Both trailblazers in the revolution to make fashion more ethical and sustainable, Livia Firth, Vogue Arabia’s new Sustainability Editor at Large, and Tom Ford discuss the fast-fashion crisis, 10 years of the Green Carpet Challenge, and pajama parties…
“I’ve known Tom Ford since he worked with my husband Colin on A Single Man, and we’ve been friends ever since,” explains eco-activist Livia Firth, who is a powerful communicator on progressive change. She is the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge, getting sustainable and ethical brands on the red carpet, and co-founder and creative director of Eco-Age, a consultancy offering bespoke sustainability solutions. She joins the Vogue Values campaign with an insightful interview with fellow activist Tom Ford. “I can say, without any doubt, my fashion education started with Tom,” she continues. “Without him, and A Single Man, I would never have started the Green Carpet Challenge. The rest is history.”
LIVIA FIRTH: Tom, can you believe that the Golden Globes this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Green Carpet Challenge?
TOM FORD: Oh, wow! 10 years already… You’ve done an incredible job. I remember when you started, it seemed like such a small thing and now it’s not at all. Congratulations.
LF: We have to celebrate because I started the whole sustainable fashion thing with you. If you didn’t do A Single Man and Colin hadn’t been nominated, I would never have been challenged to wear sustainable fashion during the awards season, and maybe never would’ve started the Green Carpet Challenge. My beginning is closely linked with you.
TF: I can’t take any credit for that, but I’m glad.
LF: Today, everyone is talking about sustainable fashion, but for me, the epitome of sustainability is a fashion brand like yours. There is attention to every single detail. When you buy a Tom Ford dress or suit, you’re not going to throw it away – it’s going to stay in your wardrobe forever. This is sustainable fashion for me, first and foremost.
TF: What do you think I could improve on?
LF: Today there is a lot of attention on materials, and we’ve talked a lot in the past about fabrics… TF: What about Italian silk, and Italian cashmere and merino? Could any of that be unsustainable?
LF: No, natural fibers are wonderful. Have you ever used polyester?
TF: I do use polyester occasionally, is it bad?
TF: I’m quite torn. I’m torn over natural leather and fur versus fake, because fake fur takes thousands of years to biodegrade whereas fur biodegrades in six months. If you’re using real fur then there’s the cruelty to animals, which is horrible, but you could also use fur that is a food byproduct. But then of course you’re polluting the planet because of the methane from the cattle. So what is the best solution?
LF: This is precisely the argument. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have this conversation because nothing would be so mass produced and consumed today. It’s about going to extremes. In the environmental debate people are saying that if all the world were vegan, it would be much better. From a designer point of view, how has fashion changed in the last 20 years?
TF: For me, with the kind of customer I have, fashion has not changed. I’m still making jackets in the way they would’ve been made 75 years ago and I’m doing the same with evening dresses. I don’t address a lot of the problems that fast fashion certainly has to address or be held accountable for. In my niche of an industry it has not changed, except the packaging. We’re taking all of the lacquers off it, and we’re looking at better, and less, packaging.
LF: But you must see around you, fashion is faster – a lot of designers are overworked?
TF: The industry now moves so fast that you can’t appreciate that beauty because before you know it, it’s over, it’s finished. It has become about having the latest thing – consumption has definitely increased. The industry that I entered really had two seasons. We didn’t have four seasons like we have now.
LF: I can definitely see a huge change in terms of people’s perception. There is a fast-fashion fatigue, and an increased desire to learn the stories behind what we wear.
TF: Are people slowing down with their consumption of fast-fashion?
LF: They are, 100%. If you see the profit curves of major fast-fashion retailers, they are going down. The problem is that they are blaming it on other things. For example, H&M blames it on the fact that they don’t have a strong online presence. But the truth is that people are tired. They are tired of buying relentlessly and there is starting to be a sort of disgust about the disposability of fashion. There are a lot of young people who are starting to be proud to wear the same thing twice or make their own clothes. Things are changing. As a designer, you need to pay attention to that. These kids are going to be your next consumers, so you have to pay attention to their behavior.
TF: The thing is that with our clothes being so expensive, people have to save their money, and then come in and buy two jackets and a pair of shoes, and that’s it for the season.
LF: That’s how it should be! I remember when I was 18, and I started working, and in Italy everyone had to have a camel Max Mara coat. I saved for two years to buy a 700 000 lira Max Mara coat, and I still have it. So when you calculate the price per wear, a Tom Ford dress is probably cheaper than an H&M one over 10 years. If you buy a Tom Ford dress, you’re never going to give it away. It’s about timeless elegance and having timeless pieces in your wardrobe. The younger generation today doesn’t have that sense of fashion anymore, but when you look at these icons, like you have your grandmother and my mother, you see a different picture.
TF: Well, yes. I never once in my life saw my grandmother without her makeup. Even when I would stay with her. It was a different period and I don’t know that it’s still modern by today’s standards. My mother always has her hair done and I’m sure your mother does too. As a child it certainly seemed magical, because it did seem that they were special; they always smelt great and they always looked great. For me, beauty is a way of feeling that everything will be OK. Like a shield. When you feel depressed, you get dressed up and it makes you feel better. I talked about it in A Single Man; we have to grasp these small moments of beauty in life. I think that beautiful things are a way to make you dream in a way that films do. It transports you.
LF: I think that attitude and a sense of style and beauty went hand in hand with a different style of fashion, and that is what we’ve lost today.
TF: My grandmother enhanced my childhood dramatically. Even if I just think about her, the smell of her, the look of her, her voice… I feel happy. You know she didn’t throw things away, or have the same disposable culture that people do now.
LF: And that’s the problem. Maybe we’ve lost that kind of elegance with fast-fashion. When it started, they sold us this myth that it was democratic, that we would all be the same. What happened is that we bought into that dream without thinking about the consequences. I’ve just come back from a trip filming in Botswana, and while I was there I noticed how, for me, it is the exact opposite of Bangladesh. When I went to Bangladesh, I was so shocked by the sheer misery of the women producing for these brands and the way they are enslaved. But in Botswana you see the diamond corporations working in partnership with the local government, investing in the country and its infrastructure, paying living wages. Everyone is so proud to be doing that work, and there is no poverty. This is how it should be. So, as a producer, whatever you do, whether it’s fashion or diamonds, you should work in partnership with your factories. What is the relationship you have with your factories?
TF: We always work with the same factories. The factory that makes all of our men’s jackets in Padova is one of the last that does so much detail by hand for men’s jackets. I’ve been working with them since I started my first men’s jackets. So it is a partnership. We don’t switch factories. We work in partnership with them, but I think most luxury companies do.
LF: So, finally, what are your plans with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)?
TF: For me, the number one focus should be to support students and young emerging designers on a global scale. There are already programs for this, and we’re adding an award for sustainability, too. Obviously it is important and I think the CFDA should offer guidance in that. We should be consulting with every designer who comes to us and wants to know how to manufacture in the most sustainable way. It would be great to have an expert inhouse to direct you to the right resources for the most ethical manufacturing.
LF: You’ll make it great, like everything else you do! I can’t wait to see you again and have one of our pajama dinners at home… Tom Ford pajamas, of course.
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia