The conversation around sustainable fashion has blown up tenfold within the last decade, with a great many people now knowing the environmental and humanitarian ills of fast fashion. It’s easy enough to pull up facts online, such as the 1,800 gallons of water it takes to make one pair of jeans, or the numerous cases of unpaid workers making garments for the world's largest clothing companies. But many still struggle to understand what it means to go sustainable.
There are a few things we know for certain: Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, next only to the oil industry. Fast fashion has given rise to both a humanitarian and environmental crisis. Due to many factors including massive textile production, textile waste, and use of synthetic fabrics and chemicals, the industry produces 1.2 million tons of greenhouse gases a year.
As producers, we need to be mindful of where our materials come from; as consumers, we need to be mindful of how much we purchase and discard. Attention needs to be paid to the who’s, what's, and where’s surrounding the origins of our clothes.
The true end goal is circularity, and sustainability is merely the stepping stone we need to achieve it.
All these things ring valid and true, but over time I found that these were broad statements that bifurcated into more strings of questions. If we do all these things, are we then sustainable? Was it even possible to achieve sustainability? Where are the lines and who draws them?
The discussion woven from the core ethics of the idea became a tangle of nuanced opinions. In pursuit of clarity and perspective, I spoke to three individuals within the local fashion industry: Monica Vivar, Jodee Aguillon, and Carl Jan Cruz, and discovered a string of parallels within their values.
The core of each brand stems from each owner’s personal passions; instead of operating with sustainability as the main headline, their practice of eco-consciousness is intrinsic in all of their decisions. Despite having different backgrounds and unique pursuits, none of them believe it is possible to be a hundred percent sustainable, and that to do so would mean the brand would cease to exist. It’s something that many of us in the fashion industry would take good care to remember: the true end goal is circularity, and sustainability is merely the stepping stone we need to achieve it.
MONICA VIVAR, DENUO
Monica Vivar is the creative entrepreneur behind Denuo, a lifestyle brand, since 2012. She’s a pioneering figure for progressive fashion and garment re-circulation in the Philippines, playing a big part in introducing the conversation to younger generations. Denuo is a reimagining of what our "lifestyle" could look like, giving new purpose to one-of-a-kind vintage finds, from objects to clothing to home pieces. Monica and her brand are often the ordinary person’s foray into sustainable clothing—as it was mine—due to her open and honest dialogue about the subject as well as her work with the organization Fashion Revolution.
Denuo started off selling vintage and second-hand clothing. The ukay-ukay, according to Monica, is one of the purest forms of empowerment in the Philippine context. The practice teaches us value, she says: We start to ascertain an object’s quality, and its possible lifespan or potential for reincarnation into something new. It’s in these small decisions and thought processes that we inch closer towards circularity.
As producers, we need to be mindful of where our materials come from; as consumers, we need to be mindful of how much we purchase and discard.
"Sustainability as a concept is not a solution. I do believe that sustainability and its principles are a practice to find a balance, because sustainability is about circularity. If you're going to present it as a solution, it’s already connoting a sense that something is bad and something is good—and that’s why I want to deviate from the idea of sustainability as a solution.”
Monica believes there is absolutely no black and white, good or bad in terms of sustainability. The idea that it is one or the other and that we need to achieve perfection is what stops many people from attempting to change.
I was reminded of all the major fast fashion brands these days that are beginning to put out “sustainable” collections, and all the criticism that followed suit, and asked Monica what her take on all of it was. Her response to this was a real eye-opener that illustrated her call to stop picking sides.
“The whole point of this sustainable movement is to get it into fast fashion brands. I’m telling you, 10 years ago it was unfathomable that Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, would even want to recycle, or ask people to bring their own clothes, or come out with collections like that. Yes, it’s part of profitability, because it’s a corporation and you really have to answer to money and economy. But, it’s wild that now it’s that important that it needs to be part of the conversation. And that’s a win."
JODEE AGUILLON, GLORIOUS DIAS
Jodinand Aguillon—Jodee, as he’s called—is Pineapple Lab’s Executive Director, among many other creative pursuits. He put up Glorious Dias in 2018, an oasis for vintage and local craft and culture in Poblacion, Makati City. Though it was originally meant to be a pop-up shop to get rid of his growing collection of costumes and Filipiñana, the concept resonated with a bigger audience. (Due to the pandemic, Glorious Dias has indefinitely moved their shop online.)
Glorious Dias is a kind of gateway for everything second-hand and local, providing customers an alternative to mass-produced pieces. The shop is also something of a tribute and channel to promote Philippine style, textile, craft, and history.
I asked Jodee if sustainability was ever the driving force behind the brand. He replied that it was his love and passion for vintage and nostalgia that led him forward. “I mean yeah, the eco thing was a gift-with-purchase, and that’s a bonus to have. But really it was for the love of collecting, the thrill of the find, the hunt. There’s this high when you see a sea of stuff and you’re able to kind of distill that and dissect that into something that you see as valuable.”
Clothes are a fantastic avenue for expression. Jodee explains that leading a business with this mindset is the difference between merely asking, “What’s the green thing I can do?” versus “What part of my life do I believe in and want a bigger platform to reach others through?” then infusing the principles of sustainability within your decisions. “It should be as ingrained throughout the practice and not a ‘department’. Not, ‘how can we eco-fy this?’ No, it has to be the whole thing.”
Everything in Glorious Dias, from racks to hangers to other aspects of their visual merchandising is upcycled finds or features from previous projects. Taking a gander around the space, you’ll discover ingeniously repurposed treasures. Vintage callado for barongs are framed in embroidery hoops, kimonas find new life as parols, and rattan furniture is modernized by a fresh coat of spray paint.
“How you live, how you dress. It translates,” he says. “If you buy vintage clothing, you probably also appreciate antiques, you probably see an apple carton and can turn it into a bookshelf. It’s about finding more potential in the things that already exist.”
CARL JAN CRUZ
CJ Cruz is a fashion designer whose eponymous label has become one of the pioneering brands of contemporary fashion in Manila. CJ’s clothes bridge the everyday with the high-end, elevating things we all know like pambahay and turning it into something luxurious.
We got into the conversation about sustainability, and how designers can reconcile knowing there’s so much being produced in the world and still believe in the value of what we create. “It’s also a lot of conscious creation," he says. "The sustainability part is actually how we can still keep being creative and be actual fashion designers or within the arts even after this lifetime.”
He says that it's a matter of stepping back, of taking a look at what you’ve done, and having a sense of contentment. Someone familiar with his work would recognize his more unconventional format when showing in Paris during fashion month. Instead of the usual grand fashion show, they present collections in an intimate showroom, where guests can interact with the clothes up close.
“No fuss, no fluff. It is what it is," he says. Sustainability calls for us to evaluate if what we create leaves an impact and value even after our lifetimes. "It’s a matter of questioning us as a generation and if we want to continue the system.”
He explains that the industry standard for luxury brands actually enforces waste; some designers roll through a two meter fabric, cut out specific parts, and throw the rest away. “But then because it’s a luxury brand, it’s become more of an excuse,” he says. The way his brand operates is a definite deviation from this practice. "We certainly don’t throw [away] fabric! We haven’t gotten to that point, and if we do, we kind of have a plan about it already in 10 years, 20 years, where it will be used for. It’s a lot of very modest innovation for us, but just that idea, we want to see it evolve.”
For those who want to move forward in this conversation, CJ has one piece of advice: be more individual. “When I was younger, I was really dying to be someone else, to be someone. But then as you get older and reality hits you, all you yearn for is to be yourself. And that kind of applies to a lot of things and my perspective of looking at people, objects, situations. It’s more of having an encompassing guide of who I am.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Photos for this story were taken in February 2020, prior to the Covid-19 community quarantine.