Review: Carody Culveron Clare Press

Pick Your Pattern

In 1985, Sir Nicholas Coleridge – then a media executive, later the president of Condé Nast International, now the godfather of model Cara Delevigne – flew to India to interview some Tamil Tigers. It’s an unlikely beginning to a story about fashion, but fashion itself is rich in unlikelihoods (lest we forget: ‘chefcore’ was one of 2023’s hottest sartorial trends). When he was off the clock, Coleridge would visit the steam room of his Holiday Inn hotel, where he grew friendly with its only other nightly regular: a Mr Kumar, who owned a nearby clothing factory. Kumar ended up giving Coleridge a tour of the place, which produced a thousand garments a day for the high-street label Liz Claiborne (this line of manufacturing, Kumar assured Coleridge, was ‘hitting the big time’). It was in this huge room above a shopping arcade, buzzing with the clatter and churn of ancient sewing machines, that Coleridge saw one of the machine operators – a young Tamil girl – working on a length of pink and blue check cotton. 

Coleridge didn’t give this visit much thought until nearly a year later, when he spied a Macy’s advertisement in The New York Times for a jumpsuit made from a familiar-looking fabric.  

This revelation – that you could chart the journey of your big-brand glad rags as they traversed an underworld of sweatshops and child labour, before emerging into a dubious upper world of marketing spit ‘n’ polish, and landing, finally, on the fifth floor of Macy’s – inspired Coleridge’s 1988 book The Fashion Conspiracy. It’s a wildly entertaining read: a gossipy, glitzy unveiling of the designer money fuelling the new fashion economy. And who needs chefcore when you have society gal Nan Kempner, one of Coleridge’s 400 interview subjects (‘only about 50 of them seemed altogether sane’), telling him, ‘My grandmother always dressed beautifully. She had wonderful clothes and a wonderful chef. When she found herself losing her beauty she took to her bed, which had the most fabulous linen and lace.’ Same. 

What shocked Coleridge is hardly a bombshell today, although exploitative labour conditions and mass production date all way back to the Industrial Revolution. But the 1980s ushered in accelerated offshore manufacturing – a boon for consumers who wanted trendy clothing at affordable prices – and the rise (alongside shoulder pads and hair) of powerhouse global brands and designers as celebrity billionaires who sold cultural cachet together with clothing.  

These shifts fed our irrepressible desire for new things to wear, new selves to try on. But that desire itself was a fire lit by the market, and it’s been blazing a trail of environmental and ethical misery ever since. Many of us – myself included – keep adding to cart. 

Enter Clare Press. If you like clothes and dislike looming ecological disaster, she’s your woman: she was Vogue’s first-ever Sustainability Editor, and her podcast, Wardrobe Crisis, turns an optimistic ear to the ways that we can atone for fashion’s legion sins: recent episodes tackle regenerative farming, local manufacturing, and the UN’s new Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook, among other well-intentioned and sensible initiatives.  

Is the lofty goal of across-the-board sustainable fashion anything more than an organic cotton dream? I have my doubts, and they lie not with Press’ aspirations but with the likelihood of their realisation: achieving systemic change in an industry that’s now worth $1.7 trillion dollars and employs an estimated 300 million people. Press knows this is a hard ask. Her most recent book, Wear Next, asks not what the future of fashion will be but what it could be. If The Fashion Conspiracy sought to lay bare the industry’s new reality, Wear Next is an attempted corrective – a way of imagining the many possible paths to a more equitable clothing system.  

Press begins by issuing an invitation. She asks, ‘Complete the sentence: “The future of fashion will be…”’ It’s not only an exhortation to readers – one she hopes will ‘keep the conversation going’ – but the book’s raison d’etre. She travels the globe (I’m assuming she carbon offset all those flights) to interview designers, makers, scientists, farmers, academics, and other experts, with each conversation guided by that opening provocation. The responses are as divergent and surprising as the style tribes of TikTok (it’s hard to find a noun that hasn’t yet been wedded to the suffix ‘core’ to capture an aesthetic trend, one of the more recent examples being – inexplicably – #corecore). Press arranges her findings thematically, with chapters including ‘Community’, ‘Repaired’, ‘Traceable’, ‘Biointelligent’, ‘Upcycled’, and ‘Less’. This is a book of potential solutions, not a re-litigation of oft-touted flaws. 

In this spirit of optimism, Press’ persona on the page (much like her interviewing style in Wardrobe Crisis) is lively and colloquial. She’s a skilled storyteller, framing the hard facts and figures of her research – everything from the number of people employed in Cambodia’s textile sector (800,000) to how near-infrared technology is being used to sort fabric for recycling – with enlivening narrative detail: during one interview, which takes place in a café, Press’ enthusiastic gesticulating sends a vase of flowers flying off the table. Her ability to bring levity to her subject (on the US$7,800 price tag of a Chanel Medium Classic Flap Bag: ‘An insane amount. It’s a handbag, not a new kitchen’) means that Wear Next avoids the po-faced sanctimony that inflects some contemporary fashion discourse, particularly when it comes to sustainability. This approach makes the book easy reading, both stylistically and ideologically. But Press’ breezy tone and consistent first-person presence may, for some readers at least, diminish the weight of Wear Next’s predictions and possibilities. 

Some of the solutions she elicits from her interviewees are more outlandish than others. Take, for example, Dian-Jen Lin, the London College of Fashion graduate who co-runs the Post Carbon Lab, a social enterprise that seeks to ‘change our relationships with textiles’ by producing microbial fabric dyes. Canadian knitwear designer Olivia Rubens was the first to use the Lab’s trademarked ‘Photosynthesis Coating’ in a collection of what she called ‘living knits’, which ‘extracted CO2 from the air while emitting oxygen, thus rendering the wearer climate positive’. Press wonders whether customers could handle the responsibility of ‘keeping their jumpers alive, like a Tamagotchi pet’; Rubens assures her that ‘you just need to spritz it every now and then, like a houseplant’. Will we all be wearing photosynthetic sweaters in 2050? Hard to say.  

Press acknowledges that humans aren’t especially adept at discerning what lies ahead – partly because the variables are so manifold, partly because we often fail at objectivity. We’re also complacent, and sometimes it’s easier to embrace our innate desire for a happily-ever-after – it’ll all be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Until it is. 

Another of Press’ interview subjects is Li Edelkoort, a self-described ‘archaeologist of the future’ whose job it is to predict not just what we’ll be wearing in the world of tomorrow but how we’ll live, what practices and aesthetics will attract our interest. Edelkoort is confident that ‘flight-shaming will go mainstream’ and that open-source and co-creation will increasingly shape clothing production; we’ll become ‘collectors and collaborators versus consumers’. Photosynthetic sweaters don’t look out of place in this picture, but then Press talks to British trend forecaster Christopher Sanderson, who has a slightly darker outlook: he tells her that major fashion houses are becoming more exclusive, with Chanel launching boutiques that are only open to their ‘Very Important Customers’. Press is momentarily dispirited by this: her ideal fashion future is a democratic one where we’re liberated from top-down trend tyranny, although Sanderson assures her that consumers still ‘want to be told what to do and what to wear, and buy, and where to go’. And while we’re used to attributing most of the industry’s ills to fast fashion, luxury is just as bad: according to McKinsey, it generates more than $2 billion in greenhouse gas emissions every year.  

It can feel as though Press’ desire for a better future precludes her from trying to parse some of these stickier propositions. Since she weaves multiple interviews (or parts thereof) throughout each chapter, using them as springboards to expand her roadmap of possible futures, Wear Next ultimately feels dissatisfyingly fractured and overwhelmingly theoretical. Of course a solutions-focused book isn’t going to be laden with gloomy prognostications, but some of the exchanges Press recounts have an aphoristic quality. In one chapter, she visits UK-based makers Vin and Omi to discuss their belief that smaller companies can reshape the fashion landscape. Vin and Omi – who, like Madonna, are opting out of the last-name industrial complex – craft textiles from repurposed waste (some of it sourced from the private estate of King Charles III, with whom they’ve collaborated since 2019) and once co-designed a capsule collection with Debbie Harry. ‘But how will small brands survive if they can’t sell enough clothes?’ Press asks them. ‘Not everyone can be mates with Blondie and make five frocks at a time to prove a point.’ Vin assures her that ‘When you start a business with the right intentions and mindset, you can grow it in the right way, [in line with your] values, and you’re not just chasing money, or adhering to a terrible system [that insists you] produce loads of garments’. Press never attempts to unpack this rather facile generalisation, nor to point out the inevitability that in a capitalist system many businesses are perfectly content to favour money over mindset. 

In the early 2020s, then, fashion is not so much a conspiracy as a paradox. Press reveals that when she began early conversations for this book in the wake of the pandemic, ‘More than one person told me that we must change but we won’t change – in the same breath’. Journalist Louise Matsakis tells her that many consumers embrace both slow and fast fashion. It’s complicated. For Press, we’re in limbo, floating in what philosopher Charles Eisenstein calls ‘the space between stories’; she believes that dreaming about a more socially and ecologically just future might just help us get there.  

In many ways, the industry remains the glamorous, excessive, and cruel stage on which Nicholas Coleridge lifted the curtain, where the privileged indulge their fetish for disposable goods at the expense of exploited workers in the global south. But in others, it’s a radically different and infinitely more fractured vista. A garment’s once-linear trajectory from cotton field to customer is now a bewildering tangle of trend forecasting, greenwashing, purpose washing, social justice, influencers, resale platforms, vintage sellers, B Corps, digital innovation, and tech disruption alongside the indie makers, high street stalwarts, designer labels, and – of course – sweatshops that most of us associate with the word ‘fashion’. It’s enough to make you give up and take to your bed à la Nan Kempner’s gran, who’d have a lot more to worry about these days than her fading looks.  

Perhaps the process of unravelling these threads should begin with an obvious question: what is fashion?  

Press quotes architect and academic William McDonough, he of the cradle-to-cradle design philosophy: ‘fashion is a verb’. He tells her that thinking about it in these terms reminds us that fashion is an action, and actions have consequences. This is why fashion matters. But it matters for other reasons, too. If fashion is a verb, it’s also a vibe. Not to mention a noun: an industry. These dichotomies may be at the core of the cognitive dissonance required for many consumers to keep shopping despite knowing – even holding grave concerns about – the human and environmental costs required to sustain that desire for clothes. When you live in the affluent global north, the horror of a cataclysmic event such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 garment workers, can too easily be quarantined from the experience of scrolling page after page of linen separates on sale; the same goes for the sobering statistic that fashion is now responsible for almost 10% of global carbon emissions. These facts can feel reassuringly abstract. 

Our desire is the thing that’s up close, ever present. This is not news to Press (‘try telling consumers to kick desire’), but since Wear Next is more about the people who design and make our clothes than with the people who buy them, she misses out on exploring why we’re so beguiled by fashion – which is perhaps one of its most fascinating and elusive dimensions. In his book Capitalism and Desire, Todd McGowan argues that the former has a parasitic relationship to the latter, engendering in us a bottomless want masquerading as need – a want that can never, by design, be met, although the market inculcates in us a belief that the next thing will be the one to grant us our wish. What is it we wish for? This is where we experience fashion as a vibe: a beguiling realm of imagination and creative expression that allows us to conceive of new and better selves, aesthetic transformations wrought by the perfect fit. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt this way when you’ve slid on a certain garment, met the gaze of your reflection and thought yes, this is it, this is me, an alchemical union of cloth and identity. ‘I wear suits now,’ the character of Richie repeatedly proclaims in an episode of the FX series The Bear, which follows the fortunes of a family-run sandwich shop called the Original Beef of Chicagoland. For the better part of two seasons, we mostly see Richie – cantankerous, difficult, grieving – wearing Original Beef t-shirts; when the restaurant reopens as a high-end establishment, he undergoes a kind of epiphany when he takes on the role of maître d’ and discovers his talent for working front of house. His new look epitomises his evolution as a character, his new way of moving through the world.  

But you can probably guess where all these mystical associations can be traced back to. ‘Commodities,’ writes Guy Debord, ‘are now all that there is to see; the world that we see is the world of the commodity’. And when everything is a commodity, nothing is really a choice. You don’t have to be a follower of fashion to be susceptible to this sartorial ouroboros of want, buy, rinse, repeat. There’s no more excoriating example of our involuntary complicity in fashion’s totalising system than the infamous cerulean blue monologue scene in David Frankel’s 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. When she’s helping prepare for a photoshoot at Vogue magazine, protagonist Andy (an improbable frump played by Anne Hathaway) confesses to editor Miranda Priestly (an acid-tongued Meryl Streep) that ‘both those belts look exactly the same to me’. Priestly responds by telling Andy that her ‘lumpy blue sweater’ – a garment she assumes Andy, who considers herself too serious a person to be swayed by trends, fished from a bargain bin – in fact ‘represents millions of dollars of countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room’. The enduring popularity of The Devil Wears Prada, and this endlessly memed scene in particular, is testament to fashion’s outsize cultural and economic influence, the way it feeds our belief in its glamour and romance. The film even warrants a mention in Wear Next, with Press wistfully remembering her (incorrect) conviction that its release would finally expose ‘high fashion’s bullying culture’. 

So if fashion is all of these things – monstrous commodity machine, engine of human exploitation, invisible hand of the market, profound artistic outlet, gateway to a higher spiritual plane – then how can we tailor a future that fits the good parts and fixes the rest?  

Part of the problem is scale. Press makes the trenchant observation that ‘global clothing production has at least doubled (perhaps even tripled) since 2000, but while we’re buying more clothes than ever before and turning them over more quickly, we don’t seem to be getting more fashionable’. She illustrates this by setting herself the task of watching passers-by at a suburban train station and comparing their clothes to Vogue’s summer wardrobe recommendations. For fashion’s premier glossy, the seasonal vibe is ‘jazzy’ short-sleeved shirts and ‘elevated co-ord’ paired with ‘noughties-inspired accessories’. For the person on the street – at least the ones Press sees – it’s jeans, more jeans, activewear, a lot of baseball caps, and even more jeans. I doubt I’d record vastly different results if I were to repeat Press’s experiment in my home of inner-city Brisbane.  

For all the creativity and ingenuity on display in Wear Next – the upcycled couture gowns of anti-establishment designer Ronald van der Kemp, the cow parsley and nettle garments of Vin and Omi – most people are choosing the jeans, even when they know said jeans were made in a sweatshop. This choice – if you could call it that – is convoluted. One of the most revealing exchanges Press recounts in Wear Next is with Bridie, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a friend and an unapologetic customer of notorious fast-fashion behemoth Shein: ‘When I ask Bridie about the scary future of the climate and the broken fashion system, she said, “If it’s broken, who broke it? I’m just not convinced it’s up to us to fix your mistakes.”’ That’s how many of my generation – us put-upon millennials – feel, too. 

There’s also an accessibility issue. Ethical clothing generally isn’t cheap, and many consumers who might like to buy $239 jeans by Outland Denim – a company founded to combat human trafficking and whose products are crafted from raw materials and made by people who are paid a fair wage and given a safe working environment – simply can’t afford to. When Press meets Gayle Herring, who runs a ‘scaled-down, modular version of an industrial wool processing mill’ in Macclesfield, Victoria, Herring shares her belief that retailers should make a stronger effort to educate their customers, who ‘will have to decide they want to buy the $200 jumper not the $20 one, and for that to happen we’ll have to do a better job of telling them why they should’.  

This reflects Wear Next’s broader sidestepping of class – the designers and makers Press talks to don’t directly address how sustainable brands might serve consumers with limited disposable income. One person who does raise the issue of affordability is Batsheva Dueck, who runs a YouTube channel called Cynical Duchess that features young people talking about their outfits. When Press calls Dueck to discuss the intractable puzzle of Gen-Z shopping habits, ‘Dueck says most students don’t have the funds to shop at [ethical brands like] Everlane or Reformation … but also that changing the fashion world might not be as high up on young people’s agendas as I’d like to think, and that even when it is, having the mental space to act on it is a privilege’. But the chapter moves on to 3D printing and bespoke clothing production rather than grappling further with the issues Dueck raises. Like Vin’s insistence on mindset and intentions, this avoidance of the economic elephant in the room obviates an examination of the other kind of luxury in fashion: having the means to care about whether your next jumper can be net zero.   

Then there’s the slipperiness of sustainability as a concept. Like the descriptors ‘green’ and ‘eco’, it’s become an almost meaningless word – predictably, it’s been co-opted by the market. I’ve never bought as many new clothes as when I worked for a sustainable fashion and lifestyle magazine, and my job was to write and edit copy about clothing and homewares brands that marketed themselves to consumers on the basis of their ‘conscious’ (another word well on its way to overuse-induced irrelevance) credentials. I don’t blame my former job for this – I probably buy the same quantity of clothing today, the difference being that now it’s mostly vintage (which means I get to tell myself I’m being an ethical shopper – but that’s complicated too, because my brightly coloured seventies polyester is made from fossil fuels and won’t biodegrade).  

As someone who’s long sought to improve the state of fashion, Press is well acquainted with the harms caused by this flattening of language: ‘as the buzz builds, the space for nuance shrinks – and with something as complex as sustainability, that is a problem’. She also points out that sustainability means different things to different people – if you’re vegan, you may favour clothing made without animal materials; if you want to avoid plastic, you might choose garments made of real leather because the vegan kind is often made using polyurethane.  

Finally, let’s not forget that social media makes all our lifestyle choices more visible, which may – inadvertently or not – constrain our desire to live by that old Hallmark adage to ‘dance like nobody’s watching’. Everybody’s watching, and commenting, all the time – and as ‘conscious’ consumption, status anxiety, and the cult of aspiration become increasingly imbricated, it becomes harder for those who can stump up for the ‘better’ garment to know or care if what they’re buying really makes the environmental cut. The performativity of these choices leads to breathlessly overblown PR verbiage on the part of brands – even genuinely pioneering ones such as Olivia Rubens. Here’s some copy from her website: 

Olivia Rubens is more than a Canadian knitwear brand; it’s a revolutionary movement for the independent and underestimated underdogs who relentlessly challenge the status quo. With a fierce determination to celebrate authenticity, Olivia Rubens inspires and empowers its tribe to embrace the unconventional and break free from the chains of conformity. 

Honestly, it’s a bit much. Is there anything more capitalistic than investing in a brand to signify your commitment to the revolution?  

Consumers are at one end of the fashion system; elsewhere along the supply chain are the people who literally make our clothes. Wear Next would have benefitted from some of their perspectives. The makers with whom Press talks are the same sort of people who populate the pages of that magazine I once worked for – the advocates and entrepreneurs who pursue noble and important goals, but who can’t, ultimately, speak for the millions of people (often women) on whose backs the industry is built. Many of the world’s garment workers are in Asia, which is, reports Press, responsible for more than half of textiles and clothing exports globally. As she rightly observes, all our talk of a better future – on the part of brands, customers, governments – doesn’t withstand scrutiny unless we consider how that future can include garment workers. 

Here, again, is where things get complicated. Automation, which involves using AI and robots to undertake the manufacturing tasks once performed by humans (ninety per cent of Uniqlo’s warehouse staff in Japan have now been replaced by robots), looks like a viable solution from a certain angle. Academic Kate Fletcher tells Press, ‘It’s not like the current fast fashion system is providing good jobs. There’s a false equivalence between employment and good employment’. But as Press herself points out, ‘a choice between a bad job and no job is no choice at all’, and the International Labour Organization has predicted that over the next ten years, eighty per cent of the textile and manufacturing jobs in some countries will become automated. There doesn’t seem to be a plan in place for the people this purported progress will displace.  

I appreciate Press’ ability to acknowledge the minefield of obstacles we’re facing here. But again, some of the pronouncements from her interviewees come across as rather quixotic. Chase Maccini, co-founder of Sydney’s The Sneaker Laundry, wants us all to have a ‘freedom mindset’. Design lecturer Fabio Di Liberto declares consumerism ‘a failed experiment’ (try telling that to Shein, which raked in $22.7 billion last year). In presenting such an array of innovators and ideas, all operating in different corners of the market, Press perhaps inadvertently reinforces the fact that fashion is too big a beast to be tamed. ‘Transitions are difficult,’ admits UTS professor Timo Rissanen when Press asks him how we might manage our move towards automated production. ‘When we put our minds to it, we can do incredible things and that includes coming up with solutions for how we want our future to look…But forget the idea of a blanket solution – there isn’t one’. 

As the book draws to its deliberately ambiguous close – the only answer to that opening question is that there is no answer – Press remains optimistic. Beyond the thriving communities of makers and innovators through which she travels, however, fashion’s evil empire – one that will be much more familiar to Sir Nicholas Coleridge than the biodegradable dresses and cellulose sneakers of Wear Next – rages on. McKinsey’s latest State of Fashion report identifies just one sector of the market that will once again ‘generate the biggest share of economic profit’ in 2024: luxury. 

Nearly three years ago, the internet lost its mind when Phoebe Philo, former creative director of Celine, announced that she was launching her own label, backed by global juggernaut LVMH. When her debut collection dropped in October 2023, fans were scandalised by the prices (although in the grand scheme of Phoebe Philo scandals, this is nothing compared with past allegations that she’s averse to hiring Black models): USD16,500 for a coat, USD5,200 for a pair of pants, the list goes on. ‘Would you rather have a leather jacket or a down payment on a home?’ sassed a headline in The Cut before lambasting the growing unattainability of high-end fashion. New York critic Madeline Leung Coleman had a different take: 

You know what luxury means, right? You don’t need it. In fact, we don’t need most of the shit that we can afford. A world that allows some to buy $16,500 coats, sight unseen, with the tap of a phone screen, while others have nowhere to live, are not in fact even allowed to live – allow me to direct your anger there. 

Philo’s collection sold out in hours. Of course it did – fashion’s inequality is part of its point. If you’re wealthy enough to drop five grand on a pair of trousers, chances are you’re not being kept awake at night by the widening gap between the one percent and the rest of us. Nan Kempner told Nicholas Coleridge back in the 1980s, ‘I’m afraid I was born with a couture spoon in my mouth’. Today, she’d probably be an influencer. 

I don’t know what Press would make of Coleman’s sentiment and its implication that a more just fashion system is likely a lost cause. But it seems closer to the fashion future we’ll actually inherit than any of the scenarios in Wear Next. Each of its chapters begins with a paragraph or two that lays out an almost fairytale-like scenario for its particular thematic concern, from the metawardrobes and lifelike avatars of ‘Digital’ to the mending stations and craft circles of ‘Local’. These fragments are deeply utopian, and presumably they’re meant to be – I doubt Press believes that all her dreams will come to pass. If these prognostications can tell us anything definitive about the future of this bedevilled and bewitching industry, maybe it’s the one thing that won’t change for as long as we’re wearing and buying clothes: fashion is what you make it.  

Whose desires will direct fashion’s future is an open question. For Press, all of us, from thrifters and menders to retailers and policymakers, have a part to play. But finding harmony among these competing voices is another proposition – particularly when it’s become so easy for consumers to find a brand, sustainable or not, that can meet their sartorial needs. Some of those brands make good things; some, inevitably, continue to reinforce the very inequalities that prompt improvement in other corners of the market (some of these inequalities cost the planet). Think of it as sartorial whack-a-mole. If we remember, as McDonough wishes us to, that fashion is a verb, it’s foremost an act of imagination. I wonder if this act of imagining a different future is the best we can hope for.