As a new season beckons, find inspiration and hope for a sustainable, equitable future from two trailblazing women.
Photo: Greg Adamski
For me, the month of September has always been the “true” New Year. Maybe it is something I inherited from my student years – when going back to school meant a new cycle, a new beginning. There is always a sense of optimism and renewed energy, but this year, I struggled to find either. The last two months have been so intense: extreme temperatures and extreme rains, terrible fires and scary droughts… More alarming signals of nature collapsing and a general sense of hopelessness about the fact that everyone seems to be more asleep than usual – maybe that is something to blame on AI and algorithms that have taken over our lives and our brains more than we realize?
In fashion terms, greenwashing has become so subtle and pervasive that I often found myself wondering what the point was anymore in working for a more sustainable industry. Every day, a new story comes out celebrating either social or environmental offsetting and fake news about brands doing incredible work or new technologies saving the world.
Where do we go from here? How do we keep fighting? The eternal optimist in me got caught in despair. But as I was trying to figure out how I would find the passion to start a new work season, two events happened that gave me the fire I needed. The first was a screening of Invisible Beauty, a new documentary about fashion legend, activist, and radical thinker Bethann Hardison. She and Frédéric Tcheng co-wrote and directed the story of her incredible life, being at the center of major representational shifts in the fashion industry and showing her relentless fight for racial diversity. “In her lifetime, Hardison has seen the pendulum swing towards and away from the Black model,” notes a release about the documentary. “At every setback, she spoke up and rallied her colleagues and clients in the industry to advance change. Now in her 70s, the Brooklyn native is writing her memoir, taking stock of her own legacy at a moment when the fashion industry needs it the most.”
Hardison with Pat Cleveland
The documentary traces Hardison’s “impact on fashion from runway shows in the 1970s to roundtables about the lack of racial diversity in the early 2000s. Featuring intimate interviews with Iman, Tyson Beckford, Tracee Ellis Ross, Zendaya, Pat Cleveland, Naomi Campbell, and Stephen Burrows, Invisible Beauty is an absorbing record of the racial evolution of fashion and an original contemplation on the life of an unparalleled trailblazer.” Bethann says that she didn’t think she had a story to document, “but once I got out of my way and allowed the collaboration with Frédéric, it made me a believer.” When you hear her say in the film, “I never thought about my story or what I was creating, because I was too busy doing, you just gotta keep doing,” you know that this is the quality most activists need to have. I found myself crying, knowing that Bethann was right, we can’t stop fighting and building – not even when we are tired or feel hopeless, and certainly not when we are in a privileged position while others suffer.
Hardison with Stephen Burrows, 1974
I started the summer with Bethann’s words in my head and mid-holiday, a second seismic event happened – the death of legendary documentary producer Jess Search blew up my heart. I knew Jess for a long time and even if I hadn’t seen her for a while, I always felt better when I spent time with her. She was activism 5.0, a true powerhouse. She founded the iconic Doc Society, which works with filmmakers to produce and fund documentaries that could change the world. “Jess lived fully these last few weeks,” the Doc Society said in a release. “In characteristic humor, she responded to her cancer diagnosis by considering herself ‘lucky,’ having lived a life of purpose on her own terms.” This is exactly who Jess was and why everyone loved her so much – no one could stand indifferent to her energy. In her final message, Jess called on the documentary-making community to “triple-down and build rocket boosters for our shared work.” She believed in the power of documentaries to change the world and that “to deal with the climate crisis and realize a just transition, the world needs more democracy; the negotiation of a new social contract between people and the state.”
My friend Sam Roddick – another incredible turbo-charged activist who gives me tons of energy when I need it – recalls her last encounter with Jess, a month before her death: “She wasn’t scared, she was ready, and she was going out with a big bang – she told me that she had pulled together a final strategy that was going to change the industry. She is calling us out from the heavens to roll up our sleeves and work for justice and equity, for the planet, people, and love.”
And with Sam’s words, and Bethann and Jess in my heart, I know I am ready for September and a new season to start. I hope you are, too.
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
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Livia Firth and Tom Ford on Honoring a Diverse Cast of Bold Thinkers at the 2023 Green Carpet Fashion Awards
Livia Firth, Tom Ford, and Cate Blanchett
“I started this prize three years ago with a harrowing fear that the world our children would inherit would no longer be a liveable one,” says Tom Ford about the Green Carpet Fashion Awards (GCFA), which he co-founded with his friend Livia Firth, Vogue Arabia’s sustainability editor-at-large, and her consultancy Eco-Age. “I wanted to be a part of the solution, not be an arbiter of the problem.” At the March awards, held for the first time in Los Angeles after previous events in Milan, Ford paid tribute to a number of global changemakers working to put sustainability and ethical production at the heart of the fashion and creative industries. Setting the awards in Hollywood made clear the symbiotic relationship between fashion and film, and the profound impact these two powerhouse systems can have on moving an eco-agenda forward.
Livia Firth and Annie Lennox
The GCFA is a global event that has become a symbol of sustainability in the fashion industry, inspiring others to take action and create positive change. It is also known for its high-profile attendees, including celebrities, fashion designers and leaders, and sustainability advocates. The latest edition saw Cate Blanchett, Naomi Campbell, Alicia Silverstone, Jerry Hall, Georgia May Jagger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Heidi Klum, and Jodie Turner-Smith walk the carpet at NeueHouse in West Hollywood. Blanchett – one of the co-chairs of this year’s event – donned a mint green custom Valentino suit made from deadstock and archival fabrics, while Turner-Smith rewore a Gucci gown, and Silverstone dressed in a vegan leather coat.
Brazil’s minister for indigenous people Sônia Guajajara, seen center
The honorees at this year’s event come from an array of backgrounds and industries, all with one common goal: working towards finding more equitable and sustainable solutions to help save the planet and drive progress. Ford himself was honored with the visionary award for his groundbreaking US $1.2 million Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize, which seeks to find biodegradable alternatives to ubiquitous plastic bags. Oscar-winning actor and environmentalist DiCaprio presented Brazil’s minister for indigenous people Sônia Guajajara with the healer award for her work in protecting forests and placing indigenous people central in the global climate agenda. “Although the task ahead is undoubtedly daunting – in Minister Guajajara’s words, ‘The fight for Mother Earth is the mother of all fights’ – her strong leadership position coupled with her commitment and tenacity fills me with boundless hope,” DiCaprio said onstage. Gucci received the futurist award for its work in constantly disrupting the fashion industry, while Gabriela Hearst was honored with the sage award for her work in reshaping the industry.
Receiving the rebel award was Eric Liedtke, co-founder of Unless Collective, for his efforts in bringing together innovators, engineers, artists, and activists to help solve over-production and waste in fashion. For her continuous vegan activism, Silverstone was presented with the integrity honor, while Turner-Smith handed Vogue UK editor-in-chief Edward Enninful the game changer award for his role in uplifting minority voices and championing diversity in the sometimes all-too-insular world of fashion. The messenger award went to Andreas Kronthaler, creative director of Vivienne Westwood, for his 25-year career in championing Westwood’s legacy.
Edward Enninful and Naomi Campbell
The GCFA also shone a spotlight on the next generation of leaders. “Passing the microphone to young activists is one of the most important things that we can do right now,” says Firth. “This is not us giving our blessing; we recognize young activists are the driving force of empowerment. We owe them a debt and heavy recognition.” As such, singer, songwriter, and humanitarian Annie Lennox lauded 14 young women leaders working in fields as diverse as environmental action, civil rights, equality, and global feminism. “It encourages and inspires me so much to see a new generation of brilliant young women rising up to address solutions to the countless challenges facing women and girls everywhere,” Lennox commented.
Honorees received a brooch in the shape of a dandelion, which was designed by creative director Stefan Beckman in partnership with jewelry designer Shilpa Yarlagadda. Made from recycled silver, the brooch features a single diamond from Lucara Botswana, an ethical mine in the diamond-rich southern African country – and the only one with a female managing director. The dandelion design was chosen for two dynamic reasons: as a symbol of how change needs to spread through the world, and a reminder that progress can take root in many places, even if they seem unlikely.
Trudie Styler, Tom Ford, and Jerry Hall
Originally published in the April 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
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As women’s roles in fashion gain prominence, Livia Firth underscores the empowering work of designer Gabriela Hearst.
Gabriela Hearst. Photo: Zoe Ghertner
We are all responsible for the way culture is shaped and transformed, and certainly when it comes to fashion, each one of us has a role to play: through the clothes we wear or the ones we design and produce. We could be the healers, the futurists, the messengers, the rebels, and the visionaries of a pivotal transformation. And thinking in terms of fashion archetypes, and following my January piece around fashion feminism, to me, one woman seems to embrace many of them: Gabriela Hearst.
I first met Gabriela in 2017, when she won the International Woolmark Prize, and I remember being completely struck by her. Embodying all the archetypes, she is as kind and soft as she is fierce and courageous. Her childhood upbringing, growing up on her family’s sheep ranch in Uruguay, has translated to a sustainable stance on fashion since the very beginning. Her approach to design is slow, small in terms of production, and with an emphasis on beautiful craftsmanship.
Slow, quality craftsmanship on display in Cusco
Since founding her eponymous brand in 2015, or becoming Chloé’s creative director in 2020, Gabriela has worked tirelessly to make the fashion industry more sustainable, setting the benchmarks for others to follow. She was the first fashion designer to bring a young climate activist, Xiye Bastida, to the Met Ball in 2022, and created and implemented the first carbon neutral show in 2020, while making a donation on behalf of every guest to Our Children’s Trust, the non-for-profit organization that is suing the United States government for its role in causing the climate crisis.
When you ask for her opinion on something, Gabriela doesn’t hesitate, and says it as it is. To wit, when I ask her how fashion designers will navigate the latest metaverse buzz or drive for artificial intelligence and automation in supply chains, she replies: “OMG, it makes no sense! Look at this bracelet my mom got me from her friends in Easter Island,” she says on Zoom, showing me the most beautiful bracelet on her wrist. “Call me if you find a machine that can do this! Also, don’t you love the imperfection of handcraft? The fact that you can see the human imprint, the soul…”
Manos Del Uruguay, an NGO that Gabriela Hearst has been collaborating with for years to make sure women in rural areas have a steady income
Gabriela’s passion for women empowerment and fashion handprint is at the core of who she is. She has been collaborating for years with NGO Manos Del Uruguay to make sure women in rural areas have a steady income. “The co-op has existed in my country for more than 50 years, and I produce with them all the time. The exodus from rural to urban doesn’t really benefit the livelihood of women, but if we keep them employed in their areas, and we empower them, we empower entire communities. We need to create products with consciousness of the environment. We also know that in that consciousness, the person who makes your product gets affected, and, in return, affects the product itself. That’s the difference between something looking good and feeling good, right? For me it’s more than just the right intention, it’s an absolute need for survival. We know that women are the ones most affected by climate change; if we do not empower them, we won’t be able to get ourselves out of the current crisis.”
I can’t help but wonder what would happen and what the ripple effect would be if every designer thought and acted like Gabriela. I remember speaking with Mayan artisans in Guatemala when we filmed Fashionscapes: Artisans Guatemaya and it still strikes me as myopic the fact that brands keep avoiding (as it is not convenient for them) the only possible way to produce quality clothes that last forever. “It is precisely the quality that makes me go back to these artisans over and over again. I’ve always worked with them because they made a great product, not because of good intentions. When I grew up, when you bought a sweater from Manos, you knew that it was for life. It is very special to see multi generations like grandmother, mother, and daughter working and to see how it is not only a working place, but an empowering, supportive, and family place.”
A handcrafted bracelet the designer’s mother got her from Easter Island
Supply chains as a family is where all the concepts we have been talking about in sustainability – degrowth, just transition, circularity, community empowerment, and economic sustainability – meet. Fashion’s real luxury being pieces that are made with love, kept with pride, and passed through generations. Gabriela says, “I have done things in my country, in Bolivia, Peru, and in many communities, including the Navajo community in North America. You find beauty everywhere… Take the ponchos I have produced: these communities shear the sheep, dye the wool, start knitting… in Argentina it’s going to take you two-and-a-half years to make one! I mean, this is true luxury. Some people in their career may be buying themselves a watch, well, my dad got himself a poncho. And it’s not something you can buy just like that. It’s a process. And it is something to be proud of.” Supply chains as a process – to be cherished, protected, and nourished. Just like a sage, a visionary, a rebel, a healer, or a messenger. Just like Gabriela Hearst.
Originally published in the March 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
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As More Women Lead Equitable and Fair Fashion Production, Could Compassion Be This Year’s Biggest Trend?
Stella McCartney Resort 2023
A new year opens with so much at stake and I feel like we are going round in circles. From a fashion perspective, 2022 closed on a bitter note, with ultra-fast fashion brand Shein named the most popular brand in the world, and more greenwashing initiatives than we could wish for. The sustainable fashion conversation is getting more divided, entrapped in incorrectly used environmental data, avoidance of the reliance on oil and gas, and constant dismissal of the fact that this is a human industry.
We need to come up with a better plan. What is the thing that could flip the switch and change everything? Perhaps 2023 could be the year we subvert everything through what Annie Lennox calls global feminism, and we finally embrace feminist fashion. Women are the biggest consumers of clothes and accessories, and women are most of the workforce who produce them (80% of garment workers are female). In the Global North we keep marching for women’s rights and equality, while we are happy to wear clothes sewn by enslaved and abused women in the Global South. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Rather than talking about “sustainable fashion” (a term I can’t even hear anymore), what about refocusing and making our clothes a real force of feminists’ action?
Vivienne Westwood RTW Fall 2022
The beginning of the “eco-friendly” fashion movement has seen plenty of amazing female designers in the driving seat – from Katharine Hamnett to Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney. Yet we never included the garment workers, the cotton pickers, the millions of women working across the supply chain along with it. Why? How did that happen? And what if we operated in a different way – considering them, respecting them, and fighting for them, both at brand and consumer level? What if brands ensured their workers are paid a living wage and have their human rights respected while we, in turn, see the face of the woman who made our new dress? Would that change everything? I hope so.
Native American fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail says it beautifully, “Everything is connected. What we create and how we do business ripples into the world. The industry needs to urgently lean into uplifting vulnerable populations, cultivate community, and create a vision forward with future generations in mind. There needs to be a real shift into equitable collaboration. With my B.Yellowtail brand, we have helped create a culture shift for Native American artists and entrepreneurs. For generations we’ve only seen the fashion industry exploit and profit without any repercussions or benefit to our people. It’s a beautiful thing to see more Native people and communities benefit from our creativity and ancestral rights.”
Fashion Revolution’s Who Made my Clothes campaign ensures greater transparency for the talented people behind the clothes
Her message is loud and clear, and we have seen the success of campaigns like Fashion Revolution’s Who Made my Clothes. Yet we still don’t notice or care enough to make it a priority, as women, to support other women in fashion’s global supply chains. So how can we start a new chapter? According to Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies and the Fifteen Percent Pledge, “Fashion designers, along with leaders in all other production-based industries, must be intentional about what they are putting into the world.” She continues, “What are these products made of, and by who? The industry must evolve into a more inclusive space and give opportunity to those who have been historically repressed. I am constantly inspired by the artisans we work with at Brother Vellies. We partner with carefully selected, talented artisans who are leaders in their respective fields. Sustainability means building products that are meant to last, treating one another with respect, and thinking about the impact we are leaving on the world.”
Ahead of Christmas, nonprofit organization Fashion Revolution brought focus on the amount of unwanted clothing and textiles being sent to landfills
The same is true for American designer Angel Chang. “We partner with a local non-profit, the Tang’an Dong Ethnic Eco-Museum, in the village in China where our collection is crafted. They built a workshop, dye facility, and library for the community’s use and we worked together with the artisans to create a framework for production costs and timing. During the pandemic, when I was unable to travel there, the artisans began training each other. So now our workshop is completely artisan-run! They take care of each other and manage the production timing based on their farming schedule and weather. Our relationship has turned into a true collaboration. It was important to me to live with the local communities to see how they work and what they care about. To have a more just fashion industry, we need a bottom-up approach, where factory workers are asked what they need and value first – and then build the factory and production from that foundation.” The same, I can add, is true for us – what do we want to value first? What will make us rise and protest, shout and defend, and be proud not of the clothes we wear but the stories of the women who made them? Hopefully it won’t take us another year to figure this out.
Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
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Kourtney Kardashian for Boohoo
The heat is rising for Kourtney Kardashian, as criticism of her current and upcoming collaborations with Boohoo and her appointment as the brand’s ‘sustainability ambassador’ refuses to slow down – and key environmental players including Livia Firth aren’t pulling any punches.
Firth, a long-time critic of fast fashion and greenwashing through her organization Eco-Age and Vogue Arabia’s sustainability editor, didn’t hold back in an Instagram post, highlighting the problems with raising awareness of the damage fast fashion does, while still promoting and producing it.
“Any ambassador, whether a Kardashian or other, should only promote these brands if they commit to change the business model, slow down production, pay their workers more, and use sustainable materials,” Firth exclusively told Vogue Arabia. “It’s that simple. Anything else is just a lazy attitude that creates more harm than not. Kourtney has a huge platform and if she promotes greenwashing, instead of educating young people on what sustainability really is, she is just giving them permission to shop more and more and more.”
UK-based online retailer Boohoo has repeatedly come under fire for its working practices, including accusations of unfair and unsafe working conditions and making misleading claims of sustainability.
“Fast fashion is a business model that would never be sustainable, it is predicated on the simple formula of producing millions of clothes and selling them at very cheap prices, so people use them short term, dispose quickly and start again,” explains Firth. “And this formula is only made possible by using slave labor. So fast fashion equals environmental destruction and social exploitation. No matter how many ‘sustainable’ capsule collections they produce, the above formula stays intact.”
On the day her first collection launched at New York Fashion Week earlier this week, Kardashian hit back at critics of her new role in an Instagram post, saying: “I knew it would get backlash,” stating that fast fashion retailer Boohoo and sustainability “just don’t go hand in hand.”
“I went back and forth about doing this collection with Boohoo because the first thing I think about when I hear the words ‘fast fashion’ is that it’s bad for our planet,” explained the Poosh lifestyle website founder and entrepreneur. “I thought about the attention this collaboration would bring to people who may otherwise have no idea about the impacts of fast fashion on our planet. I thought about how pushing Boohoo to make some initial changes and then holding them accountable to larger change would be impactful.”
But her statements have been met with cynicism, as social media users and sustainability champions alike accuse Boohoo and Kardashian of ‘greenwashing’ – paying lip service to reducing environmental impact and using it to promote their products without intending to make any real changes to their business model. Environmental group A Plastic Planet said that the Boohoo/Kardashian partnership had “taken greenwashing to the next level”, while garment workers’ rights organization Labour Behind The Label had just one word for the collaboration’s announcement: “Urg.”
Outside of her partnership with Boohoo, Kardashian has also faced recent criticism for her family’s jet-setting lifestyle as well as her property’s excessive consumption of water during California’s recent droughts. Only time will tell whether her new sustainability role will help her to understand the impact of fashion as well as other lifestyle factors on our planet.
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Amber Valletta, Christopher Bevans, and Aditi Mayer on Subverting Existing Structures to Help the Planet
Aditi Mayer, Livia Firth, and Amber Valletta
My friend, Professor Hakan Karaosman always says that sustainability is such a multi-faceted issue it is impossible to condense it into one topic. Yet today, this is what keeps happening: we read about an initiative that is supposed to “solve it all,” or a commitment from a brand about one side of the story (oft en climate) without ever mentioning the other (often social). We need to have honest conversations that tie all the threads of sustainability together. That is why, last month in Los Angeles, in the wake of announcing the Green Carpet Fashion Awards (GCFA) moving there, we hosted the first of The GCFA Talks with actor, model, and activist Amber Valletta; sustainable fashion content creator, photojournalist, National Geographic storytelling fellow, academic, and labor rights activist Aditi Mayer; and designer, tech genius, and creative director of Eddie Bauer, Christopher Bevans. What came out of that was nothing short of inspiring.
“When I was modeling in the 90s, I felt a discrepancy,” Valletta said. “I didn’t know what it was, but my internal compass was saying something isn’t right. When I stepped away in 2000 for about a decade, I started getting into environmental activism, which is why, when I decided to get back into fashion, I knew I couldn’t do it the way I was before. I also started seeing how many problems there were through the supply chain, on every level, whether it be worker rights, human rights, diversity issues, climate issues, or animal rights. I was shocked at how little everyone knew about this 12 years ago. No one was talking about sustainability apart from a small group of us. And every time we mentioned it, people were like, ‘What?’ Investors would look at us like we were speaking another language. They’d never heard it. I kept saying, ‘This is how business will go. And it won’t just be about fashion, it will be every industry, because this is the biggest change we’ll need to make in our lives.’”
I remember those times myself, as I also started 12 years ago — and then something terrible happened that exposed the dark side of fashion. Mayer recalls the same. “My genesis in this world started in 2014. It was a few months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 garment workers,” Mayer shares. “What Rana Plaza did for me, as a young South Asian woman and daughter of immigrants, was unpack the politics of labor, the disproportionate impact on people, especially women of color, globally, and the environmental impact of fashion. I wanted to know the conditions that set the reality for Rana Plaza: how do we have a system predicated on speed and scale at all costs, even human lives? There is a role we have as consumers, but there’s an even bigger role we have as citizens.”
If you are a citizen with power on social media, you should use it in the right way. Why we create, and what we aspire to, are two big themes that need to be addressed and reimagined. Mayer refers to the “attention economy” of social media. “It is one of the biggest drivers of fast fashion. The sheer rate of information we’re consuming; the sponsored ads that are tied to an aspirational image.” Therefore, we should call for a more critical look at algorithms, how even creators who are focusing on sustainability and slowness are still put at odds with the platform that always wants us to create. “The future for me is decentralization in every facet possible,” Mayer concluded. “Fast fashion is rooted in mass production, and we need less mass production and more production by the masses. This decentralization is what will allow us to have more ethical supply chains.” Valletta also noted that the idea of celebrity is tied to centralization of power. “How do we convert a culture of influencers that live a lifestyle of consumption, versus a culture of thought leaders that push critical thinking?”
Livia Firth and Christopher Bevans
No one knows more about this side of technology and algorithms than Chris Bevans, who has turned his incredible designer’s skills into tech knowledge. “I grew up in a house where we made just about everything we wore,” he shared. “My grandmother was a dressmaker from Jamaica. We didn’t talk about sustainability. We talked about survival; being crafty and handy. As an adult, I found myself at Nike in corporate design, seeing the amount of fabric wasted just for sampling. I started thinking that there had to be a better way. I also wanted to figure out how to bring emerging creatives together to support their ideas and help them navigate supply chains and share resources. That’s why I started The Hallway, where designers could have access to a database of sustainable factories around the world. We wanted to open source it, hack the system, basically. Because for me, it’s all about communication and sharing. That’s what is going to destabilize the titans that are corroding the system. Technology is a tool that we can use to take down the juggernauts. We can take down these giants using the same technology they use on us.”
For someone like me, who recently spent sleepless nights wondering how on earth we let an ultra-fast fashion brand like Shein brainwash us (and then realizing it happened exactly in the way Mayer, Valetta, and Bevans talked about: influencers and algorithms), I left this conversation with a euphoric new mission. Hack the system. That is where the new battleground of sustainable fashion will be.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
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Photo: Elizaveta Porodina
Almost every interview I have done in the last 14 years or so starts with the same question: “When did you become sustainable?” Sometimes the phrasing is different, but the concept is always the same: how and when did it happen?
I usually shrug my shoulders and come up with an answer, but the truth is, I am not sure there was a precise moment – it was more a collection of circumstances that brought me to where I am today. I associate my personal journey with the transformation not only of the fashion industry, but with how we went from being “citizens” to being “consumers.”
I was born in 1969, the year of that fabulous Woodstock festival and the hippy movement, and the first man on the moon. I spent the first 20 years of my life (if not more) in an era pre-internet, pre-mobile phones, pre-consumerism. I was also born in Italy, so everything that happened in the 80s – including the beginning of consumerism and fast food – arrived in my country much later than in the US (where it was born) or the UK (where I moved to in 1996). I am sure the same is true for any of you who are from my generation and are not based in one of those two countries.
Two-year-old Livia at her aunt’s wedding with her mother, wearing a custom-made silk dress which she later gave to Livia
Apart from Madonna’s music, huge earrings, and shoulder pads, the 80s for me are about my twin brothers being born, my family suddenly becoming four siblings, my dad having to maintain everyone with one salary, and my mom buying lowenergy light bulbs not because we were “eco,” but because we needed to save money. The same went for clothes that were mended, altered, passed down, and exchanged – simply because we couldn’t afford it and cheap fashion didn’t exist anyway. We had to save money to buy clothes and we bought quality clothes to save money, as they had to last through the years.
Things start to get blurry later on, and maybe the question is not, when did I become sustainable, but rather, when did everything become super fast, super cheap, super accessible, and super charged at the speed of light? When did we start living in an era when we had to certify things, or call them “sustainable” or “eco,” while it had been normal practice up until then?
Livia wearing a Laura Strambi recycled plastic bottles dress. Photo: Getty
At some point this is what happened, and it suddenly became cheaper to buy new socks, rather than mending the holes in them, and we started buying readymade mash potatoes at the supermarket rather than boiling and mashing two potatoes. Isn’t it interesting that, in the span of my lifetime, I saw this huge transformation from one kind of world to a completely different one? And now I’m witnessing a new revolution: the technological craze of Web 3.0 and all things “metaverse.” Maybe this is why I always say that for me, sustainability – call it green or any color you like – is more like common sense than anything else. And if you start looking at it in this way, then there are a million questions whose answers will always be no. Does it make sense to you that we buy things that we throw away after a few times? (Think about this for a moment – the fact that we throw away clothes like food that has gone past its expiry date in our fridge.) Does it make sense to you that we wear toxic materials on our bodies? Does it make sense to you that we spend our time looking at the lives of people we don’t know on social media, because our lives are so empty that the only way of feeling alive is to feel envious over what someone else is wearing, or which place they have gone on holiday? Does it make sense to you that, although we technically abolished slavery last century, we still enslave millions of people in supply chains around the world, since we need to buy lots of very cheap things, very often? I could go on, but shouldn’t the real question be, when will we start to care again, to reconnect with what matters again?
Livia in a factory in Dhaka. Photo: Reza Shahriah Rahman
For the last two-and-a-half years I have been writing these pages, every month on different topics, every month trying to involve you in something new. This month I would like to throw the ball back in you court and would like to ask you what you care about. What would you like to know more of, explore more, understand more? What is your story and what are your solutions for the future of humanity?
Originally published in the June 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
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Virtual fashion available from DressX. Photo: courtesy of DressX
In pure Carrie Bradshaw style of “I couldn’t help but wonder,” I have found myself recently thinking about this new “digital fashion” phenomenon and whether this means that physical clothes will eventually become irrelevant as our lives will be moving online and into metaverse platforms in virtual worlds. You only had to read the fashion press of the last few months to notice an increasing number of digital fashion releases, NFT collections, and articles studying this new phenomenon – and branding it as “sustainable.”
Our avatar versions can’t go around naked, and brands are here to solve the problem. And if you don’t have an avatar yet (like me), you will probably soon be able to stay in your pajamas for Zoom meetings (forgoing the casual leggings and dress-up top we’ve all been wearing the past two years), wearing a Gucci “shield” in the same way you can fake your environment with beautiful screens while working from bed.
I remember Marco Bizzarri, CEO of Gucci giving a lecture at the London College of Fashion in 2017 during which one student asked him how he would reconcile Gucci’s own sustainability agenda with the company’s need to keep producing new clothes season after season. He shrugged andsaid that while he didn’t have an answer yet, surely the only way would be for Gucci to become more of a content producer and diversify its business model. Fast-forward a few years and Gucci has become one of the first brands to have a virtual world, with digital products and gaming too. It is called the Gucci Good Game. Marco was right–and looking at it through this lens, it is a genius move. If you can keep your company profitable while not producing more physical clothes (with all the consequences this implies), surely, it’s a win.
But, as you probably know by now, for the last 10 years I have been particularly invested in the harsh reality experienced by the 70 million real people currently entrapped in the fashion supply chain to meet our insatiable consumption appetite, which is fed by a multibillion profit-making fast fashion model that now is presumed as being the norm. My first question is, what does this new virtual revolution hold for these 70 million people – the garment workers who are predominantly young women? We’ve already seen the consequences a global pandemic had on them, with brands refusing to pay for placed orders and cutting subsequent bookings without any responsibility towards the workers at all. Adding this new “virtual revolution” to an already existing problem of exploitation could spell a social crisis on a scale we haven’t yet witnessed – the dystopian nightmare, which we are all pretending not to be a part of. Predicting the future is a perilous business. And I don’t have an answer for you yet. But we need to stay vigilant and not let history repeat itself. Sustainability is not only about environmental justice, but, much more importantly, social justice. We need to make sure inclusivity and equality are fundamental pillars of this revolution.
My second question is, is it also truly sustainable from an environmental point of view? What are the metrics we will use to measure this? CNN recently reported on the limited data available about the reduced impact of digital fashion, quoting a sustainability report from digital fashion startup DressX saying digital garments emit 97% less carbon than physical ones. But how did they measure this? As we know by now, data can be manipulated, and reporting can be stirred according to what a business wants you to see. DressX states on its website, “We share the beauty and excitement that physical fashion creates, but we believe that there are ways to produce less, to produce more sustainably, and not to produce at all. At the current stage of DressX development, we aim to show that some clothes can exist only in their digital versions. Don’t shop less, shop digital fashion.” The devil is in the details and the sentences “Don’t shop less” (so continue to feed consumerism) and “At a current stage of DressX development we only sell digital fashion” (implying it may start selling real clothes in the future) set alarm bells ringing in my head.
This epoch promises plenty of disruption, but whether this is welcome depends on how we steer a course through change. The one superpower we have – and which we have the duty to use – is our action to push for the right governance and accountability. We don’t need our avatars to be better versions of ourselves.
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Originally published in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia
Livia Firth (left) at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in a dress first worn by her mother in 1968 (right).
Dear fashion lovers,
With this global pandemic shining a spotlight on fashion’s biggest problems, one can only wonder: how did it all get so messy? When did we stop thinking about our clothes as the dear friends they should be, and start to treat them as disposable? And most importantly – when did the word sustainability start to become so empty? Shall we try and return its meaning?
I grew up in Italy in the 70s and 80s in a family of four siblings. Only my father worked; we had to be frugal with lots of things, including what we wore. Hand-me-downs and make-your-own were the norm and by the time I started earning money, I saved as much as I could to buy staple garments – famously saving for more than a year to buy my Max Mara coat, which cost 700 000 liras (the equivalent of probably £1 000 today). I still have it!
At the time, high street was practically non-existent. Shops offered high-quality clothes at prices that better reflected their value, and we all bought with purpose. No one – no matter how much money they had – would dream of buying something to wear a few times before throwing it away, like is the case today.
Then fast fashion happened and changed our world forever.
Today, I want to offer you a solution. What if sustainable fashion were an act of rebellion? A way to slow it all down; a way to look at it as an opportunity to change our behavior and save fashion? With the Eco-Age team, we came up with 10 solutions to help us navigate it all. We called them “Make every step count.” I hope these steps to navigate fashion life offer a useful way to challenge misconceptions, re-engage with what we wear, and make a difference. It can seem overwhelming, but global issues such as the climate crisis and slave labor can have local solutions, thanks to our simplest of daily acts: getting dressed.
Also Read: Amber Valletta, Livia Firth, Karen Wazen, and Burberry’s Nicole Lovett to Join Vogue Arabia’s Future of Sustainable Fashion Discussion
Time’s Up Vintage in Copenhagen
1. Learn the story behind your look and wear with pride
The fashion world can feel disconnected and without identity, but there are so many beautiful stories we can wear. I am sure you know plenty of brands who can tell you how their clothes are made, by whom, and from what materials and techniques. Make sure the story is authentic and wear it with pride.
2. Buy for life and rewear forever
How many times do you ask yourself if you’ll still wear a piece in 10 years’ time? I think about all the ways I could style anything I want to buy, which has saved me from making some disastrous shopping mistakes. I love wearing everything I have. I am sure the same is true with your wardrobes – no matter how many clothes you get, you probably have some which are the equivalent of your “comfort foods,” pieces you wear all the time as they are safe and make you feel great.
3. Wear artisanal
How many times did you get dressed in a trend, rather than a story? How often do you wear a piece of art? There is so much “fashion” around us that it is hard to connect with things that are handcrafted. I would love to think that our fashion future is completely artisanal and that one day we will all care for the people whose hard work goes into making the clothing and accessories we wear and love, and whose techniques go back centuries.
4. Discover second-hand and vintage
One of the best things about vintage clothing is that it’s often of very high quality, which is why it has lasted so long. I remember my mom taking us kids to a second-hand market south of Rome to look for clothes for the whole family to save money. One day, she found this extraordinary vintage dress, in black silk with white cashmere polka dots, and guess what, I still have it!
5. Embrace clothes swapping and borrowing
Another misconception is that we have to own everything we wear. My sister and I grew up swapping clothes, and I still borrow clothes from or lend them to my girlfriends. Sometimes it makes for fun stories – like when I found myself in Botswana to film with director Andrew Morgan and packed all casual clothes, only to learn on arrival that I was granted an interview with the president of the country. To my rescue came Pat Dambe, head of corporate affairs for De Beers, who dressed me for the interview.
6. Read the labels
Most labels today do not offer enough information. I think our biggest power right now is to push governments to establish stricter labeling regulations like they do for food. We should also tell brands what information we want from them – social media is a powerful tool we can use to voice our values.
7. Choose natural fabrics
There’s nothing better than a beautiful fabric made with the highest quality wool, organic cotton, linen, or even hemp. Simply speaking, natural materials come from plants and animals and have the potential to be made with little to no chemicals. Just remember that natural doesn’t necessarily mean organic. They are also easy to freshen up with dyes, or to repair if needed. Wool is a particularly great option as you can air it instead of frequently washing it, drastically cutting down on water and energy use.
8. Go upcycled or recycled with your fabric
There are amazing recycled materials out there made from waste – Econyl regenerated nylon is a favorite, made from recycled fishing nets and carpets. You can already buy swimwear and sports clothes made from it. Another way to approach it is to upcycle your old clothes. Take something you haven’t worn for years and use the fabrics, pockets, zips, and buttons to create something new.
9. Find a seamstress or make your own
We don’t have to buy ready-made clothes to enjoy fashion. Clothes made just for you are clothes that will be treasured forever. You can make your own, or, if sewing isn’t for you, there are so many skilled seamstresses out there.
10. Treasure the memory of each wear
I remember my mind being blown by an interview with Amanda Harlech from 2011. She spoke about how her wardrobe was full of incredible memories. For every piece she could recall when she wore it and what happened, from her first kiss to other adventures. It is the best way to describe my wardrobe, too. I have so many pieces, which I have had for decades, clothes that used to belong to my mom, or my aunt, or my mom’s best friend… All worn countless times and attached to some incredible memories.
Watch Livia Firth and Manuel Arnaut discuss all this and much more by tuning into Vogue Arabia’s Future of Sustainable Fashion digital event on June 28 at 4pm UAE time/3pm KSA time. Click here to register.
Read Next: Livia Firth Answers Your Questions on Fast Fashion, the Effects of Covid-19 on the Industry, and More
Livia Firth Highlights the Urgent Need for a Living Wage in the Garment Industry Through This Documentary
Ahead of eighth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh (April 24), Livia Firth launched a new Fashionscapes documentary about the urgent need for a living wage in the garment industry.
Photo: Reza Shahriar Rahman/Polaris
For me, activism has always been about being a challenger. When we start challenging the status quo, or even a simple action like getting dressed, and start asking questions… change really happens.
Something like this happened a few years ago, after I returned from a trip to Bangladesh. I went there to see what had changed in the two years after the devastating Rana Plaza garment factory collapse on 24 April, 2013, which killed more than 1 100 people. The majority of the victims were women, killed while they were sewing clothes for us. Let that sink in, please. At the time, I could not stop thinking about something Nazma Atkar, a garment worker I met in Dhaka, had said: “Livia, nothing will ever change unless there is a transnational agreement on wages. Until then, brands will always hop from one country to the other in pursuit of the cheapest possible production line.”
Business and Human Rights Researcher Thulsi Narayanasamy in Fashionscapes: Living Wage
Would something like this even be possible, I wondered? At the next meeting of The Circle – the NGO I co-founded with Annie Lennox and many other amazing women, to work together to achieve equality for women and girls in a fairer world – I challenged some of our lawyer members with this question. Little did I know that that query would spark a revolution.
Six years and three reports by the lawyers later, and The Circle has just submitted a proposal of legislation to the EU parliament for a living wage. To make you understand why this is beyond exciting and a real game changer, let me put things in perspective.
Children working in factories
The readymade garment industry stands as the poster child for exploitation. In an increasingly globalized world, companies source goods from factories where people work in conditions and for wages that would be illegal, and likely criminal, in the main marketplaces for those goods. So when a group of internationally renowned women working in senior positions began conversations with legal colleagues in garment hotspots including Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, garment workers began talking to them after their shifts. Sometimes these encounters took the form of hurried conversations outside factory gates. Through this network, a flow of evidence began to travel, carried by women from the factory gates of “secret” factories to a network of women legal professionals across the world. Together, this network was able to prove that fast-fashion wages are in contravention of human rights. This is the biggest challenge to slavery in fashion that we have ever seen – and it doesn’t stop there.
Women working in factories
With filmmaker Andrew Morgan, we decided to tell this story through a new episode of our Fashionscapes documentary series. Fashionscapes: Living Wage illustrates how The Circle’s mission of truly fair living wages will reshape an entire industry and work to create a more equitable, just, and humane world economy.
The battle for a living wage in fashion is a story that’s time is now. It reflects a growing understanding of ways to dismantle the dangerous status quo through nuanced activism. This story contains many pointers as to how to use radical, collaborative activism to speak truth to power and how to position and articulate a solution to a long-standing injustice. It tells the story of unexpected collaboration by people across transnational boundaries combining their expertise – whether that be legal or lived experience working day to day in this system – and using the tools of activism to bring decisive change. It helps shake the foundations of “head in the sand” passivity from “consumers.” It reinforces the agency of the active citizen.
Human Rights Lawyer Jessica Simor from The Circle
As Bill McKibben, American environmentalist and co-founder of climate campaign group 350.org, says, “When we fight, we win a surprising amount of the time. So we should probably fight more often.”
Fashionscapes: Living Wage is available to watch at Fashionscapes.tv
Watch Livia Firth and Manuel Arnaut discuss all this and much more by tuning into Vogue Arabia’s Future of Sustainable Fashion digital event on June 28 at 4pm UAE time/3pm KSA time. Click here to register.Read Next: Livia Firth on Why Need to Stay Vigilant About Fashion’s Impact on the Planet