I think we must engage the queer community in the sustainable fashion movement. At Remake, we connect the dots among feminism, garment makers’ rights, environmental protection, and consumers’ well-being. As a queer person and a Remake ambassador, I add my queer identity to the equation to make fashion a force for good.
I would like to make a claim: Queer people are more likely to participate in the sustainable fashion movement than heterosexuals.
There, I said it, but not without proof. In a 2018 research essay, “Sexual identities and participation in liberal and conservative social movements,” Eric Swank concludes that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals engage in more liberal movements than heterosexuals. Furthermore, LGBs are more than twice as likely as heterosexuals to join antiwar, environmental, and anticorporate movements. While the study didn’t include labor rights in its research, both environmental and anticorporate movements fall into the dialogue around sustainable fashion. There are many theories that hope to explain why queer identities are linked to higher levels of activism.
Embeddedness theorists think that queer people, in order to escape homophobic social circles and institutions, use their peer groups and friends to normalize and reclaim their identities. The queer social circle offers a space for discussions on the harm of heteronormativity and strengthening political engagement. Conversion theorists link the participation in social movements with experiences of being excluded and mistreated. Queer people everywhere face exclusion and mistreatment based on their sexual orientations and gender identities. Thus, they are more critical of heterosexism and its structures. This understanding can subvert the credibility of other social institutions and foster solidarity with other marginalized groups. Through this conversion process, battles against homophobia are also battles against racism, sexism, classism, ableism—fighting for greater social justice and equality.
The potentials are clearly there, so I’m interested in how to engage my own queer community in creating a more sustainable fashion industry.
My identity as a Remake ambassador, queer person, and a sustainable fashion designer gives me a unique angle. While a fashion design student at Parsons, I was selected for Remake’s Made in Sri Lanka journey inside garment maker communities to learn about the true human stories behind mass-produced fashion. During my awakening experience with garment makers inside their factories and boarding home, I realized the complexity of our fashion system and came away hoping to transform fashion into a force for good. I earned my BFA from Parsons in 2018 and soon after became a Remake Ambassador. I am now also the lead designer of Community Studio, a studio focused on upcycling and community-based production at TILL: bioFASHIONtech LAB, Connecticut’s first and only ecological fashion incubator.
With my fellow genderqueer ambassador Anh, I hosted two gender-free clothing swaps at The Phluid Project in downtown Manhattan this summer as part of Remake events. The Phluid Project is the “world’s first gender-free clothing store.” In this safe and queer-friendly space, people were able to to swap gender-affirming clothes comfortably. We ended up having long conversations with participants about sustainability, queer community organizing, and our lives on the rainbow staircase.
At the event, I received a flyer about the Queer Liberation March happening the same day as World Pride 2019 in New York City. The march was in direct opposition of corporate pinkwashing in worldwide Pride celebrations. The problems with corporates taking up space in Pride and polishing their public image to sell us more products while not supporting the queer community in reality, or worse, sabotaging us, was blatantly put on public display by the recent news on Equinox’s owner, Stephen Ross, and his fundraiser that raised $12 million for Trump’s reelection.
On June 30th, 2019, I joined the Queer Liberation March instead of World Pride because I wanted to be more in touch with the radical spirit of queer liberation. “None is free until all are free.” I remember this specific slogan so distinctly well from the march. Reclaim Pride Coalition, the organizer of Queer Liberation March, encourages the queer community to show up and provide allyship to other communities’ struggles. It’s the same fight—social justice. “We March to celebrate our communities and history, in solidarity with other oppressed groups, and to demand social and economic justice worldwide—we March for Liberation!” Queer rights, climate change, and fashion sustainability (and many issues that fall under the umbrella of fashion sustainability) are all social justice issues. They all align in me through this experience. I marched in solidarity with garment makers all around the world. I marched in solidarity with people that are disproportionately affected by the Global North’s level of consumption: be it the waste that gets sent to the Global South or the North’s greenhouse gas emissions.
At the Queer Liberation March Rally, Larry Kramer delivered a sharp speech to the crowd. He voiced his discontent towards a younger generation of gay men—he is now 84—more interested in looking for hook-ups all night long on apps than fighting for what’s worth changing:
Hell, if you have time to get hooked on drugs and do your endless rounds of sex-seeking cyber-surfing until dawn, you do have too much time on your hands. We are better than that. I repeat: We are better than that… All this is very sad and frightening. A large unconcealed mass of potentially excellent people doesn’t know what to do with themselves or even bother to learn the history that got us here. So they dance. So they drug. So they go on the apps to find more sex. These are useful lives being wasted.
How can I, how can we, make use of the radical spirit of the queer community to prevent irreversible damage to our climate with only 11 years left, while the great Amazonia is burning, as are forests around the world? How can the queer community show up for garment makers, largely women of color, whose livelihoods depend on fashion manufacturing yet understand that we need a much more ecological and ethical fashion future? When I talk to people about labor conditions of the fashion industry, there is often this sense of numbness and joking awareness. People say things like, “Yeah, it’s probably made by children in a sweatshop.” All these printed slogan t-shirts at all these social justice events… where do they come from? Who made them? Do organizations realize that they might be fundraising for their own causes but causing ecological damage and human exploitation?
At some point in our lives, we must have read or watched something from mainstream media about the unethical fashion industry. However, this “awareness” is not helping us to dig deeper. Worse, it has seemingly turned into a numbness that thwarts us from empathy, from actions. In many ways, we’ve become an apathetic society when it comes to human rights as they pertain to fast fashion.
“We are better than that.”
Through the platform and network that Remake has generously provided me, I find great purpose in advocating for sustainable fashion. It is also through Remake that I found my wonderful team to start Community Studio. At Remake’s panel discussions, film screenings, and clothing swaps, I am able to talk to people from so many different walks of life about sustainable fashion. However, the fashion designer inside of me thinks it’s still not enough. I want to create ecological and ethical fashion, highlighting its beauty and joy. I want to incorporate the act of making into sustainable fashion advocacy.
Here comes the genesis of Community Studio, a studio focused on upcycling and community-based production. It is located at TILL: bioFASHIONtech LAB in Stamford Town Center, a local mall, sandwiched in between Gap and Uniqlo. To encourage people to participate in sustainable fashion not only as consumers but as makers, we teach free workshops on basic fashion making from sewing to natural dye. We want to teach people simple skills to love their clothes longer and enjoy the fun of making. From May to June, we also invited eight participants who had little-to-no fashion training to come to our Community Studio every week to work with our Community Studio designers making upcycled garments. The catch is: What is something you want to buy? Let’s not buy it. Let’s make it!
They helped pattern make, drape, cut, dye, and sew their own garments. It is through the moments of making that people start to realize that making clothing is not an easy task. They start paying attention to construction details in clothing that they never noticed. “So why is our clothing so cheap?”, “Who made our clothes?”, “Is fashion really such a polluting industry?”; people ask all kinds of questions about sustainable fashion and how they can be more sustainable. These are difficult conversations to have, but the act of making creates a space where we can talk naturally about it.
Community Studio is not a space specifically made for the queer community, but it is a space open and welcoming to all. As I officially moved out of New York City to Stamford, Connecticut to be where my studio is, I did notice the drop of the amount of queer people in my daily life. The way I dress and present myself becomes more noticeable in this new environment. There are many more places other than queer bars for the queer community to congregate, and it is my every intention to make Community Studio a space that queer people feel comfortable being while creating and participating in sustainability. If you are near Stamford, Connecticut, I wholeheartedly invite you to come out and build a queer-friendly space here together!
For those of you out there who are queer and sustainable, I am so eager to hear from you about who you are, where you are, and what you do so passionately well! My inbox, firstname.lastname@example.org, welcomes your messages. Help Remake and our fellow queers build queerly sustainable communities everywhere!
It is easy to resort to doom and gloom when talking about sustainability and climate change, but communities and human connections give us strong hope. Greta Thunberg arrived in New York in her zero-emission sailboat on August 28 after her two-week long trans-Atlantic trip. She also brought optimism with her. Seeing her picture taken on a New York subway was so surreal to me. She is here! By sailboat! Sharing my excitement with my friends who were equally excited was thrilling. Opening up my Instagram to see someone posting a video of Greta’s sailboat taken from a Manhattan high-rise was dreamlike. It truly was a great historical moment, and as she completed her journey, I felt that we, though not entirely sure who “we” is yet, have set sail onto our own future.
Can you feel it too?
Photos: Remake, Elvert Barnes/Flickr, bioFASHIONtech LAB