Entering the cavernous industrial space situated a block from the Brooklyn waterfront, unlike other fashions shows I’ve attended, I’m greeted by tables groaning with woven baskets filled generously with bread, fresh vegetables, empanadas and a sweet cookie. There are earthenware ceramic pots filled with lavender, rosemary and other herbs, free-form wooden bowls filled with artichokes and figs. This show, scheduled around lunchtime, means grumbling stomachs, and the designer has thoughtfully taken this into consideration. Natural light from the floor to ceiling windows in the front illuminates the tables and the rest of the soaring space remains dark. Past the tables are chairs set in two long rows. They are old, dark brown, wood folding chairs; recycled paper rests on the seat revealing a handwritten seat number. Nothing feels artificial. There is a calmness here; none of the usual loud buzzing that precedes a show. Women speak softly in groups of three; some sit alone, quietly in contemplation. I am moved to take photographs that capture this scene; a luscious moment of muted anticipation. Fed, we are left open, relaxed and receptive. We’re more likely to receive the clothes in a way that allows us to more fully appreciate their details. I feel taken care of and I am; by Gabriela Hearst.
Gabriela Hearst is a fan of old; our dictionary definition of old; people and things that live a long time. She creates things that will eventually be old. In fact, she designs them to be old. I like her for this. She has graciously invited me to attend many of her fashion shows since starting her brand in 2015. Each of her shows evidence of an ethic of care; for her guests, for who makes her clothes and nature. She makes the garments with consideration of impact and incorporates craft passed from generation to generation because she is not in denial about what is happening to the earth, what is occurring in the world around her and to women. In this show she collaborated with women-owned rural businesses from the Navajo Nation, a Bolivian collective, Madres & Artesanas Tx. and a frequent collaborator, Manos del Uruguay, a not-for-profit. For the knitters out there, you can find this collective’s hand-dyed wool and patterns here. Also included in her designs is art by a close friend created during a mental health crisis.
The context in which she shows her clothes, the fashion show, is carbon neutral. Every aspect of its production, design and installation process is examined to reduce the resulting carbon footprint to its very minimum. Power usage, transportation, catering and waste are measured to determine the offset amounts. The price of the offset amounts is determined, and a donation is made to a charity such as Our Children’s Trust, which acts to secure a constitutional right to a safe climate.
Perhaps this sensibility comes from her experience of being raised on a ranch in Uruguay; she has a deep understanding and respect for the forces of nature; “we belong to nature, but nature does not belong to us.” There she learned the value of quality as a pragmatic gesture; things had to be made well to last over time and survive exposure to the elements. There, she learned how to design for longevity. She designs less but better. For the sake of transparency, it means her clothing is very expensive.
An ethic of care means that when we act, we act in consideration of the standpoint of others and we attend to the context in which our actions are occurring. As a social worker, this perspective is something (if you go to a school of social work that doesn’t medicalize everything) you get trained in and it gives you a nuanced view of the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others and how the context we live, labor and love in shapes and constructs us. True sustainable fashion designers attend to all the above, and they manifest this through their actions.
It was the only show I was able, and wanted, to attend during NYFW aside from Colina Strada, which unfortunately I had to miss in order to actualize my ethic of care; attending to my mother. I’ve become more mindful about the brands I support. I’ve tried to be thoughtful and have a slow fashion week; one that involves a minimal footprint. A good guideline for choosing shows has been to ask the questions, “Does this designer make garments that will live in my great-granddaughters closet and will she want to pass it on to her granddaughter?” “Are the people (usually women) making the garments happy, safe, and being paid a living wage?”, “What materials are being used, how are they come by and are all the processes transparent?” Finally, “What kind of impact is the fashion show itself having on the environment”? Questions for me to consider also include; how to travel sustainably when I do, which events add true value and inspiration as an experience and which are just another wasteful opportunity to posture and pose?
It’s a gigantic leap from intention to action. During this time, when posting on Instagram is thought to be activism, I’m still a fan of actions speaks louder than words. That’s why I admire someone like Gabriela Hearst. Her actions have measurable outcomes. I think about how to measure mine. I’ve been declining the many offers of gifts I receive as an “influencer” because it’s not just that I don’t need to add one more thing to my closet, many of the items not always sustainable or well made, it’s about the cost, both monetarily and to the earth of the packaging, the delivery and the massive amount of waste and carbon footprint involved. In my note back I try to be gracious, thank them for thinking of me, but decline based on environmental reasons, hoping to give some food for thought, a woven basket of sorts. I continue my support of emerging designers if they subscribe to the ethic of care I write about here and some of the heritage brands that do the produce less but are better made with longevity in mind, It’s been a long time since I’ve purchased anything new, except for Birkenstocks as they exist in complete harmony with my bunions. Especially during fashion week, I find myself deeply engaged again with the question we’ve been posing here since the pandemic: how does one indulge their love of fashion while remaining true to an ethic of care? As a reminder of our conversation, revisit the blog post and the comments, Ambivalent Relations: Clothes in the Time of Coronavirus. I want to remind myself, and us, of the commitments we made then, in the beginning, when it was raw and fresh and we were scared. I watch those around me in this world they call influencing, return to business as usual; climbing into jets hopping from New York, to London, to Milan and Paris, propelling the system, driving in big black cars from one show and event to the next. I would be dishonest if I said I would never again consider an invitation to Paris, but consider is the operative word. I have metrics to apply. I want us not to go back to business as usual. I want us to remind each other of what we said then. I believe we can find a balance between our collective love of clothes and an ethic of care.
How are you managing your love of fashion and an ethic of care?