It’s no secret that fast fashion is designed to make you feel off-trend in a matter of weeks, days, or—sadly, we’re not exaggerating here—hours. In Elizabeth Cline’s 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the author reported that H&M and Forever 21 receive daily shipments of new styles. The idea? Sell as much low-cost clothing as possible and then move on to the next thing.
The end result, of course, is waste—not just the devastating agricultural and industrial kind profiled in documentaries like The True Cost, but 81 pounds of actual clothing that every American is now estimated to throw out each year. (That amount is up 400 percent from 20 years ago, and is the subject of a design challenge at Vancouver’s Eco Fashion Week this year; see below.)
Perhaps nothing gives a person a sense of the urgent nature of the situation like picking through used clothing. In fact, that’s exactly where Vancouver designer Mishel Bouillet’s interest in the slow-fashion movement arose.
An avid used-apparel shopper who has spent years as both a sharp-eyed “picker” for local vintage boutiques and a sewer reworking used clothing, she became highly aware of the increasing number of fast-fashion labels turning up in the discard piles she’d dig through.
“Walking through Value Village, all you see is fashion labels like H&M and Topshop and Joe Fresh,” she says, sitting in Tacofino Gastown before heading to her studio to work. “That’s where my whole sustainability thing comes in: from seeing how we just throw all this out. Why is it so disposable?”
The designer, who debuts her taut, clean-lined new collection, Models Own, at Eco Fashion Week (Saturday to Thursday [April 9 to 14] at the Fairmont Waterfront and other locations), began to wonder if there was an answer that went beyond just buying used clothing.
“Everybody loves vintage, but for the most part you can only do one-off pieces,” she explains. “It got me thinking: how can you put out more consistent products and turn it into a brand that isn’t so disposable?”
For Bouillet, who studied in the Vancouver Community College fashion program, the concept began with a small collection of finely crafted, minimalistic pieces that would transcend trends—and not surprisingly, solid black and white figure prominently. The few debut pieces she’s dubbed her Control collection include sleek wrap-style miniskirts in black or white suede, an apron dress in raw organic denim, and flowy pleated culottes in light denim, dark denim, and elegant white.
Soft hits of colour come in with sleeveless, raw-linen blouses in rose-petal or what she calls crayon blue, each with laser-cut silk strips artfully running down the front. The lines are clean, but laser-cut hems give the pieces an avant-garde feel. (Prices run from about $100 up to $250 for a coat; they will be selling soon through her website, and at Nouvelle Nouvelle [209 Abbott Street]. Her project is also the subject of a Kickstarter campaign, found here.)
But for Bouillet, as for other slow-fashion designers, the approach has to be holistic. In her case, you try to use less paper for patterns, or you keep extra scraps of fabric to use elsewhere. Bouillet reduces back stock by using a made-to-order system, sources her fabric locally or in Canada, and employs local seamstresses to help her produce garments. Bouillet says she’s found a growing number of young women picking up needle and thread (or who enjoy sitting at the Singer) to help her out.
As she puts it, “If you think about it for five more minutes, you can come up with a better way.”
What sets Bouillet a bit apart from the traditional eco-fashion movement is the way she also uses high tech to achieve her goal of sustainability.
“A little bit of technology can cut down on the process and the waste,” she says, pointing to the laser-cutting machine that’s so inspired her designs. “It almost cauterizes the fabric, so you don’t need as much of a hem. You can cut down your fabric waste by up to 20 percent. But I’ve also made it part of the design: I love the way it looks.”
The aesthetic has an edginess not often associated with eco-friendly fashion, she admits: “A lot of people think it’s about wearing a hemp sack. But it can still be advanced and fun.”
Surprisingly, Bouillet isn’t going to judge you for what other clothing items you wear with her simple pieces.
“I’m not going to tell you how to wear it. When I need a black T-shirt, I’m going to go to H&M,” she says. “Where I have a problem is the $10 rack where you buy a skirt and you hate it and you throw it out. We’re just shopping at these places wrong. This is about thinking more about what you purchase.”