Fashion, it would seem, is in the midst of its own identity crisis. We’re meant to love it or, at the very least, buy and wear it. But what happens when we’re also supposed to not love it? Or, at least, not love the ramifications of loving it. For journalist Dana Thomas, who has made a name for herself exploring the trickier questions that accompany upper echelons of the seemingly carefree world that is fashion, such questions are at the heart of her latest book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Thomas’s earlier books, including Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano and Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (a New York Times bestseller) cast a fair, if not unforgiving, eye on the realm of fashion’s complicit, often unregulated role within the climate crisis.
Over three years in the making, including extensive research and reportage, Fashionopolis depicts the landscape of fashion in a state of necessary and urgent transition. Fashion as we know it cannot continue in its current form. It is, quite literally, unsustainable. Structured as a chronology of fashion’s path to this crossroads, the book identifies several key factors that precipitated the industry’s crisis of sustainability. Among them are the effects of globalization, the utilization of cheap labor, and its attendant violation of human rights, not to mention the model of production and consumption that has earned the name “fast fashion.”
For a journalist who has delved deep into the world of luxury, at first blush, Thomas’s interest in fast fashion would seem to be an unexpected new direction. And, indeed, her interest in the subject is the result of conversations and ongoing dialogues with friends and colleagues in the industry about one part of the equation, which led Thomas to see sustainability as an intersection of ideas and issues in the contemporary world of fashion.
“I was on my book tour for Deluxe August or early September of 2007, and one day I heard two different American companies talking about reshoring [when a business transfers its overseas operations back to the country in which it was originally located],” Thomas explains. “I had breakfast with the CEO of Oscar de la Renta, and he told me that they had just bought the factory that makes their evening gowns up in the Bronx—they wanted to keep it in New York because they like being able to get in the car and go up and see what they’re doing as opposed to being made overseas. The family that owned it was retiring and selling the business, so Oscar de la Renta bought it to keep it going. And later that day, I went to an event with Brooks Brothers, who were telling me they were in the midst of opening a factory in Long Island City to make all their ties, and that they were going to bring tie manufacturing back to the US and back to the New York region. The journalist in me was like, ding ding, there’s something going on here.”
Thomas’s book makes its most compelling arguments when focusing on where initiatives in the fashion industry are doing it right. There are surprising innovations, certainly, but others are also returning to an emphasis on workmanship and a sincere love of fashion, farming, and textiles. Thomas saw such elements at play particularly in the South, for example in the work of Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin, Sally Fox of Foxfibre/Vreseis Limited, Sarah Bellos of Stony Creek Colors, and more. Of note, anecdotally, is that the leaders of these changes, by and large, are women.
Thomas identifies such companies as positive signs of how fashion is addressing the issues of sustainability. She also makes a point of narrating, historically, how the industry found itself in the crisis that confronts it today. Tracing the rise of the working class at the time of the Industrial Revolution in Northern England, Thomas finds a parallel, perhaps even an amplification, in the contemporary treatment of laborers due to the forces of globalization. It is perhaps most jarring to consider that, as Thomas makes clear, in many instances, little has changed in this regard. The dark, undignified corners of industrial England and America, were offshored, out of regulatory eyesight and with devastatingly greater damage.
“When I read The Making of the English Working Class [E. P. Thompson’s study of English labor],” Thomas notes, “I took out a yellow highlighter pen and really got down in it. I was like, Crikey, this is exactly the kind of stuff we’re talking about today, 150 years later. There was also a really great book, a collection that I cited in my book of different papers, of different areas of labor, of different periods in the New York Garment District. And that was fascinating because we’re saying exactly the same things about Bangladesh that we were saying about the Lower East Side 150 years ago. And so, suddenly, it became very clear to me that all of the issues, we’re having to go back to that original model that was created 250 years ago and that has not changed at all.” Thomas concludes, “It’s been tinkered with, it’s moved to different zip codes, but it’s still the same model, which is lots of hands, paid really poorly, treated really poorly, churning out stuff so we can have more stuff faster.”
Listening to Thomas discuss her key references for Fashionopolis is a veritable who’s who of the contemporary sustainability movement: William McDonough (who developed and founded the Cradle to Cradle initiative) and Dame Ellen MacArthur, the lightning rod of the “circular economy”—both of whom Thomas heard speak at the 2016 Copenhagen Fashion Summit—were clear influences in how she and the industry at large have come to understand what “sustainability” actually means. But there is also, interestingly, another unexpected figure circling around Thomas’s book: Donald Trump.
“It’s funny because I was working on this long before Trump was running for president and shouting, ‘Make America Great Again,’" Thomas says of the politician's entry into the conversation. "But basically, MAGA, that’s what reshoring is—or his team’s and his voters’ idea of it, the kind of thinking which argues, ‘Let’s just bring back coal mining to Appalachia exactly the way it was. That’s not going forward, and that’s not making things better. And the world has gone forward, so if you’re trying to do something the way you did it 25 or 30 years ago, in today’s world, you’re not only going backward—you’re kind of stuck.”
Indeed, as Thomas concludes, “There’s got to be another way, you know the idea of making America great again, back to America’s shores, and getting Americans back to work, that’s great, but in the Norma Rae textile factories where her father was keeling over from inhaling all the fly from the fabric? Of course not.”
Ultimately, what makes Fashionopolis so compelling is Thomas’s ability to distill and make more comprehensible the current state of the fashion industry, as well as the glimpses of hope that it offers. However, it’s crucial to also acknowledge that, for now, these solutions address only a fraction of the dire situation—such as the 21 billion pounds of textile waste that enter landfills each year. Yet things are changing at a pace that seems to be long-awaited, so much so that Thomas’s book, while a contemporary account of incredible developments, may already be outpaced by the very change it is championing. With elements of technological innovation that Thomas references already being superseded by the latest news—such as Stella McCartney’s groundbreaking work with apparel tech brand Evernu on NuCyl, a thread made of 100 percent liquified recycled clothes—it’s worth noting that any book about sustainability is likely to feel archival on its release. Fashion, it would seem, can’t move fast enough.