Katie Byrne: 'For slow fashion to really catch on, we need to highlight the women who know exactly what styles suit them'
In 2015, handwritten letters sent from Jackie Kennedy Onassis to Bill Hamilton, the former director of fashion house Carolina Herrera, went under the hammer.
We all knew this eternal style icon enjoyed fashion, but it wasn't until these letters emerged that we began to understand just how much thought the former First Lady put into her wardrobe. Jackie sent Bill surprisingly deft fashion sketches, clippings from magazines and extensive details on the ensembles that she wanted him to design.
"Less shoulder, single breasted, a little narrower and flaring," she specified in one handwritten note. "I am SO sick of everyone wearing black," she added, "like Mediterranean villagers where everyone is in mourning for 20 years."
These letters came to mind last week when the UK's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a report on the fast fashion brands that are ignoring sustainability issues. Boohoo, Missguided and JD Sports were among the brands singled out for not signing up to targets to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint. The EAC hopes that naming and shaming them will enable consumers to make "informed choices".
Trend analysts will tell you that 2019 is the year of slow fashion. We're all becoming more mindful of the toll that fast fashion takes on the environment, they say, just as we're coming around to the idea of buying less but better. The truth, however, is that this eco-conscious fashion future is a long way off. Sure, groups like the EAC are blazing a trail, but the throwaway culture of fast fashion is far from an easy fix.
Slow fashion, remember, isn't just about encouraging sustainable practices. It's about slowing down the lightning-fast conveyor belt of 52 'micro-seasons' a year and returning to the rather more practical pace of four.
It's about challenging the prevailing idea that we can 'overhaul' our wardrobes with €100, just as it's about placing investment-buying ahead of novelty-seeking.
The question, of course, is how do you get women to think of fashion as a lifetime purchase when they have been indoctrinated into the wear-once, impulse-buy cult? How do you get women to think of the consequences of their choices when they are in the habit of mindlessly scrolling the 'New In' section of their favourite online store during their lunch break?
Well, you could start with Jackie O...
Like all of the best style icons, Jackie wasn't concerned with being à la mode. Au contraire, she knew exactly what styles she liked - irrespective of what was on the catwalks. Jackie didn't wear the latest fashions simply because she could. Instead, she cultivated her personal style and developed a look that soon became her signature.
Examine the wardrobes of the women that we herald as style icons and you'll notice they didn't slavishly follow fashion. Audrey Hepburn was known for her capsule wardrobe of Capri pants, cashmere sweaters and ballet flats. Bianca Jagger favoured sharp androgynous suits and strong shoulders. Jane Birkin wasn't obsessed with acquiring the latest It-bag. She carried a basket bag, even after the Hermès chief executive had a leather bag designed especially for her. "What's the use of having a second one?" she asked.
These days, the women that we hold up as style icons are more like walking fashion mannequins. Sure, they wear the latest trends almost as soon as they hit the catwalks, but when outfits change with the tempestuous winds of fashion, there is little room for a singular style to emerge.
Hence in an age where you can channel the 70s one day and the 90s the next, the women who have cultivated their own unique look are few and far between.
Hundreds of international lobby groups are working hard to change consumer buying behaviour by raising awareness of the toll that fast fashion takes on the environment. But instead of just focusing on overconsumption and environmental issues, perhaps it's time they thought about promoting personal style over on-point fashion.
For slow fashion to really catch on, we need to highlight the women who know exactly what styles suit them, and who buy accordingly. We need to identify the Jane Birkins and Jackie Os of the fast-fashion age, and put them front and centre.
We need to explore the idea that a capsule wardrobe makes a person more creative and, crucially, we need to accept that there is a big difference between being current and being stylish.