LAST MONTH I found myself in the front row at Robson Square, an indoor/outdoor community gathering place in the heart of downtown Vancouver, BC. Along with the occasional nodding junkie or political protest, Robson Square is a popular, central location for events, such as the one that occasioned my visit: Eco Fashion Week.
I had been approached with an invitation by Crispin Argento, who designs a line of men's neckwear called PINO; however, he is arguably more well known within the local fashion industry for his relentless networking and ambitious hopes for the future of Portland as a capital of sustainable apparel innovation and design. He is a man of many ideas, and his latest broadens the scope of his focus to include the Pacific Northwest as a whole: The Cascadia Sustainable Apparel Initiative, which would position Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, as a united home base for the inevitable sea changes facing the apparel world, as it becomes harder to ignore the social and environmental hazards of mass production and wasteful and/or toxic processes and materials.
Unlike every other major consumer sector, there is no clear road map for apparel to transition into the future. It's not that nothing is changing—it is, but it's decentralized. Given the size of the talent pool in the three major Cascadian cities combined, and their governments' and communities' commitments to sustainable achievements, Argento makes the argument that we should assert and invest ourselves as a destination for this movement.
"There's no global home for sustainable fashion," he says, likening it to New York as a capital of high fashion and Tokyo as the standard-bearer of street fashion. The Pacific Northwest boasts companies like Lululemon, Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear, who are already leading the innovations that fashion needs—they're just doing it in the context of athletic and performance wear.
Here's the dream: a semiannual, seasonally focused fashion week in Vancouver, BC, that attracts designers working from similarly concerned points of view from all over the world, with attendant workshops and seminars. Better yet: a design program (Argento suggests a joint effort between Oregon State University's Apparel Innovation Center and a progressive design school like Fashion Institute of Technology or the London College of Fashion) with specific emphasis on designing clothing that reduces waste, fostering healthy consumer habits, and returning manufacturing to a local, living-wage reality.
Argento points out that the Pacific Northwest has a "long history of engendering systems change... Vancouver is trying to position itself as the greenest city in the world by 2020," he continues. "We're not far behind, and Seattle's up there as well."
Vancouver, BC, is Argento's pick to be the physical capital of this movement: It's the most international of the three cities, and it already has strong economic relationships to Asia and Europe and a firm commitment to being a sustainable leader. In just three years of existence (that's six events, though, since they are already operating on a semiannual basis), Eco Fashion Week has attracted designers from New York, Sweden, and Bolivia, as well as other parts of Canada.
And yes: Portland has done, and is doing, much of this on its own, too. And yes, there are many obstacles to contend with, and funding and other institutional support that needs to be secured. It's not as simple as suggesting that local designers should up and move their shows to Vancouver's Eco Fashion Week (a salty proposition with participation fees starting at $2,750 plus tax)—and I'm certainly not suggesting that Portland stop doing its own events. Like the sustainable-design movement as a whole, though, our own efforts continue to lack unity, which is counterproductive to capturing the attention of the rest of the world. "The Pacific Northwest often looks like amateurs because the way we operate is really different," says Argento. "One of the ways we can celebrate that is with building our reputation around fashion as something unique."