"Sustainability was not something that was on the top of my mind when I started designing," explained Gypsy Sport designer Rio Uribe. "But as I made collections more and more often I would have inventory that I was sitting on... I hated having that much waste in my life."
Uribe was perched onstage alongside Glenn Martens of Y/Project, Verbal and Yoon of Ambush and Martine Rose of her eponymous label at the Vogue Forces of Fashion conference on Thursday in New York City discussing the future of fashion. And the crowd present certainly seemed to reflect that future: while other rooms at the conference were full of people of all ages, the crowd Uribe addressed skewed decidedly younger, full of the buzzing energy of students, interns and early-career fashion professionals.
Over the course of the conversation, Uribe went on to explain how being ripped off by a mass-production-oriented corporation like Topshop feels invasive for a young designer like himself who is increasingly prioritizing sustainability.
"What I'm trying to do is to make it cool to be sustainable and actually appreciate slow fashion as opposed to fast fashion," he said. "[It's] for my own conscience. I can sleep better knowing that I'm not creating a ton of waste."
For Uribe, the solution both to the sustainability question and the getting-ripped-off question has come from a change of strategy. These days, he explained, he's making as many one-of-a-kind pieces as he can. That way he minimizes waste, cuts down the likelihood of someone buying his work just to copy it and manages to appeal to a generation of customers who are increasingly buying into the idea of limited-edition "drops."
Although the idea of drops is often discussed in the context of streetwear, Ambush co-founder and Dior Homme jewelry designer Yoon explained that she sees it as actually having originated with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's punk London boutique Sex, which featured one-off handmade designs.
“Streetwear's nothing new," she said. "Usually what's happening in a society in a political sense... gets reflected on the street. And [people] manifest that stuff through what they wear."
That was true with the hippies and the youthquake generation and punk, she claimed, and now we're seeing what it looks like for a new generation. As for where athleisure and luxury streetwear originated, she posited that social media may have less to do with it than people often think.
"It goes all the way back to reality shows and paparazzi culture," she said. "Those things get saturated into our media; we get so used to seeing celebrities in their 'normal wear.'"
According to Yoon, the drop model pioneered by Vivienne Westwood has Japan to thank for the fact that the concept caught on in such a widespread way: Japanese fashion fiends fell in love with punk and brought the limited-edition "drop" idea back to Japan, where it eventually infiltrated the streetwear scene there before spreading abroad and becoming the go-to strategy for labels of all kinds.
Asia's prominence in the spread of fashion trends was something that Yoon brought up, and all her fellow panelists agreed: Asia's a huge, and hugely important, market for emerging designers in particular. Uribe, Martens and Rose agreed that all of their labels owe a huge debt to avid supporters in Japan, Korea and China.
"I went to Hong Kong for the first time recently and it was such a different way of appreciating fashion," said Rose. "It was amazing. I've never felt so welcome... and appreciated. People are really excited [about fashion]."
Whether they're aiming to appeal to customers in Asia or elsewhere, all the designers also agreed that inclusivity is crucial for them. Rose talked about why she loves street casting, and shared a story about staging her latest show on a cul-de-sac where residents were invited to participate — a far cry from the "VIPs only" vibe that so many legacy houses strive to maintain. And Uribe noted that even though he did cast celebrity offspring Lourdes Leon, aka Madonna's daughter, in his latest (very diverse) show, he had her go through the entire casting process like any other model would rather than giving her special treatment.
It's this loosening up and dismantling the fashion establishment's old ways of doing things that really defines this generation of designers, more than anything.
"When I moved to Paris, it was so set in its heritage," Y/Project's Martens explained. "But about four years ago, something changed. There's finally an alternative… I think the youth really stood up because they wanted to have something to say."