We have a fashion emergency. And no, not that kind. It's far more complicated: Our passion for fashion is slowly destroying the planet. But in an unlikely merging of fashion and sustainability, vintage denim might play a leading role in saving it.
Your "decluttered" donated clothes don't end up where you'd expect.
In the United States alone, we're collectively throwing away approximately 16.22 million tons of clothing each year, 13.6 million of which end up in a landfill according to a report released by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). While we can blame fast fashion, it's part of a larger systemic supply-and-demand issue. The more we buy cheap, fast fashion, the more they'll make. Plus, fast fashion typically isn't made to last longer than a year or so, driving the consumer to replace last season's items with the latest new and shiny collection. It's a vicious cycle, even when clothing is donated. Many companies that purport to send donated clothes to the needy have indicated that the ones we pass along can't withstand normal wear so they end up in landfills, too.
The problem with clothing in landfills is the chemical reaction it causes. Many clothes made of polyester, nylon, or acrylic are actually made from oil-derived plastic, which ends up in our atmosphere and bodies of water. Chemicals used to treat, dye, and color clothing seep into the surrounding land, creating a toxic environment. This kind of permanent damage all for the sake of newness and pleasure is a gross imbalance not only in our manufacturing system but in our values.
Can we save the Earth, one pair of reworked jeans at a time?
Thankfully, the needle is beginning to move in the right direction. There is still a tremendous amount of work ahead, but fashion trends have been turning green, reflecting a set of shifting values that prioritize the health and well-being of laborers, clothing wearers, and of course, Mother Earth. Eco-minded Reformation has successfully raised consciousness around waste and water expenditure in the fashion world, Everlane has provided unprecedented transparency into its labor and manufacturing, and even fast-fashion giant H&M has designed a conscious collection made of recycled materials.
Alden Wicker, writer and founder of EcoCult, an authority on the sustainable living lifestyle, approaches the problem individually with her buy-less-but-better shopping philosophy. "Modern denim is mostly manufactured in Asian factories, which expel toxic effluent right into the river, poisoning wildlife and people around it. It's also water-intensive. And to get that worn look requires intense manual labor by workers who are underpaid," said Wicker.
Until we can find a systematic solution to the clothing waste problem, it seems that there's one area where fashion and sustainability overlap: reworked vintage denim. Interestingly enough, some of these brands are fashion-first, which is a very smart way to normalize vintage fabrics for the mass consumer. "I love the look of vintage denim, and it's so trendy right now, but often it's not quite right in subtle ways. Fashion brands like Reformation and RE/DONE are professionals of making it perfect while not requiring new resources," Wicker said. "I love my Reformation reworked jeans!" These are the denim-focused brands leading the reworked vintage charge:
Founded by Sydney Izen in 2016, who notably was a college senior at the time, Unemployed Denim is a company that empowers women through personalization and self-expression of vintage denim. If you've seen someone with a denim jacket customized with patches, embroidery, and pins lately—Unemployed Denim was the catalyst of this trend. Izen has created a campus ambassador program that gives women who sell jackets to their fellow university students a commission and teaches them basic sales infrastructure. The brand has also been party to a number of inspiring supportive endeavors, which is icing on the cake of a well-positioned sustainability-focused business model.
RE/DONE co-founder Sean Barron noticed that all his most stylish female friends bought vintage denim and had it tailored. After a year of figuring out the logistics, he and co-founder Jamie Mazur found a way to deconstruct high-quality vintage men's Levi's jeans and rework them to fit female figures. "We recut it as if we're making a new jean but just using the vintage fabric. Levi's are really happy with us; they really believe we are helping their relevance," he told Vogue in an interview. They're aiming to broaden their range of products and heritage brands, which will appeal to women who care about both style and sustainability.
The Vintage Twin.
While it looks like fashion is the main focus of The Vintage Twin, co-founders (and twins) Morgan and Samantha Elias recognized two things: They were good at reworking vintage into unique, stylish, and modern pieces, and the world needed less fashion-related waste. Combining these led them to start The Vintage Twin, which has grown since starting out on their college campus in 2009. The Vintage Twin is a service, first and foremost. Vintage items are hand-selected, then they're professionally laundered, and finally reworked to a more modern silhouette. If you ever have the pleasure of visiting a TVT location, they also take the guesswork out of finding the right size. Their staff simply eyeballs your waist and recommends a few pairs to try based on your shape and what's in stock, mastering the art of efficient and instantly gratifying (and guilt-free) shopping.