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You Are What You Wear

I sat down with AUT fashion students Celia Thomson and Shereen Chia to talk about their grad collections, style, sustainable fashion and consumerism.

How has fashion school changed how you see the industry?

Shereen: Since entering fashion school, I’ve realised that the industry isn’t for me. I want to create on my own terms but there are a lot of things in the industry that don’t allow me to follow my values.

It’s shown me there are so many gaps and just how difficult it is to achieve sustainability. It’s hard knowing you’re producing things and they’re probably going to end up wasted. But it’s just the reality of clothing and how fast the industry is - things lose their value so quickly. We live in a society where people don’t value their clothing anymore.

Celia: I chose fashion because I hated going shopping and all the options that were available. It was hard finding clothes that I really liked.

There are bad things about the industry, but I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be here. There are so many avenues you can take and so many jobs that you wouldn’t even know about. Through fashion school, I just realised how hard it is [to be sustainable]. But, there’s a lot of opportunity here too. Part of the reason I chose it is because there’s so much to change and I don’t want to avoid that. I want to be involved in it.

Tell us about your grad collections…

Celia: I think I’m going to do a capsule wardrobe where everything inside is multi-functional, styleable [with everything else], inclusive and unisex.

My whole thing is about comfort, durability and function. I think that if you have those three elements you create pieces that actually do what they’re supposed to. And I want to make comfortable clothing that also looks good and stylish.

Comfort and versatility are very important to me. If I don’t take notice of what I’m wearing because it’s comfortable and easy, then I have a better day. Plus, things should be able to be worn differently and throughout seasons so that you can get more looks out of one piece.

Fast fashion is missing its durability, which makes you treat it as a commodity. Nowadays we just have so many options, so we buy more and throw out more. But you have to remember that everything you buy has an afterlife. Nothing can just vanish.

Some other people might be making things that are more artistic – but to me, what is beautiful is craft and the way a piece makes you feel.

Shereen: I’m basing my collection on my mum who was a child growing up in Soviet Russia. I already had the intention for this collection to be very nostalgic, and by using my mother and my childhood photos as inspiration, it brings a part of my history with me to the present. I never got to experience my Russian roots because I grew up here. I want to go back to my roots and embrace more about my culture - learn about the craft and the kind of practices they had based on the lives that they lived at the time.

A lot of it is informed by stories from my grandma and my mum. Even original pieces from my great-grandma are going to influence me throughout my collection. Through fashion school, I’ve discovered that I like to do things that are fiddly with my hands. My collection is based on artisanal clothing – the intention is that they’re special ‘one of one’ pieces that I’ve crafted and put a lot of time and effort into.

For my mum, everything was used intentionally. The quality of things was better and people looked after them – so they lasted a lot longer. It’s about looking after the things you have already, continuing altering them and mending them so they can keep having a function and a purpose in your life.

Things were used to their fullest extent. You’d wear a piece forever, and once you’re done with it, your sibling would wear it. Once it falls apart it’s a T-shirt and then it’s a singlet. And once it’s not a singlet anymore it’s a rag.

There was no such thing as wasting things – which I really like.

On sustainability:

Celia: We’ve had the pressure to be very different and to make things that are grand, artistic, alternative and avant-garde. Which is awesome – but in reality, if I’m not going to wear a piece, or imagine someone else wearing it three times a week, then I don’t want to produce it.

There are 5 billion trillion things in the whole world and that really scares me. Personally, I hate the fact that even when we practise things, we create stuff that goes straight to the landfill. The amount of waste we produce constantly as tiny little fashion students is so daunting.

Shereen: The industry is too fast. There used to be two or four seasons a year. But now, because of how incredible the trend predicting software is there’s just too much. It needs to slow down. If you’re not a fashion design student or you don’t care about clothing you’re not going to know what it actually takes to make clothing, or how bad it actually is when you’re buying something for $10. But when you see how long it takes for us to draft a pattern, stitch a toile – and do it over and over before the final thing – you would understand the value of a piece.

Plus, we’re not really told about the implications of our consumption. If someone buys a $15 thing from Shein they don’t understand. If they did, they’d feel guilty about what they’re doing by supporting a company like that. They use really poor labour, poor conditions, poor materials and then when you wash it, it just creates microplastics.

I think we should ask ourselves: ‘Do I really love this?’ and ‘How long will I love this?’ We should think about the quality and where it actually came from. Who made it and are they being treated fairly? Are they getting harmed? There’s a lot of things that go into clothing that we don’t see or know about.

On finding your style and consumerism:

Shereen: Fashion is a reflection of your own identity and expression. But it’s so difficult to harness that because of trends, media and human nature. We always want what we can’t have - even subconsciously. Sometimes the quality or design of the clothing isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s the way people feel about themselves because that influences you to buy. That influences what you consume.

Under capitalism, the consumerism that we participate in often feeds our egos. It’s not just ‘Oh, I think this is cute and it represents me’. Often we are buying into trends and fashion because we want people to perceive us in a certain type of way.

Celia: But that’s not really our fault either. Socially, we’re structured to want things and constantly want things because the world is constantly selling us products.

Fashion, generally, is about selling you something. For example, Abercrombie & Fitch and Calvin Klein – they sell you sex, youth, and being hot and rich. They make you want to be part of it, by getting their T-shirt, with their branding.

What do you see for the future?

Shereen: One thing I do like about the industry is the direction we’re going. I like the trend right now of doing stuff yourself and supporting small businesses. Plus, meeting Lela Jacobs last year helped me realise there is a way to make things and also have a good sustainable practice. She’s a very lowkey New Zealand designer who works predominantly by herself, has her own store and just distributes locally. She exclusively uses NZ fibres and I respect that so much. It made me realise that I could also do really small scale stuff.

A last message:

Celia: We should all take time to consider further what we’re buying and take our time to make decisions… Avoid buyer’s remorse by sleeping on it. Things like that should inform our buying instead of how it’s going to make you look.

Shereen: Before I studied fashion or studied soft tech I didn’t know about clothes in this type of way. I never looked at care labels or anything. But the care label tells you everything. What it’s made of, where it’s from and how to look after it. I never used to look at them until I learnt about them at uni and the importance of them, the amount of information you can get from them and how that can inform your consumption.


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