I love the concept of radical imagination in activism – for it is exactly what we need right now. Imagination could be our biggest ally to inspire a more equitable and just future, and when it comes to fashion, manifest it in a way that becomes our second skin, inserting new ideas in society, dissenting and disrupting, and changing the status quo. Just look at the punk movement, for example.
So, what happens when we pass the mic to young activists and ask them to radically imagine a different way of fashioning the world? At the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Los Angeles this March we set to do exactly that, by putting center stage a formidable group of young female leaders who are also fearsome communicators.
As this year’s Nobel Peace prize nominee and UNICEF ambassador Vanessa Nakate reminded the audience, “These courageous and knowledgeable young leaders, my friends, who are working to create political, social, and environmental change around the world, remind us of the dandelion. They take root in places where other plants don’t grow. It’s a little short of miraculous. It is not only because dandelions represent the way we need to spread seeds of change across the globe; dandelions are also courageous warriors. Strength, action, friendship, community, faith, hope, and love is what I have experienced with my fellow activists and friends. We don’t just want to exist 100 years from now. We want to thrive. We deserve to thrive. The fashion and entertainment industries are contributing to the climate crisis, but together, we have the power to turn this around. It is not fashionable if it creates exclusion, poverty, exploitative labor, displacement, or pollution, or if it increases carbon emissions.”
“Today, when I look at the young activists around me and how they work, I witness something extraordinary,” says Annie Lennox, singer, songwriter, and founder of The Circle NGO. “The young female generation are manifesting a new wave of transformative change through their activism. These leaders are nuanced, experienced, and effective advocates for our collective, sustainable future and have understood the connection between environmental action and civil rights.”
Nothing could be truer. For example, take Tori Tsui, intersectional climate activist and mental health advocate. “While the climate crisis is a terrifying reality, what the fashion world can offer is creativity and innovation: from the solutions to the ways in which it operates as a vehicle for change. This is an opportunity for innovators and leaders in the space to flex their creativity to the fullest form. It is an opportunity to not only transform the industry, but transform the world. While the task ahead may seem daunting, it can equally so be exciting. But we need to make sure these actions are done with the right intentions. Transforming this industry isn’t simply about making money to adhere to consumer demands for more sustainability, it is about creating an equitable world, a world where garment workers are paid fairly, where we treat clothing with respect, and learn how to consume more mindfully. It understands that those who are most impacted by the fashion industry should be the ones who are listened to and honored.”
Aditi Mayer, sustainable fashion blogger and labor rights activist, expands this concept by imagining the future of fashion completely decentralized. “The future of fashion has to be rooted in regionality,” she says. “Our dominant fashion model is colonial in nature; power is centralized. Just look at the fact that among the world’s richest billionaires are fast fashion CEOs, while their workers, and the landscapes they produce in, continue to suffer.” It doesn’t stop there, though. “Look at fabrics and fibers – it is totally homogenized! Approximately 60% of the fashion we see in stores today is made of polyester, a product of the fossil fuel industry. Fibers are grown in one country to be shipped to another to be processed, and then shipped again to yet another country to be cut and sewed. It is all based on an artificial, manmade, subsidized construction that is the ‘cheaper’ way of doing it, while polluting the world at an insane rate. That’s why one of the key examples of an equitable and resilient system is decentralized and localized. It is fundamental to make supply chains more intimately linked. Imagine if, within a 200km radius, you could have local fibers growing, dyed with native plants, and constructed by local artisans into the clothes we buy! It’s a localized system we’ve seen grow in popularity for our food, for example, but not so much for fashion.”
To spend time with these young leaders is not only to imagine what the future of fashion looks like, but to see it happening right now, and fast.
Diandra Marizet Esparza, co-founder and executive director of the non-profit Intersectional Environmentalist, has been driving change through her work. “During my time in fashion, I began to see the industry’s underbelly in how novelty was often created from the exploitation of culture. I saw an industry that was creating a world where the unique elements of people were reduced to trends on a runway, for the enjoyment of those who benefited from distorted versions. Later, I would find this issue largely stemming from a lack of representation in designers who could more authentically share cultural significance in garment form, to be deeply connected to economic, social, and environmental inequities. Without equitable access to living wages, artisans are vulnerable to ‘do good’ brands, who pay pennies more and label it progressive. Social inequities perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy that has this industry place more value on intricate beadwork done by a French hand, than that of an Oaxacan one. It is the very devaluation of Black and brown hands, that has led to the devaluation of the lands where Black and brown communities create art, grow food, and collect water. In the near future, I hope to see some of fashion’s most notable houses welcome diverse designers, creative directors, models, photographers, makeup artists, stylists, and more, so we may preserve culture with more intimacy than ever before.”
Fashion can be the biggest platform to tell a story, believes Mary Maker, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and co-founder of Elimisha Kakuma. “Being a refugee girl, fashion could become the biggest platform to tell a story,” she says. “A few months into arriving at Kakuma refugee camp as a child, my mom woke me up at 5am to go to Distribution Center 2. ‘The clothes are here; we have to be first in line if we want to get something.’ At the distribution centers it was rare to get donations of clothes. Most of the time, we got firewood, iron sheets, some sort of superfood packed with nutrients to help malnourished kids get back on their feet, and sanitary products. But clothes were rare. I remember heading there and a long line of refugees were all pushing to get through the gates to get to the clothes. Inside the distribution center were two huge tracks with clothes, and inside them were the distribution workers. Everyone was waiting to see if there were any clothes that interested them. My mom grabbed this oversized T-shirt – ‘You will grow into it,’ she told me. She got some school shoes… oversized. She wadded up some tissues and put them at the tip of the shoes to make them fit. This was my introduction to fashion. When it came to fashion, in the refugee camp (around 2003), we felt out of touch. Fashion felt like something for the celebrities we heard on the radio. Nothing a refugee could identify with. I remember having to go to the Somalia market in Kakuma 1 every Christmas Eve to get a Christmas outfit. From a small selection of colorful dresses lined up from one kiosk to the other, my younger sisters and I would run up to grab what caught our eyes. I always loved vibrant colors, anything from bright pink to yellow and rose gold. It gave me a sense of being seen, and with my dark South Sudanese skin, I knew I could rock them. My mother was afraid of buying my sisters and I anything colorful. ‘It is too loud, you don’t want to be the talk of town, now do you?’ she’d say. I ended up in some dark blue outfit or something that ‘will not scream of your existence,’ she would say. I was sad. I remember when the 50 cents outfits were a big deal, like the layered princess dresses. Every parent would sell their food rations to afford the clothes for their kids. Most of anything considered fashionable was way out of our price range, and when it comes down to it, how much of your food ration can you really sell to buy an outfit? I wanted to one day make things affordable, for children to have a lovely Christmas, and for fashion lovers like me to wear anything they wanted without having to think about price or be deterred by ‘attention-seeking’ colors.”
Courageously and fiercely allowing representation, inclusivity, and equality must be what sustainable fashion really is about. Maya Penn, an award-winning environmental activist, is very vocal about this, and about how Black and Indigenous grassroots leaders have been at the forefront of building the solutions to these problems from the ground up. “The same companies that co-opt our culture, pollute our communities around the world. The African diaspora is one of the most adversely impacted by environmental crises. Textile waste and air, water, and soil pollution contribute to some of the most notable examples of environmental injustice across our world. There is not one single solution to making an industry built on exploitation do a 180, but there are so many leaders worldwide making real moves and shaking things up, and those tremors of action are being felt globally and more tangibly every day. Even though I’m 23, as someone who has been in the sustainable fashion space for 15 years, I can see no better time to do just that. I started my award-winning eco-fashion brand Maya’s Ideas in 2008 at eight years old, and I’ve watched how this movement has grown and taken root. It’s time to make not only Mother Nature a stakeholder, but ultimately, her people.”
There is no doubt that the voices of “her” people are getting louder and louder, their spending power stronger and stronger, and the solutions they are working on are changing the fashion landscape fast and forever. It has only been few months, for example, since I met Iranian-American climate activist and founder of Climate Cardinals, Sophia Kianni, who I covered in the November issue last year, but she has already come up with a disruptive business concept: “With education one of the ills of the fast fashion industry, we can turn passive consumers into empowered citizens. I’m working with my friend and fellow Stanford student Phoebe Gates to launch Phia: a company focused on making shopping sustainable fashion the simple and accessible choice. We should be able to look good while doing good by the planet.”
They imagine it, and then they create it. And we need to pay attention. As Mary Maker said on the Green Carpet Fashion Awards stage: “I want you to see me, I am Generation Now.” And Generation Now is asking us to prepare the right outfit for what is about to come.