As another socially distanced Paris Fashion Week comes to a close, the sign of a more contemplative and reflective approach toward conscious consumerism is evident.
Designer Mary Ping has been advocating for sustainable fashion for years, and she noticed a clear shift in the language and tone around this year’s shows. “More press releases cite ‘timeless’ and ‘longevity,'” she says. “I hope these attributes are real and not purpose-washing.”
Ping has long been pushing for a more circular economy, and her latest venture—Care Instructions—takes that one step further. She wants the site to function as the “single tab” that gives people everything they need to be informed about sustainable consumption, acting both as a repository of curated content and a directory of vetted resources. I talked with Ping last week for a Wolff Olins event about why she’s such an advocate for timeless design, and how the fashion industry may finally be ready to make some fundamental changes.
Signs of change
During this year’s Paris Fashion Week, Marine Serre’s “Ecofuturisme” hinted at the sustainable ethics of the French brand, using regenerated fabrics to showcase outfits for the everyday—with models clad in denim, suede and patchwork leather partaking in daily errands like grocery shopping and walking the dog.
Second-hand bags reconfigured from previous collections, knitwear from recycled cashmere, and upcycled streetwear stole the show at Gabriela Hearst’s first foray as designer at the Richemont-owned house of Chloé. The sustainable fashion pioneer joining forces with CEO Riccardo Bellini makes for a formidable duo when it comes to pushing the industry toward a purpose-driven future. Bellini has been emphatic about his belief that a fashion house’s values will be as relevant as its aesthetics, which is underscored by his creation of a social profit and loss account for the brand plus pursuit of a B Corp certification.
These sorts of mindset shifts are essential if fashion is to embrace a circular future, one that the World Economic Forum deems critical in its recently released Circular Economy Action Agenda—a rallying cry to the industry to implement circularity in textiles.
Committing to timeless design
Ping launched her own conceptual clothing and accessory line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race, almost two decades ago. She’s since received the National Design Award for fashion from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Ping’s designs marry up the everyday with a touch of the sublime, taking basic silhouettes and essentials but reimagining them with innovative materials and contemporary twists that withstand the seasons. Her line is seasonless, eschewing seasonality and fads; she believes consumers can reconcile the notions of timely and timeless by identifying items that have “visible attributes that are relevant now despite their age.”
Here, our own wardrobe can serve as evidence: think Converse high-tops, the pocket T, staples that have set a precedent—timely vs. timeless. Still, she notes that timeless designs don’t have to mean a minimal aesthetic. “For designers with a very identifiable signature, you can always find timeless pieces in their collections, from Comme Des Garçons to Dries Van Noten.”
Landfill × fast consumption
The backbone of Ping’s manifesto lies in the belief of fashion as cultural anthropology—that garments provide a way of studying humanity and seeing how it changes over time. “I always felt the visual vernacular, what exists in front of us on a daily basis, hidden in plain sight, holds many fascinating questions of how and why it came to be.”
She cites Levi’s jeans as an item that has withstood the test of time—with the iconic denim and rivet design dating back to the 1870s. “Certain things are 100 years old, yet we don’t realize that,” she says. “These items do exist. We live now at an accelerated pace with so much bombarding us, so it’s nice to see things that have become indispensable while retaining much of their original design.”
To quell our obsession with fast consumption, we must look to the items of timeless design, and the values instilled over generations. Ping cites the post-Great Depression generation that bestowed a sense of resourcefulness and mindfulness: “Stories from friends and family about their heirlooms that were passed down over so many generations clearly evidence a time when quality and durability were the norm.”
However, she warns that the reverse is also true. “Easy disposal or careless disregard is less of a consequence if the customer has the financial means to replace it so easily,” she says. “Items break and fail, prompting the consumer to buy again because we also lost the patience and habit of repair. Technically, there is no societal rule barring the customer from repairing a cheap item even as an effort to save it from a landfill.”
Earlier generations’ values of thriftiness and resourcefulness were also coupled with a pride in “ownership” of everything from cars to homes to ultimately—clothes. This fueled an increase in consumption, as minor updates to appliances or clothing were billed as must-haves, and ultimately led to our current on-demand zeitgeist.
It is this dichotomy that Ping is currently grappling with: how to reset consumption. She notes that Nielsen currently lists 500,000 brands and over 2,000 product categories—extraordinary figures that keep getting bigger. “Do we need to increase the choices? What if the existing companies already applied best practices?”
Many of these companies instead offer vague promises at sustainability, but Ping believes that in order to make a real difference, ultimately we need more metrics and objective measures, and less industry platitudes. “My only skepticism is how quickly misinformation, greenwashing, or purpose-washing can spread and drown out the accurate information,” she says. “While the intention might come from a genuine place, the choice of the solution might be mediocre.”
Creating a culture of care
It’s this cycle that Ping is hoping to change with Care Instructions. The site attempts to bridge the gap between virtue-signaling brands, the industry status quo, and well-intentioned but unreliable sources. By sharing tools and information, she hopes consumers will take a more considered approach to their habits and relationships to garments, while also being more conscious of the supply chain.
From a design perspective, Care Instructions feels like a welcome counter-force to the engineered style obsolescence currently holding the world captive. It delivers a much-needed commentary on consumption while still using the language and seduction of consumption. “We are addressing habits that live in a Venn diagram of many disciplines. We all know to tie our shoes, brush our teeth, yet unfortunately there are still people out there who assume there is someone else who is going to take out the garbage or clean up,” explains Ping. While still in its early days, one day the site might spotlight benchmark products and players within the circular economy, using data, not platitudes, to back up the claims.
And disrupting the consumption narrative—especially given the overarching theme of sustainability from this season’s Paris Fashion Week—is key if circularity is to be achieved at pace. As Ping aptly puts it: “Beyond sustainability is livability.”
Forest Young is the first global chief creative officer at Wolff Olins, where he leads initiatives for the world’s most influential companies. He is also a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art, where he is an alumnus, and a member of the Fast Company Impact Council.