IMMEDIATELY AFTER reading Elizabeth Cline's Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Crispin Argento felt compelled to email me. "I just finished reading this book, READ IT. Write about it." The designer of men's accessory line PINO then took it upon himself to make arrangements for the author, whose comprehensively researched book clearly lays out the economic, environmental, and cultural perils of America's consumption of mass-produced, foreign-made "fast fashion," to visit Portland for a dinner and conversation with the city's independent design community.
In a city that's made inroads in altering the typical path of fashion designer and consumer alike, much of Cline's testimony is already at the fore of conversation. It's the promise of new ideas, resources, and attitudes that, combined with Cline's extensive knowledge, will make this an event worth its slightly splurge-y ticket price (that and the included food and drink catered by Clyde Common). Portland Undressed: Dinner and Conversation with New York Author Elizabeth Cline on the Future of Sustainable Fashion in Portland, The Cleaners, 403 SW 10th, Tues Sept 4, 7 pm, $85, pinoportland.com.
MERCURY: The most common criticism of local, independent clothing is that it is more expensive, which leads to a perception of its consumption as elitist, especially among people who aren't inherently interested in fashion. What is your response to this characterization?
ELIZABETH CLINE: I wasn't inherently interested in fashion until I wrote Overdressed, and I also found it elitist, and I think those are normal responses to the shallow and unethical way the fashion industry is run today. But people should care about clothes, because it's an important part of our economy and because we live our lives in them. Our price expectations for clothing have been warped by corporate fashion chains that are able to sell clothes at artificially low prices by using poverty wages and producing millions of pieces of clothing a year. On the other end of the spectrum, luxury fashion brands have convinced some people that good clothes should cost thousands of dollars. Consumers should know that the independent designers are more often the ones selling clothes at a "fair" price, meaning their prices reflect the true costs involved, support fair wages for the designer and the sewing machine operators, and are produced in small, more sustainable batches. Americans used to strive to own the best clothes that they could for their money; they were very particular and proud of their appearance and their wardrobes. Today, people brag about owning cheap duds and think being anti-fashion is a solution to the problems I describe. I would love to see people buying less clothing and instead saving up to own pieces that are beautiful, well crafted, and ethically made. At the least, we need to be buying less and acknowledging that our clothing purchases matter.
Can you suggest some simple guidelines for the typical consumer?
Buy less and take care of what you own, no matter where you shop or at what price point. Do your homework and support ethical brands that have a commitment to human rights and the environment. Instead of buying clothes on impulse, set an annual or seasonal clothing budget (Americans spend $1,100 a year on average) and buy clothes that you want, need, and are going to last.
What do you feel is the most pressing concern regarding the production of fast fashion?
The environmental consequences of disposable clothing are going to come to a head fast. Fast-fashion chains are now moving into places like China, where another 1.3 billion people are starting to take up the habit of splurging on clothes on a weekly basis. The fashion industry is already one of the biggest polluters in the world, and uses more water than any other industry besides agriculture. Fast fashion's plans for expansion are quite frankly unsustainable. From an economic standpoint, we need to bring manufacturing back to the US if we ever hope to have a middle class again. Why not start with garment manufacturers?
Are you familiar with the independent fashion scene in Portland and do you have suggestions for the community?
I am aware that Portland has an amazing independent design scene. Of course Gretchen Jones is from Portland, as are several other Project Runway contestants. What's most exciting to me is what Portland is doing with production resources like Spooltown and the Portland
Garment Factory. I think locally produced and independent fashion is the future of the clothing industry, but it can't happen without garment factories! I see factories getting creative and offering branding and design consultation and fine-tuning the services that designers need today. My number one suggestion for independent designers is to be transparent about how and where your products are made and why your products cost what they do. The average consumer thinks that a $10 price tag is fair and a $100 price tag is a rip off. This thinking has to be totally reversed if we want independent design to appeal to a wider audience.
Have you seen or heard anything since the publication of your book that has given you encouragement that our country's consumerist habits are evolving?
When it came out that the American Olympic uniforms were made in China and there was a huge uproar, that was a watershed moment. Four years ago, I don't think anyone would have cared. I also hear all the time that people are frustrated with the quality of mass-market clothing. They enjoy the cheap trends, but they don't feel like they ultimately have a choice or are happy with their clothes. They're looking for alternatives, and that's a great sign that things are about to change in a major way.
What was the most surprising finding, to you, in the researching of your book?
It's absolutely astounding how much clothing is being produced and also thrown away today. In 1960, a big batch of clothes produced at a factory might be 2,000 pieces. Today a company like Gap produces millions of pairs of a single style of jeans. Zara produces a million pieces of clothing a day. We are buying more clothes, wearing them less, and getting rid of them faster as a result—we're throwing away 68 tons of textiles per person and then dumping millions of tons of unwanted clothing on charities.