Rising to the Creativity Occasion
By Jemma Keleher
The fashion industry often sits at the center of culture as we know it, and, along with that influential position, has visibly been impacted by recent changes in the attitude and lifestyle of consumers. The effect of clothing on the environment has come under scrutiny, forcing designers to rethink the way they produce their work. In addition, the current pandemic has shifted the workflow of these creatives almost entirely. As we watch these design seniors walk across the digital graduation stage, we also witness them stepping forward into an industry at a turning point.
One stone the fashion industry is turning over is the fight for sustainability in clothing. Fast fashion has emerged as a point of contention, forcing consumers to decide between cheap, trendy clothing and well-made, often more expensive pieces from designers. But every low dollar spent on these cheap pieces comes with an additional cost: the impact fast fashion has on the Earth.
According to Chia Thao, one of the students in the University of Minnesota’s apparel design program, “The rise of fast fashion allows consumers to accept the lesser quality of garments at an affordable price, regardless of the environmental impact.” These cheap pieces tend to come from factories overseas, often in places where low wages and lax labor laws allow workers to be exploited.
In a world where trends come and go like passersby, the quick production of new products in these factories also promotes fast fashion. “I like to think of fast fashion as a quick way to throw away old merchandise when new trends came in. That’s a problem that has created a lot of waste in the fashion industry,” says Thao.
But as awareness of issues surrounding these practices becomes more widespread, designers have undertaken the role of creating in a more sustainable way. “[The industry] is focusing on making the fashion industry safer in terms of sustainability. More and more people, current and upcoming designers, pay more attention to helping the environment than in the past,” says Thao.
Another change in the fashion industry has come about largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic: digitization of almost all operations. As it has become unsafe to perform any business in person, many designers turn to digitized versions of their practices. This virtual format encompasses every aspect of the process, including designing, modeling, and selling their work.
In March of 2020, when lockdowns were first introduced and the world was in a frenzy to navigate the new norm, the fashion industry faced similar challenges to businesses across the world. With the absence of face-to-face contact, how could operations continue?
But, according to Thao, business persisted with a little bit of creativity. “The industry didn’t stop entirely, and an example of that is Paris fashion week. They didn’t stop the show, but instead found another way to show the collection: videography.”
One year after the first lockdown, as the pandemic persists, it appears that the industry may sustain practices like these farther into the future than originally imagined. The benefits of digitization are clear, and may seep into practices even after in person operations are allowed to resume.
Xilin Yang, another student in the apparel design program, recognizes the benefits of the virtual realm. “I think in the future, the fashion industry will develop toward e-commerce, especially using social media. I have seen the importance of online channels through this pandemic,” she says. “Traditional retail businesses were severely hit, while brands with mature online businesses were less affected.”
This digitization has also impacted the students in the apparel design program, as they were moved from in person classes to conducting their projects through computerized programs from home. “The majority of my senior collection was done on the computer, including patterning, grading, and so on,” says Thao.
But this learning curve wasn’t unaided, as they worked within a group of talented students and professors to adapt to this sudden change. “We have tutorials provided by our professor, and after knowing the basics it becomes easy. It is definitely way more efficient than drawing by hand,” says Yang.
Yang even notes that there were many benefits to conducting her work digitally. “The best thing about it is it shows what the garment looks like on the avatar, so I can adjust everything before cutting,” she says. “From this experience I learned how to make digital patterns, which I think is more sustainable than hand drawing.”
This transition to a new format didn’t deter the seniors in the program, and they successfully navigated the virtual programming in order to create their collections. While it took learning a variety of new programs and getting more creative than ever before, they produced pieces that reflect their trademarks as designers and as visionaries.
In fact, Thao’s designs are largely inspired by the new working style many have adapted to during the pandemic. “The concept of my designs is to provide comfort to my user. The pandemic has impacted many people in ways of working from home, so I tried to create clothes that are comfortable, appropriate enough to wear during work time, and multi-use,” she says. “The collection can be worn in and out, and be casual or formal wear as well. My designs are meant to provide the user with multiple options,” Thao says. “They can wear them to workout, to run to the grocery store, etc. They can also be layered with other pieces.” This flexibility reflects the lifestyle of operating from home and the transition to brighter days.
For Yang, femininity and whimsicality are apparent in her collection. “My collection is inspired by the wide variety of feminine experiences, expressed in the texture of the ruffling throughout,” she says. “There is a sense of airiness and an ethereal vibe that is empowering and free spirited. These are dresses for the modern woman who dares to express her individuality and independence. I also made my collection with care and designed to fit many different body types.”
After spending months creating these collections, the designers highlight the importance of supporting work that is made with care. “The amount of time and work that was put into the product is the value that makes that product stand out,” says Thao. “Therefore, it is essential to value designers time and work that they put into their work as a consumer.”
Yang also notes that she as a consumer values sustainability practices when shopping for clothing. “I love to spend more money on pieces that are made in a sustainable way. I like to support those designers who are making efforts to change the situation of the fashion industry and the pollution it creates,” she says.
She continues by saying, “I believe my small actions can make some difference to the industry, and also make those designers feel supported. As for myself, by stopping buying fast fashion, I found that I value my clothes more and will wear them for a longer time.” Yang is an example of someone who creates clothing with care and also consumes consciously, recognizing the impact that her dollars have.
As they step forward into the industry, these students have a bright outlook for the future of the fashion industry and the changes taking place. “I hope in the future people can slow their pace and make their purchasing decisions more carefully. If more and more people join the army of sustainability, I believe the fashion industry will change,” says Yang.
These seniors present their final projects with pride and look forward to stepping into their careers after graduation. As they do so, they bring with them both a new perspective on sustainability and a better understanding of the possibilities of digitization. These assets will undoubtedly be invaluable as the industry continues its transformation, and will assist the University of Minnesota’s designers in changing the future of fashion.