Elizabeth Cline

Elizabeth Cline Credit: Matt Roth Photo

After journalist Elizabeth Cline, 31, of Bedford Stuyvesant, purchased seven pairs of $7 shoes from Kmart, she started to wonder: Why did she, like so many Americans, have so many clothes, yet never anything to wear that she truly adored? She began to investigate the economic, environmental and ethical implications of our love affair with cut rate clothes, documenting the loss of American jobs and individual style. She will be signing the new book that resulted from her research, "Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," 7 p.m. Thursday, June 21 at the Powerhouse Arena, 37 Main St., Brooklyn.

Q You make an analogy between fast fashion and fast food. Are you telling people not to shop at all in the H&Ms, Old Navy, Gaps and Forever 21s?

A No. But if you do shop there, shop carefully, and take care of what you have: Don't treat your clothes like they're disposable. I just refashioned an Old Navy shirt I've had for five years. Stores like H& M and Forever 21 are really driving consumption. If they had their way, we'd be buying a new garment every single day. Clothing is the second largest consumer sector behind food and Americans spend $1,100 per person per year on clothing. We buy 20 billion garments a year -64 garments apiece! That's an average of about $17 per garment, but it includes things like socks. These stores sell trends, orchestrating and changing the trends in unison. If you buy these things, you'll be out of style in a few months. I'm not telling people not to be fashionable. I'm telling them to have the courage to develop their own style, have their own look.

Q You make a good case that "fast fashion" is bad for workers, the environment and even our economy. But as you point out, the cost of luxury fashion doubled between 1998 and 2008, putting couture out of the reach of all but the very wealthiest women. What's a style-conscious girl to do?

A I'm a big advocate of sustainable designers and absolutely a locavore when it comes to fashion. Fortunately, that scene is flourishing everywhere, but especially in New York. Auralis, Feral Childe and Samantha Pleet are all designers who make an effort to recycle or up cycle materials and make great, midpriced clothes. Nanette Lepore makes most of her clothes right here in New York and there's a retailer, Kaight, who brings together all these designers in her stores on Orchard Street and Atlantic Avenue. I also shop vintage and thrift stores and refashion almost everything I own. That provides variety, which is what I think a lot of shoppers want. I don't expect people to have only five things in their closet.

Q What American clothing habits most need to be changed?

A Take care of what you have and invest in well-made pieces when you can. Support independent and local designers that work in the U.S.  There’s not just one way to practice sustainability. You can shop second hand and vintage and learn buy a sewing machine, like I did. Cultivate relationships with tailors and seamstresses for the work you can’t do: It will change your life! Those hours you spent in stores you’ll be using to cultivate relationships in your community and building your own personal style. 

Also - shop your closet! Stop buying more of the same things. If you have 10 tank tops, figure out what’s wrong with the ones you have and fix them. I had 15 pairs of jeans and seven of them were skinny black jeans. They’re in storage now because I’m going to pile them all up in a pie and take a picture of it all to remember where I was.

Q But don’t garment workers in Bangladesh, China, India and Indonesia need jobs, too – perhaps even more than U.S. workers?

A A garment worker in China may or may not be working in a sweat shop, but she is certainly making poverty wages. It’s much easier to keep an eye on labor practices in the U.S. And the workers here are forced to lower their wages in response, eliminating what used to be a lifeline for immigrants in the U.S. Buying from fair-trade, unionized factories is the perfect  solution for buying basics such as underwear, tee-shirts and socks. The demand for fair trade clothes is a nascent movement: Consumers have to demand that as an option, but I’m hoping we have lots more fair trade labels in things like socks.

Q Are discounters such as TJ Maxx, Daffy’s and Marshall’s part of the problem or the solution? 

A The department stores have been in markdown wars for the last three decades. Increasingly, the mid-priced bridge lines available even cheaper at discounters puts pressure on the brands to make their products even cheaper. Eventually, the products themselves have to become cheaper, too.  The fashion industry is not thinking about the life cycle of their products at all. And almost all the clothing made to day is poorly made, which is why the resale value of the clothing has plummeted. It’s very hard for the textile recycler to make money now because the quality of the discards is so poor. People in Africa and other markets now have very sophisticated tastes in fashion now: They don’t want our shoddy, stained cast offs. And so many clothes are now made from “Franken fibers” that come from China they’re impossible to separate for fiber re-use or recycle into things like industrial wiping rags.

Q How has discovering the seamy side of fashion changed you personally?

A I started writing this book after I got laid off in 2008 when it seemed like everyone in the country had gone on a decade-long buying binge. The clothing industry was a great barometer of and metaphor for what happened to our structural economy.  There was a super high end and a super low end, but no middle class. I was motivated by dissatisfaction. I owned so much clothing, and yet I didn’t like it. When I started writing the book, I wasn’t particularly well dressed. But now I repurpose or refashion almost everything I buy and work with a couple of seamstresses in Brooklyn. I have people ask me where I get my clothes! I really love and appreciate clothing now: I didn’t before.

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