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The Stylist’s Role in Sustainability

by | Apr 28, 2020

While designers and a handful of executives are applauded and scrutinised about sustainability, fashion is a team sport. Stylists, who are key to this team, are in a powerful position to create desirable imagery of sustainability that can influence consumer behaviour and increase sales of sustainably produced fashion. So why are they undervalued in fashion’s sustainability strategies? 

One reason stylists have been overlooked is that most of them are independent contractors and freelancers who work to a client brief. Another reason is that their work is intended to increase and promote sales, rather than slow fashion down. 

Stylist Antoinette Degens has promoted better values and practices in fashion for about a decade, and experiences many of the same problems in South Africa as those she faced in Holland, where she worked as a magazine editor. She had hoped to create stories that could support readers in long-term wardrobe maintenance and cultivate awareness of consumption habits, but was told that her ideas would not include enough product for the magazine to justify their pages. “We are still reliant on our advertisers more than ever. We are reliant on product that is a talking point… what impact it has on silhouette, what impact it has in colour, what’s the new shape, and this and that,” she says of magazines’ product selection and styling decisions. 

So what can stylists do? Many are keen problem solvers who, by nature, look for solutions. 

“There’s a stylist called Keitumetsi [Ketumile Meso]; he styles using upcycled materials, plastic bags and bottles, tin foil, boxes and many other reusable things…. we are always thinking about ways to save and not throw things away,” says stylist Lesego Seoketsa [Azania Forest], explaining how they often upcycle or sell excess clothing. Cape Town stylist Mandy Nash points out that many stylists prioritise wardrobe and prop rental services, a largely overlooked sustainable practice, adding, “I think about sustainability through waste that I can personally try and control.” 

Antoinette takes a wide-reaching approach at Studio Degens by challenging the stylist-client dynamic with a manifesto based on ethical values. It is a way to be as proactive about integrity as they are about creativity. “We’ve started to approach brands that we believe in, that we think have great messaging… we say to them, this is what we offer, we’d like to build visual packages for you.” She also thinks about providing consumers with style inspiration that has nothing to do with shopping, detailing how a look can feel new with changes as small as makeup and jewellery.

Style curator for Levi’s first African Haus of Strauss, Amy Zama believes conversations with brands about sustainability make a difference, especially while it is a hot topic. Leveraging the relationship she has with Levi’s, a brand that publicly champions these practices, Amy is in a position to ask questions most stylists cannot: “How do we continue to be pioneers behind sustainability? Who do we collaborate with as a brand to drive this concept to our consumers? How do we maintain this consciousness within the brand?” She is also in a position to introduce people to contemporary techniques that can lend newness to secondhand clothing — Haus of Strauss offers equipment for denim customisations, including embroidery and laser engraving.

Lesego sees many practical opportunities for stylists to champion sustainability: Using designers’ fabric waste that would normally be archived or thrown away as campaign showpieces; educating themselves on textile composition for more sustainable decision making, and prioritising classic and utilitarian styles that transcend seasonal relevance. “Slowing down fashion is the only way we can get ahead,” Lesego says.

But there are challenges, including lack of time. Either due to bad planning or lack of budget, brief delivery, budget approvals and creative direction decisions are often left to the last minute. This eats into the time that stylists, who are paid a day rate, could use to maximise efficient use of resources. According to two stylists who prefer to remain anonymous, client indecision and lack of trust in local talent leads to excessive sourcing and expensive global team travel because a local team’s capabilities has been underestimated. 

From brief to published image, a stylist’s potential impact on sustainability is tied to the brands and designers commissioning them. Image production is an area ripe for improvement, and the decisions to be made in favour of sustainability are smaller, more manageable, and offer immediate impact. It’s necessary work, alongside the slower, important task of supply chain transformation. 

The good news is that stylists are ready to do that work, if brands are.

Images: Supplied. Image is of Antoinette Degens 

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