I first found Annching Wang through her beautiful Canadian fashion line, Avery by Wang. She’s now the brains behind The Distillerist, a blog about a simpler approach to fashion, beauty and life beyond the fast lane.
I’ve been around the block a bit as a design student, looking at a lot of designers and clothes, from the bigger picture (how do we improve processes to do less damage to the environment?) to the minute stitches and details. I’ve been in factories and seen how it’s done. I’ve worked with women who sew from home. Most importantly, I’ve had my fair share of fashion impulse buys and wardrobe mishaps, from skewed jerseys to too-short pants. After all that, I’ve developed a certain philosophy on fashion that focuses mainly on progress over perfection.
Buying organic, fair trade, recycled–it all matters, but that stuff can depend largely on what’s available out there. And if you’re looking for a specific style (i.e. that perfect little black dress), sometimes that just isn’t possible (yet). True sustainability though is about keeping pieces for a long time. And that depends just as much on how much we buy, which depends on how well we buy, as much as it does on what we actually buy.
So here’s what I’ve learned about clothing and how recognize quality for a truly sustainable wardrobe, even if not everything in your closet is organic or fair trade.
Buy natural fabrics.
There’s a bit of debate when it comes to naturals versus synthetics, but I’ve always leaned towards the feeling of breathable cotton and silks. They’re sustainable in a different way. After you die (sorry, but it’s gonna happen), they don’t stick around as garbage. Natural fabrics usually are biodegradable, which means that they’ll disintegrate, unlike many synthetic fabrics which are built to last and withstand the elements. Technology has come a long way though, so there are exceptions and blurred lines (recycled polyester, tencel, etc.), but nothing beats a fabric that we’ve worn for thousands of years. (If it ain’t broke…)
If in doubt, go one size up.
This rule applies especially to garments that come with natural shrinkage. Most companies still don’t preshrink, so remember this when buying those sweatpants that you want to just touch the floor to go for the ones that just go a little bit past. Worse case scenario: you can always get them hemmed. Much better than being stuck with a pair of pants too short that you’ll never wear.
Check the lining, the buttons, the zippers.
Many fast fashion garments can emulate the look of high quality on the outside, but turn something inside out and signs of quick and fast manufacturing are evident. Little things can make a difference. On delicate garments, check for quality finishing like french seams. The fastest finish is a plain serge, but that kind of stitch can put tension on fabric and tear delicate fabrics more easily over time. For blouses and shirts, check for extra buttons (or at least for a more generic button that can be easily replaced). And garments that are lined usually keep their shape better and last longer (because there’s an extra layer between fabric and sweat, which disintegrates most natural fabrics over time).
Try it on.
A good fit is everything, next to great fabric. Try it on, and examine it from all angles. If it’s not a “damn, this looks good” then put it back. Especially if it’s on the sale rack. Exception: if you can have your clothes altered (which I would definitely recommend if you love something but there’s just one thing that isn’t quite fitting properly). It’s a fact that most things that we think look good on the rack either aren’t right for our style or our shape. And on that note, never buy anything online that doesn’t have a return policy (yes, that might mean skipping on that online sample sale with final sale pieces..they’re there for a reason). When your home is the dressing room, you have to have some sort of backup plan.
Wash it properly.
No matter how great the quality of a garment is, poor washing can ruin anything. Check care instructions before you throw something in along with the rest of your clothes. Wash with cold water more often than hot, and hang dry more often than machine drying, especially with delicates. Separate your darks and brights from lights. Those generic everyone-should-know-rules are there for a reason. Reason being white jeans dyed blue on the edges. Lastly, most garments that say they require dry cleaning actually don’t. Try eco laundry care brand The Laundress’ delicate wash detergent. And check out the rest of their site for the best laundry tips to keep your clothes lasting way longer than you ever thought possible.
At the end of the day, these are just general guidelines. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to quality. Cheap items have lasted me for years, and expensive ones have been made with poor fit. Trust your gut, try it on, and most importantly, buy what you love. If the choice comes down to a cool, trendy piece that you just want to try versus a piece that you’re in love with and know you’ll wear, choose the latter. I’ve learned this lesson and it makes the single biggest difference between a sustainable wardrobe full of pieces you actually wear versus a closet that looks like it belongs to someone else with pieces that never see the light of day.
And that, my friends, brings me to tip #6:
Buy what you love.
Make sure you sign up for The Distillerist’s email list!