As garment workers are sent home without pay and manufacturers dumped with cancelled orders, the coronavirus crisis is throwing into focus the precarious foundations of the fast fashion industry and how little regard is paid to those propping up the chain of production. We all know that fashion’s unsustainable and unethical practices should be fought with a few simple concepts: shop better and less, buy secondhand, and the greenest clothes you can own are the ones already in your wardrobe. But when journalist Hannah Clugston began exploring ethical fashion for her university newspaper back in 2012, she found that people had two main objections: "That it was unfashionable and too complicated."
Conscious clothing has long since shaken off any notion that it is uncool; just look at Girlfriend Collective, Reformation and Birdsong to name but a few of the brands bringing stellar aesthetics to eco-friendly garms. Too complicated? That’s still an issue. But among all the greenwashing, whitewashing, faux transparency and finger-pointing, it’s easy to forget that fashion is most fun when it inspires. That’s the premise of Clugston’s platform, My Indie Wardrobe. "Seeking to inspire rather than to condemn," she founded the site during Fashion Revolution Week 2019 as an uplifting place to "demonstrate how incredible sustainable fashion looked while also signposting people to new places to shop," she tells Refinery29. "I wanted to do something positive rather than just being another person shouting about ethical fashion."
Clugston took her love of clothes, which often leads her to strike up conversations with strangers about where their outfits are from, and joined forces with photographer Madeleine Winters – who also has an incredible knack for finding the best gems in charity shops. "At our first coffee date she managed to find a pair of knee-high velour platform boots in a charity shop next door!" Together they launched the website, the concept for which is simple: Winters shoots people wearing their sustainable and secondhand pieces, while Clugston talks to them about their wardrobes. The result is a dreamy study of the creativity and reward of shopping consciously.
The portraits and accompanying interviews celebrate just how personal it is to shop sustainably: you’re using your money to shape the kind of future you want, you’re supporting small, independent and local brands, you’re taking on a slice of someone else’s history by buying vintage, and secondhand clothes demand you become more adventurous, not only in snuffling for treasures in unexpected places but by styling them in new ways. Clugston shares her subjects' best tips, too: "Make friends with a tailor", "Charity shops in snazzy parts of London can return lucrative rewards" and – my personal favourite – "Clothes are like men. You will never find the perfect item when you are looking for it. They just happen upon you."
What started off as recruiting friends of friends with particularly stellar ethical wardrobes has grown over the past year into a network of fashion activists happy to open their wardrobes to the duo. "As we met more people, we found they would recommend others with great sustainable wardrobes," Clugston says, "and people often contact us on Instagram or via email asking to take part, which is really encouraging." The personal stories behind people’s clothing make My Indie Wardrobe so special. "Instead of just picking up something new off the shelf, many of the items we take photos of come with incredible stories. One of my favourite outfits was 'the dress of revolution', which was a dress that our model’s mum had made when she met her dad back in the day. Later on, our subject had repurposed the dress as something she wore when attending various protests, and it became so recognisable that the police could call her by name when they saw her campaigning – despite the fact she was wearing a balaclava!"
Alongside Winters, Clugston has collaborated with photographers Helena Dolby, Georgina Martin and Tash Bright on the project, and while the coronavirus crisis has put things on hold for the time being – she’s started the hashtag #sustainablelockdownlooks on Instagram to encourage a continuation of the ethos while in lockdown – she's feeling encouraged by the current view of sustainable fashion. "One friend said that whenever she talks about fashion with others now, they always discuss the ethics of where the garment has come from, which is exactly the sort of conversation I wanted to start. Fundamentally, I want the fast fashion industry to change. When fashion is done right it can be incredibly empowering, both for the people making the garments and those wearing them. I think Lucy & Yak is a great example of this. They have created hundreds of well-paid jobs in India and the UK, providing us with creative and comfy dungarees at the same time. There is no reason why that can’t be the model for the industry going forwards but instead we are stuck with these giant brands that prioritise quantity over quality and profit over the wellbeing of humans and the planet. If my little website can encourage people to shop differently it will eventually put pressure on these brands to have to change."