As one of the most highly anticipated fashion events of the year, New York Fashion Week (NYFW) attracts a star-studded crowd of celebrities, influencers, and fashion enthusiasts from around the globe. All eyes are on the runways as designers unveil their newest creations which will define the trends for the upcoming season.
With sustainability becoming top of mind for many consumers, more designers and brands are considering eco-friendly and ethical approaches to reduce their collective impact on the planet. Behind the glitz and glamor, the industry as a whole generates 4-10% of all carbon emissions annually, as much carbon as France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined, according to a 2020 report by McKinsey & Company. As the organizer of NYFW, the Council of Fashion Designers of American (CFDA) has pledged to reach net-zero by 2050. In an interview with the Fashion Network, CFDA Director Steven Kolb shared: “we encouraged [all stakeholders] to recycle and reduce waste, reuse materials, and conserve energy where possible to allow us to move towards a more sustainable fashion week.”
Only 44% [of brands] provide information on what constitutes a sustainable material.
The Business of Fashion reported that the recent NYFW Fall 2023 Season included 35 sustainably-focused brands out of 71, which is the most they’ve ever had, compared to the 13 in Fall 2020. However, unlike the Copenhagen Fashion Week, a pioneer in enforcing sustainability requirements for participating brands, NYFW does not have a standard when it comes to sourcing materials, ensuring just worker conditions and disclosing details about their supply chain. Much is left up to the designer’s discretion and agency.
The fashion industry generates up to 10% of all carbon emissions.
Designers who chose to create with the planet and people in mind considered a range of approaches, from pivoting to materials with lower impact on the environment and eliminating plastic packaging, to implementing circular concepts like upcycling. Some brands, including larger fashion houses like Philip Lim and Chloe, featured organic, natural, and recycled fibers in some of their pieces. Others, like Collina Strada and Rentrayage, are further along on their sustainability journey and have dedicated a whole collection to repurposing deadstock and vintage items. Even though many have been outspoken about tackling material sourcing, according to the 2023 Fashion Transparency Index, over half of major brands publish targets on sustainable materials, but only 44% provide information on what constitutes a sustainable material.
Even though there is no clear definition of “sustainable designs” at NYFW, here are some note-worthy designers and brands who are raising the bar for the rest of the industry through repurposing waste and deadstock, turning to technology and innovation, and uplifting local artisanal communities.
Brands That Are Making Waves
- Collina Strada uses deadstock in all her designs, as well as textile waste sourced from the OR Foundation. Deadstock is the result of over-ordering and overproduction by brands. Luxury names, like Burberry and Cartier, have admitted to getting rid of unsold stock, to preserve their value. Repurposing materials that are already in existence is a much more sustainable choice than introducing new fabrics into the cycle.
- Rentrayage, a clothing and home décor brand, displays their mastery in upcycling by constructing their collection from discarded clothes, vintage fabrics, and deadstock. For example, they converted upcycled vintage lace tablecloths into bralettes and blouses. They also added a line of home goods, which features dinnerware made of recycled glass and reclaimed wood.
NYFW Fall 2023 Season included 35 sustainably-focused brands out of 71
- Studio 189 is not just a fashion brand, but it is also a social enterprise that showcases African-inspired craftsmanship. The designers collaborate with artisans in Ghana to incorporate techniques like natural plant dyes. Other than recycled fabrics and responsibly grown fibers, they also use new tech materials like leather made from pineapple fibers.
- Grace Ling made her debut at NYFW this year. By bringing together technology and high fashion, she is known for use of 3D printing technology and CGI to develop zero waste designs.
- Angel Chang sees design as a way of preserving culture and honoring indigenous traditions. By working with and learning from ethnic minorities in rural China, she produces one of the few zero carbon womenswear on the market.
Is Fashion Week On Trend?
Even though many designers are embracing sustainable approaches to design, much of the focus is placed on the materials. There is a lack of conversation around labor conditions and living wages. Mara Hoffman, the winner of the CFDA’s Environmental Design Award this year, has demonstrated some transparency by providing a list of Tier 1 suppliers and committing to ensuring that all factories within her supply chain are adhering to international labor standards. In addition, the founder of Melke mentions prioritizing worker safety through usage of natural dyes and non-toxic materials, as well as the importance of paying living wages. However, there is no data or details to back up these claims. Without a set criterion and consistency in regards to transparency, it is difficult to discern between lip service and real progress. Even though some luxury brands, including Chloe, have shared reports on their social responsibility and have increased their Fashion Transparency Score over the years, some do not have a section on their websites dedicated to disclosing their action plans or supply chains.
Only 1 of 5 CFDA Fashion Award nominees mentions sustainability as part of its design.
With the heightened PR exposure, NYFW is an opportunity to spotlight up-and-coming designers who are embracing eco-friendly and ethical practices and help grow their brands. Many of the sustainability-focused designers on the NYFW roster own small boutique businesses, or are emerging talents. Many designers who are starting out require resources to get started, such as collaborations with major fashion houses and funding from organizations like CDFA. In order to advance its climate and environmental goals, Fashion Week should highlight the achievements of designers, and support those who are steering towards eco-friendly and ethical practices. At the CFDA Fashion Awards, only one of the five nominees listed for American Emerging Designer of the Year 2023, Diotima, mentions sustainability as part of its design.
While smaller brands can be nimbler when it comes to having more control over their supply chains, the tipping point lies in influential organizations like CFDA to make a stand. Standard practices that demand sustainable and ethical practices as a requirement, as demonstrated through Copenhagen Fashion Week, challenge bigger brands to make greater strides towards becoming more environmentally and socially responsible on all fronts, including materials, worker conditions, and their runway shows.
Not all sustainable designs are the same, and without a clear set of requirements, we cannot measure progress nor hold the brands accountable to their promises. Major brands that have been around for a long time face the hurdle of overhauling their processes and structures to adapt to more ethical and responsible ways of design, but an incremental change can set off a ripple of change within the industry.
NYFW leads the way in influencing American fashion, but will it lead the way towards a more sustainable fashion future?