Cape Town has a new fixation, and no, I am not talking about Prime – internet celebrities Logan Paul and KSI’s new (and overpriced) energy drink. I’m talking about the rise in thrifting, shopping from small businesses instead of chain retail stores and emphasis on recyclable fashion. All this can be understood as slow fashion. If you’ve been on the internet in the last few years, then you probably know what I am talking about. Slow fashion is one of the internet’s latest buzzwords, tossed around on apps like Instagram and TikTok. But what does it, actually, mean? What is slow fashion and how is it changing the rest of the fashion industry?
When we think of slow fashion, an image or idea comes to mind. It’s a sharp contrast to fast fashion, so we picture the opposite of that. That, of course, conjures up images of ethical fashion where garments are made of eco-friendly materials or are ‘upcycled’ (which, as described by Merriam-Webster, is creating an object of greater value which is from a discarded object of lesser value). Slow fashion considers how garments are made and prioritises fashion made sustainably, where the planet and environment are respected. The concept of slow fashion gained popularity amongst Generation Z (sometimes referred to as Zoomers or Gen-Z and accounts for those born between 1997-2010) after the environmental hazards caused by fast fashion made the rounds on social media.
It’s fitting that Gen-Z is the generation to endorse a practice like slow fashion. Research shows that the most pressing issue to Zoomers is climate change. It is a top concern for Gen-Z, who find environmental issues more drastic than unemployment and free health care, Deloitte reported. Environmental activism and concern serve as a generational divide between Gen-Z and other, older generations such as Baby Boomers and Gen-X. So, why does Gen-Z care so much about slow fashion? Well, it’s important to understand Gen-Z before answering that question. Gen-Z grew up in an age of information overload. As the first generation to grow up with technology at their fingertips, carrying mini-computers in their pockets that has the answer to seemingly everything, Gen-Z are the world’s first ‘digital natives’. This differentiates Gen-Z from older generations who remember a time before the internet, when landlines and VCRs were still around! This unprecedented access to information makes Gen-Z the most hyperaware generation, the Times found. Thus, issues plaguing our society have always been at the centre of Zoomers’ lives. Climate change is no different. For as long as Zoomers have been alive, they have been made aware of the dangers caused by climate change and the impending doom of humanity as a result of climate change.
Now, you may ask well, what’s fashion got to do with climate change? Almost everything, actually! The UN Environment Programme found that the fast fashion industry ‘is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions’ (which is as much as the entire European Union’s!) and it is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. An analysis by the Business Insider revealed fashion production by the fast fashion industry ‘dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year.’ This is an image many of us are aware of. We’ve seen the TikToks revealing the piles of clothing discarded in dump sites, a wasteland created for clothing after a zeitgeist in fashion waltzes out of pop culture and the clothing item goes out of style. Forbes reports that ‘research has shown that 90% of our clothing is thrown away before it needs to be’ and that on average, three garments are disposed of for every five produced.
Why are people doing this? Why are they throwing out so many garments and contributing to pollution?
Late-stage capitalism and consumerism, I’m tempted to say! Which would only be a half-baked truth. Fast fashion responds to trends, which is where it gets its name from. Fast fashion identifies growing trends in pop culture and fashion, which have a symbiotic relationship, and then makes use of cheap labour in order to produce popular garments fast enough so it gets to clothing stores and into your closet before the trend dies out. It capitalises on the latest fashion craze. We’ve seen this play out many, many times – our favourite celebrity wears something stylish (Emma Chamberlain wears a maxi denim skirt, Carrie Bradshaw carries a Fendi Baguette or Hailey Bieber wears a leather jacket) and then it quickly gets mass-produced and soon, everyone’s wearing what’s in vogue.
It’s under these conditions that slow fashion begins to take shape and become mainstream. However, slow fashion is not new. For centuries, indigenous groups of people all around the world have prioritised sustainable living. The Rastafari community in Jamaica have made environmentalism a significant principle of their religion. In Brazil and Peru, the Ashaninka community have prioritised sustainable living and defended the land, indigenous animals and people of the Amazon from drug traffickers and greedy corporate giants who want to trade paradise for another concrete jungle. In Cape Town, the Sakmanne (Sackcloth People) live in the mountain and caves of the city. They wear brown hessian bags and are strictly vegetarian. There are many other indigenous groups of people who practice sustainable living, for them, slow fashion is not a new concept. What’s different about slow and ethical fashion now is that it has gained a bigger audience and achieved widespread popularity.
Similarly, in Cape Town, slow fashion has become one of the more recent fashion trends that have taken flight. Cape Town has a solid thrifting culture, even before the rise of slow fashion. Take a walk down Lower Main Road in Observatory (colloquially referred to as Obs/Obz by locals) and they are thrift stores as far as the eye can see. Obs is not the only area of Cape Town with a lively thrift store scene – the City Centre, Kalk Bay, Mowbray and Fish Hoek are renowned for their second-hand stores. Plus, there are many pop-ups for thrift stores across the city! Now, however, social media has changed the thrifting game. Got lots of old clothing that you want to rehome? Create an Instagram or Yaga account with a catchy name and you’re set! I had a short-lived, small online thrift store in high school, it was called The Thrift Drift! And online, the thrift business is booming! South Africans have really invested in this aspect of slow fashion.
South African’s support for slow fashion does not stop at thrifting – there has been a bigger emphasis on small businesses too. Thanks to social media, talented small fashion business owners and local designers can share their creations online with their potential buyers. But I’m the least qualified person to speak to this. So, I found some small slow fashion businesses/local designers to talk to me about slow fashion.
PURPOSE & FORM by Jenna Rae Gore
‘Having the ability to take a strand of yarn and turn it into fabric, then turning that fabric into a garment is mindblowing to me,’ writes Jenna. In 2021, Jenna Rae Gore launched Purpose & Form after she taught herself how to crotchet while working a retail job. Its namesake comes from a quote by Finnish architect Alvor Aalto who once said, “Beauty is the harmony of purpose and form.” Purpose & Form (P&F) went through many iterations before its launch in July 2021 – it was first just a moodboard Instagram account, created after an electrifying trip to Berlin – but that’s only because for Jenna, creativity has always driven her life. ‘The most important aspect of my business is the fact that everything is handmade, filled with purpose (no pun intended) and honours my own creative process.’
Creating is a meditative process for Jenna and a chance for her to witness the magic of creativity. Being able to do what she does, crocheting, is an art form. And for Jenna, creativity has always been just within her reach. Whether she’s chasing it down in the streets of Berlin or in the company of her grandmother and aunties (who are crotchet artists), Jenna has always felt inspired to create something of meaning. So, when she launched P&F, she wanted its focus to be slow and ethical fashion. ‘I have begun to pay very close attention to the materials I use and the types of yarn I use to create my works.’ Jenna admits that while eco-friendly materials she’d like to use exist, it’ll cost her a lot. Her business is self-funded and the price of these materials, will demand that she push up the prices of work – something which her market can’t really afford. However, Jenna does not let that get in the way of P&F’s commitment to sustainability. ‘I aim to continue to use all my yarn offcuts in my pieces, as well as officially including in-depth care instructions for each piece so I can educate my customers on how to repair and mend their pieces effectively.’
Jenna’s creations are a labour of love. To Jenna, fashion tells a deeply personal story. Jenna loves that fashion is an emotive artform. Her creative process proves to be intimate and significant — just another way for her to wear her heart on her sleeve – as she listens to music made by her partner, RxSolo. P&F is dedicated to the women who helped shape her into the young woman she is today. Jenna rallies around other women of colour (WOC) in the fashion industry. Growing up, WOC had little representation in the business. Jenna felt disconnected from it all. Now, there’s a seat at the table for POC creatives and Jenna describes fashion reflecting this change. ‘When you support Purpose and Form, you support a young woman of colour, a local, small business and a self-taught crochet artist — who is dedicated to providing you with high-quality, handmade pieces that you will treasure for years to come.’ While P&F is on a brief hiatus, you can still find it on Instagram at @purposeandform_cpt.
GABRIELLA CARTER by Gabriella Carter
Gabriella Carter is a recent fashion graduate and designer from Cape Town. Officially, Gabriella’s design process started in 2020 when she started upcycling garments. However, as she told me, Gabriella has always held an interest in making clothes. Growing up, her aunt (who is self-taught) made her own pageant dresses. Her aunt would send her home with fabric cut-offs, which Gabriella experimented with and turned into dresses for her dolls. After years of fretting about the uncertainty of creating her own brand, Gabriella (who taught herself how to use a sewing machine) mustered up the courage to start her own fashion line called Gabriella Carter.
Gabriella’s fashion line is an extension of herself so much so that it carries her own name and because slow fashion is important to her as an individual, it’s important to her brand. It’s a lot to ask a designer to undo all the years of damage caused by fast fashion, Gabriella admits. Yet, she is still passionate about ethical fashion. ‘Ethical fashion is incredibly important to me because I strongly believe that all design processes should never be detrimental to the wellbeing of the environment or to the people who make our clothes,’ she wrote to me in an email. Gabriella proves to be an environmentally conscious designer who puts slow and ethical fashion the heart of her line. All of her garments are made using fabric cut-offs and dead stock, which not only makes her sustainable but also proves her creativity! ‘I feel that I am the most creative version of myself as the limitations often inspire me to be as ambitious (as possible) with the fabrics available (to me),’ she said. Plus, it means her garments are all limited editions! As Gabriella told me, ‘All garments also exist as one of a kind, because I do not create batches of the same product. The use of deadstock or end of roll often does not allow me to find the exact same fabric more than once.’ Gabriella’s efforts to create ethical fashion don’t stop there. When she creates garments, she tests its durability, so her garments are a long-term investment for its owners. ‘I… experiment with (the) fabrics reaction to washing/heat/drying to make sure that they firstly don’t have a negative impact on the wearer and secondly, to make sure the level of quality promised remains the same.’ She ensures that companies she sources for fabric cut-offs are also ethical. ‘I am responsible for researching and being aware of the ethics towards employees at the companies I source from for labelling and fabric. I make sure that the values of these establishments align with my own.’ But wait, Gabriella Carter does not stop there! For Gabriella, there is always more to learn as she develops her fashion line. ‘I have also recently been exploring the use of zero-waste patterns and developing designs that utilise every piece of the fabric as best as possible.’
As a designer, Gabriella always keeps her customers in mind. Even though Spring is her favourite season, she creates garments that will prove functional all-year round. She knows the importance of a good fit – she sees fashion as a secret language, which says more than words ever could. ‘To me, fashion is a non-verbal form of communication that shares information about who we are, how we identify and how we’d like to be perceived.’ For the woman behind the designs, fashion is an expression and an art. And as a true follower of slow fashion, she doesn’t follow trends! She wears what she thinks suits her best! I think it’s because her creativeness can’t be contained within a single zeitgeist.
Gabriella proves to be one to watch! And one to support. As a woman of colour, Gabriella is one of the few designers in slow fashion representing the Coloured community of South Africa. ‘I wish to be a beacon of hope. I want people know regardless of the circumstances, absolutely anything you want to become is attainable and I want to serve as a reminder that passion fuels purpose.’ Find Gabriella Carter’s fashion line, Gabriella Carter, on Instagram at @bygabriellacarter if you ever want to support a local fashion designer of if you need good music recommendations!
CHILD’S PLAY by Kelsey Cyster
‘My journey in the fashion industry started quite early,’ says Kelsey Cyster. Kelsey, a dancer and model, finds fashion plays a crucial role in her passions and her life. While fashion has always integrated itself into her life, designing came later on. In her third of year of university and at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kelsey created her fashion line ‘Child’s Play’ as a form of escapism. The name of Kelsey’s fashion line came from a desire for her fashion to remind people of simpler times and keep them connected to their inner child.
Kelsey admits that as a start-up fashion line, with just her at the helm, being completely sustainable is a difficult thing to do. However, that doesn’t stop her from trying. As of last year, denim garments which appear in collections by Child’s Play are made from jeans which Kelsey has sourced from second-hand stores. Why? ‘[When it is created] Denim uses large amounts of water and harmful dyes which are released into different sources of water and causes water pollution.’ Kelsey also uses deadstock to create garments and cuts her fabric in a certain way so she can maximise its use.
For Kelsey, slow fashion is nothing new. As a child, she watched her mother knit and sew. Kelsey’s mother would give fabric cutoffs to her, which inspired her to create. Child’s Play is still in its infancy, but as for the designer – Kelsey – she’s been making clothes since she was a young girl. Her mother taught her how to knit and helped her hand stitch a handbag, the first thing she ever created. Her family also prioritised the functionality & durability of garments and made this a deciding factor on whether they’d buy the garment. Clothes have been passed down generations in her family. ‘Representation is key in every industry,’ she tells me. As a woman of colour who is a model and designer, Kelsey takes a peek at the behind-the-scenes of a fashion industry which has not always represented her and other women who look like her. And even while she says that there has been a ‘boom’ in the fashion industry’s diversity recently, there is room for even more representation.
Big corporations do not realise how short the lifespan of their clothing is, is something Kelsey tells me. She goes on to say, ‘there’s so much that we can do to extend the life cycle of these garments made.’ This drives Kelsey as a designer, she’s always known her creations should be more beneficial than harmful to the environment. Eager to support Child’s Play? Find Kelsey Cyster and Child’s Play on Instagram at @childsplay_za! Head over there to check out her graduation collection!
THE COMMUNITY by Charissa and Christine Beukes
Dynamic mother and daughter duo – comprised of Charissa and Christine – create sustainable tote bags together. Their business is called The Community and began in 2020, a year after Charissa lost her father. The Community honours Charissa’s father, who instilled in her a creative spark, and helped the two women work through their grief. ‘The Community focuses on providing good quality, durable and unique products which are sustainable,’ is how Charissa described their business to me.
For this mother and daughter pair, environmental preservation is important. It’s why they make tote bags, to lessen the use of plastic bags! ‘We also believe in using what you have (available) to create what you want! So, we use our scraps to make one-of-a-kind patchwork tote bags, scrunchies, pouches and even pillowcases too.’ This inspires the twosome to stretch their creativity and reduces waste. ‘We try our best to make use of every piece we have,’ Charissa wrote to me when we corresponded via email. The Community put their all into creating sustainable items, which means it takes a little longer for them to fully complete projects. But this is not a result of procrastination or wasting time, Charissa writes, ‘the manufacturing process is slower, as we do not produce in bulk, due to the focus being on quality and sustainability.’
The Community’s tote bags, and other fashion accessories remind me of Spring! Charissa acknowledges that’s probably because it’s her favourite season, she says ‘I am all about sunshine, and want to create sunshine & happiness.’ The Community strive to make their customers happy, Charissa wrote, ‘if we have happy customers, we are happy!’ Follow The Community on Instagram at @itsthecommunity to stay tuned for their latest creations and to see if they’ll be at a local market close to you!