Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion

Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, Jordache Sheer Camp Shirt (Lucky Lime)

Opening this Friday November 20th at the Pratt Institute Manhattan Gallery is an exhibition I co-curated with Sarah Scaturro on the topic of sustainability and fashion. Titled "Ethics + Aesthetics," the exhibition had a rather long gestation, as Sarah and I began to discuss working on such a project together in 2005. Initially thinking of it as part of Fashion Projects, we eventually decided to develop the idea as a separate project. It was important to us to highlight American and in particular New York–based designers, as we both felt that US-based designers are often short-changed by simplistic understandings of what constitutes American fashion, which is often equated with commercial mass-market fashion. We also wanted to underline the importance of the local to discussions of sustainability.

Equally important to the project was to higlight new ways of conceptualizing fashion and its consumption and production models. The last section of the exhibition seeks to directly question the fashion cycle and its dependence on fast and constant change by suggesting a paradigm shift in how we think about fashion. Among the practioners included in this section are artists such as Andrea Zittel and Tiprin Follett of the smockshop, Kelly Cobb and Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, as well as the design company Slow and Steady Wins the Race, who promote a slower fashion tempo by suggesting novel ways to produce and consume fashion. Their practices foster the creation of meaningful networks and relations through clothing as well as challenging the seasonality of the fashion trade.

The smockshop offers a unique model for a clothing workshop that encourages the adaptation of a basic “uniform” to be worn for long stretches of time, while Slow and Steady Wins the Race makes non-seasonal quality designs that are available year-round. Kelly Cobb’s collaborative project underscores the labor-intensive nature of clothes-making by producing a suit with material and craftspeople located within 100 miles of her home. Zoë Sheehan Saldaña also emphasizes the labor involved in producing a garment by recreating Wal-Mart garments by hand. She later returns her handmade version to the store for resale in lieu of the ones she originally purchased.

We are obviously not in a position to review the exhibition, but below is a brief summery of the main concepts behind it. If you can visit the gallery, which is located on West 14th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue, we would love to hear your feedback, so please do leave us your comments.

Suno's Workshop near Nairobi

"Ethics + Aesthetics is the first American exhibition to investigate the work of artists and designers exploring practical and symbolic solutions to the question of integrating sustainable practices into the fashion system. Focusing primarily on New York-based practioners, the exhibition highlights the way designers address the interactions between the local and the global within an inherently interdependent system.

The exhibition deepens our understanding of what constitutes sustainability within the fashion system by building on the already established practices of using recycled, renewable and organic fibers and the employment of fair labor. Organized around three main themes, “Reduce, Revalue and Rethink,” it expands on the traditional ecological mantra «Reduce, Reuse, Recycle» by acknowledging the importance of aesthetics within fashion design.

Reduce focuses on minimalist clothing design, as well as innovative materials and pattern-making that promote versatility and longevity. This section includes work by Bodkin, Loomstate, SANS and Uluru. Revalue underlines the importance of creating an emotional engagement with the wearer by focusing on the materiality of clothes and their ability to retain memory and history. Included in this section are pieces by Susan Cianciolo, Alabama Chanin and Suno. Rethink advocates a paradigm shift in the way we think about fashion by directly questioning the fashion cycle’s dependence on fast and constant change. It features work by Kelly Cobb, Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, Andrea Zittel and Tiprin Follett and Slow and Steady Wins the Race.

Rather than one single solution to the issue of sustainability in fashion, the designers and artists included in the exhibition provide a variety of approaches to the paradox of aligning fashion—a discipline based on constant change—with the precepts of sustainability. In line with “slow fashion”—a concept modeled after the Slow Food Movement—they advocate for a slower fashion tempo, which fosters richer interaction through design."

A Catalogue of the exhibition is forthcoming--thanks to a generous grant from the Coby Foundation.

Francesca Granata