Re-examining Fashion: My Time on the Red Dot
Inside my TEDx Talk at Texas State University
Having the opportunity to reflect, write and share a TEDx talk really has a way of putting your work under a microscope of your own making. It's rigorous, to say the least, to focus your work on a core central idea that can clearly be communicated in under 18 minutes; an idea that is both timely and possesses the capacity for a decent amount of longevity when you send it out into the ether of the internet.
But whether or not we all have the opportunity to share our great ideas in the TED format, working through the process of reflection, examination and research to clearly situate your work is extraordinarily rewarding because it provides a conduit to drive the next iteration of your work forward. This is the behind-the-scenes look at my TEDx talk, offering a reflection on my experience and what I've learned throughout the process. Plus it's an opportunity to expand on how my 'great idea worth sharing' came together.
First thing first when preparing for a talk of this nature is understand that because your time is so limited you have to distill things down to the most concise and clear point that you can. Every sentence and phrase should have an impact, and everything should be connected by a common thread so that the journey that you go on as you progress through the talk is continually entertaining, informative and revealing. It's not easy and I spent countless hours writing and re-writing the talk in collaboration with my speaker coach, Jonathan Alba, who was an exceptional resource and fantastic to work with throughout the process.
When I first sat down with Jonathan we talked about discovering that one central idea. I say discovering, because of course you should be giving a talk on what you know, so you already do know what your central idea is, you just might not know that you know it yet. This was and is -- and probably always will be -- a challenge for me, because I don't think in the way of singular topics and subjects. In all of my work I am always drawing connections between multiple ideas, trying to identify and understand how they fit together, how they're related, how they impact each other. It's not always about the deep-dive, but understanding how the depth of ideas are connected across the big picture. The central idea becomes the relationship of multiple elements, not the elements themselves. I was challenged by supervisors on this in the writing of my PhD thesis, and I think even Jonathan was a bit skeptical of my ability to relate three seemingly disparate ideas revolving around the fashion industry to each other and not give a talk that was a mess. In the end, I think we came to create a talk that we could be proud of.
In my talk, I wanted to bring together the relationship between our cultural understanding of the fashion industry, our need to address issues of sustainability in apparel manufacturing, AND our opportunity to enhance the industry through entrepreneurship on a global scale. Even at the beginning of preparing for the talk I was not as succinct as that previous sentence in defining the parameters. I just knew that I was questioning, studying and deliberating over each of these issues on a continual basis.
The central argument that I'm making in my talk, comes from my own unique set of circumstances, experiences, and perspective. I couldn't have given any other talk, because this is where the fashion industry and I stand at this point in time. But I'm happy to say now that through this process, I've learned so much that keeps propelling me forward.
Watch the TEDx Talk:
The Full Annotated Transcript
How Clothes Impact Your Life: Re-examining Fashion
Just so that I can make sure we’re all on the same page here … How many of you got dressed this morning?
I would check around and make sure everyone has their hand raised, otherwise, you're probably going to need to have an awkward conversation with your seat mates. But hopefully we've established that we're all wearing clothes today and none of us are naked.
All kidding aside, you thought about the clothes that you put on today. You probably thought what you would be doing, the weather, where you were going, and who you would see. Even if if you think you know nothing about fashion, you thought enough about it to decide which clothes that you put on your body today.
This opening 'hook' as writers like to call it, is taken right out of numerous meetings I've had with a number of individuals who upon hearing about my background and work reply something along the lines of "Oh, that's cool, I know nothing about fashion." To which I like to gently inform and thank them for "showing up wearing clothes", because we need to lay some ground rules that this isn't an industry that's off limits to people who aren't designers, models, 'influencers', etc. We all think about what we wear, and we all make our own individual rules about what we will and will not put on our body, and in this way we all have our own sense of style (whether or not we all agree that a particular style is in good taste). But you know what you like and you know what you like to wear, and therefore you know something about fashion.
I love fashion. And more specifically the business of fashion. So much so that I pursued a PhD in it. And I'll let you in on a little secret: the fashion industry as we know it is obsolete, and is in drastic need of change to make it more technologically innovative and sustainable.
Let me be fair, is every active business currently in the industry obsolete? No. But is the industry in the midst and on the verge of drastic change that will impact us all? Yes. And in that way, the systems we've set-up in the industry are obsolete, and there will of course be winners and losers as processes and technologies shift, influencing how apparel items are designed, produced, sold and consumed. We're already seeing it moving its way throughout the supply-chain beginning with the 'retail apocalypse'.
But I've come to realize that changing the industry begins with changing our perspective of how we make meaning from fashion. That's what I'm here to do: to re-examine our emotional connection to the fashion industry in order to open up the door to entrepreneurship and innovation, and make the industry more sustainable.
Here you have my one central idea.
Being in my position gives me a front row seat to our cultural understanding of fashion as frivolous and unimportant. Let me give you a particularly memorable example:
Near the end of my first year of research. I returned home to our small town in Texas for a visit to friends and family. My little brother and I were sitting around a dinner table, when someone asked me what I was working on. I began to answer proudly that I was working on my PhD. Before I could explain further, my little brother said, “But It’s not a real PhD because it’s in fashion.”
Now, I realize that he meant it as a joke. But I also know that it cut me to the core, to hear in a very public way that someone I love so much, didn’t see the value in the thing that I loved doing. Or at least thought is was something worth laughing about.
But if you think about it, is it any wonder?
We think of fashion as frivolous because we don’t need to be pretty, handsome, or attractive. Fashion is merely the stuff of women and the home. Something that our mothers and wives do for us. Silly things to keep us preoccupied. It’s not serious or for smart people. It’s for people who have nothing better to do.
Fashion is merely the constant consumption of goods that ceaselessly move in and out of our lives. The industry is criticized and mocked for constantly telling us what we should be buying and wearing at this moment in time, as trends go in and out of style.
Let me be clear. I am not an expert on the cultural studies of fashion. But I know enough to relate it to my own experience. Having a 'PhD in fashion' is unusual. I realize that. But we do talk a lot of about the frivolity of the industry as a judgement against our extravagant consumerism, and it's a reasonable observation that only begins to highlight the depth of problems that plague the industry. But, it's also not the whole picture, which provides a glimpse into why consumption isn't inherently bad.
But also consider this: Fashion is an industry that touches every human life. We are all participants. We all adorn our bodies with something. And we all exchange things of value to obtain the things with which we adorn our bodies. It is valued at more than $2.4 trillion dollar annually. On a personal level, fashion is both an opportunity for self expression and a way of aligning yourself with your culture and community.
But let's face it: Fashion, and the purchase of apparel, is at this point, purely an emotional decision. For the most part, we don't actually need new items of clothing. But I believe that this emotional decision not only imperative to the development of our economy, but the development of our humanity. And I believe fashion has the power to change the world. But not if we don't take it seriously.
I love this point. When we ridicule fashion and the people who love it, we are ignoring the importance of it to our own individuality and collective humanity. What we wear has a profound impact on who we are, how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived. We've already laid the ground rules that we all wear stuff ... this isn't going to change and it is important, like I say here, to both our economy and our development as a global society.
Not since the invention of the sewing machine have we truly revolutionized the way our clothing is made. We’ve achieved ‘efficiencies’ in the industry, speeding up the rate at which clothing is produced by sacrificing quality and creativity, placing increasing pressure on other aspects of our supply chain, including the individuals who make them. Every item on your body today was made with human hands.
Re-examining our collective relationship to fashion is how we'll achieve an industry that is innovative and sustainable. Fashion is considered the second most polluting industry in the world. And for the last decade the discussion of sustainability continues to rise. And yet, what is sustainability?
I struggled with how to phrase this point. Because I actually am annoyed by the 'statistic' that 'fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world'. As much as I tried to research this point (what are the other top polluting industries in the world?) I had a hard time finding the actual research study that made this claim, with the only origin I could find being a statement Eileen Fisher made while accepting an award. I worked to qualify the statement by saying that 'fashion is considered', but the reality is the actual statistic has not been verified, and I appreciate those who are starting to draw attention to this issue (see here and here). However, the central idea that I want to illustrate here is not this statistic per say, but to highlight that the industry is highly polluting, how we manufacture and distribute products is wasteful in many respects, and we have been increasingly using the 'sustainability' buzzword within the fashion industry to market new products, in many cases products that are marginally better in some aspects to the detriment of others. Some of these products are providing us with profound improvements, but defining and determining what is 'sustainable' is a challenge because multiple arguments can be made about products and processes as to why they are and are not sustainable. For those of us who are not sustainability experts, myself included, it is certainly confusing.
Fashion is something I work with and I learn about every day, and I’m confused. Gosh, I have a PHD in Fashion and I still don't get what it means to make this industry sustainable.
Coming to an answer or single definition as to what is sustainable brings into question not only how we consume and dispose of our apparel, but also, every element of our supply-chain and the profound interdependency one element has on others. Fashion is a global industry, fractured across small businesses and independent suppliers. There isn’t a single solution, and every decision we make will have positive and negative consequences. That’s why it’s time to re-examine the fashion industry.
Is it better to recycle plastic bottles and convert them into threads that then go into making our apparel items? We are already seeing t-shirts and tote bags on the market made from polyester derived from recycled plastics. But now we know that washing those t-shirts, and other garments containing synthetic thread causes microscopic particles of plastic to end up in our water supply and food-chain. Is that the best option?
Or is it a return to the way we used to make clothes, called ‘slow fashion’ with craftsman and artisan production, often produced locally or in the country of origin and made using organically grown cotton, wool and linen. But what about all this I hear about the substantial energy and water used in the growth those materials. Or the shortage of skilled labor to make those types of garments? For most this is a luxury that we can't afford. Simply returning to the original process of apparel manufacturing is like returning to a horse and buggy in rejection of the combustion engine. We must push forward.
The third option is that we should simply stop consuming, or at least consume less, buy vintage — but that requires a massive change in behavior that is inconsistent with our human desires. We use fashion — not only the consumption of it, but the creation of it — to express who we are and how we feel. That is not a static element, but a part of our identity that changes and evolves over time. Some things will remain constant and others move in and our of our life.
I think these three examples provide a great perspective on the confusion around sustainability. Making the argument for or against any of these strategies for improving the industry is very complex. I'm not in any way saying here that the improvements or benefits these strategies of production and consumption provide are 'wrong', but that the benefits aren't exactly 'right' either. When we talk about making improvements to the industry to make it more sustainable, it's important to remember that the industry intersects vast elements of our economy (and individuals' livelihoods) and our individual cultures, and making changes to behaviors along both of those dimensions is extremely difficult. The best that we have to work on our guidelines defined by the UN's Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. But again, much of the focus on this is on large established companies, and it remains difficult for entrepreneurial design businesses to source materials and labor that is both sustainable and allows them to be competitive in the market.
In this way, I can mark moments of transition in my life by changes in my closet. Items that have stuck with me over the years. Things I’ve let go. And new things that bring me joy when I discover them.
The democratization of fashion means that we now have the power to use our clothing to express who we are and the way we want to live. The importance and diversity of expressing ourselves through the items that we wear will and should only increase. Fashion signifies where we are from, our culture, our norms, our belonging to common ideals, while at the same time showcasing our individuality, our diversity, our aspiration. Fashion is simply one component of our freedom of individual identity, our capacity for creativity, and our path to self-actualization.
I came to fashion reluctantly. I too didn’t take it seriously even though I loved it immensely. Growing up, fashion was not important except when it was. We would get dressed up for special occasions because it was important that we were dressed appropriately. But to express joy and delight about these things that you brought into your life meant that you were vain and silly, materialistic and selfish.
I spent my teenage and college years reading the pages of American Vogue and never even considered that this thing that I loved, this thing that I thought about every day when I got dressed in the morning - fashion, could really be a part of my life. I was a girl from a small town. What chance did I have to be part of an industry reflected in the pages laying before me.
After I completed my Master’s degree, I missed something. I missed the academic journals. And I was reading Vogue and I saw these great articles about ‘emerging designers’. The entrepreneurs who were building new companies. And I wanted to know what we understood about this aspect of the industry scientifically. I went back to the library and began my search. And nothing. I found articles on established brands in fashion - Burberry and Ralph Lauren. I found articles on internationalization of retail. But there was this huge gapping whole in our academic literature on fashion entrepreneurship.
And what now seems like just the next step in my journey but was actually years of stress and struggle, I moved my husband and my dog across an ocean to London. I enrolled in the London College of Fashion to pursue my PhD. And I found myself plopped right into the industry that I had admired from afar.
During my time in London, I learned two things. The first: that the fashion industry as we know is obsolete. The second: that the awesome individuals who are working in this industry are no more special or extraordinary than any number of individuals I meet anywhere else in the world. They were just lucky enough to have access to participate.
And the reality is ... there is fantastic talent around the world, and it's time that we empower individuals to innovate through entrepreneurship.
Again here, weaving the thread of the talk through our cultural understanding of the industry, and providing an example from my perspective developed from my own set of experiences and observations of how we make meaning from fashion. But of course, the next step here is to bring in the third element: entrepreneurship. I feel so fortunate to have met so many extraordinary individuals within the fashion industry, and I know personally from hearing their stories of their own challenges and struggles to achieve what they have achieved. But my argument here is that we know now that the industry needs all of us --- who wear clothes --- to take it seriously so that we can access the talent needed to push our industry forward. It's a shame in any respect to waste talented human capital, and the advancements in technology that we have today give us the opportunity to empower individuals through entrepreneurship globally. We all benefit from innovation.
This understanding has propelled me forward to the next step.
The future of the industry will be built through disruptive entrepreneurship and innovation that changes the way we design, experience, buy, make and dispose of our clothing. It is going to take innovators to design new business models and apply new technology to move beyond our constant consumption of limited resources. So I launched Aesthetic Ventures, a company to build other companies. My mission is simple: to connect extraordinary entrepreneurs with the resources they need to profoundly impact the future of fashion. I believe a new era of fashion is emerging. One that is sustainable, ethical, meaningful, functional, aspirational and joyous. Sustainability and technological innovation should not be a unique selling proposition, but the status quo. We can innovate every segment of the supply chain from design to production, and distribution to disposal.
Building a successful company is hard. Building a successful company that changes the world sounds crazy enough that it’s worth pursuing. I generally always feel like I am at the bottom of a mountain ready to begin my ascent. I begin with what I know: I am a researcher. In my role I learn about, connect and work with individuals who each are making an impact in their own way. My thinking here is that if we can link together miniature disruptions and resources, we can build on incremental innovations to have a powerful impact. Everything begins with one small seed of progress at a time. With Aesthetic Ventures, I'm beginning with a very select core set of capabilities to help emerging fashion companies build enduring brands, create meaningful products, and scale their companies for maximum reach.
I don't have all the answers of how the fashion industry will change. But I do know that we can begin with re-examining our perspective on fashion, recognizing how important this industry is to our individual and cultural identity.
Like when I found the gap in our understanding when I began my PhD research, I see an opportunity to open up access to this industry through entrepreneurship to anyone, any where that has an innovative solution, technology or business model. My work in this area is only just beginning. But I believe that improving our fashion supply-chain begins with re-examining our perspective, recognizing the power and meaning that fashion holds in our lives.
I first became aware of how important what I wore was to my life, when I realized that many of my most important memories are intimately connected with what I wore for the occasion.
Like the year my baby brother was born. I don’t remember much detail about this time. Except that I was so happy to be a big sister. The look of his beautiful face. And my perfectly pink polka-dot dress that I wore to his christening. It was important to me that I be beautiful when I celebrated this new baby that had just entered my life. I was six, and even then I knew that the clothes that I put on my body meant something.
At the beginning of the talk I had to give my little brother a bit of big sister payback in calling him out on his joke, which did get a good laugh, and yes, did crush me inside. But I totally understand how he came to make the argument that 'fashion wasn't real' or 'important.' But being a big sister is so important to me that I couldn't help but show through that how meaningful our clothes are to our experience of cherished events in our lives.
We are all participants in this industry. We all put these items on our bodies everyday. They are gifts and cherished items that mark the passage of time in our lives. They are splurges and lucky finds in vintage stores. They are made by us and for us.
When it comes to fashion, if you have a great idea, technology or solution, please pursue it. Build the company, because we need more innovation faster.
If you already work in this industry, do everything you can to improve it. As I said at the beginning, fashion is my business. I LOVE IT, and this is what I'm dedicating my life to.
But I also get that most of us will only ever just wear clothes. And that's totally cool. Buy the things that you love. But also love the things that you buy. Because these are the items that you live your life in.
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Recognizing the power and meaning of what we wear is for each of us such a tangible and profound opportunity to begin improving our industry because it will influence our buying decisions, and also what we design, and how we produce items. When we dehumanize fashion we are extinguishing our own creative humanity and limiting our opportunities for innovation within an industry that impacts each one of us.
Delivering this TEDx talk was such an honor and it will be a memory that I cherish. I am also tremendously aware that this talk isn't the result of six months of work, but my entire lifetime of experience, and at least 10 years of research, study and reflection, both of which are the result of the influence of countless individuals, my awesome little brother included. The one thing I wanted to achieve with this talk is to share how we are connected to the fashion industry in such a way that helps us each recognize our own power to contribute to it, and hopefully in doing so we'll inspire the entrepreneurs who will provide clarity on sustainability so that together we can build the future of fashion.
Onward in collaboration and kindness.
To learn more about my work with Aesthetic Ventures, connect with us via our website.