TRENDSETTER | Author Elizabeth Cline

Garments for Good

Author Elizabeth L. Cline writes about the high cost of fast fashion.

A New Book Explores Ways to Create Meaningful Wardrobes.

By Suzanne Blecher. When Elizabeth L. Cline’s book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” hit the shelves in 2012 it revealed the dark side of a world of quickly-made cheap garments at a time when few wanted to delve into that topic. The author stated that Americans purchased 64 items of clothing a year, or slightly more than one item every week (according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association). Cline a dmitted to owning 354 pieces of clothing, many of which she has since purged.

Fast-forward six years and the constitution of Cline’s closet has changed dramatically. “I’ve gone back to buying a lot second hand. Sites like thredUP, TheRealReal and Swap, along with peer-to-peer apps like Poshmark, make it so easy to shop second hand and there’s nothing really more sustainable,” she said.

In her new book, “The Conscious Closet: A Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good,” to be released next year, Cline digs deeper into consciously uncoupling from nonsense goods and instead shopping for quality and meaning.  

How did Overdressed come to be?

“I knew nothing about the fashion industry going into writing Overdressed. In college, I was an anti-sweatshop activist, so I was already aware of some of the labor rights issues. But really what prompted it was morbid curiosity about my own shopping habits. I had always been a thrift shopper and bought second hand until fast fashion came around. With clothes getting trendier and cheaper, I started binge shopping. No one was asking what the impacts were of accelerated production and consumption of clothes.”

What has changed in the fashion world since then?

“There is a universal and widespread understanding that fashion is in a huge sustainability crisis. However, there has also been impressive change to fix some of these issues, both on the part of brands and consumers. Look at the thousands of new brands who have ethics and sustainability as part of their brand mission, like Reformation and Everlane. Major brands like H&M and Zara are working to make their supply chains more sustainable, as well as their retail stores.”

There was one chapter in Overdressed entitled “The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes,” where clothing waste was discussed extensively.

Did learning about that spur you to write your new book?

“That chapter was the one that a lot of people were fascinated by. I wanted to know more and readers wanted to know more. I started filming a documentary about textile waste (although I’m now partnering with other people to work on their film, so I’m not sure it will ever come out). I also work with Wearable Collections, the Brooklyn-based for-profit used clothing collector. I’ve spent a lot of time digging through donations and what is clear is how much the fashion industry is in crisis. It’s a cycle of buying too much, throwing away and buying more.

One thing that has been lost with fast fashion is practical knowledge about clothes. A lot of people don’t know how to shop smart, how to look for quality, how to properly launder and mend their clothes. Part of what I want to do in the new book is to help resurrect those practical skills. It’s good for the environment and it also just feels good. What I’ve seen in donations is that with clothes that are damaged, most of them can pretty easily be repaired. People think that they can’t sew a button or mend a hem. I want to inspire people to do these things. I’ve learned so much about stain removal and mending. It’s added a lot to my life, which been unexpected and nice.”

Please provide some insight from the new book that our readers would be surprised to hear.

“One thing that everybody is talking about is the rise in synthetics and polyester. Over half of our clothing is made of synthetic materials. If you look at a lifecycle analysis of synthetics vs. natural fibers, polyester will have a better footprint, but now we know that polyester is releasing micro plastics into the water and polluting oceans. It’s ending up in our food chain and ultimately, our bodies. I’m also interested to see what new textiles are going to do to the traditional fiber market, including alternative leather, spider silk and others.”

Have your shopping habits changed since penning
these books?

“When I wrote ‘Overdressed,’ I didn’t have a relationship with my clothes. I didn’t know anything about what I was wearing. I now feel like an educated consumer. That makes it easier for me to shop. I know when I’m getting good value for my money. I know materials. I’ve gone back to buying a lot second hand, which is an industry that has been completely transformed by the Internet. I also buy from sustainable brands like Eileen Fisher, Reformation and Everlane.”

What is your favorite item in your closet?

“I have developed an obsession with collecting vintage Anne Klein and Escada from the 1980s and ’90s. I’ve become a total nerd for this high-end clothing because I know how to find it online. I have this Anne Klein II blazer that’s probably my favorite. It has these insane shoulder pads, but then it’s also cropped. I feel like some sort of futuristic Grace Jones in this piece. I love it so much. I found it on thredUP for about $8.”

What can the industry be doing better in terms of sustainability?

“I see brands with sustainability initiatives, but sometimes they aren’t communicating them to the consumer. Shoppers should also be more trusting that brands are trying. Yes, it’s important to find 100 percent ethical and sustainable brands, but it’s important to also support major and mainstream brands that are trying.”

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