An interview with Sarah Scaturro of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
The exhibition surveys the work of artists and designers (many of whom are based in New York) who explore practical and symbolic solutions to the question of integrating sustainable practices into the fashion system.
By Sapna Shah
For this blog post, I had the opportunity to interview Sarah Scaturro, the textile conservator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Sarah, along with Francesca Granata, guest curated the Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion exhibition. The exhibition, on display at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, features the work of “artists and designers who explore practical and symbolic solutions to the question of integrating sustainable practices into the fashion system.”
What inspired you to curate the Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion Exhibit?
We began exploring the idea almost five years ago after noticing more designers embracing notions of sustainability within the fashion system. As we delved deeper into researching the issues surrounding sustainable fashion design, we began to notice that they were generally treated by the media, advertisers and even some designers in a grossly oversimplified way. We felt that sustainable fashion was about a lot more than simply using organic or “natural” fabrics or buying recycled clothing. We also wanted to divorce the perception of sustainable clothing as aligned with a certain, “natural” aesthetic – as much of the clothing we saw being designed was, aesthetically, very beautiful.
At the heart of many of the ecological and ethical problems within the fashion system is the rise in clothing consumption due to the growth of “fast” fashion; a type of fashion that emphasizes the rapid manufacturing and consumption of clothing which is so cheap that it is often considered disposable. The globalized fast fashion system uses cheap labor, an enormous amount of resources and generates a lot of waste and pollution. We realized that an earnest effort directed at exploring sustainable fashion must be grounded first and foremost in investigating ways to counteract or slow down the very nature of fashion itself – a system which is predicated on change for change’s sake.
We also wanted to showcase the work done by American, and in particular New York-based, designers due to the fact that we feel they are often short-changed in the discussions surrounding sustainable fashion. Arguably, this topic has been much better researched and publicized in the UK and the rest of Europe, with little emphasis on American designers. In fact, globally there is a general perception equating American fashion design with fast fashion. We wanted to rectify this by calling attention to the really unique work and perspectives found in American design, while also emphasizing the importance of local goods to any discussion about sustainability.
The exhibit takes a different approach to sustainable fashion with a focus on consumers’ relationship with clothes. Tell us a little more about that concept.
Ultimately, the fashion system will become more sustainable if the consumer stops buying so much clothing, buys clothing more intelligently and wears their clothing for longer periods of time. These are all very loaded statements, which seem simple on the surface, but are actually very hard to address. We realized that one of the main ways to achieve these aims is through the production of meaningful relationships with one’s clothing, an idea that we sought to suffuse throughout the exhibition.
Theoretically, we grounded our exhibition based around the themes Reduce, Revalue and Rethink. The exhibition begins with the Reduce section, which aims to highlight designers who are using innovative or organic materials, pattern design and construction techniques. While the use of materials like organic cotton or recycled polyester is a common practice amongst sustainable designers, what made the designers in this section stand out was their unique take on how to reduce one’s carbon footprint. For example, designer Caroline Priebe of Uluru looks at ways of minimizing waste through thoughtful patternmaking and design – she makes garments that need no closures and are reversible. The design duo SANS crafts modular clothing, which can be worn in many different ways, thus inducing the wearer to become inherently more invested in the way that they dress.
The Revalue section included designers who are attempting to counteract the disposable quality found in contemporary fashion through adding value to garments. “Value” here does not mean money, but rather the attainment of meaningful connections, memories and relationships between a garment and its wearer – an inherent value which once was the norm in clothing, but which has slowly eroded over the past century. The beautifully handcrafted garments of the workshop Alabama Chanin were included in the section, as were the vibrantly colored designs of SUNO, a Kenyan workshop led by NY-based designer Max Osterweis, which uses vintage kangas.
The Rethink grouping was our most radical interpretation of sustainable fashion. We included traditional artists in this section since they are not usually beholden to the industry pressures to which fashion designers are subjected. Thus, they are more free to explicitly challenge the current, fast fashion paradigm. We included four smocks made by the artist Tiprin Follett, a participant in Andrea Zittel’s smockshop who had sewn and worn these smocks (which were based off of Zittel’s pattern) exclusively for years (including one smock which was the only thing worn during one of her pregnancies). Kelly Cobb’s 100-mile suit translated the slow food directive of local food into one for fashion, essentially crafting a man’s suit using resources available within 100 miles of herself (this including spinning fibers, weaving cloth, and tanning leather). The one fashion designer we included in this section was Mary Ping of Slow and Steady Wins the Race. She seeks to challenge the current seasonal production cycle of fashion by selling quality, multi-functional clothing and accessories, which are available year-round and for many years at an accessible price point.
What are your thoughts on the fashion industry’s approach to environmental sustainability?
First I’d like to say that there are many people in fashion (like Julie Gilhart of Barney’s New York) who are listening and who are honestly looking for ways to work sustainability into the fashion system. With that being said, unfortunately the effort has been very haphazardly embraced and unevenly applied. The first problem is with the lexicon surrounding sustainable fashion. What do we exactly mean when we say ”sustainable fashion”? And how is fashion that is “sustainable” different from that which is labeled “eco”, “fair-trade”, “ethical” or even “natural”? I don’t think that even media journalists really understand what they are talking about when they push the next green designer or consumable. What exactly are the goals of a sustainable fashion system?
The next problem is the very important issue of green-washing. Design companies and shops have realized that being green is actually good for business, but just because they decide to sell something made of bamboo rayon (which is made in a process that is highly wasteful and polluting), that doesn’t mean they are really any more sustainable than your local Wal-Mart. I’ve seen a lot of hoopla around flashy eco-fashion runway shows that are more about one-off garments made from bamboo or seaweed designed by big-name designers rather than any sort of fundamental change.
I would like to see a leading organization, like the CFDA, attempt to really address the issues and problems surrounding sustainable design in a thoughtful way – especially through the provision of support networks and the distribution of information regarding the sourcing of materials and manufacturers. EarthPledge’s FutureFashion initiative has done some work in this area, particularly for emerging independent designers, but I think it would really push things forward if the big players all started working together to address these issues. I think having some sort of unified, globalized certification and labeling scheme would also help clear up any confusion consumers and designers might have.
With everyone jumping on the green bandwagon, what would you advise consumers who’re looking to make informed decisions?
It’s easy – and at the same time very hard! Stop…and think before you buy your next piece of clothing. Do you really love it? Is it well-made? Does it fit you well? Will you wear it over and over and over? Does it require a lot of washing, ironing or drying, or is it relatively light on its care requirements? Wearing one well-made, well-loved polyester garment frequently over the span of many years will easily trump the sustainability quotient of the next few organic cotton ones you buy on a whim.
Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion
Guest curators, Francesca Granata and Sarah Scaturro
November 20, 2009 – February 20, 2010
Pratt Manhattan Gallery, Second Floor