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Does sustainable fashion suffer from amnesia?

Author: Uwe Westphal, Journalist in Berlin and London. Westphal is co-founder of Jewel Institute of Fashion, Florida.

This article was co-authored by Philipp Nell, TV producer, Berlin.


Does sustainable fashion suffer from amnesia?


To be clear, no, I have nothing against sustainable fashion or the many start-ups that are trying to do just that around the world. Thousands of initiatives are trying to convince their governments to pass new laws to stop the seemingly endless transport of textile waste to developing nations.  There is no question that fast fashion has flooded the world with cheap products. However, it is important to note that consumers like you and me have been sustaining this for a long time. I am not only referring to individual purchasing decisions, but to the fact that fashion as a cultural asset is in high demand precisely because more than 8 billion people around the world, with widely varying purchasing power, have to dress themselves. Experts say that if we wanted to stop polluting the environment with synthetic chemical fibers, we would need seven trillion dollars in subsidies and investments for innovative new developments in fashion production.


But is fast fashion an entirely new problem? Not really. Which makes it all the more surprising that the sustainability movement has paid so little attention to its historical predecessors.


It is not only in Europe that the use of synthetic fibers for fashionable clothing has been a blessing. As early as the 1920s, chemists and textile manufacturers were experimenting with new man-made fibers, which later, as nylon or simply polyester fabrics, provided millions of consumers with inexpensive clothing for the mass production of everyday fashion. Not everyone could afford fabrics made of wool, cotton, or even cashmere and silk. Especially not the seamstresses who worked 18 hours a day for a few pennies.


However, cheap clothing had its greatest triumph after 1945, largely due to the global trade in fashionable clothing, new (toxic) dyeing processes, and synthetic fibers. Global supply chains were established for globally produced clothing. But this was only possible with cheap labor in Asia or Latin America. Two weeks after an order is placed in Pakistan, China or Vietnam, the finished luxury item is already hanging in shop windows in London, New York City, Paris, Moscow or Tokyo. Everyone seemingly benefits. Haute couture as well as ZARA, H&M and many other companies.


But if we look more closely at history, we see that people before us faced these very problems. On a much lower scale, Jewish fashion designers in Berlin criticized and predicted this development as early as 1870.  


In the midst of the First World War (1914-18), the gentlemen on the boards of department stores and fashion houses in Berlin called for a new patriotism and therefore restraint in fashion. They called for moderation, localism and a new German national spirit. "We must distance ourselves from the decadence of Parisian couture," demanded the German national fashion designers. Only expensive woolen clothes from now on. It was a call that was largely ignored by the German political establishment. But for the first time, politics and fashion were mixed. In any case, it was a dubious project with no lasting effect.


A few years later, young Jewish fashion designers in Berlin created a new wave of mass production in the fashion industry. Especially in so called roaring 1920s Berlin, man-made fibers were considered the latest and ultimate innovation in the fashion mass market. At the same time, Jewish entrepreneurs started tackling the sustainability issues of their time. Gerson and Mannheimer, two of Berlin's most prestigious Jewish fashion houses, demanded an end to the low wages paid to the 90% female workforce. Even the trade unions joined in. While the wonderful Berlin super department store Nathan Israel emphasized the importance of the use of natural raw materials.  A lesson from those times: Fashion products are themselves cultural products and at the same time expressions of culture and therefore always refer to society. They are mass products that are consumed quickly and generate high profits. At the same time, we see that resources (labor, raw materials and creative spirit) are not infinite. Of course, no one was talking about climate change back then. But, as we have seen, these challenges can be met through creativity, at different levels and in different ways. Diversity of approach may be the key to finding different solutions to raising issues.


But no one could have imagined that after 1933, when the Nazis came to power, German politics would interfere with Berlin's dreamy fashion world. The Nazis hated everything about fashion: creativity, liberalism, democracy, and diversity. In 1938-9, they expropriated and closed nearly 3,000 Jewish fashion businesses in Berlin. Jewish fashion designers and employees fled abroad or were deported to labor and concentration camps. A creative industry came to an end. The greatest talents left Berlin. Norbert Jutschenka, one of the most important new Berlin fashion designers, fled to New York. Berlin's once internationally renowned fashion center was destroyed, its creators arrested, expelled, and murdered. 


Please insert attached photograph of Norbert Jutschenka

Subtext to the photograph: Norbert Jutschenka at Berlin airport, shortly before he escaped the Nazis.


Why it is so important to remember this today, as the fashion industry undergoes much-needed and fundamental changes in the 21st century?


Creative fashion cannot survive without pluralism and freedom.  Fashion designers today must take a stand against prejudice, racial hatred and anti-Semitism. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has exemplified this in its 2023 Appeal:  We Must Talk About Anti-Semitism. Michael Kors, Donna Karan and Kenneth Cole, to name just three, were in the front row. Jennifer Fisher, a jewelry designer from New York City, recognized the problem: "...the fashion industry has an ethical and social responsibility to show the world how fashion can be a powerful tool in combating antisemitism..."


Our current knowledge that the fashion industry contributes to climate change with billions of tons of toxic clothing waste has been noticed by more and more young fashion designers for about 10 years. They are working on alternative production methods, i.e. circular recycling, supply chains as well as online distribution and changing consumer attitudes.

All of this started in the 19th century. That is precisely why all sustainable fashion must look to its predecessors and learn from their mistakes, knowledge, and indeed wisdom.

Fashion has never been without history. Vivienne Westwood has emphasized this again and again in her statements. But it is very unfortunate that this ignorance of history still persists, not only in Germany. The Berlin and German fashion associations still do not remember the many fashion designers who were expelled and murdered during the Nazi era.  Not a word about the 18 forced labor camps during the war in Germany and Europe. 

If you want to be sustainable, you should not pretend to be casually oblivious. Over the past 200 years, anti-Semites have repeatedly targeted Jewish fashion designers around the world. Anti-Semites and opportunist like Coco Chanel are only one example.

Making/producing and selling sustainable fashion within a framework of a functional business plan is a long-term task. Part of that is remembering one’s own past. Sustainable fashion can`t last in a historical vacuum.  

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