Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Luxury of a Healthier Environment

In what could be his final fashion show, Christian Lacroix presented an extravagant collection to the delight of fashion insiders and loyal customers in Paris in July. It was a demonstration of couture beyond reach. The intricate detailing and construction was a product of the ingenuity Mr. Lacroix has delivered for more than thirty years. It is reported that the collection took an unprecedented few weeks produced by a handful of unpaid staff.

This atypical achievement is typical in the world of luxury apparel – countless hours spent on creating an original design. From an environmental perspective, the luxury industry inherently is the new green economy.

In the case of luxury goods (apparel, speaking) versus mass production, the former scores higher points in terms of the environment. A bit ironic, no? Both can be viewed as exorbitant, unpractical (more of a want than a need), wasteful, and guaranteed a death sentence (purgatory = landfill). Ok, perhaps harsh choice of adjectives, but fair considering America’s appetite for the Big-Mac (i.e., all things materialistic).

[I am sensitive to the fact that a consumer’s wallet dictates what is a luxury item (clothes, jewelry, handbags, belts and shoes) or not. I am talking about ready-to-wear and haute couture retailing in the thousands - the items featured in Vogue or GQ that make you salivate but don’t come within reach of a non-profit salary.]

I’m not sure if Mr. Lacroix identifies himself as an environmentalist, but his method of production reinforces environmental and labor considerations. By employing a small team of sewers, pattern makers, and artisans, Mr. Lacroix preserves the role of the local artisan (and traditional craftsmanship) in lieu of outsourcing to another country, which would incur carbon emissions from the transportation of goods (or partially-assembled). Creating limited and/or custom-made goods prevents an inventory of unsold goods. And adhering to exact measurements eliminates the waste of fabrics.

Thanks to the growing impact of “eco-friendly” and “ethically-made” fashion, workers are being less exposed to harmful chemicals used in dying processes, landfills are shrinking, and consumers are turning green (environmental stewards, that is). Progress is being made. [It is not a stretch to say Stella McCartney for Chloe and Linda Loudermilk are the Queen Greens – luxurious and luxuriously-priced “eco” garments and accessories.]

But what if every designer adopted a holistic approach to its design process? In Cradle-to-Cradle, authors Michael Braungart and William McDonough advocate for the “up-cycling” of materials and replacing “less bad” design with good design. Alistar Fuad-Luke, noted for spearheading the slow design movement, emphasizes experience over speed. The resources available to designers are only good if the designer values the creative process equal to production.

On September 17, Women’s Wear Daily publication will be holding a forum addressing the future of the luxury industry in the new economy. I urge those in attendance to draw upon the very creativity and innovation it conceives for a solution and spare the notion of changing its current practices at the expense of the environment.