Clare Press is a media maven warrior. She has a growing body of books to her name, including her latest release, Rise and Resist (out now in book stores), a Podcast called Wardrobe Crisis, and is flown all over the world to host and chair sustainability conferences and other fabulous events. We adore her and her work… herewith her thoughts on where the world is moving on this sustainability journey.
Alexandra & Genevieve: Hello Mrs Press. It’s an honour to chat to you today, as friends and mutual admirers. How nice for us to be able to talk about a subject that is close to all our hearts: creativity and sustainability. How did this journey start for you?
Clare: I’ve worked in magazines for nearly 20 years. I’ve always loved fashion, but five years ago I started to get impatient with it. I worried there was the lack of depth in what I was covering as a journalist. I guess I was seeking purpose; I think that happens when you get older. You stop trying to scramble up the ladder, and start to crave more meaning.
There were two catalysts. One was Rana Plaza… I feel like it’s such an obvious thing to say, ‘Oh this terrible thing happened and it made me question everything’. But it actually did. I began to understand that the current fashion system is broken, and it’s up to us to reimagine it. I think lots of people in the sustainable fashion movement felt the same way.
Alexandra: Do you think it was the scale of it that caught everybody’s attention?
Clare: Unfortunately, I do. It was impossible to look away.
Alexandra: What did you do at that point in terms of a pathway through it? What was your conscious decision to try something different?
Clare: This is where the other catalyst comes in. Around the same time, I interviewed Simone Cipriani for a Vogue story. Simone founded the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, which links brands with fashion artisans in places like Kenya and Haiti. Simone is a very galvanising individual. I remember saying, ‘Wow, you do so much to change the world. What can I do?’ And he said, ‘You’re a writer—go write a book.’ So I did. Wardrobe Crisis, How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion was the result. I now present a spin-off podcast. It’s free to subscribe in iTunes – please do!
Alexandra: You speak to loads of super-clever people, internationally, about sustainability and its challeges and opportunities. Where are we now in Australia on this continuum? Are we hopeful?
Clare: Yes, hopeful is the right word. I am genuinely optimistic about where we’re headed—I can see the tipping point. There are so many more conversations happening, even in the last 12 months. I also feel like Gen Z is going to totally change the way we do things.
My podcast allows me access to inspiring thinkers in this space, people like William McDonough (Cradle to Cradle); Eva Kruse, founder of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit; Ellen MacArthur; Dilys Williams, founder of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion in London. I do a lot of work in the UK. I recently interviewed Baroness Lola Young, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion (wish we had one of those), for a show about modern slavery. We recorded it in the House of Lords. I’m afraid I do feel that Europe is ahead.
In Australia, we have brilliant designers leading the way, but governments and bigger businesses are lagging. Look at our lack of legislation on plastic pollution, and the Morrison government’s shameful failure to take climate change seriously. We need more collaboration, innovation, positive solutions but we also need bold regulation to tackle environmental issues—it can’t be all up to the consumer. Governments need to get on with the pressing business of reducing carbon emissions and developing a vision around the circular economy.
Alexandra: You cover these issues in your new book Rise & Resist, right?
Clare: Yes, it’s a book about activism, movement building and how we can all make positive change in our own communities and spheres of influence. The book explores the intersections between social justice, climate change and feminism. It starts with the Women’s Marches.
Genevieve: So, the feminist aspect, is that just you putting it into context? Fashion and feminism is an interesting topic, even just from the idea of women being such slaves to trends and buying stuff all the time…
Clare: I’ve been doing a lot of work around fashion as a feminist issue, starting with garment workers: 80% are women, mostly young women with children and mostly not paid a living wage. The fact that it’s mostly (privileged) women who buy fashion is the other side of it. That leads in many directions: from how womankind is represented in fashion imagery, to diversity, to why we buy what we buy, the psychology and politics of that and its impacts on our environment. My personal obsession is fighting waste. All this is covered in the book.
Genevieve: Can you tell us about your process when you write a book? It’s such a huge undertaking and ultimately you put yourself out there in a very personal way. Tell us the detail… and how you work your way through to publication?
Clare: There is a lot of hard work involved! It requires a force of will that is its own source of energy, but can be draining. You have to be very determined. You also need time and the mental space—I don’t have kids so I can work in silence for 10 hours a day. I honestly don’t know how people do it who have other demands on their time, but of course many do. Hats off to them. I couldn’t do it. I need quiet. I can’t work with noise or music on. I was never very good at writing in a busy office.
The spark, the kernel of the idea, is always exciting. Then it’s a case of putting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and mapping out the flow—how each interview or piece of research will link together to form the whole. After that it’s a case of: you show up and sit there every day until you’ve finished your 100,000 words. That doesn’t sound very glamorous does it?
Alexandra: But I think that’s the point of what we are trying to uncover here, whether it be an artist or a writer or a designer or whatever, really the devil is in the detail and the art is in the detail too, and if you stuff that up then you’re not at the top of your game. Did you think that through at the time?
Clare: The possibility of stuffing it up? Not really. You can’t think like that and make progress. You just have to plough on.
Alexandra: Tell us about your reality as Vogue’s Sustainability Editor-at-Large.
Clare: My role was announced in March 2018 to coincide with our sustainability issue, guest-edited by Emma Watson. Vogue getting behind sustainability in a formalised, ongoing way is very exciting. I also think it shows how momentum is gathering around this topic. There’s a lot of passion inside the industry to make it greener and more sustainable, to innovate around things like circularity and transparency. Change doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a slow process, but I feel very lucky to be part of these conversations.
Genevieve: That’s interesting because sustainability, in essence, is a slow process. That’s the definition of it. It’s slow, it takes time for you but also for us as designers, and with fabrications… it’s a slow movement.
Clare: I love that you said that because, culturally, we’re still locked on to the idea that immediacy is everything. Fashion is one aspect of that, but don’t you think, with everything, we want to get there tomorrow? Slow fashion should be a considered, mindful process.
Genevieve: I think people want to see behind the processes in putting a collection together.
Clare: Yes. You could use the word craft. I’m very interested in craft. If you show me how you sew something, or how a pattern works, I love that. I think we all do. Was it process that got you into sustainability? Was it story? Or was it just intrinsic? Because you’ve been doing it quietly behind the scenes for a long time, right? I feel like you’ve considered this very carefully when it comes to fabrics.
Genevieve: Our mother was a huge inspiration. She kept her clothes for years. She loved natural fibres, silk blouses and she fixed up, recycled and upcycled all the time. She collected second-hand things, and she would take us into those stores and back home we would dye, chop up and upcycle everything. That’s how we were brought up. I think innately those values were instilled in us as kids. The idea that clothes are precious, that they’re important, they’re beautiful, has remained with us.
Clare: Love! This is one of the ways we can make the sustainability conversation accessible and appealing, rather than scary or guilt-inducing or finger-pointing. Looked at through this lens, it’s less about trying to reinvent the system than trying to dial back and appreciate how we used to do things. My mother was like that too. She is amazing at sewing, and can make a pattern from scratch. But she never said, ‘Oh this is sustainable’ or, ‘This is slow fashion’. There was just this understanding that a garment is valuable if it’s been beautifully made from natural fibres. It’s common sense, something we already know but need to remind ourself about.
Alexandra: I think a lot of people have lost touch with that. It’s like a $15 polyester top from H&M will do just nicely thanks. So, they’ve lost touch with the visceral, tactile, beautiful, humanity part.
Genevieve: Mrs Press, where do you think we are heading from here into the future of sustainability?
Clare: It has to be about collaboration and transparency. Collaboration is key to the circular economy, and that means being willing to be vulnerable; to admit, ‘I don’t know everything. Who can I work with to improve? How can we do that together, by sharing knowledge?’
Genevieve: It’s collaborative to other industries, too, though isn’t it? It’s figuring out ways to work with car makers who can put that fabric in car seats or…
Clare: Yes, but we need to start by re-thinking how we view competition vs. collaboration within our own industry. Open source is something fashion people still tend to be like, ‘No, no, no! That’s my secret. It’s commercially sensitive.’ But it doesn’t work for sustainability—the problems we’re trying to solve are too big. We need to work together and share our contacts and ideas, to be like, ‘This is my textile deadstock supplier. Go for it. Let’s turn this thing around together.’
Genevieve: What does sustainability mean to you? Apart from working together to protect our environment?
Clare: I’m starting to think in terms of how we can totally redesign the whole way we live… the whole way our economy functions, the whole way we carry on. And I know that is a long thread from ‘I’m a sustainability editor,’ but fine, we need big thinking. Also when we talk about sustainability, why don’t we talk about the fact that the business also needs to be sustainable? Sustainability can mean environment, it can mean supply chains, it’s also you; a sustaibable business is a viable one you can keep running.
Alexandra: That’s the constant balance. Trying to do something you believe in, and making sure enough people care so you can stay in business.
Clare: In my view, we’re at an exciting juncture. I see this in terms of opportunity. And if you’ve already engaged in some aspect of this then you’re ahead. It’s shifting.
Alexandra: It’s a big shift! I interview all the women who want to work for us and many—I’d say 90% —walk into our studio and say, ‘I’ve read your social responsibility page.’ Or, ‘I’m approaching you because of your sustainability stance.’ The part of the puzzle that needs to be solved for the Australian brands that are doing this in a meaningful way is growing the community, converting the community so they come to us for a reason, because they love the fashion but also love the values.
You can purchase the book here