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Part 7: The fashion designers that are making a difference

Kate Sanner

While it may seem odd to include new clothing designers in a series about the secondhand fashion industry, the role of the fashion designer is vitally important in determining the next life of a garment. What materials go into a garment and how a piece is designed are core considerations in building a circular fashion industry.

The Business Model

Creating clothing is a complex, expansive process that often spans the globe. After a fashion designer draws up a look, the methods that bring that piece to life can get pretty complicated. The production of a single design can often take place all around the world from start to finish with different suppliers and facilities in various countries. Beginning at the raw material stage, clothing may be born at a farm in the case of natural fabrics like cotton or at an oil field in the case of synthetics like polyester. Plant fibers will get sent to a mill where it'll get spun into a yarn. Synthetics often begin in lab and are a result of chemical reactions that create polymers that are melted and extruded through a spinneret to form fibers that are spun into yarn. The yarns can then be knit or woven into fabrics. After a fabric is treated, it will then be cut according to the pattern design and sewn by garment workers. This is, of course, an incredibly simplistic version of how clothes are made. There are many more steps and processes involved along the way, like how a yarn or material is treated, dyed, and finished to create the desired end look and feel.

Designers and clothing brands may sell their clothing through wholesale partnerships or their own channels, online or in-store. Fashion brands develop their own identity to appeal to their desired market and offer clothing and programming accordingly. Consider how Nike uses hype culture and limited drops to appeal to streetwear consumers or how their strategic sponsorships and story-led marketing makes them a favorite amongst athletes. Fashion brands are not only creating clothing designs but aspirations, experiences, and identities that are incorporated into the business model. In some cases, take-back programs and resale platforms will fit into the image a brand is trying to create.

Fashion Designers within the world of resale

Industry Role

At each step of the clothing production and design process, there are detailed decisions to be made that have a big impact on what the future of that garment may be. For example, combining polyester and cotton into a fabric blend will make that garment harder to recycle in the future given our current tech (even mixing different materials in the threads and tags or adding metal components can make recycling harder— every detail matters). Certain materials or treatments may lend to poorer durability which inhibits a garment's ability to be appealing in secondhand setting. Those choices may be cheaper or desirable in the short-term but they'll compromise the sustainable quality of the garment and the brand's (or any industry player's) ability to capture value on the backend. To be circular and create responsibly, the clothing designer must design with the garment's “end-of-life” or next life in mind. The focus shouldn't only be on recycled materials but also making materials that are recyclable and reusable.

With more and more brands looking to get into resale, they have to optimize their designs and business model for this. For a fast fashion brand that relies on quickly-passing trends and cheap design, resale may be tricky if secondhand versions of their clothes lack market appeal and lasting quality (while also likely being priced similarly to the newly-made pieces). Therefore, if a brand is serious about integrating secondhand into their business model and using it as a truly circular solution, they will choose to design clothing that will maintain its quality and aesthetic appeal over time.

Even if brands don't plan on taking advantage of resale models, designers are making decisions that impact the future flow of clothing. Given the popularity of synthetics in the last few decades, the demand for recycling infrastructure to manage those textiles is prevalent. Without any recycling or resale to divert them, those clothes will sit in landfill for centuries. Designers can also choose to use diverted textiles as an input. Designers may incorporate recycled textiles into their designs (better still if they are creating a take-back program with recycling partners that allow them to capture and reuse their own customer's waste) or they may choose to use existing secondhand materials to upcycle into something new. With the recent influx of reuse business models, designers can partner alongside these companies to minimize and design waste out of the system.

Designers and Brands Doing Interesting Things

  • Bethany Williams is a designer doing just that— collaborating with industry experts, artists, and charities to craft garments made with organic, deadstock, upcycled, or natural materials with environmental and social good in mind. Every detail is carefully thought out and the garments are treated like artwork.
  • Eileen Fisher categorizes their business practices into a garment's “first life,” “second life,” and “third life.” These stages refer to their circular design methods, resale platform, and innovative reuse methods, respectively. The “third life” stage is a project called Waste No More which takes damaged clothing they've received in their take-back program and turns it into experimental wall art.
  • For Days creates clothing with 100% recyclable materials and have created a popular textile recycling program that allows them to recycle clothes from more than just their brand. 90% of For Days' clothes they receive in the recycling program are made into new materials.

Opportunities & Challenges

Designers have an amazing opportunity to be collaborators within the fashion industry. In the past, the secondhand industry just had to reconcile and deal with whatever originated from brands and came through the disposal streams. As we've discussed throughout this series, there are many innovative business models emerging that can provide support and partnership for designers to pursue better garment production and lifecycle practices. As the interest in resale increases and the industry recognizes the need to be more circular, designers can play a role in setting better standards, taking responsibility for their products' lifecycle, and working with other industry members to recirculate clothes and to turn “waste” into something useful and valuable.

As has been the refrain in this series about secondhand business models, the main challenges are speed and scale, as well as know-how. To source secondhand or recycled materials and then to design with a holistic perspective takes time and education. Designers have to learn about how each step and decision actually impacts the players downstream of it and then figure out ways to improve the designs to minimize harm and waste. This isn't always straightforward and, frankly, it's an area of the industry that calls for more careful study. If designers aren't aware of how textile recycling works or how a chemical treatment on clothing will react in a landfill or compost setting, it's impossible to make design decisions that can counteract harmful effects. This sort of information should be taught in design school.

To discover these things and do them right will likely require designers and brands to slow down. One major challenge of the fashion industry and for those that have to deal with the clothes as they travel downstream is the sheer volume. Brands need to stop making so much clothing in order to make these systems and solutions more manageable. Additionally, using secondhand, recycled, and responsible materials may inherently call for lower volume due to cost of materials and limited availability compared to cheap, accessible synthetics. To design fashion to be more circular requires rethinking the whole system. That's intimidating. Slowing down, making less, and reimagining the supply chain (while potentially minimizing profit in that process) isn't appealing to many brands.

This is why we need the network of different types of businesses specializing and optimizing design and reuse solutions. The more players involved, the faster the industry can make progress and reduce the barriers and cost to making these sort of transitions.

Next time, we will be discussing an industry player that doesn't get as much attention as it should: stylists. Think of them as guides to the fashion industry that help educate us and connect us to it, including to those designers putting in the work to make the industry better. We love to see it.