American Vogue's Sustainable Sally Singer

By: - Yetunde Schuhmann

Conversations with Fashion Innovators: Sally Singer

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down for an intimate lunch with Fashion News and Features Director for American Vogue, Sally Singer. Sally was in town to interview Google’s Marissa Mayer and graciously accepted my invitation to chat about fashion, the recession, and of course the role that sustainability plays for the industry.

During the course of the interview I was captivated by Sally’s passion for the industry, as well her keen dedication to being socially and environmentally responsible in fashion. As she recently stated in her [November 2009] Vogue story, “Salad Days”: “ I love my Deep Green Living directory-where to buy toys, cat supplies, eco-friendly lunchboxes, nontoxic pest care toys)’oh, no; groans my husband)- and I love feeling that little bit more empowered. I may not be living with houseplants but I’m that much closer to the Emerald City.”

Sally is not your typical fashionista.

In fact she made of point of noting to me, “I feel like I’m very, very lucky. A friend of mine, who is an editor, said something like, ‘for girls, getting to go to the Paris shows is like getting to play for the NFL’, and that’s pretty good! I certainly have a job that links up with my things that I care about. I never thought anyone would pay me to care about those things.

Educated at UC Berkeley and later Yale, Singer was originally on a career path in academia but somehow found herself in the world of fashion and magazines. Over a good hearty meal with the best-made Arnold Palmer in town (no salads for these two fashion gals) we began our conversation.

- Yetunde Schuhmann is President and Founder of The Innovative Fashion Council San Francisco

YS: How do you think fashion will weather the recession?

SS: I think that fashion and style is relevant regardless of the economy. Style is almost more relevant now as it’s something that people can do for themselves as a pick-me-up. It’s something that helps them imagine a more interesting world; it helps people think differently about their culture and their time. All sorts of examples of the best style have come out of stricken times.

Within the industry it’s been a tough year and will continue to be for some time. I’ve read that there are some good signs ahead. People will have to think and work a little differently, but that’s not always a bad thing. The hard truth is that people who are very talented might be shuttered this year. It’s a real shame to see Christian Lacroix going into bankruptcy proceedings in Paris, and almost on the same day see Veronique Branquinho shutting her business. These are two immensely talented people with enormous conviction who shouldn’t have done anything any differently, but the system hasn’t worked for them at this moment. So in that sense, I don’t think the shake out is a great thing because it means that only the best will survive. I think a lot of really great people are having a really hard year and people who I don’t necessarily think have a lesson to learn from it. The same as people who are suffering from personal setbacks, they weren’t necessarily over-spending or living a false life, they were just trying to get by and a whole lot of things conspired against them.

I do think that fashion designers and companies will come out of this year with a different perspective on how they operate, how they control their production, how they control their wholesale network and hopefully the industry will be stronger for it.

YS: Do you think that because of the financial distress, it will affect the way designers will market themselves?

SS: Well advertising has taken a hit. Designers are not advertising the way they used to. Were those gorgeous campaigns and the number of them necessary? Shot by just a few photographers… It made fashion really exciting to people and made fashion a fun industry to be in. And a fun industry for the public to engage in. There’s not a designer out there right now, who’s not re-evaluating the way they market and merchandise their collections and how they put their message out there. The interesting thing is that because of there’s such knowledge of fashion. Before you didn’t have to work every day to have people be aware of your work.

When I started at Vogue, you kind of had to figure out how you were going to do it. Maybe there was a cable show that showed a bit of a runway show… The idea that you could know the name of a model that wore Look 12 at Prada was impossible, unless you were in the business. Now anyone can go online and see a show, and know that Natalia was opening the show, and get the details and see the bag up close. So there’s an incredible knowledge of fashion right now. So a lot of marketing just has to build on that. So I imagine things will be done differently in the way that people will position themselves.

Right now there’s so much emphasis in the industry on the pre-Fall. Right now, we’re starting to see Resort in New York and those collections are the real money-spinners for companies. They hit the stores in November and stay full price much longer than the traditional Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections. In the past these were seen as the ”real” clothes collections, not the catwalk ”follies.“ And I think there is more direction in them now than ever before. Because there is more scrutiny. They also, go into stores at the moment that people who are in the mood to spend, spend. So I think in the last few years there’s been a greater emphasis on pre-fall or pre-spring or resort and I think that will continue. And more companies doing that if they can, delivering into the stores four times and therefore not staking it all on two seasons. And if two seasons go drastically on sale they have double the opportunity to sell.

YS: The ultimate goal of the Innovative Fashion Council is to support more sustainable fashion design and practices. Do you think it is still only seen as a trend?

SS: I would hope it’s not just a trend, and that the economic crisis wouldn’t be a reversal and we’re still moving forward. There have been other trends in the fashion industry that challenged issues of sustainability. Those too were valid concepts.

Many, many other people have been heartened by the fast-fashion, the explosion of really directional, fun retail environments where clothes are extremely on target, on trend and affordable, and often designed by real luminaries in that market. I mean, I hear Jil Sander is doing clothes for Uniqlo and I hear the clothes are amazing. That said, the whole notion of fast-fashion is not exactly at one with the issues of sustainability. Do we need all those things for clothes we buy on Friday, to wear out at a club on Saturday and toss out by the next Friday? And where are they going? Those clothes may start to be made with organic fibers, made in different factories and made in line with ecological goals and a more conscious set of parameters. We’ve just seen this with Target and their collaboration with Loomstate. Rogan Gregory really pushed to have Target source differently.

I want people to buy the right things at the right price for the right reasons. But I understand designer fashion that is fairly priced, and made artisanally and directional and exciting. Designers like Rodarte, the Mulleavy sisters, and Isabel Toledo are making these amazingly beautiful clothes and these clothes are not inexpensive. And to many people it doesn’t make sense to wear a dress that costs $1,900. But on the other hand, she’s doing something incredibly sustainable. She’s wearing someone who sourced the fabrics properly, made it beautifully, worked on it by hand and paid her workers fairly. I want to encourage people not to spend more than they can afford, but to spend the right amount of money and wear it a lot. And when you’re done wearing it pass it down, rework it, figure out how to integrate it into the next thing they want to do, chop it up, even make it into pillows! I don’t know, but I want people to figure out how to work with their clothes in a more sustained way—whatever their clothes are, it may be the Loomstate Target collection—whatever! I just want them to love it beyond the moment they bought it.

YS: What about educating the designers in sustainable design concepts like William McDonough’s book “Cradle to Cradle?”

SS: We are seeing biodegradable shoes, not just Nike, where if you drop off your shoes, they’ll remake it into something else. So we’re seeing that. And designers, such as Stefano Pilati at YSL doing collections out of old fabrics he found around. He just launched that collection at Barneys New York. I think it’s a fantastic model for how luxury goods should be working right now. But I also think designers are receiving an enormous pressure from retailers and consumers to make things at a less expensive price point, to broaden their price points, to offer entry level price points. And often what that means is to go overseas and China’s environmental standards are not necessarily the best. It’s not necessarily the quality; the real issue is that a designer is trying to work to a sensitive way to their customer and to the world. And it’s an awful lot of balls in the air.

Some will say they’ll use an organic fabric, but if you don’t produce in an up-to-date factory with environmental standards, does it matter if it’s an organic fabric if you’re using chemicals to process it? Kind of, I don’t know but it’s like the set of decisions that we’re all facing in our everyday and I just think that the more everyone is conscious of those choices the better off we’ll be. And every designer out there is thinking that way. They know the customer understands the value of conscious production. It’s not yet at the same place as food, where people will buy the ugly but organic apple. Fashion people still want the nice looking thing. But they know that an ethical back-story adds value for consumers. Whether they can take all their impulses and put out a product that the consumer can afford remains to be seen. But, they’re all trying to. They think endlessly about sourcing, and they have to know fabrics are so expensive now.

And partly because a number of people working now are working at the top of their game are young people. They are part of a generation that grew up with an environmental consciousness. People such as Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler, Phillip Lim and Derek Lam - these guys don’t stand apart from their generation. So, no I don’t think

it’s a trend; it’s just going to take some time to sort itself out. Luckily there are a lot of people right now who know a lot about sourcing and the issues who are working in the industry right now, such as Rogan. As long as people continue to talk about it, it will be okay.

YS: Do you think that hosting a sustainability conference would be a good idea?

SS: It’s hard to get people to come. Designers are very busy these days, going to stores and connecting with the customers. Everyone knows the more designers are out in the stores, the better the sales are. I don’t think there has been a time where designers have worked more frenetically here in New York or in Europe. I know I did a panel for UCLA's Hammer Museum, where I brought together Rodarte's Kate Mulleavy, Adriano Goldschmied, Christina Kim and Tom Binns. They’re all artisanal designers. They found it was very useful for them to talk about the choices they have to make everyday.

YS: It seems as if there is a disconnect, people wanting to be sustainable and not knowing what to do?

SS: Certain questions can be answered by others, such as “I need a source in Peru” but how you choose to go about imagining who you are as a designer has to come from you. I think there’s great value in knowing what your signature is, what your point of view is, how to render it, who is going to appreciate it, how far you can take it and being content with that and scaling it to that. And making great choices that allow you to do it in a way that it’s good for you. In the Bay Area, for instance a company that I think is fantastic is a ceramic company from Sausalito called Heath. Everything that Robin and Cathy have done makes sense. And they’ve just opened a huge store in L.A. in the midst of a recession, but it’s the right store. They truck things down twice a month so they always know exactly what is selling and what to produce. They manufacture locally, they partner with Chez Panisse and Blue Bottle, and other artisanal lifestyle choice businesses that they are part of. They opened at Opening Ceremony in Japan. They are the height of the fashion life, as uber-fashion as you can get without necessarily being a fashion business.

YS: What do you think of the San Francisco emerging designer scene?

SS: When I come here I usually go to Modern Appealing Clothing and see what they carry. I think there’s no reason to do Paris in San Francisco, or Fifth Avenue in San Francisco. You have to do something that connects to San Francisco. I don’t think San Francisco needs a fashion week, I don’t even think L.A. needs a fashion week. You have to do something that makes sense here. I think it’s probably true that if you want a larger audience you’ll probably have to go to New York or even L.A.

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