The Earth Issue in conversation with Caryn Franklin
In the last instalment of our series Changing fashion from the Inside, Caryn is interviewed by The Earth Issue on how and why the fashion industry has changed throughout the years and her unique journey from magazine editor to a disruptive fashion lover.
Caryn Franklin MBE has an impressive resume. She was the former fashion editor and co-editor of i-D Magazine, a BBC broadcaster for fifteen years- presenting as well as directing The Clothes Show, a fashion professor lecturing and course validating some of the most prestigious educational institutes in the UK and a long term fashion activist and innovator.
It seems that somewhere along the way the fashion industry has changed, brands are so focused on hitting targets and making money that we are doing so at the cost of the environment and our lives. As the former co-editor of i-D magazine, you have witnessed this transformation. Can you tell us when and why you think this shift has happened?
When I began in 1982 there was a massive gap between what was on the catwalk and what was available in ordinary stores. Catwalk designers worked in a secret way, showing on the catwalks to a small audience of hard copy magazine editors and buyers and were sold in select salons. There was no highstreet and although there were many talented UK designers at that time - they had small audiences and small businesses. Having worked on the Clothes Show since 1986 with an audience of millions, I knew there was huge demand for great design and name designers and I saw the subsequent democratisation of fashion (when trailblazer Debenhams began working with popular designers to create diffusion range) as a good thing. Throughout the 90s more and more consumers began to choose clothing that was trend aligned in part encouraged by the fashion press and of course the programme I was working on for 12 years which amassed audiences of 13 million a week at its peak. Soon, the pre-digital business model with its potential for huge volume and reach attracted investment. The first chains: Next and Warehouse, which sprang up in the mid-eighties, had already shown what was possible and the rest is ‘bricks and mortar retail history.’ Chain store culture began to spread but no one foresaw digital communication and its power to change the currency of the narrative. Some advertising and journalism began to lose authority forcing magazines to become more advertiser and product focussed. Digital selling, a rent-free, shop floor staff-free sales warehouse of cheap clothes made possible by exploiting developing country garment workers has facilitated a significant price drop. Soon the catwalk was no longer a trade show that took place behind closed doors now anyone with a phone could broadcast the designs on their Facebook page and copy-cat brands capitalised on the opportunity to reproduce at speed. Now we have a very crowded market place with multiple producers ignoring accountability to planetary or garment worker needs all using price bribes to attract the buyer.
The theme for this month is changing fashion from the inside, I work in fashion myself and know how wasteful and exploitative the industry can be. There was a moment for me when enough was enough and decided to do something about the situation at hand. Did you have a lightbulb moment where you realised something had to change? If so, what was it?
I had begun to buy recycled clothing from designers like Junky Styling and step out of the trend focussed conversation from about 2008. I had always been very vocal about the negative impact of the unachievable body ideals that fashion promotes and All Walks Beyond the Catwalk was started in 2009. This meant the projects I pitched began to be increasingly at odds with the conversations most CEOs wanted to have and the types of jobs on offer. It was visiting survivors of the collapsed Rana Plaza factory with People Tree founder Safia Minney MBE to hear their testimony of cruelty and exploitation in 2014 on the anniversary of the event in 2013, that would change me. I can remember like it was yesterday, the conversations of the injured and maimed women and the grief-stricken and destitute grandmothers looking after grandchildren because both parents had been killed.
As you see it, what are the main sustainability and ethicality issues we are facing in the fashion industry today and what can we do about them?
The issues are multiple and that can make people feel confused about what to do and how to do it so let’s simplify this to reframe and regain our power. Its starts by renaming ourselves. We can stop being consumers and start being citizen participants. I now use my money to vote for good practice. This begs the simple question...What if every time we made a purchase, we used our money to empower a small and ethical or pro-social business rather than prop up the bloated CEOs and their empires in our highstreets right now?
Part of the reason The Earth Issue was created was for a desire to form a community and have a platform where we raise awareness for the beauty of nature, using art and image culture as a driving force for environmental activism. Yet, at times many of us feel powerless in our ability as individuals. As an activist, what is your advice on how to find your voice and to remain passionate and driven when the world around us seems to be in opposition to your values?
My most effective activism is around objectification of women and lack of diversity in imagery...this is an ‘emotional ecology’ issue and I believe emotional and material sustainability can’t be separated. Fashion has the ability to empower human beings. We are magnificent in our difference and fashion has the power to iconise and glamourise all bodies for better self-esteem and mental health. The tall thin white model is only one human representation. Having read a large amount of psychology study about body image and identity during my masters in psychology prepared by scientists outside the fashion industry, I chose to remain inside the building with fashion knowledge knowing who to target and how to better dismantle the arguments. I call myself a Disruptive Fashion Lover and I encourage all creatives to enter the system, work out how to make it better and push back with emotional intelligence, creativity and tenacity. If we don’t do this we are simply protesters outside the building... but if we are inside, we can see where there is capacity for change and move on it. Capitalism is a soulless force which has anesthetised us all. Listen to your instinct, let it flourish and inform your voice and your choices. The drive for profit over people and planet is the cause of ecocide (the destruction of eco-systems). Legal pioneer Polly Higgins is right now preparing a test case and she could do with your support https://www.stopecocide.earth/ecocide
From our research into your background and career, it really does seem like you have seen it all. With movements like Extinction Rebellion’s Boycott Fashion, the rise of fashion rental, Fashion Revolution and shopping second hand. It seems that we are aware now more than ever of fashion’s part in the climate crisis and are more inclined to affect positive change. What do you think is the future of fashion?
The way forward is still great design to meet the needs of diverse bodies but the product needs to be respected and re-purposed. Many young creatives are now looking to apply their considerable design skills to refashioning existing clothing and to making a small ethical business underpinned by conscious design. Making new product when there is so much discarded product out there already, no longer works. While it is the responsibility of brands to incentivise their audience to ‘purchase,’ differently, we citizen participants have the real power and can seek out service providers with integrity. One of the obvious logistics is spending more for a better fit, fair traded and sustainable process, and taking that garment back for repair until it is repurposed by the same company that sold it in order to break down the garment to extract the threads and begin again. I’ve signed up to XR’s ‘Nothing new for 52’ from many reasons. One of them is about dismantling the old regime and encouraging new models.
Caryn Franklin MBE commentator and activist, @franklinonfashion.