I have been one of the lucky few (hundreds of thousands) to have been able to get in the Dior exhibit still ongoing in Paris to admire the work of Christian Dior: his struggle, his success, his influence, his succession and his legacy. I cannot imagine how many bloggers and instagrammers must have already filled you in on the exhibit. I will not, for one, spend too much time describing it, but I do want to share a few thoughts on what ethical fashion as a movement and an industry can learn from Dior, and what Dior, as a luxury brand, can borrow from the entrepreneurial Super(wo)men who are reshaping fashion today.
Start with desire
What immediately set Dior apart as a designer was his innovative “New Look”, that redefined the feminine silhouette to represent the evolving role of women in society. The “New Look” is modern, unincumbered, simple and yet smart and impactful. His esthetic, characterized by an accentuated waist, delicate shoulders and exaggerated hips, covered but seductive, was a reaction to the post-war era of restriction, austerity, rationing and uniforms. The role of women was changing: from the front line to the factory line, they were working alongside and often instead of men. But Dior had sensed that regardless of their function in the home and in the workplace, women wanted to feel attractive.
Being a conscious consumer doesn’t and shouldn’t collide with elegance, sophistication and chic.
Too often, ethical and sustainable designers aim for simplicity and instead create simplistic looks, forgetting that being a conscious consumer doesn’t and shouldn’t necessarily collide with elegance, sophistication and chic. As Christian Dior himself demonstrated, creating a timeless look is not a matter of oversimplification. It is rather a matter of combining beauty and comfort, elegance and efficience. Dior’s New Look and Yves Saint Laurent’s Trapeze silhouette, created for Dior when he took his succession in 1957, have in common a passion for exalting the natural shape of the feminine body and freeing it from unnecessary and constraining garbs that the new role taken on by women during and after WW2 naturally forced them to shed. What they did was capture the essence of a woman and release it into a silhouette. That’s what ethical fashion designers must strive to achieve to become and stay relevant.
The modern women, the conscious consumers that the ethical fashion industry is reaching out to, whether they are c-suit executives, stay at home moms, aspiring interns or anyone in between, still need their clothes to make a statement about their taste, their personality, their aspirations. They need clothes that allow them to be taken seriously as well as move through every challenge of the day.
Without giving in to the insane pace of trends, ethical and sustainable garments need to empower women to assume their identity, show individuality and creativity because that is precisely the difference between making fashion and making clothes.
Invest on innovation
But innovation is not just a matter of silhouette. It’s also about creating a new consumer experience in store and online, and about integrating new technologies to fashion both through the production process and in the garment.
Leaders in the ethical fashion industry are already operating major shifts in the way they conceive and deliver fashion. Everlane and Reformation have both taken the industry by storm by figuring out a way to make ethical fashion available at high-street prices in only a few years. Everlane has focused on delivering fashion basics thanks to a sustainable supply chain by working with partners who not only strictly enforce labor laws and guidelines but also are highly efficient in terms of energy and waste management. On the other hand, Reformation has kept its production local in Los Angeles and uses waste fabric to create collections in limited editions.
Reformation is a great example of the successful and seamless integration of online and brick-and-mortar retailing: they not only make the shopping experience more enjoyable, they make it more efficient both for the client and for the company.
Pushing the envelope ever further, they both have adopted innovative retail practices to maintain customer loyalty. Everlane doesn’t do sales and markdowns, while Reformation has developed a unique tech-store experience allowing customers to select on-screen the items they want to try on while a store attendant prepares the items and sets them up in the fitting rooms’ two-way closet. Everything from the music to the lights is adjustable to create the perfect ambiance to go along with the dress or swimsuit the customer is trying on. Rather than queuing at the cash register, clients can reach out to a store attendant and pay their purchase by credit card on an iPhone.
Reformation is a great example of the successful and seamless integration of online and brick-and-mortar retailing: they not only make the shopping experience more enjoyable, they make it more efficient both for the client and for the company. The use of technology allows Reformation to keep track of valuable data that otherwise gets lost: how many items did a client try before making – or not – a purchase, which pieces were browsed more, which converted to a purchase, how much time did a client stay in the fitting room. The information collected helps Reformation increase online conversion rates by merging the customers’ online and in-store experience and making more targeted recommendations.
New technologies are also being developed to make production less toxic. For instance, air dyes are making the dying process 100% water-free and 40% energy saving, but major brands still have cold feet when it comes to investing in new technologies. Nike and Adidas briefly flirted with the technology in 2015, with a small collection sourcing air-dyed textiles, but then quickly returned to more traditional textiles. Fast fashion, high fashion and ethical fashion brands alike yet have to adopt the technology as a legitimate and sustainable substitute for traditional dying processes.
Bet on transparency
The first and key step towards more ethical and sustainable fashion is transparency. While high fashion brands may be concerned that transparency would dilute the image of their brand among a sea of labels, a 2016 study led by Label Insight on driving long-term trust and loyalty through transparency has shown that on the contrary, 94% of customers would be more loyal to a brand that offers full transparency, 81% are willing to try a brand’s entire portfolio of products if it offers transparency and perhaps more importantly 73% of consumers would be willing to spend more on a transparent brand. Concretely, the rapid growth of transparent ethical brands like Everlane, which details the cost of every product, and Reformation, which provides environmental cost saving information on each product, shows that following this model i
Like Christian Dior himself did, designer and fast fashion brands alike need to start valuing the work of the little hands, wherever they may be, that manufacture their clothes.
Of course, brands will have to adapt their production to the model in order to gain access to and share this information. This includes understanding and verifying how textiles are made and who makes them, monitoring contractors and subcontractors more closely to avoid the use of modern slavery and dumping of toxic waste along the production cycle, investigating working conditions including wage, age, health and wellness, and developing the tools to calculate the environmental and human cost of it all. As Reet Aus explains, although this may generate hundreds or thousands of data, it is possible to condense it into key outputs such as energy and water savings.
One thing that should no longer be a debate in 2017 is human exploitation and human rights. Yet, today modern slavery still affects an estimated 21 to 46 million people – the exact number is a difficult one to pin down. According to the Fair Fashion Center in New York, the fashion industry employs 1 in 6 people on earth but 98% of them don’t earn a living wage. The remaining two percents are located mainly in Western countries. Haute couture houses are known for the quality of their craftsmanship which is guaranteed by the label “Haute Couture”, only delivered if the production is made in France. In that respect, Dior is known for its “Petites Mains”, the little hands quietly working in the house’s Parisian ateliers. But that only concerns the Haute Couture line. Fifty percent of the ready-to-wear lines are manufactured abroad, with a less transparent supply chain. Like Christian Dior himself did, designer and fast fashion brands alike need to start valuing the work of the little hands, wherever they may be, that manufacture their clothes. That starts with ensuring a living wage, but also safe working conditions and minimized exposure to toxic material.
Get creative about sustainability
Sustainability is not the enemy of creativity. I repeat. Sustainability is not the enemy of creativity. Designers have to be educated on the environmental and human cost of fashion, but also on the solutions that exist to offset it. And so many solutions are out there! In addition to new technologies, innovative textiles, increased transparency, designers need to learn how to minimize waste by designing smarter patterns, how to use textile waste in their production, how to select textiles based on their environmental footprint, how to work with unconventional materials, how to dispose of waste in the most efficient way.
Sustainability is more than a challenge. It’s a preposterous ideal. Of course every new garment created will have an impact on the world. But fashion has always been “l’avant-garde” at the forefront of cultural change. In 1947, Christian Dior celebrated France’s new-found freedom. Today, the industry has to make sure that freedom doesn’t remain the luxury of a few.