David Jones Elizabeth St shop window

A fashion revolution born from the rubble of tragedy

On the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse,
Sinéad Fogarty takes a long, hard look at her own wardrobe

My wardrobe stands heaving in the corner, a mere handspan shorter than Hagrid. Yet the 2.3-metre feat of fibreboard is, in fact, a mausoleum. For the clothes I actually wear are strewn across The Chair – precariously piled atop one another like a triple-scoop of ice cream.

The wardrobe is haunted with “It was on sale!” choices, many of which are crimes against fashion. Yet real victims exist as a result of my maximalist attitude to clothing. The half-yearly fashion seasons of Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter have morphed into 52 micro-seasons celebrated by fast fashion companies.

The movie The True Cost documents the hazardous working conditions that many Third World garment-makers endure to churn out cheap clothing. Conditions like those at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where workers manufactured apparel for brands including Benetton, Mango, Primark and Walmart. A total of 1,135 people were killed when the building collapsed in 2013 – yet the addiction to fast, affordable fashion is hard to break.

Denim production can have serious social and environmental impacts. Photo: Sinéad Fogarty

Enter The Minimalists, a pair of ex-New York City financiers who packed up their lives, quite literally, to extol the virtues of having less.

In a blog post titled Packing Party: Unpack a Simpler Life, Ryan Nicodemus outlines how he traded his sanity for the joy of owning stuff, following the blind assumption that more things = more happiness. From kitchenware and electronics, to furniture and clothes, not a wall, table or drawer in his abode was left bare.

So he boxed up absolutely everything, vowing to unpack only the items he needed. “After three weeks, 80 per cent of my stuff was still in those boxes,” he writes.

While I don’t intend to make a trip down to Kennard’s Storage World, a life lived with the bare necessities sounds pleasing. If you’ve ever opened your closet and declared, despite the resounding evidence arrayed before you, that ‘I have nothing to wear!’ then perhaps having choice taken away is the solution. Joshua Fields Millburn, The Minimalist’s other half, puts it simply: “A minimalist wears their favourite clothes every day.”

Minimalist blogger Courtney Carver addressed her wardrobe woes by creating Project 333. The rules are simple: stick to 33 items of clothing, including accessories, jewellery, outerwear and shoes, for three months. Ms Carver first wrote about the concept in 2010, well before ethical fashion was fashionable. Eight years later, #project333 is still trending, with more than 30,000 recent Instagram posts capturing 33-piece capsule wardrobes.

With my IKEA Pax wardrobe at full capacity, I decide to participate in a wardrobe experiment, committing myself to seven items for six weeks. I wrangle my wardrobe to meet the mid-autumn chill, choosing a Marcs skirt and coat, a Cue black wool dress, a cashmere sweater and black jeans from Uniqlo, a quick-dry T-shirt from Lorna Jane, leather boots and a scarf.

The seven-piece capsule wardrobe which Sinéad Fogarty lived in for six weeks. Photos: Supplied

With only three outfit options to choose from, I sidestep the usual morning fashion fuss with 15 minutes to spare. The extra time allows me to exchange my routine pout and power walk combo for a dawdling drop of coffee before class. The remaining clothes in my wardrobe, creased from their static storage, hanker to be re-homed.

While donating clothes to Salvos or Vinnies stores is common, SWOP Clothing Exchange, burrowed beside Sydney’s Enmore Theatre, swaps the dowdy ambience of most secondhand shops for that of a discotheque.

“The way that we source all of our stock is through our exchange that happens every Friday. People can bring in clothes and then they receive store credit or cash for the items that we would like to sell in our store,” says Bethany Wicks, co-owner and store manager.

I arrive towing a five-kilogram tote bag, brimming with laundered pieces which had languished in the darkened corners of my cupboard. As Ms Wicks sorts through my pile, I peruse the swathe of skittle-coloured clothes, while Saturday Night Fever croons from the stereo. For four of my pieces, she offers me either $35 in cash, or a $70 voucher to use in-store, which I take while eyeing up a vintage coat in viridian green.

As other customers shuffle in, carrying duffles filled with their wardrobe damage, I ask Ms Wicks, how in Hepburn’s name did it get to this?

The Fabric Social, Variety Hour, Yevu and Leonard St are Australian-owned ethical fashion labels. Photo: Sinéad Fogarty

She explains: “Commercial stores are set up to sell to you. The lights, the mirrors, the music – they make you feel glamorous. You need to block all that out and ask yourself, “Is this piece of clothing worth that amount? Will it last more than one season?’’

The Social Outfit in Newtown design their pieces around remnant fabric donations they receive, including textiles from Bianca Spender, Romance Was Born and Seafolly.

Retail manager Jessica Lee Parker affirms the importance of looking beyond branding to ask yourself: “Who made my clothes?”

“Look at the beautiful seams on this Crazy Trees top, and think of all the time and effort that has gone into doing that! This will help people to appreciate their clothing more, be willing to pay prices that are necessary for ethical fashion, and look after their clothes as well, so they’ll have the garment for a long time.”

The tiny shop on King Street also houses Social Outfit’s sewing operations, which can be seen through windows behind display shelves.

“It does make some people look more closely at the garments, but other don’t really care and just like the look of them, and that’s fine!” says Ms Lee Parker. “Because the clothes need to speak for themselves, and should sell without having the backstory.”

A lifelong lover of colour and prints, Valeria Ramirez wears many hats, including yoga teacher, sewing instructor and fashion designer of her label, Yogitown.

Shop window of David Jones Sydney city store. Photo: Sinéad Fogarty

“I don’t like to say that I’m a fashion designer,” she observes. “The term fashion is associated with following trends, consuming a lot, and wearing what they tell you you should wear, rather than just following your heart and being yourself.”

Ms Ramirez believes the fashion industry’s focus on providing masses of fast, affordable fashion has led consumers to overlook the origin and purpose of clothing.

“My canvas is my clothes. If I am going to put something on my skin, I want to know where it came from.

“A couple of years ago, it was all about buying something new every week, not worrying about whether it would last, or what it was made of. That’s why, for me, yoga is so related to fashion, because yoga finds union.”

As my clothing challenge wraps up, I begin to crave the fun to be found in crafting the perfect outfit. While my enforced sartorial strictness turned dressing sombre, and my wardrobe stale, I’ve found a solution. I’ll start wearing the clothes I missed, donate those I didn’t care for any more, and pause for a moment before waving my PayPass, to ask: “Who made my clothes?” – Sinéad Fogarty @realslimsineady