Can fashion be good? Movements have long considered whether style might serve a political perspective, from punk DIY to Courrèges’s synthetic futurism to the No Logoism of the 1990s. Today the buzzword is sustainability.
According to McKinsey & Company’s 2020 Fashion on Climate report, the fashion industry produced around 2.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, equaling four percent of the global total. Images of discarded clothes clogging second-hand mitumba markets in Kenya or piled high in the Atacama Desert in Chile have disturbed even the most dedicated consumers. Images of rivers turned purple with dye have hit CNN.
Sustainability has thus become a trendy selling point for the fashion industry. With curated design collaborations and eco-friendly tags, big brands have harnessed green fashion’s mass appeal to produce millions of barely reusable, let alone sustainable, products. A June 2021 study published by the Changing Markets Foundation found that 60 percent of the environmental claims made on the websites of 12 of the biggest British and European fashion brands — including ASOS, H&M and Zara — could be classed as “unsubstantiated” and “misleading.” The report assessed brands from all corners of the fashion world — from e-commerce giants Boohoo and Zalando and mass market stalwarts Forever 21 and Uniqlo to luxury houses such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton — based on their sustainability claims. More than 39 percent of the products the report examined came with claims such as “recycled,” “eco,” “low-impact,” or simply “sustainable,” but its authors determined that 59 percent of these claims failed to meet new guidelines for avoiding greenwashing from the Competition and Markets Authority, a British regulatory agency. Another 2021 report, “Synthetics Anonymous,” also demonstrated the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels and documented “rampant greenwashing.”
Amid these sorry attempts to convert fashion’s destructiveness into a new source of profit, Berlin-based fashion designer Melisa Minca has been “reviving the discarded” since 2018, reworking and reimagining upcycled textiles and accessories into the kind of slogan-splashed garments that beg to be photographed for social media. Working from her living room-turned-studio in Friedrichshain — an east Berlin neighborhood known for the world’s most gatekept nightclub, Berghain — the Slovakia-born designer produces clothes that that yell “SUCK MY CLIT,” “EAT THE RICH,” and “PAY ME.”
What differentiates Minca from the many fast fashion brands peddling early-2000s-inspired statement t-shirts and low-rise jeans is that almost everything she produces is upcycled (though she does admit to buying a few new items, such as zippers, which she can only source second-hand from a flea market in Athens, Greece) and barely leaves a scrap of material unused. It’s clear that Minca treats sustainability as more than just a slogan; her distaste for corporate greening illustrates that she’s as allergic to bullshit as she is to waste. But, Minca notes that existing under capitalism often means trading your integrity for rent. After her first year of freelancing, she noticed a shift in the way her artistic value was perceived by international corporations.
“The bigger brands started noticing a little designer monkey that they could greenwash with,” Minca tells me. “Offers to work with them started pouring in. That’s what I do now to propel this business forward. I die inside a little bit every time I have to do something with Zalando, but that’s the only way to survive.” Reassuring messages about “eco-friendly” collections travel faster when there’s a fresh face, not just a brand-name, attached to them.
Minca recounts a infuriating recent encounter she had with sportswear giant Nike: “I was hired to make 30 bucket hats for a Nike dinner, and they were meant to be given to the brand’s ambassadors as gifts. I even made one live, with a big machine, on the day, showing how I was making this happen. I was using old towels. I kept all the scraps and made a beautiful, scrappy dress from the leftovers — I didn’t throw anything away.”
“So, what did Nike do?” Minca continues. “They flew a bunch of those ambassadors to Berlin to have this dinner, completely defeating the purpose of it,” with the carbon emissions of those flights. “I was sitting there having my beautiful food, which was from a restaurant where everything is locally sourced, while they’re just flying people in. It makes your brain stand still sometimes.” She shakes her head. “Brands usually want the tutorial, a little workshop here and there, then they release a sneaker that has five percent recycled whatever. Then they put you in the sneakers like, ‘Look at this upcycling designer wearing these upcycled sneakers.’”
Or consider another example of brazen corporate insensibility: H&M’s 2016 World Recycling Week, which, according to Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution and author of Loved Clothes Last, served to bury publicity surrounding the third anniversary of the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, the location of factories making apparel for brands including Benetton, Bonmarché, Prada, Gucci, Versace, Moncler, Mango, Primark, and Walmart. That disaster killed 1,134 people, mostly garment workers. While H&M claims to have never had any production base at the deadly complex, their industry-boosting greenwashing drowned out the efforts of organizations like Fashion Revolution, which was founded in the wake of the tragedy and continues to raise awareness of fast fashion’s “dire consequences for people and nature.”
Nobody thinks that the entire problem of fast fashion will be solved through upcycled sweaters. Alec Leach, author of The World is on Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes, argues that greenwashing has given us the false impression that we, as individuals, can make a real difference. “I think it just really goes to show how successful greenwashing is, that we always come back to thinking about what’s directly in front of us, rather than the machine itself,” he told me. He thinks that the inconvenience (and in many cases, impossibility) of sustainability-checking our purchases means consumers just won’t do it. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t own any sustainable clothing myself, I don’t shop for many sustainable brands myself, because I don’t like it,” he says. We need political change, rather than single-person solutions, to get brands to change how they operate; as Leach points out, “people always assume that everything just comes down to their behaviors, as individuals, and they forget that there’s a political context to how fast fashion came about. All you need are stricter regulations from some of the biggest markets and then fast fashion doesn’t start to look that cheap anymore.”
So far, that regulation hasn’t been easy to come by. The industry, in theory, does some self-assessment via tools like the Higg Index, a widely used sustainability ranking system for various materials. However, the New York Times recently reported on how the index was heavy influenced by the synthetics industry, leading to good rankings for brands that avoid natural fibers like silk and boosts for brands that use synthetics like polyester — which are filthy to produce. External regulation hasn’t been much more successful. Last spring, the European Union announced a mild set of proposals dealing with greenwashing, microplastics, and worker reskilling. Critics say there’s little in the proposals that companies aren’t already doing and that the worker protections are weak. The Garment Worker Protection Act passed last year in California, which included a raft of concrete wage and work protections, is better, although it doesn’t include environmental provisions. Still, “sustainability” sells big, while any enforcement remains anemic.
The industry and its ambassadors have fostered an array of self-serving narratives. One popular argument goes that stigmatizing cheap and easy access to fashion is classist and demonizes poor people. Of course, it’s usually social media users flaunting monthly Shein hauls who are using this convenient line to defend their shopping habits. People struggling to make ends meet are not buying three new outfits per week and are more likely to be exploited by laboring in the unethical supply chains. Instead of debating the democratic potential of five-dollar denim, “why don’t we talk about higher wages for everyone so that we’re all operating with a little bit more money and can make different choices?” says fashion writer and author of Consumed Aja Barber. “But no one ever wants to have that conversation.”
Promoting different, rather than less, consumption, and shady sustainability labels instead of better labor practices, has simply provided a new bonanza for the fashion industry. It’s convenient for those nurturing careers as “sustainability consultants” and building self-appointed ethical brands to claim that the only way to make effective changes to fashion’s global impact is to create new businesses, new products, and new things to buy.
Given the need for massive state regulation around labor and the environment, do designers have any role to play? Fashion designers and activists such as Minca believe that removing yourself entirely from the purchasing cycles and trends of fast fashion is the most effective way to stand against it. Her DIY approach to fashion isn’t new, but it is seeing a cultural resurgence.
Most Western consumers are far removed from our clothes’ production. In the U.S., for example, less than three percent of clothing is made domestically. The rivers red with dye are somewhere else. Clothing in general is illegible to us, with tags, when we bother to read them, listing mysterious fabrics like acetate and cupro, rather than anything we might recognize from the natural world. Fashion magazines no longer explain the construction of a garment, but simply tell us what’s beautiful — they don’t expect a modern consumer to know about linings, drape, or princess seams.
This is a striking break with the past. Up until the mid-20th century, it was perfectly normal for people to be involved with altering and fixing garments as an everyday practice. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t sew, because someone in your community could, and that person made it their living. It wasn’t until the introduction of automated manufacturing processes between the 1960s and 1980s that mass produced clothing was made widely available. Without suggesting a romantic return to sewing our own petticoats, could it hurt to ask: What if we stopped looking up the fashion hierarchy for inspiration and validation and revalued our own creativity?
Ylenia Gortana is another Berlin-based slow fashion advocate. Much like Minca, she is known for designing and styling upcycled and second-hand garments, while also offering online tutorials and in-person classes for those who want to learn to make their own clothes. After studying fashion design in Berlin and working for a well-known fashion house in New York, Gortana quickly recognized that the ethics of the industry sucked. Now her work, she tells me, “is about making people aware of what it means to make clothes, what it means to consume something, and how much work and labor is involved.”
Gortana sees a unified motivation among her current students: “The most common reason people come to my classes is ethicality. There are a lot of young people, between 20 and 30, and they have this mindset that they want to change their consumption.”
Designers who want to work against the fashion industry have something to teach the rest of us about relating to our garments, but from a business standpoint, they’ve largely been thwarted. “For years I’ve been doing my business out of my living room. It’s really daunting, and I don’t want to do it anymore,” Minca admits. “Honestly, it’s affecting my mental health. When I’m trying to chill at home I have to sit here and face the wall so I’m not looking at my work.” Meanwhile, Gortana hosts in-person sewing classes that students pay to attend, but she also shares free-to-view tutorials on her YouTube channel. Neither has yet found a personally sustainable way to scale their work without compromising their values.
Still, there’s something brilliant about continuing to grasp for creativity in a world determined to flatten it into a tidy consumable package, made with shitty materials by a woman whose boss is underpaying her, wrapped in plastic that’s turning groundwater into toxic sludge. A glimpse at Minca’s online store reveals absolutely zany lace up skirt suits reconstructed from jackets. Gortana’s latest tutorial is for glamorously weird stretch velvet gloves that you can make at home. Slow fashion may inevitably operate on a small scale (is something sustainable after you mail it by DHL?), but you don’t necessarily have to buy it from brands. These designers are playing, and by playing, they are taking creativity out of corporate hands. They are reimagining the future of clothing in a warming, trash-covered world — and they’re showing that you can too.
Milly Burroughs is a British writer living in Berlin. She specializes in art, design and architecture and her writing is regularly published by AnOther, AIGA Eye on Design and many more.
Styling by Rachael Rodgers
Creative direction and production by Fabio Pace
Hair by Noriko Takayama
Make-up by Paloma Brytscha
Models: Marlene at Tigers and Nikita at Mirrrs
Casting by Eli X Scherer
Photo Assistant: Fiona Mason
Styling Assistant: Veronika Sabe