in a year (for what used to be four). This gets consumers to buy more, but also requires mass-clothing-production to be quicker and cheaper. So working conditions are notoriously dreadful and products are much lower in quality. In fact, clothing waste from the manufacturing process and customers constantly tossing out and replacing the cheap garments that don’t last has become a serious problem. In 2013 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated and 12.8 million tons were discarded.

So the solution, in my opinion, is to go slow.

My Slow Fashion Journey

When I first started my clothing business ELSA AND ME, it was with the intent to bring more functional work attire to women. I started off with just offering one dress, mostly because I had blown a lot of capital on pant designs that didn’t sell and also because I had realized how difficult logistics were and the importance of keeping things small. So I had to be the face of my own fashion line and I had to wear my one dress design all the time. For the first few months I therefore wore my one dress design (the ELSA dress ) in just one color (black) to E V E R Y T H I N G.

The original ELSA dress in black.

To grow the business and to not overwhelm my budget my next product wasn’t a new design, but just producing the same dress design in a different color. Afterwards, I noticed I had a lot of returning clients, even though they already had the same dress in black. What I didn’t know at the time was that by creating a product that clients valued to the point they’d purchase multiple versions in different colors AND minimizing my personal wardrobe (by wearing the same dress to a lot of different occasions), I’d become part of the “slow fashion” movement.

In essence, slow fashion means buying better-quality items less often. The term was coined in 2007 by Kate Fletcher, a sustainable design consultant who opposed of fast fashion and mass-production and believed that if a consumer becomes more mindful of what they’re consuming, they’ll ultimately respect what they have more, throw fewer items away, and consume less.

Buying Less

Being an entrepreneur with almost no income mean that for the past 5 years I’ve had no budget to buy new clothes. A fashion blogger once asked me about my shopping habits and when I said I no longer did any shopping, I could tell she didn’t believe me. Aside from gifts for my birthday and christmas (as well as occasional hand-me-down items from my mom), I have only been shopping for clothes a handful of times over the last half-a-decade, which has mostly involved buying shoes to wear with my dresses.

Obviously I do have the privilege of being able to wear ELSA AND ME’s dresses, from which I have gathered numerous samples over the years, but I was basically forced to stop adding to my wardrobe as a financial necessity to follow my passion. It’s taught me both the importance and liberation of having a high-quality functional wardrobe and a uniform that I could mindlessly wear to most occasions (yeah, you guessed it, my uniform is ELSA AND ME’s dresses).

My uniform. Photos by Anna Schori.

Emotional Attachment

And while there is an obvious benefit to shopping celibacy — less stress on my strained wallet — there was an emotional effect I hadn’t counted on. Shopping makes us feel good. In the end, that’s what consumerism is built upon. Dopamine floods the brain, releasing feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, when we experience something new and exciting. Research has shown that’s what happens to most of us while shopping or even just eyeing a new product. It’s science: Buying those new shoes we never wear or that second car we don’t need can make us feel happier, if only in the short-term.

Forcing myself to minimize my own consumption meant I had to learn how to navigate my own shopping behavior and how to avoid making impulse decisions. I started avoiding going into stores altogether unless I actually needed something specific. I hadn’t noticed before then just how much I’d used shopping as an emotional high. It was a bit difficult when I couldn’t duck into a department store or stylish global chain and pick myself up by picking out a new outfit, but eventually it was freeing.

I’ve since worked to adopt Kate Fletcher’s slow fashion philosophy into how I view my clothes. I try to really value each purchase I make (on the rare occasion I make one). It has to be something I need and functions with the rest of my wardrobe. But it also has to carry a story and clear narrative of how it was made, becoming something that I could have an emotional attachment to, instead of having an emotional attachment to the transaction.

And here’s the thing: by taking into account the harm fast fashion has on the world and also how it can make us end up just craving more of the things we don’t really need, I also found myself taking the steps with my own clothing business.

So along with striving for functionality and quality, ELSA AND ME now works to ensure each piece is personally crafted for each individual client, meaning that we actually offer not only made-to-order garments, but clothing that is made-to-fit each client’s’ measurements.

We’ve also made it possible for clients to design their dress, by choosing their silhouette, neckline, sleeve length, skirt length, and whether or not to have pockets. This whole process is put together for each client to be more involved in the purchase, and add a personal connection to their customized dress.

Finally, and probably most important, we make our dresses in partnership with a fair-made fashion house in Nairobi, Kenya — so that clients know what they wear was ethically produced.

I want ELSA AND ME to offer something that was made well and that offers functionality and if that means we have to go slow, then maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.