Atlanta Slow Fashion Symposium

 Here's the back of my head at the Atlanta Slow Fashion Symposium, second from L. Photo from  Elizabeth Cline .

Here's the back of my head at the Atlanta Slow Fashion Symposium, second from L. Photo from Elizabeth Cline.

On Thursday night I attended the first ever Atlanta Slow Fashion Symposium, presented at Ponce City Market by resident brick and mortar Coco + Mischa. I was nervous to go by myself because I didn't know what to expect. How many people would be there? Would it feel friendly or would it feel elitist? Most importantly, what would I wear to an event about clothes??

After a little agonizing, I wore my me-made windowpane linen shorts and a black cami because I rode my bike and it was fucking hot. 

At least I'd know where to go. Among a sea of runners in their workout gear clustered around the pavilion where the event took place, it was easy to spot the outliers: women in neutral-colored flowy dresses and cropped linen tanks stood out as beacons pointing toward my destination. Trailing behind a pair of particularly well-dressed women as I approached the venue, my anxiety compounded.

What a relief to run into people I knew! After checking in at the welcome table, I mostly ignored the racks of samples for sale and instead caught up with a couple friends, one of whom I actually met through Instagram when we swapped Elizabeth Suzann pants, haha. Through them I met a few new faces that night as well.

After some mingling, I ended up sitting in the front row during the main event, which featured an impressive panel of women in the industry: Atlanta slow fashion designer Megan Huntz, Elizabeth Cline (author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion), Lauren Remesi of Cut from the Same Cloth, Tara Pesta of Outpost Showroom, and Sanni Baumgärtner of Athens, Ga store Community.  Throughout the evening, they were posed questions about their beginnings in slow fashion, ethics in production, accessibility, and inclusivity. Some of the highlights were questions and comments from the audience, a fairly diverse group of what had to have been over fifty women (and one man).

I was nervous to go to this event because I didn't know what to expect, but I'm glad I did because it opened my eyes to how many like-minded and thoughtful proponents of slow fashion there are in Atlanta! 

Barriers to Slow Fashion

They sort of polled the room on this one. What are barriers to slow fashion, and what ways can we find to help people overcome them?

Guilt

Maybe you want to get involved in slow fashion but are paralyzed by the guilt of your fast fashion lifestyle. If all you hear is that you're a terrible person for shopping at the mall, that's not a very welcoming message. The way to get by this is with positivity. Don't berate someone unfamiliar with slow fashion about how they are destroying the world with their choices. Instead, emphasize how small steps can make a difference. Maybe you don't go cold turkey on Forever21, but maybe you start buying less. And then less. And then maybe you don't shop there anymore. Find a way to ease in to a slower consumption cycle.

Affordability

We all know slow fashion isn't cheap. But cheap fashion is what got us into this mess. I was sort of surprised to hear though that not many people thought affordability was a big barrier. "You spend $100 on ten cheap things, so you can spend $100 on one nice thing," was thrown out quite a bit.

This makes sense logically, and for a lot of consumers I think it's true. They probably spend the same amount in a year on a bunch of disposable stuff that they could spend on a few "investment items." But this leaves behind a large segment of the population that maybe buys ONE $10 item because it's what they can afford and they need the thing. They can't sit and wait until they've saved up $100. 

To be fair, thrifting and vintage clothes were suggested as a lower cost entry point into slow fashion. For many people, thrifting isn't even a choice, it's a necessity. The panelists were clear that it's a privilege in many ways to shop slow by choice.

Accessibility

You need a swimsuit and you don't have any slow fashion retailers nearby to purchase from. So you order online. But the size doesn't fit, so you send it back, but now it's too late to get a different size and your beach vacation is next week so you end up at the mall buying fast fashion.

Depending on where you live, the bulk of slow fashion is only available virtually, and that can be a sticking point for many who are wary of spending a lot on something they can't try first. This is certainly a problem with all online clothing retailers, not just slow fashion. Does it mean we need more brick and mortar locations and showrooms? Not sure what the answer really is to this one.

Sizing Inclusivity

The consensus of the designers on the panel was that they wanted to be more size-inclusive, but that it is challenging to adapt patterns for plus sizes. They wanted to do it thoughtfully and not just rush out a new range of sizes without carefully considering fit, since it's not as easy as just scaling up a pattern infinitely. One designer said she certainly would do custom items for plus size customers, so that was nice. An audience member who studied fashion in school recalled how they aren't even taught how to design for plus. That stood out to me as a major failing of the system.

Still, some of the panelists seemed to argue that they were being inclusive by offering the range S M L and One Size, holding One Size especially as an example of thing that anyone could wear. I really disagree though. One Size sizes have their own threshold. Just because you say it fits all does not mean it fits all. It's really not a solution.

I respect the designers admitting we have a ways to go with plus sizing in slow fashion and that they have intentions of working on the issue, but I couldn't help but feel that this is something that should be baked in from the beginning. Why is a whole segment of the potential target demographic being cut out from the equation because it's "too hard" to design for them, and maybe the designers would get around to it if they had time?

On the bright side, Elizabeth Suzann was mentioned as an example of a designer who is successfully expanding her line of garments to include a much wider range of sizes. I'm sure it's not business as usual and requires more design time and resources, but if she can do it, surely others can too.

How can we make slow fashion a bigger part of the cultural conversation?

Multiple times, the slow fashion movement was compared to the organic food movement. Once upon a time organic food was for hippies shopping at co-ops. Now you can get it at your Kroger. But it's still in a different section, and often more expensive than conventionally grown stuff. Just like organic food proponents want to make it more the default instead of the alternative, the dream of slow fashion is of course to make it the default too. But first it needs to be part of the conversation, and right now, it really isn't. 

Sure, many fast-fashion retailers are adding "eco" lines to their inventory, perhaps testing the market before expanding further. But what good is an eco line if it's still produced in a sweat-shop, still low-quality, and still produced in the same alarming numbers as other fast fashion? The recent controversy around Burberry burning their overstocked items came up, and of course everyone agreed it's a travesty and a symptom of an industry that is out of control. Why can't fast fashion retailers just do better with their production and charge more for it? Profit and greed.

What we really need is a major shift in consumerism as we know it. The current pace of producing, buying, and discarding clothes is plain unsustainable. Fifty years ago, Americans spent a far larger portion of their budget on clothing, but bought far fewer clothes. We've gotten so used to the opposite, but that doesn't mean it's normal.

So many folks treat shopping as a reward, as an endorphin rush or a pick-me up. Feeling down? Go buy a cheap blouse to wear out tonight. Get the thrill of novelty. But that novelty wears off almost as quickly as the hem on the blouse will unravel in the first wash.

Melissa Gallagher, owner at Coco + Mischa, talked about how so many patrons come in to her store and don't know what slow fashion is. They balk at the pricing or puzzle at the idea of buying used (aka vintage) clothes. But she treats it as an opportunity to raise awareness of the movement. It's a fine line to walk, to raise awareness without preaching, but you have to start somewhere.

The best way to spread the gospel of slow fashion is to keep talking about it. 

Talk to your friends about it, talk to your family about it. Honestly, until I attended this Slow Fashion Symposium, I never really felt like I was part of a movement per se. But after hearing stories from so many inspiring women on Thursday, I feel energized, like I'm more than just someone taking mirror selfies of my outfits everyday. By sharing my journey in slow fashion, I'm hopefully raising awareness of the movement. And once you are aware, you can start thinking about it and hopefully begin making changes in your own lifestyle.

I don't miss fast fashion. On Friday night my husband and I went up to Avalon in Alpharetta to meet some of his family for dinner. Avalon, for those who aren't Atlanta locals, is a shiny mixed-use development in a tony suburb (the one I happened to grow up in; it's unrecognizable from my childhood) filled with shops, restaurants, pumped in top 40 music, and lots and lots of string lights. It's basically a mall-themed theme park. We got there a little early and as we passed an Anthropologie window display, my husband asked me if I wanted to look in any stores.

I didn't. I just don't have any desire for the things in those stores now. Like many artsy late-twenties-early-thirties women, I used to love to hound the Anthro sales rack, looking for a gem to take home. But now, after a good year of slowing down and taking stock of my wardrobe, there really isn't anything there that interests me. I've certainly got a wish list of some beautiful shoes and garments I'd love to add to my wardrobe, but casually shopping at a mall isn't going to fulfill any of it.

I remember when my mom was alive, she always wanted to take me shopping. She loved scouring the racks at Marshalls and TJMaxx and later Von Maur when it opened in the nearby mall. It made her happy to do that. In the last few years before she died, I remember feeling guilt over this, and when she'd suggest we go out, I'd tell her I didn't need anything. This was way before I knew what slow fashion even was, but I knew in my gut I didn't need something new just because she wanted to treat me to something new. I felt guilty that she should even spend that money on me. 

For my mom though, she explained that it made her happy to give me nice things because she didn't necessarily have the privilege of having nice things for a long time growing up. I'd usually relent and let her do it. But she just never really understood my reluctance to shop. I think this might be a major generation difference that is part of the slow fashion conversation — baby boomers in general lived through a time of abundance and growth where the sky was the limit and no one thought about the global impacts of a massive garment industry. But my generation is at a point where we are questioning that carefree attitude towards consumption and trying to scale back to a more sustainable place.

I wonder what she would think of me now. I wonder if I'd have even be able to slow down my consumption if she was still around twisting my arm into going to DSW. She might roll her eyes a little at my mall-shopping abstinence.

But my mom also had such a big capacity to support the whims of her daughters. I think she'd come around. She'd learn about what I was interested in and she'd surprise me with that one pair of shoes I've been coveting for 18 months.

My sisters and I talk about our mom all the time. Surprisingly, one of the things we all miss about her is how she'd take us shopping. No one takes me shopping anymore. No one surprises me with something they picked up because they thought I'd like it. As much as I am certain of the path I've taken with my wardrobe, I still fucking miss that. But I miss that because I miss her.

I didn't mean to end this on such a personal note, but the reality is that what we wear is so personal. It's tied so much to our identities, our emotions. Slow fashion has changed me and how I approach dressing in a monumental way. I feel so much more in control of my style and in turn my identity. By winnowing down my wardrobe to the basics, I've been able to hone my style in a way I never would have been able to if I was still consuming at the pace I have in the past.

This is the lesson I want to carry with me. This is the message I want to reflect back to my peers: take a step back. Slow down. Look at what you have and remember why you loved it when you bought it. And make sure you love it from the beginning, or else how will you ever love it later?

What are your thoughts on the state of the slow fashion movement? How has it affected your lifestyle and your identity? Do you sense a sea change in how your friends are looking at their consumerism?