Sunday, August 28, 2016

New Luxury

(Photo by Soumountha Keophilavong)

A few months ago I stepped my foot inside Bergdorf Goodman's for the first time. You know the mythology surrounding it: a legendary luxury department store, spanning a whole 5th Avenue block and gazillion floors (or so it seems), that carries every conceivable designer and bag and shoe, and is also home of the inimitable Betty Halbreich whom I adore for her books and for stealing that Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf flick. It is the most luxurious, excuisite, discerning and just the mostest of all department stores. Its clientelle is also the richest, most sophisticated, hardest to cater to... I was curious to see it in the flesh.

Can you guess? It was disappointing. Too many people, the overall department store atmosphere, owing no doubt to prominent perfume counters, and racks and racks of dresses (expensive dresses, mind, stuffed almost obscenely on a sales rack!)... Add to this indifferent salespeople, and it all amounted to "THIS is what luxury is?" sense. But of course it is not.

We live in the age of this ultimate oxymoron, mass market luxury, where every airport in the world has a Louis Vuitton store as if it were McDonald's, and where every Chanel/Dior/Saint Laurent boutique looks the same no matter where in the world you are. The experience is homogenized in the very opposition to the notion of luxury as something special, unique, something that is just for you - custom, bespoke, made to measure and to order. BG may be better than most department stores because there is only one of it, but the insides of it are as homogenous as elsewhere.

Of course, the truly rich are taken into some secret compartment of the store where they are waited on by personal shoppers and are offered complimentary champagne. But for the rest of us, BG offers only an illusion of luxury. Department stores are to luxury what heavily logoed Vuitton wallets are to wealth: a hollow symbol that functions only because of its mystique propped by advertizing. Brands that once signified quality now only signify themselves.

I suspect that nowadays the experience of true luxury - that is, attentive service, personalized help, custom goods, and above all quality - can be found by regular people but not at the self-designated luxury brands and stores. It exists in smaller spaces - boutiques, online stores, Etsy even - and it is not called "luxury". But the experience of finding true quality, in clothes as well as service, is what luxury is, really - and I thank all the smaller brands and designers who answer my emails and invite me to their spaces. I thank all salespeople in the stores I frequent who email me to let me know when something I might like comes in or give me heads up for new collections or sample sales. And I am happy to pay a bit more for this, and I would much rather do it there than at some mass luxury designation where unless you are super rich you will get a distinct experience of shopping at Macy's but the one you can only afford a scarf and maybe some perfume, which Target also carries. 

That was a long lead in to a shout out to such a place - Another Garde, a cool online space founded and helmed by the amazing Soumountha Keophilavong. It seems like the past few months have been so generous in letting me meet great women who are clever, passionate, and committed to making a difference in the fashion world. I met Soumountha last week, and really enjoyed hearing about her philosophy of promoting and supporting women designers, as well as getting to ogle her very tightly curated selection of beautiful and functional clothing.

Here are some pictures from Another Garde's pop up in NYC:

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Zero Waste Fashion and NYC Shopping

(Disclaimer: Reusing old clothing and upcycling are environmentally friendly and decrease waste and consumption, but here I am more interested in discussing impact of NEW clothing.)

"Ethical fashion" and "sustainable fashion" have become common notions, although often conversations about the future of fashion don't bother differentiating between, or defining the two. Definitions do tend to evolve and shift meanings with the times, but it is useful occasionally to talk about them. Currently it seems "ethical" definitions focus mostly on labor justice issues, such as fair pay for the workers and factory safety, while "sustainable" deals with environmental impacts of textile manufacturing, pesticide and fertilizer use, pollution, waste, and fuel comsumption. One can also argue that "sustainable" should really be subsumed in "ethical", since environmental protection is an issue of ethics.

In my last post I wrote about Greenpeace and its definition of green manufacturing so narrowly focused on avoiding toxic chemicals as to be completely meaningless; on the other end of the spectrum, others tend toward very broad views, setting the bar high enough to include both fair labor practices and minimal environmental impact. Not impossible but challenging, and of course costs will go up. Textiles sourced from sustainable operations and made in mills that pay fair wages, local production, fair labor practices for pattern-makers, cutters, sewers... It adds up. Throw in distribution, warehousing etc etc and the price differential between fast fashion and ethical/sustainable becomes a real hurdle for consumers.

So it is always refreshing to see novel approaches. Zero-waste fashion, for one, focuses on minimizing textile waste, and Tabii Just (by Trinidad-born designer Tabitha St Bernard) takes this concept even further, cutting her garments without leaving any scraps AND using deadstock fabrics, further minimizing impact (and keeping the cost at a low end of the soectrum). Everything is manufactured in NYC, ticking off boxes of fair wages and minimal fossil fuel consumption.

Of course I had to visit! Tabitha was kind and thoughtful, and generous enough to share some professional pictures of her studio. It's a beautiful space filled with gorgeous clothes, and I appreciated Tabitha showing me around!

Her pieces are mostly dresses, with a few tops and skirts and vests, most of them patterned in bright colors. 

If you know me at all, you can guess I opted for black and white. It's a print (I know, so adventurous of me) - a lovely snake print, worn here  with Alexander Wang mules from a few years back, and a family heirloom bone necklace.

I strongly suggest listening to Tabitha and a few other zero-waste designers on American Fashion Podcast - fascinating conversation. 

Personally, I feel that a stumbling block to much of ethical consumption is the unfortunate tendency to put onus on the consumers - having them learn about each clothing brand, research their supply chain, etc etc. This is not a reasonable expectation: I feel that the responsibility should lie with the manufacturers and lawmakers, so that we can go to a store, pick up a pair of shoes and be readonably certain that no children were exploited in their making. Until the day comes, we often resort to shortcuts: rather than performing exhaustive research on each product, we have our criteria. For me, domestically made product suggests 1) fair labor practices, especially if made in NYC; 2) low fuel consumption; 3) compliance with the US environmental regulations, which are not perfect but are at least somewhat enforced. European- made textiles do have a higher fuel component but are manufactured under stricter environmental controls, so it's an all right trade-off.

Anyway! It is nice to find small-scale designers who manufacture in the US; even better to find a bunch of them brought together in a cool retail space. I found such in Coterre, a great little pop-up in SoHo. 

They carry my favorite SCHAI, as well as a few other smallish indie domestically manufactured labels. Of course I had to stop by and try on a few things!

Meet my new blazer, made by Alchemy Detroit. Love the tailoring of their pieces, and their t-shirts are the softest I ever touched. (The pants are by ADAY, and yes, I am coming from the gym.)

There is also jewelry, shoes, cosmetics... And what I found really thrilling while browsing and chatting with Hilary, the woman behind the project, was that I did not have to constantly wonder where and how everything was made. I hope that soon enough it will be the norm: walking into the store and assuming that everything in it was made ethically. Or at least that no one died as a result of making of our clothes - and really, this is not too much to ask!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Made in New York, or Go Home, Greenpeace, You're Drunk

For the first time ever, I got to visit an honest-to-goodness New York City garment factory! With all the talking and teaching about garment industry that I do, it was long overdue.

The factory, Johnny's Studio, manufactures clothing for SCHAI, among others, and it is thanks to SCHAI's founder and designer, Suk Chai, that I got to visit. And to meet Suk, who is smart and funny and gracious, and took time to show me around.

It was amazing to see this vibrant life, mere remnant of the volume of 1950s and 1960s, but so much is the same: the skill and the energy, and the industry that still seems to function (although on a smaller scale) as an engine for getting immigrant workers to middle class and business ownership. The garmentos of yore, the Italian and Jewish workforce of the early days, seem to have been supplanted by Asian and Latinx/Hispanic owners and workers, but the vibe is still there! (Has anyone read The Beatiful Generation by Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, by the way? It's great, and talks at length about the link between Asian-American fashion designers and Asian workers in the garment industry. Anyway, I babble).

Here are some pics!

(I was told Ken here was cutting my dress!)

Here's a snapshot of a few of SCHAI's Fall looks, by the way. As you probably guessed, it's yet another obsession.

I mean, look at these pants!

As you can guess, I love this label not just because of the tailoring and luxe drape of the textiles, but also because it is domestically made, uses well-sourced, high quality fabrics, and doesn't cut any manufacturing corners. The price point of course reflects this ethos. Which is just another way of saying this: there is no way on earth to make cheap garments sustainable. Of course higher price alone does not guarantee sustainability (in fact, many well-known brands' pricetags reflect little but name recognition), but the opposite is certainly true: a ten dollar dress is inherently problematic. Not only because of the impossibility of paying living wages and buying decent materials with that kind of retail, but also because cheap clothes are disposable, and they will be choking our landfills with their poly blends for centuries to come.

And this is why this Greenpeace -authored rundown is especially puzzling. The criteria are so ridiculously narrow as to completely ignore the irreducible reality of how clothes, physical garments, affect the environment in many complex and intertwining ways, and of which toxic compounds are only one part. H&M and other fast-fashion retailers are a problem, and will continue to be so as long as they continue the current volume of production at current prices, no matter how many toxic chemicals they ban.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Met Costume Institute, Manus X Machina Exhibit

Amazing! I could say a lot but instead here are some pictures!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016


(Transferring frames from the nuc box to their forever home.)

This came out of a few talks with various people, but it seems to me that the new luxury nowadays is space -- as witnessed by high-end boutiques with a single rail and a few wispy garments hanging minimalistically on it. Having things is passe; having space isn't. And for one's wardrobe to be like this, pieces have to play many roles: and lately I find that I tend to wear the same things to work, going out, hanging on the weekends... everything but the gym! (If you see me and I am in sneakers and leggings, this means I am coming from the gym or going there. I have my principles.)

So this necessitates clothes that can be worn -- as much as I love intricate textures and delicate fabrics, I wear them to pieces, because in life things stain and snag; good quality clothing though gets ragged and worn in interesting ways, acquiring patina and character, rather than simply falling apart (one more reason to avoid cheap fast fashion, but enough on that.) So even my expensive stuff is worn everywhere... Including work. Mostly work, if I am being honest.

I rarely talk here about work because boundaries, but I just wanted to share a couple of pictures of me working in the apiary on campus. Last week, we were installing a new nuc (short for a nuclear colony, basically a quick and easy way to get a new hive going. A nuc contains a queen, worker bees, brood, and honey frames.)

Here's the frame with the queen. She is the big one with short wings in the middle:

And here's a somewhat better view of my outfit.

The pleated skirt is by Silvae, and the neoprene top is ADAY sample from their recent sample sale. The coat is my favorite INAISCE piece.

Incidentally, Jona Sees of Inaisce greatly influenced my view on what makes a versatile piece: his clothes do not look immediately easy to wear, with their precise cuts and elaborate designs, but trust me, they are. This sleeveless jacket is easily my most-worn piece: I wear it for work, on walks, on the plane (it unbuttons on the back and makes a great plane blanket). Warm weather jacket or winter layering piece - it works for everything, which is really cool considering that it looks like a really complicated and architectural piece.

Now I will only buy clothes I can tend to my hives in.... shoes, however, might be another matter altogether.