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Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Couture v. Climate: NYFW Reflects the Fashion Industry's Grotesque Consumption

Beautiful gowns, striking shoes, and street style galore: it must be fashion month. Last Thursday was the official kickoff of New York Fashion Week, and the city streets are suddenly flooded with designers, influencers, photographers, models, and fashion fanatics. For clothing lovers, the bi-annual occurrence of fashion weeks around the world is incredibly exciting and they find themselves eagerly keeping up with the shows through Instagram stories and Vogue photographs, eyes going starry over the thoughtfully and stunningly designed pieces. However, alongside the thrill and inspiration found in the runways comes a shame that creeps into and colors the larger perception of fashion month. 

Endless flutes of champagne, trays of food surely going to waste, and thousands of copies of show notes printed on thick, expensive paper contribute a nauseating amount of waste. The pervasive and unspoken rule that disparages “outfit repeaters” perpetuates the disposable culture surrounding fashion. The $2.5 trillion fashion industry has a long history of unsustainable practices, including its employment of fast-fashion models of consumption, exploitation of workers, and sourcing of wasteful materials. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the industry contributes roughly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the past several years, these issues have been illuminated by climate activist organizations. Extinction Rebellion (X.R.), an international movement known for its non-violent environmental demonstrations, protested London Fashion Week last fall, staging a die-in outside of shows and calling for a total boycott of the fashion industry. During the past week, X.R.’s Youth Group staged their own sidewalk fashion shows, presenting their vision for a greener NYFW.

However, the demonstrations held this past week took a different approach: teens dressed in 100 percent upcycled and secondhand clothes threw off their coats, turning the sidewalk into a catwalk to showcase their vision of a totally sustainable fashion show. The looks are wildly inventive, including a dress made entirely from bubble wrap, a patchwork denim maxi skirt, and a shift dress made from plastic bags.

Post-show, the group listed their demands for the fashion industry, including mandates for garments made only from sustainable materials and factory environments that respect human rights. XR Youth displayed that they’re not calling for a total cancellation of fashion week; in fact, they see the importance and necessity of art as a tool for change. In an interview with Vogue, 16-year-old organizer Edie Fine explained that the group hoped to set an example for the big name brands and make the call for total fashion week reform, as well as for fast fashion. “We’re teenagers who designed a 100% sustainable show in a small time frame,” she noted. “If we can do it, brands with many more resources can do it too.”

There are many pitfalls of the fashion industry aside from unsustainability: an elitism that rewards those who can afford the best and the newest trends and discrimination against bodies that are anything other than thin and light. The answer is found with designers like Stella McCartney, whose mission statement recognizes the broken and unsustainable industry and makes commitments to making thoughtful choices to implement green practices. Eliminating animal products and monitoring emissions and water use are just a few of the many ways the Stella McCartney fashion house is a leader in the industry. 

Art doesn't—and shouldn't—have to harm the environment. As X.R. activists have demonstrated, there are alternate paths to take in place of writing off the entire practice of fashion month, an event seen as a celebration of creativity, inspiration, and a love of getting dressed in the morning. X.R.'s Adam Neville, 17, points to this potential unity: "X.R. believes in using activism and art as tools for change—it has to be united and connected to fashion in a way that's supportive."

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