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From Vogue to the Wardrobe Crisis: Our Interview with Clare Press

illustration of clare press
Clare Press

Sustainable fashion advocate and host of the hugely popular Wardrobe Crisis podcast, Clare Press, understands the impact fashion has on the environment and the importance of sustainable choices. In this exclusive interview, Clare discusses her evolution from Vogue writer to podcaster, how the fashion industry can become more responsible, and how readers can join her in consuming more consciously. With a wealth of knowledge and a passion for her mission, Clare has created a global conversation on sustainable fashion that is accessible, relatable and actionable for all. So join us and dive into Clare’s world: a world of planet positive fashion, education and encouragement.

Olivia Baba/NKM: Hi, Clare! It’s so lovely to meet you, and thank you so much for chatting with me. You’re such a leader in sustainability and journalism, so my first question is, how did you even learn about sustainability before it was truly in the public eye?
Clare Press: That’s a nice question, thank you. It’s interesting when I started connecting the fashion industry with human rights and its impact on the environment, it was a very niche area. There were obviously leading voices like British journalist Lucy Siegel, who wrote To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? back in 2008. And Fashion Revolution, which began around the time that I started to worry about fashion’s impact on people and the planet. It wasn’t like nobody was looking into this; people were aware of sweatshop issues, for example. Getting the information was possible, but getting it out there was difficult in my lane because I worked for Vogue.

At that time, there was no coverage of sustainability in glossy magazines or luxury media. It was an uphill battle. I would say that has changed since I’ve left mainstream media. 

For sure. What pushed you toward sustainability?
Well, I was disgusted by the negative impacts of the industry that I loved. There was nothing to do but make that my focus. I don’t actually understand how you can find that out and ignore it. I spent 15 years working in magazines. And it was exciting to interview a famous person or whatever it was–but the glamour of fashion had really seduced me. I had not made the connection about its potential dark side.

When the Rana Plaza factory disaster happened in April 2013, I was shocked to discover that making clothes was linked to that. When I watched those images on the news, read the headlines that more than 1,000 people were killed, I was horrified. I was like “how did I not know that these connections existed?” How was that possible? It changed my focus as a journalist, for sure. 

rana plaza collapse in clare press interview

I’d love to discuss your book, Rise and Resist. It discusses activism and how we can feel inspired to take initiative in our own lives. What role does activism play in the fashion community, and what steps can we take on an individual level to promote sustainability?
Isn’t it interesting how fashion and activism have come together in recent years? Apart from a few genuine icons, like British fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett, generally speaking, fashion people weren’t activists. 

There is an inherent tension between those two ideas of being a consumer and being an activist. Yet something very exciting has been happening recently, where those two things have come together. Thanks to the fantastic work done by organizations like Remake and Fashion Revolution, many consumers have started to recognize the agency they have when making decisions about what they buy. They start to think of themselves as activists. So I do see a role for the fashion activist.

I think it’s a fantastic idea for two reasons: one is that it’s accessible to anyone. Anyone who cares about something can say that they’re going to be an advocate for change or they’re going to push for change and fast. And the second is that fashion is a fantastic communication medium. Because even though it’s got all this tension behind it, at its core, it’s also about consuming and trends. But I like that too. I like that space of uncertainty. I think it’s interesting. It’s a soft entry, so you can have challenging conversations through softer entries, and I believe that the arts in general, allow for that.

extinction rebellion on Dior runway
Extinction Rebellion activist on the Dior runway

How can fashion activism combat the persistence of fast fashion? And do they have to be mutually exclusive because so many people still buy fast fashion? 
They’re not mutually exclusive. I’ve just written a new book (coming out in October) on the future of fashion. One of my inspirations was an episode of Wardrobe Crisis  I did with two American journalists who’d been researching Shein for Rest of World, which is an independent publication that looks at the intersection of digital culture and tech. They’d [the journalists had] spent six months buying loads of stuff off the Shein site for a story, and they’d figured out the designs had been ripped off from TikTok and other platforms.

They were investigating, How many styles are posted each day? What’s the volume really look like? How quickly does Shein get this stuff onto the site? And where do they get the designs from? The spoiler is… they scrape the internet for inspiration, which basically means they steal it. So I asked [the journalists], what is happening with young women? What’s your perspective on that divide [between fast fashion and sustainability]? Are people either buying ultra-fast fashion or slow fashion? And they said, ‘both!’ Those two totally different approaches happen in the same wardrobes.

That makes sense, right? Very few people are purists when it comes to ethical choices. We either slip up or decide that it’s too hard. Or we’ll pick our battles. For example, we’ll reduce our plastic pollution, but give up on reducing our carbon footprint because it’s too hard. I think that’s very human. And so, to answer your question: there is no simple answer as to who is buying ultra-fast fashion, and we shouldn’t shame people for deciding to buy what they can afford.

 It’s hard to be only one or the other, and I think that’s why it can be such a tough entry point for people because they think they have to be all in or they’re not good enough. And I think it’s a challenge because of that.
There’s a British journalist, Besma Whayeb, who has a blog called Curiously Conscious, and she has a directory of fast fashion brands where she talks about the issues behind them. And, she was saying something recently that I keep hearing people say with increasing force and impact: it’s not up to the consumer to make the change, it’s brands that need to change the system.

Three things work in concert: consumers, brands, and legislation. We need all three to change this system. It can’t just be all about the choices you make as a shopper.

Wardrobe Crisis podcast logo t-shirt by Clare Press

What does having Wardrobe Crisis –this podcast and platform mean to you? And why did you feel that this was a natural next step?
I absolutely love it! I created it because at the time, nobody would let me interview, for long-form pieces, the people that I wanted to talk to: scientists, economists, people who had invented new fabrics. There was no space for that in the magazines I was working for. But I really wanted to talk to those people, and I thought, if I want to, I’m sure other people would love to hear from them too. 

Vogue is not the space for a six-page, deep story about the post-growth economist Tim Jackson. You might read that in the New Yorker, but I needed more space to do what I wanted to do, so I made my own space. Ten years ago, I may have been a blogger, but taking pix of myself never appealed to me. The podcast format appeals to me. I love the intimacy of audio and how you can get into deep convos with guests. I’ve been doing it for five years now, and we have regular listeners who I love to hear from. 

Something I’m curious about because you moved from writing and writing books to your podcast: Do you think the future of writing, fashion writing, is more oral and auditory than written? And how can we democratize information?
Such a good question. I think there will always be space for the written word. Apparently, we have shrinking attention spans. There’s this horrendous app called Blinkest that condenses Great Books into a tiny little bit of information. That, to me, is horrific! The joy of reading is to savor the time it takes. So, I can’t imagine we will ever move entirely away from the written word. But the media is kidding itself if it continues to stay static. Lots of magazine seem locked into the old ways of presenting content simply because that’s how they’ve always done it. It’s ridiculous.

If you’re in the media, you need to move where your audience moves. So, maybe you need to move into TikTok. You need to fund the next generation of journalists and writers and communicators to deliver fantastic content in new ways. I’m not frustrated anymore because I’ve left that world, but I used to find it enormously frustrating that there was no budget for new forms of storytelling. I don’t think print will ever die, but if you are a young creative starting out, you do not need to worry if print is not your thing or the written word is not your area. There are so many ways to tell stories.

Book cover for Post Growth Life After Capitalism by Tim Jackson

Which episode [on the podcast] or person surprised you? Or what information that you learned surprised you? 
I do have a favorite ‘pinch-me’ moment episode. The chance to speak with Tim Jackson because I spent two and a half years trying to convince him to do it. And, because I think that topic is very timely. He wrote a book called Post Growth: Life after Capitalism. He told me that even in the last couple of years, he’s been asked to speak at events where he would not have been previously. And we’ve also seen the fashion community talk about post-growth. 

Also, in every series, I interview new fashion graduates. I love that because I learn so much from them. You don’t have to be the storied expert at the end of your career, with all the accolades piling up, for us to learn from you. I really like hearing what new perspectives young designers have.

I love that. Switching gears to something more general –How do you personally define sustainability? And what do you search for when purchasing sustainable products?
We can define sustainability as an umbrella term that covers the fashion system, its environmental impact, and its relationship with the people who make our clothes.

Obviously, there’s a lot more nuance underneath that umbrella. We are moving into the next phase of the language around it. We’ve been seeing so much fear over and scrutiny of greenwashing. “Sustainability,” the word itself, I suspect, will fall out of common usage because it’s not specific enough. However, I still find it useful because we need to speak a language that people understand. And when we say sustainability, people go: “Oh, people and planet… I get it”.

I think in the future, brands and journalists will need to be more specific and talk about whatever facet of the sustainability conversation they mean – whether that’s regenerative agriculture or the debate around living wages. 

How do I decide what to buy? That’s easy: I don’t buy anything, because I’ve got too many clothes! Actually, that’s not true, because we all buy things. I advise spending a few minutes doing a bit of Googling and researching the brand you’re considering shopping with. And, shop local. Buy from independent [brands]. That doesn’t mean they will be perfect, but if you find one that you like, and they’re talking about sustainability on their website, I would trust that more than big brands. 

Related to what you said, what are some of your best tips to avoid greenwashing, or how do you investigate whether a brand is greenwashing?
It’s much more difficult than we give it credit for. It’s very trendy to call out greenwashing. People are concerned about greenwashing – it is emotional. To be duped, to have your trust violated. It makes you feel indignant, and it’s an injustice. So that’s why people are so interested in the topic of greenwashing.

A lot of nuance behind this is not being unpacked particularly well. Are we going to reach a point where brands can’t speak about their sustainability initiatives for fear of being called out for greenwashing? It’s important for brands [to talk about sustainability initiatives]. I think legislators should crack down on misleading claims, and it’s been too easy for brands to say everything’s sustainable without being able to back it up. But I also think we’re getting into murky territory now, where the fear of being called out for greenwashing might stop good people from talking about their initiatives. And if you can’t market something, you won’t do it. So you’ll stop.

That’s a point that I hadn’t previously thought about. It is so nuanced, and it’s hard. Considering your sustainability guidelines is essential because everyone approaches it differently. What technology or innovation in fashion and sustainability do you see as the next big thing or something you are very interested in right now?
I have just been writing about biotech because it’s intriguing, the new materials space. I also co-produce another podcast for the United Nations called Ethical Fashion, which is part of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. But anyway, I have this wonderful Italian co-host, and we interviewed Claire Bergkamp, CEO of Textile Exchange. She pointed out that these new biotech innovations account for only a tiny percentage of what we’re producing clothes from today. So, while it’s exciting to talk about biotech and gaze into a future when we could grow materials with very limited environmental impact, we’re so far off it.

Mycelium leather next to mushrooms on wood background
“mushroom leather”

When will we hit a point where they will mass-produce with these materials?
It comes down to investment. For example, a consortium of forward-thinking brands has supported Mylo, Bolt Threads’ mycelium-derived leather alternative. Big brands need to get together to fund these things; there’s so much possibility with these fantastical new materials but let’s face it – we’re not moving away from polyester and cotton.

Polyester accounts for more than half [of total fabrics used]. And conventional cotton is about a quarter. I think that what it’s going to take to change the fashion industry is, increasingly, people [affluent people] are feeling overwhelmed by how much stuff they’ve got. People will just not want to live a consumer’s lifestyle. That’s already happening on the fringes of society, but I think it’s becoming more mainstream.

–Olivia Baba

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