Old, new, bor­rowed, green

Can our fash­ion editor re­think the way she shops and writes?

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Pho­tographs: David Newby. Styling: Me­lanie Wilkin­son

I love fash­ion. I love go­ing to cat­walk shows. I love get­ting dressed up.

I love the il­licit thrill of some frip­pery I can’t re­ally af­ford, ac­com­pa­nied by the rus­tle of tis­sue pa­per in a crisp shop­ping bag – a sound bested only by a cham­pagne cork pop­ping. And that’s not even the half of it. More than any­thing, I love the thrill of the high street chase. I love stop­ping a wo­man on the street to ask where her dress is from, and hunt­ing it down and or­der­ing it from my phone at the bus stop. I have been known to go weak at the knees over new suede boots and I will never, ever have enough ear­rings.

But you know what else I love? Liv­ing in a cli­mate that doesn’t fry me alive. Oceans with fish and ice­bergs in them rather than plas­tic. Mars is a long way – and be­sides, Elon Musk? No thanks. Which means I need to love clothes in a way that doesn’t cre­ate huge amounts of waste and use a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of the world’s car­bon bud­get. It is ob­scene that 300,000 tonnes of fash­ion waste goes into land­fill each year. It is the op­po­site of progress that the av­er­age num­ber of times a gar­ment is worn be­fore it is re­tired has dropped by 36% in the last 15 years. (In China, that fig­ure is 70%.) Lov­ing clothes shouldn’t be a sys­tem based on throw­ing them away. Fash­ion isn’t rub­bish.

How­ever, what this ar­ti­cle is ab­so­lutely not about is me lec­tur­ing you in sus­tain­abil­ity. You’re prob­a­bly much, much bet­ter than me, for a start. If any­thing, this is about me be­ing more like you. It’s about me chang­ing my column in this mag­a­zine so that it bet­ter re­flects the way al­most all of us re­ally wear clothes – which, on any given Satur­day morn­ing, is more about styling what we al­ready own than buy­ing a new head-to-toe out­fit. So from this month on, I’m go­ing to change what I wear and what I write about: ev­ery week’s look will in­clude old favourites from my wardrobe and dis­cov­er­ies from vin­tage stores. There will still, al­ways, be gor­geous hand-picked pieces that are avail­able to buy. But we won’t pre­tend that’s the whole story.

From Katharine Ham­nett and Stella McCart­ney to new­com­ers like Mother of Pearl’s Amy Powney, de­sign­ers who are pas­sion­ate about mak­ing eth­i­cal →

fash­ion have helped make sus­tain­abil­ity cool and glam­orous and newsworthy. (Should cool or glam­orous or newsworthy mat­ter? Per­haps not. But the re­al­ity is, they do.) Even so, a mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion about fash­ion and sus­tain­abil­ity needs to in­clude not just those lucky enough to be able to af­ford ex­pen­sive clothes, but the av­er­age shop­per. The wo­man who would love a pair of Stella’s new Ve­gan Stan Smiths (£235) but who has, say, £30 to spend and wants to treat her­self. (Ac­cord­ing to the Of­fice for Na­tional Sta­tis­tics, of an av­er­age house­hold weekly spend of £554.20 a week, £25.10 goes on clothes and shoes.) There is a very hu­man de­sire to move with the zeit­geist, an op­ti­mistic in­cli­na­tion to keep turn­ing over a new leaf, which drives our im­pulse fash­ion buys – and why not? The re­ceived wis­dom is that you should give up those £30 buys and save for a once-a-year £350 blazer in­stead; but this is un­re­al­is­tic, not to men­tion a bit pa­tro­n­is­ing.

Sus­tain­abil­ity needs to start with tak­ing a long, hard look at the psy­chol­ogy of fash­ion. When I buy clothes, I am try­ing to buy a bet­ter-look­ing, cooler, more ex­cit­ing ver­sion of me. Same as it ever was, noth­ing new in that. But what has changed is that the chasm be­tween the re­flec­tion in the mir­ror and our In­sta­gramfed as­pi­ra­tions yawns ever wider.

Some­times clothes can bridge that gap. At its best, fash­ion can be noth­ing short of mirac­u­lous. Do you know when you should buy a dress? When you try it on and start slightly flirt­ing with your­self in the chang­ing room mir­ror. I don’t mean full-on flirt­ing: that would be a bit weird. I just mean that you look in the mir­ror and are pleased by what you see and find your­self, with­out think­ing about what you are do­ing, giv­ing a bit of a hair toss, smil­ing at your re­flec­tion. When that hap­pens, you should def­i­nitely buy that dress.

But you know which dress you ab­so­lutely shouldn’t buy? The one you try on, then look in the mir­ror and think, this is a great dress and if I lost two ki­los I’d look nice in it, I wish I hadn’t eaten cake. That dress is neg­ging you. That dress is not your friend. Please prom­ise me you will never, ever buy that dress.

I have been ask­ing lots of peo­ple who know about this stuff – thought lead­ers in fash­ion psy­chol­ogy, ex­perts on the cir­cu­lar econ­omy, women who are ninja-level at find­ing trea­sure in char­ity shops – for ad­vice about how I can keep the fash­ion bar high when it comes to the clothes I wear and write about, while re­duc­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.

Caryn Franklin, pro­fes­sor of di­ver­sity at Kingston School of Art, strikes a chord when she brings up the emo­tional as­pect of sus­tain­abil­ity as a par­tic­u­lar is­sue for women. “Women feel they will never be good enough, that they must keep on striv­ing for an ideal they will never achieve,” she says. “They med­i­cate with clothes, us­ing them to cre­ate the self they think they need to have – and when the dress doesn’t de­liver they keep on dis­pos­ing of clothes along the way.” In other words, there is a self-worth gap in our cul­ture, and clothes dumped as land­fill is the con­se­quence.

You might think it a stretch to ar­gue that build­ing a look based around the clothes you al­ready own is the first step to­wards ac­cept­ing who you are. I don’t, ac­tu­ally. For starters, this is how 99% of us ac­tu­ally dress, most of the time. We need to stop call­ing it “re­cy­cling” when the Duchess of Cam­bridge wears the same coat twice, be­cause it’s lu­di­crous; not talk­ing about the fact that al­most all of us are still wear­ing clothes we’ve had for years cre­ates a weird dis­hon­esty gap. And I don’t mean Granny’s cash­mere (hum­ble­brag 1.0) or a de­signer piece that now counts as vin­tage. I’m talk­ing about wear­ing or­di­nary clothes, many years later, be­cause you still like them. The black trousers I’m wear­ing in the pho­to­graph above came from Gap in 2006. I have worn them roughly once a week, some­times more, for the last 12 years.

Nonethe­less, my ex­pe­ri­ence is that, when you think in terms of cost per wear, ex­pen­sive clothes tend to end up as good, or bet­ter, value than the cheap stuff. The leopard-printed, short-sleeve jacket that’s hang­ing be­hind me in the pho­to­graph over­leaf I bought from Betty Jack­son in the very early noughties. I re­mem­ber de­lib­er­at­ing over it, be­cause it wasn’t cheap. I mean, how use­ful is a leopard short sleeve jacket go­ing to be, I fret­ted? Reader, I’ll tell you: very bloody use­ful. I love that jacket to bits. The pais­ley-printed blouse I’m wear­ing with the satin trousers on the pre­vi­ous page is by Louis Vuit­ton. It’s about a decade old; it comes out to fash­ion week ev­ery time there’s a boho thing go­ing on (which is ev­ery year or two); and in fal­low sea­sons, it’s a beach cover up, or a week­end lunch with jeans and boots favourite.

The blouse I am wear­ing with the Gap trousers is a vin­tage piece by Lau­ren, a Ralph Lau­ren brand, dis­cov­ered on sale at Rokit for £30 by the Guardian’s bril­liant stylist, Mel. I have never mas­tered char­ity shop­ping, so on a mis­sion to gen up, I asked fash­ion styling supremo Bay Gar­nett, who cre­ates cult cap­sule col­lec­tions for MiH jeans based on her vin­tage denim tro­phies, for ad­vice.

“When I go into a sec­ond­hand shop →

I have talked to psy­chol­o­gists, ex­perts on the cir­cu­lar econ­omy, women who are ninja level at find­ing trea­sure in char­ity shops

I look for what feels mod­ern,” she says. “I hate the retro look.” This at­ti­tude is a rev­e­la­tion to me, be­cause the retro look is ex­actly what puts me off. That hip­ster 1950s vibe, with the full skirts and the lip­stick and the ironic hair­style: great on other peo­ple, cat­e­gor­i­cally not for me. “Oh God, me nei­ther,” Gar­nett says. “I hate that idea of vin­tage shop­ping as some­thing quirky and nostal­gic and twee. I don’t ac­tu­ally like the word vin­tage at all. Re­cently I’ve bought some amaz­ing 80s pieces, like a biker sweat­shirt with a zip.”

Some of my favourite clothes have been brought back from the dead many times. The tiger-striped pen­cil skirt I’m wear­ing in the pic­ture on the right I bought a decade ago from Max&Co, a MaxMara dif­fu­sion line; it was not de­signed for my habit of run­ning up stairs two at a time and has had to be re­con­structed sev­eral times. I had a mini-length slip­dress cov­ered in pink se­quins (hey, it was the noughties) con­verted into a stretchy be­low-the-knee cock­tail skirt five years ago and I now wear it to the kind of par­ties that call for a sparkly skirt and a nice sweater.

Lulu O’Con­nor, who runs on­line al­ter­ations com­pany Clothes Doc­tor, is pas­sion­ate about help­ing women en­joy their clothes for longer, and reels off a list of sug­ges­tions – many of which you can do at home. An over­sized T-shirt you are at­tached to that’s lurk­ing in the in-case-I-paint-the-house pile, for in­stance, could be that cropped-at-the-waist T-shirt ev­ery­one on In­sta­gram is wear­ing with high-waisted trousers. (The more slo­gans and lo­gos you chop through the mid­dle of, the more Guc­ci­fied the look.)

Mother of Pearl’s Powney re­cently launched a sus­tain­able, eth­i­cal, sea­son­less cap­sule col­lec­tion called No Frills. With price tags from £90, the range is keenly priced for a de­signer la­bel – and the qual­ity and la­bel give it re­sale value, some­thing Powney and other de­sign­ers em­brac­ing the cir­cu­lar econ­omy are pas­sion­ate about. Ves­ti­aire Col­lec­tive – a sort of blue-chip eBay, just for fash­ion – is a great re­source to find the per­son out there who wants to pay good money for the de­signer hand­bag you don’t use any more, free­ing up your cash for a new one. The cir­cu­lar econ­omy is pick­ing up gear at high street level, too: John Lewis will buy back old clothes you have bought from them and no longer wear. An on­line cal­cu­la­tor tells you how much the clothes you want to re­turn (in­clud­ing socks) are worth; once you have £50 worth, a courier will col­lect them and bring you a voucher. Items are ei­ther resold (though not in John Lewis) mended or re­cy­cled.

This sea­son, post­pone that shop­ping trip. Put your keys down, take your coat off, make a cup of tea and open your wardrobe in­stead. Start by pulling out any­thing leopard print: these seem to get bet­ter with age. Any skirt that hits be­low the knee is good: if you’ve got a short-sleeve shirt- es­pe­cially one of those gar­ish, touristy ones – try it over the skirt, cinched with your widest belt. If there’s a pair of cropped trousers that you usu­ally only wear on hol­i­day, try them with an­kle boots.

No doubt there is a much bet­ter, much wor­thier fash­ion column that could be writ­ten, about how we all have to stop shop­ping com­pletely. Bagsy not writ­ing that one, though. I am not ready to give up fash­ion. But I am ready to try and do it dif­fer­ently. What do you need to buy this sea­son, to keep up with the times? That’s sim­ple. Less

Jess’s new column starts on 20 Oc­to­ber

Jess’s 2006 Gap trousers, with blouse, £30, rokit.co.uk. Ear­rings, Jess’s own. Jacket, £56, ware­house. co.uk. Mules, £40, riverisland.com. On floor: boots, £115, dunelon­don.com

Jumper, £99, mark­sand­spencer. com. Skirt, Jess’s own. Heels, £80, dune.co.uk. Hang­ing up: jeans, Jess’s own; Jess’s leopard-printed Betty Jack­son jacket, nearly 20 years old and ‘loved to bits’. On floor: boots, £135, dune.co.uk

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