Consciousness in Clothing: An Interview with Sass Brown

Fashion, Our Habitude v April 14, 2015

It’s an understatement to say that Sass Brown has her finger on the pulse of the ethical fashion industry. In addition to being a designer, researcher, journalist and fashion editor, Sass is also the Associate Dean for the School of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. With two books on the subject of ethical fashion under her belt, as well as countless articles, speaking engagements, lectures and other contributions, communicating and promoting the best in sustainable design is an integral part of her every day life.

How would you describe “Eco Fashion” in one sentence?

I think “Eco” is a term that has been overused and missused, so I prefer to use either “ethical fashion” or “sustainable fashion” these days.  Ethical Fashion – Clothing designed with a conscience as it relates to the environmental and human impact of every stage of life from earth to dirt.

What does a typical day in the life of Sass Brown consist of?

Crazy, I wear two hats, both of which demand 100% of me. I am the Associate Dean for the Fashion Institute of Technology’s school of Art and Design, which demands a lot of me, as I support the Dean in the oversight of 17 departments, and almost half of the school. Then every evening and every weekend is basically spent writing, whether for my website, an article for Coco Eco Magazine – where I am the New York Editor, a feature for Not Just a Label, preparing a talk, a speech or a workshop I have planned – whether locally or internationally, or working on my PhD. Outside of that I try to meditate daily, start each day with a home made green smoothy, and run every night – that is what keeps me healthy and centered to be able to tackle my day.

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(left to right) Sass onstage at a Mercado Global event, Sass in South Korea with a traditional hand weaver

 

Having been a designer, educator, journalist, and researcher on the topic of sustainability in fashion, what is your opinion of the sustainable efforts taken in the industry in the past decade?

I think we have made enormous strides, but still have a very long way to go, before all our garments support people and communities, don’t deplete the earth’s precious reserves, don’t pollute the earth through production or consumption, and revert back to a nutrient for the soil, or a raw material for new product.  The demand for transparency throughout all the above stages is one of the most important efforts, as it relates to every stage of a garments life from earth to dirt.  Access to a much greater range of natural, organic and artisanal materials for a designer has also been key to inspiring a new generation of designers, along with a renewed respect for artisanship and craftsmanship, and much greater access for consumers to a wide range of ethical designers.

What do you believe to be the biggest consumer misconception when it comes to ethical fashion?

That it’s more expensive or somehow elitist. It can be of course, but then, so can fashion, and it doesn’t have to be anymore than mainstream fashion.  I spend a lot of time talking about avant garde and artisanal ethical fashion, which by default can be expensive, because that is the space I have chosen to make a difference in, but it is far from the only option to dress yourself ethically. It is vital that there are options and choices at every tier of distribution in ethical fashion at this stage, including mass consumption. Ultimately this is not where ethical fashion needs to be, but weaning ourselves off fast fashion is not going to happen overnight, as it requires a culture shift. In the interim, there is H&M’s conscious collection, flee market finds, trading and freecycling events and websites, upcycling, and  renting, and a host of other options.

Which designers have stood out to you most recently with regard to design, purpose, contributions?

I am particularly interested in sustainable design that benefits traditions and communities, as that is my own background to some degree.  In that space, I love Naadam, who just produced their first collection made from Mongolian cashmere. Angel Chang, who is working with the indigenous Miao and Dong minorities in China, and producing a luxury collection with traditional textiles.  Titania Inglis, a local Brooklyn designer, who continues to expand and consolidate her aesthetic.  In Aisce, whose artisanal collaborations with the likes of On the Road for Mongolian cashmere and Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra, are inspirational. And British textile artist Tanvi Kant, who’s hand wound textile remnant bracelets are simply precious.  I always have my ongoing favorite brands, but the above are all ones that have impressed me very lately.  

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(left to right) Coat made from recycled military blankets by km/a, In Aisce collection, Tamara Fogle bag, Cardigan by Naadam Cashmere, Titania Inglis Spring/Summer 2015

 

What are some of the ethical fashion garments that hang in your closet?

A stunning wrap around coat from MAYER peace collection made from a vintage Pakistan hand made Kantha quilt, than I cant wait for the weather to warm, so I can wear it.  A super warm winter coat from Austrian brand km/a made from recycled military blankets, with utilitarian graphic text emblazoned down the back and on one sleeve.  My every day bag by Tamara Fogle, a British bag maker, who works with vintage flour sacks. Mine is now so old and worn I have patched and darned it in a number of places, but it just makes it more precious.  A fabulous wrapped and draped jersey dress from Donna Karan’s Urban Zen, that I don’t have enough opportunity to wear, but feel fabulous in when I do.  And a pair of hand made shoes from the UK covered in British textile designer Margo Selby‘s iconic jacquard weaves. The boots have a flat square toe, and I have come to affectionately call them my Frankenweenie boots.

What do you feel is the most urgent issue when it comes to the apparel industry?

That’s really difficult, how do you weigh one issue against another, especially when there are so many. One that is particularly close to my heart however, is the preservation and re-contextualization of traditional global craftsmanship. When artisans cannot support themselves through their craft, when they cant compete with cheap imports, we loose part of our history and our culture, and we are all the poorer for it.

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(left to right) Sass with Amy DuFault “trying and failing to hand twist upcycled T-shirt yarn at an Earth Day Event”,  Sass with designer Tara St James at the Cradle to Cradles Fashion Positive event at Gotham Hall in 2014

 

You have said that slow fashion is the future of luxury design.  Why do you feel this to be true?

Because I believe that much of what we currently consider luxury brands, have sold themselves out by abandoning their craft heritage in the name of profit. As small family owned brands went public, their focus shifted from craftsmanship to quarterly reports. When you can get the exact same product in Mongolia as Milan, then there is no authenticity any longer.  I believe that global crafts and hand crafted products are now the true luxury. The value that is embeded in a piece of clothing or textile, made by a single person, with real skill, and built on history, tradition and culture. That to me truly is luxury, to know who made my clothes, where and how, and what history and tradition is woven into it.

You are the author of “Eco Fashion” and “ReFashioned”. Any news on a third book? 

I am beginning work on my next book which is about artisanship, and global craft. This book will have a rather longer lead time than the past couple, as the documentation process of global craftsmanship is inevitably more detailed, as it has to incorporate, context, geography, culture, and process, not just finished product, and I can’t rely on designers look books as I have been able to with existing designers. I’m hoping to partner with a film maker to document the process en route,  but it’s still years away.

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Books written by Sass Brown: REFASHIONED and ECO FASHION

 

Sass is currently organizing FIT’s Sustainability in Fashion & Textiles Conference. This 4 day conference includes a phenomenal line-up of speakers from representatives of Levi Strauss, Eileen Fisher, and Makers Row, as well as round tables and hands on labs featuring natural dye techniques to sustainable packaging. Sign up for the workshop here.

For insight into ethical brands and resources, follow her blog EcoFashionTalk.

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  • I can’t wait to read her book about artisan craftsmanship and global craft. I’m always interested to learn more about traditional and cultural textiles and crafts!