The Uniform project you have been working on since 2016 has taken on a new resonance in the age of the pandemic – have you been thinking about that project recently?
When we talk about essential workers, it absolutely takes on a new resonance. One of the ways I got involved with helping support my community during the peak of the pandemic was by re-connecting with the Department of Sanitation New York. In response to a shortage of supplies, I linked up with Ryan Keeley to donate 40 gallons of hand sanitizer to NYC’s front-line sanitation workers. Essential workers have always been integral to the wellbeing of our daily lives, yet historically they have never received the same respect or recognition for their contributions as essential workers to society. This really hits close to home because my Uniform project has always been a way to bring attention to global issues. It functions as a conversation piece and a way for people to be able to relate fashion with issues like sustainability, workers’ rights, and the treatment of essential workers.
The current climate almost reinforces the message I was trying to get across when the Uniform project was created. I don’t think back then I was using the word “essential”. I was just describing the workers in New York City that were pivotal to our health and well-being, which turned out to be sanitation workers. The project is about shining a positive light on these people through the lens of fashion.
Workers’ uniforms are kind of like a blank canvas in a way; separate from mass culture and consumption at its core. I really try to get my hands on uniforms that only civic workers wear and I think some of that came from seeing anyone from a skater to Wu-Tang Clan wearing brands like Carhartt and The North Face. Back then, you weren’t yet seeing the adoption of these clothes at a “higher” level, or at Paris Fashion Week. It was real people on the streets, the hardest rappers, the coolest skaters, and the workers. No one else.
So the people who first started to remix the meaning of workwear was the skate and hip-hop community, people that I really looked up to. They were the ones who pioneered making uniforms relevant in the fashion context. It was authentic people adapting workwear and uniforms in interesting ways that made it so established in the fashion realm to this day. They played with the proportions and styling – you would see people wearing it in a baggy way, or customizing the pieces to fit their personal style.
Workwear is also appealing because it’s functional. It doesn’t break apart, it lasts forever, it wears in nicely, and looks beautiful when it’s vintage. The product itself is just really appealing because it’s built to last. It’s anti-fast fashion. Quality materials, functional design, and its street style appeal really make uniforms the ultimate garment.
I think the pandemic pushed the consumer to be more aware of their buying habits and the way the entire fashion system functions. This is the “woke” moment for everyone. During the pandemic, I also realized that I don’t really need a lot of stuff to be happy or to live comfortably. I’ve been wearing less and consuming less, which means that perhaps we can start producing less. I think the things that we do need to consume should last long and our purchases should be more thoughtful.
I hope the consumers would start demanding change from the brands they support. It is hard to see people boycotting on a universal level, but it is possible. Brands that aren’t sustainable won’t be able to change the system overnight. If the consumers are acting as supervisors, brands would feel pressure to change and start to put in the effort to understand what sustainability really means.
We aren’t willing to simply believe what brands are putting out in these blanket statements of progress. Consumers are starting to become more educated about the supply chain, distribution systems, et cetera. This means that we are not only erratically changing the way we are buying, but also demanding brands to change the way they produce. At the same time, we need to be robust about the progress. Consumers can change more quickly than companies and systems can. Not only do you need to start demanding, but also be willing to ride along with brands on this journey, making sure brands are taking the necessary steps and building new infrastructures.
Additionally, corporations need to tell us the plan. Brands need to convey to the consumers their plans and actually follow through. I think that is the most important thing for the brands to do in this emerging market.
A lot of brands who are posting messages of solidarity are the same people who don’t actually care about the movement behind the scenes. We really need to check people for their actions and hold them accountable for the positions they claim to stand for. Once this all settles down, that is when the real work starts.
This is a turning point in the world where brands can really reflect on what is happening and use this moment to bring about long-term change. That is all we can really ask for.
I think we should think more critically about every aspect of our industry, the definition of an American brand is just one of them. Everything in our lives is currently being challenged and approached with a critical mind, and I think the same thing can be applied to what it means to be an American brand. American fashion needs to be understood in a more inclusive context and represent more diverse voices in meaningful ways. We need diversity not just in designers and workers, but also in the boardrooms and with decision making power.
America is so diverse and you have people from around the world shopping in stores, but inside the stores, the brands don’t represent the customer and the demographic of that community. American brands need to reflect the American people and the American Dream. Everyone should be a part of building up, and benefiting from, the economy of this nation that we all live in.