A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of the Make Me Smart podcast and there was an interview with author Dana Thomas, who’s new book Fashionopolis: the Price of fFashion Fashion and the Future of Clothes (AZ/BN/IB) had just been released.
To be honest, my first reaction was “is this book really necessary?” I mean, I’ve seen The True Cost and I’ve read Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Not to mention approximately a million other articles in the last few years about how broken the fashion system is. I do not need any more convincing.
However, I had loved Thomas’s book on the luxury fashion industry, so I picked up a copy at my local independent bookstore (shout out to Schuler Books!). I was glad I did, because this book was definitely worth taking the time to read.
The book is loosely divided into three parts. The first, which focused on the problems with the current fashion system, covered the expected ground. However, I found Thomas’ interweaving of the tales of abused workers and rampant pollution compelling. It was less of a lecture and more of an explanation. The current fashion systems presented not as a boogeyman – something terrible but ultimately separate from ourselves – but as a human created system developed in relation with wider global economic landscape.
The second part looks at various people and companies trying to do things better. This includes interviews with expected names like Natalie Chanin (owner of Alabama Chanin), as well as a whole ecosystem of other artisanal and small scale fashion producers. Each of these producers has to grapple with the challenges that come from trying to operate in a way that is ethically and environmentally responsible while still being profitable. They use a creative mix of old knowledge and new technology to do so. I found myself frequently putting the book down during this section so I could look up the producers mentioned and check out their websites (a pair of hand woven jeans from Momotaro are now on my fashion bucket list).
The last part of the book is made up of stories of how those involved in the current fashion system are working to ameliorate its negative impacts. Fashion lending companies, fully automatic sewing machines, and fully recyclable garments are all introduced as ways to feed the current fashion system. What they all have in common is that they buy into the idea that consumer demand for new styles is both insatiable and unstoppable. The goal is not to change this consumer behavior, but to reduce it’s harm.
Thomas concludes the book rather abruptly, the conclusion is really just two pages at the end of the last chapter, but upon reflection this is actually fitting. There just isn’t a clear answer to “how can I sustainably and ethically participate in fashion?” Instead, the preceding chapters have presented a range of options that can be accessed in a mix and match fashion, depending on each person’s wants and needs.
Fashionopolis is an excellent deep dive into the current fashion production landscape. By taking a storytelling approach, rather than lecturing, reading it feels a lot like reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Throughout both, I found myself thinking of ways to change my consumption habits from a place of inspiration, rather than guilt. So, if you’re looking for a nuanced take on both the current state and future of the way your clothing is made, this book is very much worth a read.