I love you, I love you not. When it comes to plastic, fashion has an extreme hot ’n cold situation going on, publicly declaring it a mortal enemy, yet at the same time lovingly embracing it like some mesmerizing mistress.
Few fabrics are as omnipresent as plastic these days, both in public debate and on the catwalk. While it finds itself at the centre of a full-on ecological disaster and the fashion industry’s share in that problem is acknowledged and deplored, designers can’t seem to escape its enthralling lure. Balmain, Sies Marjan, Fendi, Jeezy, even Marine Serre and Maison Margiela all brought PVC looks to the spotlights this past season, while others, like Dries Van Noten, incorporating colorful plastic feathers in his designs, used it in a more discreet way. In recent years, nearly every big shot in the industry, from Chanel’s cheerful rainforest looks to Valentino’s fairytale-like creations, has toyed with the versatile and easily morphed material. And while not everyone may go for the more obvious plastic fantastic look, over 60% of all our clothes nowadays are made of synthetic fabrics like fleece, nylon, polyester, vinyl or acryl.
The devastating effect of plastic on our ecosystem is nonetheless obvious: taking into account that more than half the clothes the industry produces is disposed of within the year, ending up in landfills or being burned, adding to the dreaded plastic soup and harmful air pollution, it’s hard to look the other way. An even bigger threat is the invisible damage to our ecosystem, as synthetic fabrics release millions of plastic microfibers with every wash, harmful particles that find their way into the oceans and, after getting swallowed by marine life, into our food chain. Skipping a few steps, we are basically eating and breathing our own toxic clothes.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which strives to promote a circular and more environmental-friendly (fashion) economy, indicates plastic as one of the most representative products of the dreaded linear model that has its hooks in the fashion industry: we take resources (in this case petroleum) from the ground to make products we use for only a short while and in the end we dispose of those as waste. To tackle the plastic threat, the organization says in its New Plastics Economy report, actors from different fields, from scientists to manufacturers to designers to consumers, need to work together and come up with new ways to use and recycle plastic in a sustainable way, but also replace it by more environmental-friendly raw materials. Problem is, people keep succumbing to the charm of a glistening, resistant coat.
So why is it the fashion world is so obsessed with it? How comes a relatively young fabric, hardly over a century old, has so deeply infiltrated the industry? The first plastic, or synthetic polymer, was invented in the late 19th century and was immediately welcomed as an easily manipulated, versatile material that could imitate natural substances like horn, linen and ivory. Believe it or not, but this early prototype was actually considered an ecological alternative to scarce natural resources back then. It took a few more decades to improve its formula, and the post-WWII economical boom to produce it on a mass scale. Suddenly the sky was the limit and everybody had access to democratized plastic comfort and – design. Not only did it infiltrate the production process of nearly all industries, the cheap material in itself became symbolical of an utopian world with abundant material wealth. In fashion, it became the emblem of futurism. Golden boys such as Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges propelled it to the top with their Space Age fashion: vinyl miniskirts and shiny knee-high go-go boots were the uniform of the promising new generation. To this day, those three fashion houses still capture the imagination and people lovingly turn to the “modernist” look for inspiration. A plastic dress or boot has something youthful, hopeful and optimistic –and God knows we need a little optimism in these worrying times of human and ecological disasters, even if our very symbol of hope is ironically enough at the very root of the problem.
There is non-synthetic hope too, however, as a new generation of designers and manufacturers explicitly turn away from plastic. Most notably, Courrèges creative director between 2018 and 2020 Yolanda Zobel called time on the house’s use of vinyl in 2018, incorporating its entire stockpile into a capsule collection named Fin de Plastique. After getting rid of the very material that established the house’s renown, she declared the hunt for a new, more sustainable alternative open. “I have millions of meters of this amazing vinyl,” she told Vogue US at the time, “it’s the iconic fabric of the house, I cannot dismiss it, it is inspiring. I love vinyl and its shine, but you can’t say hi to the new without bye to the old!” She’s not the only one riding this wave, as other labels have reached out to non-profit and scientific organizations in their battle against synthetic fibers. Stella McCartney and Adidas joined forces with Parley For The Oceans in order to recycle plastic waste into high-performance sportswear, eco sneakerlabel Veja produced a recycled sneaker in collaboration with the Surfrider Foundation and celebrities such as Pharrell Williams are championing companies like Bionic Yarn -who turn old PET-bottles into textile. All admirable efforts, but their effect will always remain peripheral if the industry doesn’t start backing away from plastics on a bigger scale. The Global Fashion Agenda, a leadership forum mobilizing the fashion industry to become more healthy, is hardly optimistic in this regard: its recently published Pulse Score 2019 report states the progress of sustainable fashion is still too slow to keep up with the horrid paste of damage the industry as a whole is doing to our planet.
That’s why the participation of the traditional bad guys, the fast fashion chains, is so crucial. They have a key role to play in that they can commercialize and normalize pioneering materials and techniques on a mass level. H&M for instance, has successfully done so with recycled PET-bottles in recent years, and in its latest conscious collection has explored the scaling possibilities of fabrics such as Pinatex (fake leather made out of pineapple leftovers) and Bloom Foam (a plant-based flexible material using algae biomass). Democratizing fashion nowadays means looking into sustainable alternatives ànd making them available to all players in the field. Of course, said chains should shy away from the very concept of fast fashion altogether in order to become fully sustainable, but that is another battle to fight in the greater war of ecofashion.
Furthermore, recycling plastic is one thing, developing ways to keep it out of the way all together is another, even better thing. A new generation of researchers is currently looking into the possibilities of regenerated materials made from food waste, or lab-grown, bioengineered textiles, created from living bacteria such as algae and fungi. These innovative fabrics are biodegradable ànd can be grown to fit specific molds, thereby reducing excess material to discard. Wolford, for example, in close collaboration with Cradle To Cradle, is experimenting with composting its products in order to close the fashion loop once and for all. And that is exactly where the new futurism should be heading: not a pair of shiny galactic boots, but a pair of equally glistening stockings that can be returned to nature, and even to water, without any risk of damaging it. Come think about it, it wouldn’t even bother if this particular pair of stocking ended up back on our plate… Hi to the new, bye to the old!