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Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls Ph.D.

Fashioning a Socially Responsible Society

Eco-fashion Couture Culture

"About 8,000 chemicals are used ... Many of them are irreversibly damaging to people and the environment." This cry for social responsibility is not a reference to the auto industry, the mining industry, or any number of other dirty industries targeted for their serious and debilitating challenges to sustainability. It's the fashion industry and the above quote, about the creation of textiles, comes from the exhibition Eco-Fashion: Going Green, on view at The Museum at FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology, until November 13th.

The amount of hazardous waste created by clothing manufacturing is staggering. Without evolving to ethical and sustainable practices, every stage of the creation of fashion will continue to produce toxic consequences for humans and the environment as it has throughout fashion's history. This is the message of the exhibition which brings awareness to many facets of fashion production, such as the U.S. consumes 84 pounds of textiles per person, each year. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the United States entered 2010 with a population of over 308 million. People who do the math are likely to become part of the growing ecological consciousness deeply concerned about the rate of fashion consumption. The toxic pollution comes from the dyes and pigments in drinking water, the mega-tons of pesticides used on cotton, the billions of gallons of bleach, and the vastly unsustainable manufacture of non-biodegradable synthetics such as polyester and other fabrics made with crude, solvents and other dangerous volatile compounds in clothing production.

An economy can't expand when the earth is nearing its physical limits - unless we re-think, re-tool, restructure, and recreate fashion production by designing and manufacturing from a smarter place, conserving energy, resources, and reducing pollution. Meeting the challenges are the creators of Eco-Fashion: a diverse array of highly original, cutting-edge designers, conscious of complete life cycle of their products. Many tried to make changes within existing apparel companies but found the only way to be true to their beliefs was to leave. They have founded environmentally and socially aware companies branded on sustainable practices and oversee every step of their beautiful, artful, and well-crafted creations. Eco-Fashion: Going Green not only traces the history of fashion's environmental and ethical practices, but it serves us all by presenting some of those who are modeling eloquent solutions. Over 100 garments, past and present, are looked at according six themes: repurposing and recycling materials, material origins, textile dyeing and production, quality of craftsmanship, labor practices and the treatment of animals.

Represented in the exhibition, is the internationally successful Norwegian label FIN (see picture of marble print dress, organic bamboo satin, Fall 2010). Founded in 2007, the company is the vision of head designer Per Sivertsen. Known as the house of "Eco Lux," because of its innovative and luxurious designs, they use only organic fabrics such as bamboo satin, cotton, wild silk, and new hybrid textiles they've developed. Their corporate goal is to become completely carbon neutral. Natalie Chanin's company Alabama Chanin creates slow fashion, with organic and recycled materials, hand-made using old techniques, by local artisans around Florence, Alabama. Eviana Hartman, recipient of the Ecco Domani Sustainable Design Award in 2009, is owner and creative director of the Brooklyn based fashion house Bodkin, established in 2008. She has successfully combined her aesthetics, influenced by art and architecture and her ecological concern, to create highly influential designs. Yeohlee Teng, the creator of Yeohlee, produces her intricate, textural and geometrically inclined designs within the New York garment district and sells her designs to primarily to Bergdorf Goodman and Barney's-all decisions that help control her company's carbon footprint. NOIR, the Danish fashion-house, is known as the tailored, sexy, eco-fashion label that treats African cotton in new, unique ways. One aspect of this label's innovations includes giving back to Africa in big ways through its foundation. Another fashion label that is breaking norms is Ciel, the second environmental line by multiple eco-award winning British designer Sarah Ratty. She has long been about sustainable style, creating sophisticated high-end planet-friendly designs, while well vetting her supply chain.

Also represented in the exhibition are the creations by the fashion brand Eden that was originally launched in 2005 with the concept, "Beauty of Compassion" by two activists against third world poverty, Ali Hewson and her husband Bono (of the band U2), as a fair trade fashion label to benefit Africa. Last year the giant luxury goods group LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) purchased 49% of the company. There are those that believe that changes in Uden's production chain has derailed its mission and others who think the partnership is allowing the company to reach its full business potential.

The big companies of fashion are certainly in position to help the world progress toward sustainability, and some, like designer Stella McCartney-also featured in the exhibition- is a prime example of a designer living by an environmental promise and working to make her luxury label as green and sustainable as possible. Her kind is so rare that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has honored her for her outstanding environmental leadership in the fashion world. Building her company on ethical and environmental principles has had karmic payoff over the past few years- according to the September 18, 2010 Financial Times' Magazine, "...we've really seen Stella go from a very specific brand to a global powerhouse." Taking business to those accountable for their practices is vital for building a sustainable society and much of her success is due to ecologically minded consumers knowing the impact and power of their choices.

With the growing cultural awareness, many people no longer underestimate the power of fashion and how intensely it can effect their emotions. For them, clothes are messages of social responsibility. If you believe you are what you eat, to feel psychologically well and optimistic, many also want to wear what they stand for.

"I really don't want to wear clothes created from someone else's despair."
-Ali Hewson, Times (London), 2006, from the wall of Eco-Fashion: Going Green.

Eco-Fashion: Going Green
Co-curators: Jennifer Farley and Colleen Hill
May 26 - November 13, 2010
The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology)
Seventh Avenue at 27th Street
New York, NY 10001-5992


About the Author

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.