The Antidote to Fast Fashion? System Dressing
Jill Giordano makes women’s clothing with fine fabrics in timeless styles, and in combinations that can be mixed and matched in multiple ways. The goal: Improve your look, save the planet, and save money.
By LAURA FRASER
Jill Giordano, an independent clothing designer, likes to tell the story of the Pants Machine. One day a man strolled into gr.dano, the boutique she operates in Sausalito, a small town just north of San Francisco. He walked to her workshop in the back, where she was working amidst mannequins, sewing machines, hundreds of bolts of fabric, and a very long cutting table.
The man was interested in investing in some high-tech fabric, and wanted Giordano’s professional opinion.
“How will it do when they feed it into the machine?” he asked, showing her a scrap of fabric.
The average American discards 90 pounds of clothing a year. Despite the earnest efforts of the Goodwill and clothing recyclers, most of it goes to landfills.
“What machine?” Giordano replied.
“The machine that makes the pants.” The man assumed that making clothing was so automated that you just spooled a bolt of fabric into a machine and, as in a Dr. Seuss book, pants popped out the other side.
“There’s no pants machine,” Giordano tells me over coffee, shaking her head. “People don’t realize that every piece of clothing you wear was made by hand. Sure, those hands use machines to sew, but someone made the pattern, cut the fabric, sewed, steamed, and physically touched every piece. It’s completely hand-made.”
Luxury brands have now consolidated under two or three mega-companies—a phenomenon that has made even couture fashion look homogenized. As the giants roll out new styles, H&M and Zara copy their runway looks, spitting them out in stores faster than even the original designers can.
Clothes have become so ubiquitous in U.S. culture, and often so cheap as to be nearly disposable, that we forget that making clothing, of any kind, remains a manual process—and a craft. Unlike the days when people were fitted for their clothes, and owned few of them, many consumers today are caught up in the constant churn of fashion, buying quantities of clothes that are made to be trendy, not to last. While the average price of consumer goods in the U.S. has risen 120% since 1986, over that same period the cost of clothing has only risen 20 percent. When adjusted for inflation, prices have plummeted.
Most of us have so much stuff now that a whole new industry has formed just to help us deal with it. There are tools for organizing closets, magazines urging us to return to the simple life; and bestsellers such as Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up take on the monumental task of getting rid of all the excess that doesn’t “spark joy.” It’s not a good sign when we get to the point of needing therapy for retail therapy. But we do. The average American discards 90 pounds of clothing a year. Despite the earnest efforts of the Goodwill and clothing recyclers, most of it goes to landfills. (See “Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis,” a landmark story in Newsweek written by Alden Wicker, one of our other Fashion writers.)
While people in other countries have comparatively small wardrobes, wear an outfit for days on end, and keep pieces for years, Americans are used to an endlessly revolving wardrobe, and we look askance at someone showing up to work two days in a row in the same outfit, or wearing last season’s dress at an event.
Artisanal clothing is catching on among the same people who like to know where their food comes from—those who shop at farmer’s markets and eat at farm-to-table restaurants. “People want to buy more interesting pieces that are made more consciously, that are going to last.”
With all of fashion’s constantly changing trends, most of the clothes in the U.S. end up having a remarkably similar look. This is partly because luxury brands have consolidated under two or three mega-companies—a phenomenon that has made even couture fashion look homogenized. The biggest of these, $130-billion LMVH of France, owns Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Celine, Givenchy and DKNY, just to name a few. Coming in second is $114-billion Inditex, which owns Zara; and Britain’s $47-billion Kering owns Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, and others.
As the giants roll out new styles, their fast-fashion subsidiaries, and other big houses such as H&M, copy their runway looks, spitting them out in stores faster than even the original designers can manage—at prices that reflect cheap materials, cheap workmanship and extremely low, outsourced labor costs. No wonder people think clothes are made by robots.
“Things really do all look the same,” says Simon Ungless, Executive Director of the Academy of Art’s School of Fashion in San Francisco. “The top brands use the same factories, fabrics, and finishing, and then the H&Ms and Zaras cannibalize them.”
For one competition Giordano and her partner found an old linen tablecloth and some other fabric in a dumpster. Giordano then used the material to design a trench coat that was auctioned off for $1,500.
It’s not surprising, then, that fast fashion is now creating a backlash, with more people seeking out artisanal, quality clothing. Buyers seem to be slowly realizing that while these clothes may be more expensive, they typically have more character and fewer of fast fashion’s hidden costs (not only the exploitations of child labor but also an increase in toxic synthetics, landfill waste, deforestation and other environmental damage). The result is a renewed interest in smaller designers, like Giordano, and the prospect of locally-made clothing that has more creative style.
Ungless is based in San Francisco but has worked with top designers in London, including Alexander McQueen, and he says the artisanal clothing trend is catching on among the same people who like to know where their food comes from—those who shop at farmer’s markets and eat at farm-to-table restaurants. “People want to know their farmer, and they want to know their designer,” he says. “They want to buy more interesting pieces that are made more consciously, special pieces that are going to last.”
But small-batch designers face challenges that organic farmers and restauranteurs don’t have to worry about. “There’s a huge industry to support food and farming,” Ungless says. “Fashion designers don’t have the same infrastructure and support in terms of manufacturing, textiles, and distribution. All the things designers need have been driven off-shore over the last 30-40 years.” Small shops have trouble finding local sewers, for instance, and their labor costs are exponentially higher than those who outsource overseas. Yet they have to compete with the low prices that shoppers find online or at the mall, and sell to customers who don’t necessarily understand quality when they see it, unless it carries a recognizable designer label.
Like most Americans, I am guilty of having too many clothes. Where the average woman in the 1930s had nine outfits, I have nine black dresses alone, each in a slightly different fabric and length. I love the way clothes can express a mood or brighten a day, dislike the lazy trend of wearing hoodies and yoga pants all day, and appreciate the Italians’ sensibility of dressing up out of respect for the public. But too often clothes hang unworn in my closet, or get donated to charity or sent to a consignment shop after wearing them only a couple times—especially the cheap ones, or ones I bought on sale that weren’t quite right.
My attitude about clothes changed the day, about five years ago, that I walked into a small designer collective in San Francisco and met Giordano. After browsing the clothes on her racks—well-cut, architectural pieces with interesting drape that might fetch $300-400 with a high-end designer label—I toured her workshop and saw what was involved in taking a garment from idea to execution.
Giordano has been designing and sewing clothing since she was young—because she’s always loved fashion, and, at 5’1” and bird-boned, she’s always been too small for most clothes. Although not a big name, she’s a frequent winner of local accolades. One year, she won a sustainable clothing contest that required competitors to create a garment from discarded materials. Giordano and her partner found an old linen tablecloth and some other fabric in a dumpster and Giordano used the material to design a trench coat that was auctioned off for $1,500.
Unlike many clothing designers, Giordano does everything—she designs patterns, makes samples, cuts fabric, creates her own website, does her own shipping and marketing, and prepares for trade shows—with nothing more than the help of an intern and her partner (who has his own full-time job).
During one of my visits to Giordano’s workshop, she pulled a coatdress from her rack and urged me to try it on. Made of a durable ponte fabric, it’s at once fashion-forward and timeless, tailored and easy. After studying how it hung on my body, she pinned a few adjustments, tailoring it to fit me perfectly. I bought it on the spot. The coatdress is both unusual and a statement. Whenever I wear it, I not only get compliments, I take over the room. If I need to look professional, there’s no arguing with that coatdress, even after five years. Contrast that to the time, when I was freelancing for Vogue, that I spent my entire rent on a designer suit to fit in at the magazine’s New York offices; within a year, the look was out of style.
“You have to sell about $1 million a year to make an average living,” Giordano says. “You’re making $500K but with the cost of the garment, $10K trade shows, rent, marketing, and other overhead, it starts to whittle down really quickly.”
Giordano’s clothing hearkens back to an era when clothing was made more deliberately, to last. “I love to vintage shop, and it makes me sad that clothes are so cheap now that in a few years we won’t have any vintage clothing, they’ll just fall apart,” she says. “Think of the quality of dresses made in the 1930s and 40s that are still intact. I like to make clothes like that.”
To do so, Giordano steers clear of the day’s trends, aiming instead for the timeless. “I make things that are unique,” she says, “that you can wear today or 15 years from now.” And for many occasions. “If you have a few versatile pieces you love that fit you well, you have a core wardrobe, and only need occasional replacement items,” she says. “You don’t need eight variations of something.”
Giordano’s approach fits in with a new element of the anti-fast fashion movement that’s sometimes called a “capsule wardrobe.” Also referred to as “system dressing,” the idea is to limit yourself to a select combination of clothes that go well together—so much so, in fact, that their sum is greater than their parts. As an example, three years ago I took only a few of Giordano’s pieces in a carry-on for a three-week trip–a dress, tunic vest, tunic top, leggings, and a duster-length coat. The trip included bicycling and giving a presentation in front of 600 people (the soft coat even doubled as a bathrobe at an inn where the bathroom was down the hall). I could pack the same pieces today because I still wear them; despite many washings, they’ve held up fine.
Despite Giordano’s talents, she has struggled mightily, sometimes having to make sacrifices that go against her principles. In a sense, her business is a bridge between a local hobby shop and a large, national brand; she designs two collections a year, which she sells in her own shop and in about 50 other boutiques around the country. To survive the upheaval in today’s retail world, she focuses on small operations. “Big brick and mortar retail is going away, because that can be replaced online,” Giordano says. “But the one-on-one store owner helping you pick an outfit, styling it, making sure it fits—people still crave that.”
Giordano stays in business largely because she works all the time, even bagging and boxing her clothes to mail off herself. And her decision to keep her operation in the U.S. hasn’t exactly made things easier. Her fabric, milled to order in Los Angeles, is not cheap. And, in order to personally supervise the sewing process, she has to use a small factory in San Francisco, which is one of the most expensive cities in the country. Despite those costs, she still has to keep her prices down—just to sell enough to make ends meet. “You have to basically sell about $1 million a year to make an average living. You’re making $500K but with the cost of the garment, $10K trade shows, rent, marketing, and other overhead, it starts to whittle down really quickly.” For the amount of time she puts in, Giordano would easily make more money working for someone else.
As part of the trend toward “conscious consumerism,” a few clothing lines have tried to be upfront about costs like these, in an effort to follow yet another trend—greater transparency. Everlane, a mostly online retailer, now shows consumers that its products don’t have a lot of middle-man markups, and it includes photos of its factories on its website. Still, Everlane’s clothes are inexpensive largely because those factories are in Asia, where despite photos of smiling workers people are paid extremely low wages. How else does the company sell a $25 dress? “It’s still slave labor,” Giordano says. To test Everlane’s quality, I purchased a shirt from the company myself. It fit badly and the fabric was obviously flimsy. But it was cheap. Yet even for its price, a mere $28, I wasn’t certain I was getting my money’s worth.
Elizabeth Suzann is another small, artisanal designer, based in Nashville, once broke down the cost of her $185 silk blouse: $63.16 to produce, resulting in $121.84 in gross profit.
That seems expensive at first glance, but it turns out that her operating costs eat up the bulk of her profit: $103.34. That leaves $18.50 in her pocket. Yes, she could find cheaper silk (or use synthetics, cheaper still, but she won’t for environmental reasons). In order to maintain quality, Suzann uses a heavier grade silk (“almost twice the weight of silk you’ll find at Everlane or in nice department stores”), prewashes the fabric and reinforces the seams (fast fashion brands typically do neither), and employs local seamstresses who sew a garment from start to finish. To get careful work, she pays $16.25 an hour (minimum wage in Tennessee is 7.25/hour, and the national average for garment work is $11.09/hour). All that is before she has added the cost of marketing, overhead, health benefits, office supplies, and so on.
Suddenly, a $185 blouse starts to look like a pretty good deal. Now let’s look at its costs—to you—in the long run. “A $10 H&M tank that loses a strap after three wears is a $3.33/wear investment,” Suzann says. For comparison, she points to a pair of pants from her line that retails for a whopping $245. Over the past two years, she says, she has worn these pants more than 100 times. “They’re currently at $2.45/wear,” she says, “and have at least two more years left in them.”
The same is true of my favorite blue dress from Giordano. It cost about $160, but in the four years since I bought it I bet I’ve worn that dress 40 times. That comes to $4 per wear, and there’s still plenty of life in it. Compare that to a dress I bought online, on sale for $100. As soon as I got it I saw that it was made cheaply, and I’ve worn it exactly twice: $50 per wear. I bought another dress for $238 around the same time, by Eileen Fisher, a big name that aims at a similar demographic as Elizabeth Suzann or Giordano, even emphasizing organic and sustainable clothing. After wearing and washing it about 20 times, the dress is now shapeless and pilling. Real cost: more than $10 a wear. Suddenly the concept of owning fewer clothes but paying a lot more for them starts making sense, just in economic terms.
Giordano has had to constantly strategize how to keep making the tailored, architectural clothes she loves, and how to sell them at a sustainable scale. She used to line all her clothes, put in complicated facings to make them lie perfectly, and tailor them with shoulder pads, but she’s found that people don’t want clothes they have to dry clean. “I’ve adjusted to easy-care clothes, but it’s still high-quality fabric. I want the person to have it for a long time, and wear it many ways,” she says. “But I’m sneaking back into more tailoring.”
During one of my visits to Giordano’s shop, when I comment about how much hard work her business seems to entail, Giordano nods . “It’s a crazy amount of labor,” she says. “That’s why when I see an H&M shirt or dress for five bucks, it makes me insane. How is that even physically possible?”
As I look around her boutique, I start thinking about the amount of human time that went into each garment—the hands holding every seam, sewing every button, cutting every piece of fabric. The quality here stirs a familiar feeling—the desire for something new, a cute skirt, another ¾-sleeve tunic top. But then all the effort and resources devoted to these items sinks in, and I think, I have enough right now. I should wear the clothes I already have, especially the ones made well enough to last for years.