Modefica Global
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Modefica Global

“Slow Fashion is not a movement; it’s a market”: An Interview With Kate Fletcher

We talked with Kate Fletcher about the circular economy, emotional design and sustainable fashion

Author of Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, published in 2012, the researcher, consultant, and design activist Kate Fletcher is considered one of the most significant references in the discussion about the possible — and sometimes impossible — connections between fashion and sustainability.

To compose her newest book, Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion, she visited more than 50 cities and communities in nine countries to gather over 500 examples of how people use and take care of their clothes.

She currently supervises Ph.D. students at the Center for Sustainable Fashion, which is located within the London College of Fashion. She also works on projects ranging from following highly complex innovative design processes to writing stories about friendship between people, clothing, and the natural world.

We spoke with Kate in London during the 2018 edition of the Global Fashion Conference — an event that brings together professionals, academics, and fashion enthusiasts to discuss fashion and sustainability. It was a powerful and provocative conversation about topics such as circular economics, emotional design, and sustainable fashion following prevailing market patterns — just the way Modefica likes it.

Modefica: You said in one of your lectures that clothes should be designed as “processes” or “tentative structures,” but that designers are frustrated that they may suggest ways of wearing but cannot predict the behavior of users throughout the lifecycle of a piece of clothing. Could you comment on that?

Kate Fletcher: I see that design is a weak force to influence consumer behavior. Not all the time, but often it is not as strong as we expect. If we are interested in making people act and be different about using their clothes, we will have to look at it from various perspectives. Some involve working with brands within the market, using the pursuit of profit to make them act, but much of it will have to happen from outside the industry, from an “informal economy”.

Does this informal economy take into account people’s everyday behaviors and subjectivities — such as their desire to customize their pieces after a few years of use?

Yes, and that makes room for priorities other than profit. What we have to ask ourselves is: what results do we want to achieve? Depending on who we are working with, different paths will be better. If the goal is to try to slow down consumption, which is a very unpleasant message for many people, and it is difficult to talk about a viable economic model, then it is necessary to figure out how to separate “making money” from “selling more.”

For example, the amount of money spent to convince people to buy more is enormous. Imagine if part of it was directed to stimulate gratitude and appreciation of the things we already have. When you talk about customization cycles, I believe the answer is: it will be partially that, and partially forms we have not even imagined. I mean getting involved with a different understanding of what it means to dress ourselves.

Given that changes in consumer intentions are already happening, do you see the potential for status and exclusivity to be replaced by deeper emotional values developed through, for example, co-design or co-creative processes?

The idea of a co-design process is to be collaborating with a brand, spending time with a brand, thinking about how the product can be developed. This reminds me of an idea presented some 15 years ago, where people were talking about trying to create an immaterial status symbol. The question was: What would this status symbol look like if you couldn’t choose a gold medallion or a luxury purse? It is clear that these qualities are invisible, so how do you find ways to represent them? How to communicate it?

Do you mean keeping the idea of representing deep values through tangible products?

Or maybe not. Maybe keep them within these intangible states and find a way to communicate what that value is so that people can understand it. For example, one of the things I feel about growing old is that your face is not quite what it was before. You look in the mirror and… really? So what I expect from this woman who is getting older is wisdom.

When I was young, I felt like I was going with the flow. Now it seems like time is running the other way around for me. The only thing I think is that one of the few things we really have is wisdom. When I look at older people and listen to them, they have these “other things.” I see that it’s about understanding what these things are and capturing them in some way, using them as the source of that added value. But I don’t know exactly what it would consist of.

It would be meant subjectively. The “weightless”…

Yes, maybe. But I see that time is what is scarce. And I think the other thing that is at the root of the environmental crisis is the lack of connection. So one of the things we say is fueling the unsustainability crisis is the crisis of meaning. There is a lack of contact between people and nature, and between people and people. And also about what it means to be human, people have lost track of it. This has become a challenge. These are the things we need to achieve.

Bringing together pragmatic and meaning bias: do you believe that luxury brands will always be tied to an ethical issue because pieces that are extraordinarily expensive — and not affordable — simply cannot be considered sustainable?

Thinking purely about material processes, and considering the use of energy and water, you might say that luxury brands are producing fantastic items. Still, when we look at people’s wardrobes, if they have a costly item, they find it difficult to use because it is so special. So they don’t use it often. The most frequently used pieces are the average priced pieces that work for everyday use. The items that are useful. So I see that it’s not just about the amount you pay or the amount of resources used on these very expensive clothes, it’s merely because you’re not wearing it and keeping it on a hanger in your closet.

Like a sacred garment…

Yes, almost [sacred]. Exactly. That is an argument. The other case is that brands often want to add meaning to pieces, but what we’ve found is that people have an almost infinite ability to find their clothes meaningful. And that does not help reduce the consumption of new parts […] This is an argument often used, for example, regarding “emotional design” where you commit to the product, perhaps because it is a co-creation project or something high-priced. But generally, what you find out is that investing in one product doesn’t prevent you from consuming another product, because people have an infinite ability to continue consuming, consuming, and consuming.

Is it possible to link brand activism when profits are still the priority? Or do we have to change the game, and brands have to turn into social businesses?

They probably should change. I am very skeptical about many things that are happening. What is essential about activism is the state of becoming active and seeking a change to the status quo, starting to drive change. Depending on your view of what needs to happen, this may or may not occur within the existing system. I think the current system is the problem. So making a logo on a T-shirt, and you have to buy it, is not to promote system change, because [this action] is blocked within the system itself. I think most of the political activism work has to happen outside of it. Suppose that the people who are integrating the system can, at the same time, act out of it. But I really don’t know. I have never seen an example.

It’s hard to be totally unbiased, right.

Yes. Maybe there is a way for people to be more honest about what their business priorities are, but there is very little honesty. I am frustrated by the way language is co-opted. It is grabbed and used by the mainstream; then, it loses its power. Words of progress and protest, change, and transformation, are being used by companies that are doing nothing because it is just greenwashing. It happens all the time. I find this problematic because of words matter, and we have to use words carefully so that people understand what we mean. You know that you are a journalist.

Do you believe that slow fashion is a movement or a market?

I think if it were truly aligned with the slow food movement, which was very social and driven by pleasure and taste, it would be closer to a movement, but it is not. So far, it is essentially a market. Not that this is necessarily bad, I think everything has a rhythm, and some are faster than others. Regarding clothes, everything is going very fast, and this is not reflecting the symbolic energy and values [practiced]. I don’t know if the word slow is convenient because, for me, all it does in people’s minds is to establish a dualism and opposition between fast and slow when in fact, the message is about a different engagement [with the productive process]. Once again, the problem is that the term was sucked into the market very quickly and became a simple “fast versus slow” dualism. And that is a pity.

And moving to another market conceptualization, do you believe that circular fashion will be like the new age of sustainability?

No, I don’t think so. I think circularity may work well on a tiny scale, but it’s an idea that is assuming consumption and a consumption cycle. So essentially, the claim is that you can buy something, discard it, and it will be redesigned from recycled materials, which will be endlessly recycled. This recycling system is expensive and uses energy. […] The most problematic, actually, is the consumption-based system and the idea of lowering expectations of what garments are… are they merely disposable? So we are just propagating this whole system.

In your work Fashion Ecology: Pocket Guide, you create parallels between elements of ecological systems (species, habitat, niche, etc.) and fashion, giving an organic and interconnected look to the industry. Do you believe these parallels can be used in practice, or will they remain in the metaphorical field?

I wanted to do this work partly for practical and applicable reasons, but also for language reasons. Ecosystems do not grow beyond a certain size. They grow, occupy their niche, and do not grow beyond the niche. There are very restricted self-regulatory factors within ecosystems that are totally ignored by the fashion industry. So in practice, it’s a bit like: ok, if the niche is the limit, that’s the size we can get. And there are many other possible relationships with ecology, such as understanding the different elements that the mosaic needs, bringing us the notion of all the various fashion activities that need to be encouraged. […] So ecology helps us pay attention to all this variety of flows. It is undoubtedly romantic and poetic, but it is also practical.

How fashion weeks could change to make sense and touch more people?

I have a great answer because I already thought about it. For me, we need a fashion week where the catwalk and models carried only garments that are over five years old. They would no longer be the pieces of the moment. What you would see there is real life. Then you would have something that people could really start to aspire to.

Written by Gabriela Machado
Translation by Carol Bardi

Originally published at on December 03, 2018.



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