The Most Sustainable Idea In Fashion Is Personal Style

Rachel Tashjian

The strangest thing about this very quiet New York Fashion Week was how disconnected it felt from last season’s environmentally conscious hullabaloo. Last fall, everyone yelled a little bit too loudly about sustainability. This season, people yelled a little bit too loudly about how New York Fashion Week was dead. The shift is strange because one answers the other: couldn’t a little pruning, a little quietude, a little more discretion about who should have a fashion show and why, help us solve the quandary of how to make fashion more sustainable, both as an environmental concern and as an industry?

Two designers told me things this fashion week that seemed like they had very little to do with those topics but that made me think about them in a whole new way. (Now that’s fashion at its best!)

One: Collina Strada designer Hillary Taymour said that she designs things that she hopes people will keep for years and years—and indeed, her sense for print and color, combined with her super-simple shapes, mean that her pieces can be worn in lots of different ways, and that even after years between the closet and the dry cleaner, they’ll still bring the zing that good clothes do. You could put those tie-dye pants with a kinda fancy jacket and go out on a date, or throw one of her short-sleeve crazy-printed button-downs under a suit at work. It’s all about dressing for joy—but doing that by making something truly your own, by making it a part of the wardrobe of your lifetime. (Yes, I am listening to Pure Moods while writing this!)

Two: I asked Rachel Comey how she starts designing a collection, and I was sort of taken back by how pragmatically she answered. “During the pre-spring season, it’s a lot of events,” she said, and I felt like a bonehead standing in the rain who’d asked if it was raining. “And, well, what if she doesn’t want to dress up in a dress? What if she wants to wear a suit and flats and still feel dressed up?” A lot of designers do a song and dance of inspirations—“‘Start Me Up’-era Mick Jagger meets the disciplined basket weaving styles of Edo period Japan!” or whatever—but Comey reminded me that there are a lot of really well-dressed people out there who are looking great simply by buying what they need.

Taken together, both sentiments made me realize that perhaps the only truly sustainable idea in fashion is developing personal style.

Here’s what I mean: the current climate of fast fashion and, for many men, hypebeastiality (hehe!), favors the look over the wardrobe, the moment over the long term. But personal style, not fashion, holds the greatest reward: it allows you to invest in yourself, rather than in a bunch of ideas about who you could or should want to be. The wardrobe has somehow become the least considered part of fashion, in part because a lot of people you see in fashion are borrowing things rather than really owning and wearing and loving them, and in part because we have learned to love and rely on a culture of nonstop novelty. We’ve taught ourselves that our clothing can only bring a sense of joy the first time we wear it. But there are ways to train yourself to love something every time you put it on. The real test for me is: can I put it on, forget about it for most of the day, remember I’m wearing it at 4 pm, and grin? If the thing is really great—and I promise you this—people don’t think, “I can’t believe he’s wearing that jacket again.” They think about how cool it looks on you—and about how envious they are that you have a signature, that you dress like you really know yourself.

But there remains a knotty question. If you care about sustainability in fashion, you probably also love fashion, and it can be impossible to reconcile those two things. And doesn’t pursuing the former to its logical conclusion eventually cancel out the latter? This is where certain brands said to operate in a paradise devoid of trends—The Row, or Engineered Garments, or Evan Kinori—come in. If you can’t tell one season from the other, you’re motivated by a different kind of desire than just newness. You will learn to keep things, you will buy with more thought and discretion, and you will stop thinking of your clothes as a recyclable collection. You aren’t a heartless billionaire buying art, after all—this is fashion we’re talking about!

But not all of us can turn our lives over to that kind of minimalism completely. Even vegans want to eat dessert, after all. We like street style because it shows us fashion in the real world—which is to say, it demonstrates how we can integrate all these crazy pieces, or the idea of them, into actual outfits for actual errands and events and meetings and so on. You don’t have to be a style ascetic to feel okay.

So while one answer is to stop buying sneakers, or drop-model streetwear, or whatever everyone on Grailed is telling you to buy, I think another answer lies in recalibrating how you think about buying and wearing those things in the first place. Can you make your style strong enough that it doesn’t matter that no one else is carrying Supreme fanny packs any more? Is your suiting or knitwear game sophisticated enough to make those Travis Scott Nikes still look fun in two years? In many ways, we are in a post-trend, anything goes world, but the marketing authority of the fashion machinery has made us bend too often to the whims of hype. You can participate in trends and fads, but a really confident dresser will do that in their own way.

The way both men’s and womenswear have fetishized newness is sickening and antiquated. And the pseudo-European, glamorous fantasy that most New York Fashion Week events are attempting to emulate—hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to tell people “I’m legitimate”—just doesn’t track anymore, especially when you have designers like Comey and Marine Serre, on the womenswear side, and Craig Green and Jonathan Anderson, on the men’s side, who are really asking dignified questions, and offering dignified answers, about what it means to be a person in the world today. Fashion can help you build your identity, your mystique, your confidence. But to give yourself over to it completely—and to the impulsive churn that says something is suddenly uncool—is to forgo your individuality. You must exert control over your clothing if you want to use it to define yourself.

Originally Appeared on GQ