INTERVIEW: CLARE PRESS

The world is having a collective wardrobe crisis. And no, I'm not talking about the regular, 'I have nothing to wear' crisis. Globally, there are serious issues facing every facet of the fashion industry - from over-consumption to environmental and human impacts. The fashion industry is in need of repair. But there is good news, the global conversation has well and truly started; with the annual Fashion Revolution week campaign and the Baptist World Fashion Report shining a light on the issues and giving hope of positive change. Along with high-profile writers and activists doing great work and leading the charge. 

Fashion insider, Clare Press, is one such writer. With a career in fashion spanning writing, editing, designing and consulting; Clare has a wealth of knowledge in the fashion industry. She is also deeply passionate about sustainable and ethical fashion, so much so, she has recently published a book on the topic, 'Wardrobe Crisis: How we went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion'. We recently interviewed Clare to find out a bit more about this sustainable fashionista. 

Urban Granola: Take us back to before you were Fashion Editor-At-Large at Marie Claire and an author. How did you get started as a writer and where did your love of fashion come from? 

Clare Press: I’ve always loved fashion. I come from a long line of ‘clothesy’ women. My mum had a boutique in the UK and used to sew, so as a kid I understood about lovely fabrics and the power of a beautiful dress. Clothes are powerful things – as Katharine Hamnett tells me in the book, ‘Apart from keeping us warm and protected, [fashion] is about finding a mate, it’s about dressing up as someone you’d like to be; it’s fascinating.

My grandmother set a lot of store by being able to buy smart clothes, probably because she was raised without very much. As a teenager, I didn’t share her tastes, but now that I look back on it, I’d say that together my grandmother and my mother shaped my interest in clothes.  

For the past 17 years I’ve been a fashion journalist. I started out at Oyster magazine and used to write for The Australian, I spent many years at Vogue and before Marie Claire was at Sunday Style. I’d say the subject is inseparable from its context, so writing about fashion means writing about society, politics, economics. It’s not just a frock, is it? It’s about fitting in or standing out, and the reasons we, as the wearers of clothes, make those choices. It’s about beauty, craft, fabric, technique, drape, magic, dreams, sex; and it’s about money, business, making a living (or not), working conditions, the environment. So in a way fashion is about everything. Tell that to the person who says, But it’s just a hemline…

UG: When did sustainable and ethical fashion first become important to you? 

CP: Being curious about how clothes are made seems normal to me, but it’s only in the last three years or so that I’ve used those labels: ethical and sustainable fashion. To be honest, I didn’t fully understand what sustainability meant until I started researching Wardrobe Crisis

Being curious about how clothes are made seems normal to me, but it’s only in the last three years or so that I’ve used those labels: ethical and sustainable fashion. To be honest, I didn’t fully understand what sustainability meant until I started researching Wardrobe Crisis.

When I left Vogue in 2009, I ran my own label, Mrs Press, and I learned to make patterns and cut samples. I had some silk things made in China and visited the factory, which was state of the art - a much more slick and modern operation than any of the smaller workrooms I used in Sydney; I sat with the patternmaker at her Mac while she tweaked my specs. I had lunch with the machinists. Obviously there are varying degrees of garment factory in China, as elsewhere – from those where workers are treated little better than battery hens, to those where the set-up is great. 

I couldn’t continue to make in China because I didn’t have the quantities, so I manufactured in Sydney, and also made to order, and reworked vintage pieces, from my own HQ. Our seamstress charged $40 an hour, and I used very expensive fabrics. We did things like have our own silks printed in small runs. I cared about quality, and the stories behind the garments, and I reckoned their beauty was all tied up in these things. I didn’t call what I did “sustainable fashion” – but it could have been described that way. Having said that, I might also have called it “unsustainable fashion” - because it was too expensive, and my margins were way too slim, and too few consumers were willing to pay – why cough up $600 for a reworked vintage dress when you can get one that looks similar from a fast fashion retailer?

When I closed Mrs Press I returned to fashion journalism, and a deeper interest in how our clothes are made. This happened around the same time as I rekindled an obsession I’d had at university (where I studied politics) – with the environment. It seemed pretty obvious that fashion was linked to trashing the planet. Conventionally grown cotton, for example, accounts for 25 % of world insecticides use. The more I read, the more I wanted to write about it.

UG: You’ve written for many traditional fashion publications where ethics, transparency and the cogs and wheels of the industry aren't usually discussed in depth. Do you see change on the horizon for them when it comes to championing sustainability and what influence do you foresee them having?

CP: I do think sustainability is a hot button issue right now, and we are seeing more stories across all media about sustainable brands and initiatives.

But do I see the role of the fashion magazine being reinvented, so that it’s suddenly about op-eds or investigative reporting into ethics, transparency, and the cogs of industry? No. That’s what newspapers and sites like Business of Fashion are for. And that’s alright by me. Fashion magazines are about escapism, they’re about Karlie Kloss with a leopard in the desert wearing couture, and I do actually enjoy that.

UG: Do you think the average consumer is more concerned now with sustainability and ethics in fashion and how and where their clothes are made?

CP: It depends when you ask me. Some days it seems like the average fashion fan only cares about what Kendall Jenner wore and how to get her look for less. Kendall Jenner has 55 million Instagram followers. Imagine what would happen if she suddenly started championing ethical fashion. Is that going to happen? I doubt it.

But other days it seems clear that more people care about fashion’s ethics, and have no qualms about ditching brands that don’t get it right. The recent backlash against Gorman and Factory X is one example. Things like the Fashion Revolution movement, or Leonardo DiCaprio using the Oscars to push a climate change message or designers like Stella McCartney making a noise about sustainability  - all this helps.

UG: Is it adapt or die for those brands who perhaps are doing the wrong thing?

CP: That’s up to us. If consumers say, ‘Oh you are doing the wrong thing, naughty multinational conglomerate!’ but fail to change their shopping habits, we have to accept some of the blame ourselves. Fashion brands don’t thrive unless we buy their products. The power to demand change lies with consumers. We need to train ourselves out of expecting clothes to be super-cheap. If we expect brands – or even governments – to do that for us, we’re going to be waiting a very long time…

UG: Tell us about your new book ‘Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion’, what inspired you to write it and what can we expect when we read it?

CP: There was a light bulb moment actually. I interviewed Simone Cipriani, who started the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, for a Vogue story. He is an absolute powerhouse, his enthusiasm is infectious, and at the end of the conversation, I said something like, “God, I wish I could be more like you and actually do something about this stuff.” And he said, ‘WELL YOU CAN! OFF YOU GO! DO SOMETHING! YOU’RE A WRITER AREN’T YOU?’ 

Clare's book cover. 

Clare's book cover. 

So I wrote an outline for a book that explains the fashion system - that puts it in context for the average person who doesn’t spend their whole time thinking about the legacy of Christian Dior or worrying about when Karl Lagerfeld might leave Chanel - then asks some hard questions: Why do we buy so much more than we need? Who makes our clothes today, how and at what cost? What are the ramifications of our fast fashion habit?  Can we kick it? How can we make clothing manufacture more sustainable in future? And what sort of future are we looking at if we don’t?  The answers to these questions come from the people I’ve interviewed for the book: some very famous indeed, some a long way from the limelight.

My publisher Jeanne Ryckmans, who is another powerhouse of a person, went for the idea on the spot, and I spent 11 months writing it. I hope you find it interesting, and I’d love to hear what you all think. Please consider posting your reviews on Goodreads! That would be awesome.

You can purchase Clare's book from here.

Over to you! Let us know your thoughts on sustainable and ethical fashion or if you have any questions for Clare.