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Luxury fashion is a tough term to define. It could mean something different for everyone.
It could refer to a high price, exclusivity and uniqueness, high-quality materials, design, or craftsmanship. Because of these associations, and the assumption that people will naturally buy fewer luxury items than mass-market items, luxury fashion can appear as inherently conscious. But is it?
Well, beyond just selling products, these brands sell an identity, and consumers typically partake as a way to be a part of the perceived affluent elite. That desire for the appearance of luxury, can sometimes outweigh the factual quality of so-called luxury products.
For many, the label “Made in Europe” has been synonymous with very high ethical standards. But a series of investigative reports by the Clean Clothes Campaign found “an immense gap between the legal minimum wage and the estimated minimum living wages”in European countrieswhere Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Armani produce their collections. To put it another way, these brands were paying less than workers need to live a decent life. The research revealed that in 2014this wage“gap tends to be larger in Europe’s cheap labor countries” such as Turkey, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Romania than in Asia, even.
It turns out that paying more for clothing and accessories doesn’t directly correlate with higher pay for workers on assembly lines and in cotton fields. In Italy,the head of a company was arrested in 2019 on charges of allegedlyemploying “dozens” of undocumented garment workers for luxury brands, including Armani, Saint Laurent, and Fendi. (All brands associated denied contracts with this factory, and the outcome of the trial remains unknown.)
The New York Times exposed Italy’s luxury sector for having seamstresses produce fashion garments on a piece-rate basis from their homes for local factories without a contract or insurance and paid in cash monthly. “Though they are not exposed to what most people would consider sweatshop conditions, the homeworkers are allotted what might seem close to sweatshop wages,” The New York Times said. There is not a statutory minimum wage in Italy, but roughly€5-7 per hour is considered an appropriate standard. “In extremely rare cases, a highly skilled worker can earn as much as €8-10 an hour. But the homeworkers earn significantly less, regardless of whether they are involved in leatherwork, embroidery, or another artisanal task.”
In some instances, luxury goods are no different than mass-market ones. Some luxury products are expensive because the material is rare and luxurious, and the craftsmanship takes hours or even days. Loro Piana’s vicuña sweaters come to mind. But some “luxury” items are just plain t-shirts. As HighSnobiety reported, a $15 t-shirt isn’t so different from a $500 one with a luxury logo — same materials, wildly different price.
So, is it possible to buy clothes that are both luxurious and responsible? Yes.
More fashion-forward buyers are holding brands accountable for their clothes’ impact on the planet, as they view brands as an extension of their values and identity. A growing number of ethical and sustainable luxury brands are offering both high-quality and beautiful pieces. And pioneers such as Stella McCartney are demonstrating that you can be a pioneer in sustainability and luxury.
Indeed, 2020 has presented multiple challenges for the luxury fashion sector — one of the (previously)well-performing industries. Most luxury businesses are now rethinking their value chain and trying to ensure their product is environmentally and ethically sound. This goes beyond conscious materials to the work of embedding inclusivity within the brand DNA while empowering consumers to shop luxuriously but responsibly.
Here’s what truly sustainable luxury fashion looks like:
Skilled artisans and traditional craft: Identify if the brand engages in responsible manufacturing and commits to protecting the welfare of its workforce. Ideally, it’s also trying to preserve rich, traditional customs, such as embroidery, beading, leatherwork, jewelry making, weaving, block-printing, and dyeing techniques. Start by checking out how forthcoming and detailed the brand is regarding its suppliers and supply chain. You can review how much of the information available is backed up with third-party certifications such as Nest.
Natural and heritage materials: The production of luscious natural materials, such as silk, alpaca, vicuña, cashmere, camel, wool, yak, khadi cotton, and more is a fundamental source of income for smallholder farmers in many countries, and it’s one of the many ways luxury brands can offer value to their customers.
Close attention to fit and details: As opposed to mass-market brands, luxury brands invest time and money to design a well-made item that feels bespoke by paying attention to detail and craftsmanship. The item should feel perfectly designed for a real body, as opposed to a hanger or a computer-generated model.
Hands-on service: Luxury fashion goes beyond creating and selling a well-crafted item; it becomes an experience. With a high-price item comes attentiveness, excellent customer experience, and personalized services, such as help in choosing the right item and aftermarket care and repair. This can also reduce the volume of purchases by reducing returns and ensuring you keep each purchase for a decade or more.
Sustainable yet high-end packaging: Notice the quality and eco-friendliness of the materials. For example, glossy paper can’t be recycled; neither can mixed-material packaging. Look for brands that favor FSC-certified paper over plastic, use natural, non-toxic dyes like soy instead of traditional petroleum-based ink, or offer backyard compostable packaging.
Inclusivity: Many luxury brands have faced scrutiny due to their insensitive messaging that have offended and excluded communities. For example, Prada settled with New York City to increase its diversity after being called out on its culturally insensitive imagery. And Dolce & Gabbana offended all of China with its racist advertising. Pay attention to both the brand’s messaging and its hiring practices — do they reflect the mistaken belief that only white people deserve luxury fashion? Or do they balance price exclusivity with image inclusivity?
In the end, if a luxury item is worth it or not would depend on your discretion. It comes down to the cost-per-wear, and if you consider the expense a smart investment. Knowing all that, if you only wear the very best, here are some of our favorite sustainable luxury fashion brands:
Another Tomorrow creates modern, sensual, high quality, and timeless products with only organic natural materials that support soil health, ecosystems, and communities. It uses forest-based fibers from responsibly managed forests with zero net contribution to deforestation. The brand also offers resale to further extend its garments’ life and reduce raw material usage.
Nicholas K creates timeless designs that are made in a socially and environmentally responsible way. It chooses natural and renewable materials over synthetic alternatives. The brand does not use fur and uses eco-friendly, low-impact certified dyes.
As one of the world’s most desirable fashion houses, Gucci claims that its “eclectic, contemporary, romantic products represent the pinnacle of Italian craftsmanship.”The brand is committed to environmentalbenchmarks and guarantees that it will make 95% of its raw material traceable.Gucci is also committed to the sustainability objectives set out by the parent company Kering, which states several sustainability strategies including reducing its environmental footprint and choosing responsible and well-managed supply sources. While Good on You gives it a mere “it’s a start” rating, according to Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, it is the most transparent brand in the luxury category, coming in 28 out of the 250 large brands assessed. If you’re looking for a recognizable luxury logo that is more ethical than the rest, then Gucci would be the way to go.
Caravana’s versatile, free-spirited and Mayan-inspired resort wear is handmade in Mexico by artisans honoring traditional techniques, each taking many hours to create. The brand uses a homemade dye manufactured in Mexico, which means less of an environmental impact on nature.
Lauren Manoogian’s knitwear collections are ethically crafted in Peru, where traditional craftsmanship intersects with experimental techniques. Offering small, specialty-focused seasonal collections, Manoogian’s focus ranges from signature hand-loomed wool, cashmere, and organic cotton knits to vegetable-tanned leather accessories.
Gabriela Hearst launched her eponymous label, a luxury women’s and men’s ready-to-wear and accessories collection, in 2015. Each garment is constructed with conscientious materials, including silk, cashmere, linen, and wool from her family’s Uruguayan ranch. The brand uses biodegradable TIPA packaging and is committed to being plastic-free and investing in zero-waste stores.
Stella McCartney’s eponymous label designs ethical and high-end clothing, shoes, and accessories with a responsible, honest, and modern ethos. Its sustainable and cruelty-free designs lead the brand to pioneer new alternative materials, pushing towards circularity and sustainability. Stella McCartney measures and reports its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions with an approved science-based target to reduce them.
Based in Cape Town, Sindiso Khumalo founded her eponymous label to create modern sustainable textiles with a strong emphasis on African storytelling. She designs the textiles in her colorful ready-to-wear collections by hand through watercolors and collage and works closely with NGO’s to develop them.
Autumn Adeigbo designs colorful, fashion-forward clothing for women who like to stand out in a crowd. As a proud, black female business owner, Autumn is devoted to positively impacting women’s lives across cultures by utilizing female-owned production facilities in the U.S. and providing global artisans with meaningful employment and fair wages. From sourcing to delivery, Autumn embraces sustainable practices by purchasing in limited quantities and producing only what is ordered, minimizing fabric waste, excessive manufacturing, and surplus stock. Which means her collections are eco-friendly and exclusive.
Made in Africa, Studio 189is an artisan-produced fashion lifestyle brand and social enterprise that creates African-inspired apparel. It works with artisanal communities that specialize in various traditional craftsmanship techniques, including natural plant-based dye indigo, hand-batik, kente weaving, and more. Studio 189 focuses on empowerment, creating jobs, supporting education, and skills training.
Angel Chang is a zero-carbon womenswear line handmade by indigenous mountain tribes in China that follow ancient techniques. Its traditional craftsmanship includes organic and all-natural raw materials like cotton, ramie, flax, and hemp, making its wastewater chemical-free and non-polluting.
So Good To Wear creates luxury, cashmere essentials by employing artisans in a fair-trade knitting factory in Nepal. Its cashmere knitters are well trained, well-compensated, and work under fair and safe labor conditions. A portion of each item’s sale is saved in a special fund, contributing to Nepal’s rebuilding after the earthquakes.
Collectiva Concepcion is a socially conscious, accessible luxury brand that creates feminine apparel rooted in Mexican design. The brand supports women-led micro-economies in Mexico and donates a percentage of its sales to them.
Abadia is an ethical Middle Eastern luxury label that creates timeless contemporary designs. It works with over 40 female artisans who use traditional techniques and knowledge passed down through generations to create modest and elegant designs.
Raeburn reworks surplus fabrics and garments to create distinctive and functional streetwear. Its designs balance luxury, handcraft, accessibility, and wearability.
Responsibly made in New Zealand, Maggie Marilyn creates feminine, luxury ready-to-wear and accessories. The brand publishes a Bi-annual sustainability report aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in which outlines the multiple sustainability strategies the brand has achieved or plans on improving. A recent report states that 100% of Maggie Marilyn’s“synthetic fibers are now from post-consumer waste” and that “100% of its virgin sourced fabrics are Oeko-Tex certified,”meaning they are free from harmful chemicals. Maggie Marilyn prides itself on being transparent and shares on its website details of all its makers, suppliers, and where possible, farmers.
Founded in 2016, BITE is a contemporary, luxury womenswear label with a mission to create sustainable yet thoughtfully designed clothes. Each piece is handcrafted and tailored to ensure the perfect fit. It sources natural organic fibers and recycled and low-impact fabrics with environmental and social certifications.
Founded in 2016, Ziran uses Xiang Yun Sha silk to create its sustainable garments. The founder discovered this type of silk while researching ancient Chinese techniques in college and instantly fell in love with its luxurious beauty and cultural significance. The silk is natural, wrinkle-resistant, and its production is only made four months out of the year. All of the Zian pieces are hand-cut and sewn in Downtown Los Angeles.
Each of Roopa’s vibrant, one-of-a-kind clothingpieces is designed as a future heirloom, to be thoughtfully handed down from one generation to the next, reinterpreted over and over again. All manufacturing processes occur under one roof in Bangalore, India, where skilled artisans collaborate on each collection and ensure the skills and craftsmanship like beading, embroidery, weaving, dyeing, and printing continues to grow, flourish and evolve. Natural fabrics, such as silk and recycled cotton are dyed and block printed using natural, eco-friendly dyes.
Founded in 2012, VOZ is a B-certified ethical fashion company that pays living wages for every textile and sewn garment. It uses sustainable fibers and processes to create its elegantly-cut and free-spirited apparel and accessories collections. The company collaborates with politically and economically marginalized women to create fashion collections and provide design leadership, training, and opportunity for indigenous women in the rural regions where they reside.
enVie takes “oldtimer fur” (aka vintage) and turns it into something that is modern, luxurious, eco-friendly, and less toxic than faux furs, which are mostly made from petroleum. The brand also works carefully with hunters and trappers but never sources their fur from breeding animal farms. You can also send enVie your own old vintage fur to be recycled into something new.
This respected designer has almost all of her collection manufactured in NYC with eco-friendly fabrics. Her designs are characterized by their timelessness, ease, and modern take on luxury. The company is owned and run by women, which the team continuously looks to develop special collaborations with women artisans around the world.
The Folklore is a New York City-based multi-brand online concept store and wholesale showroom that allows U.S. based and international customers to easily shop exclusive styles from Africa and the diaspora’s top luxury and emerging fashion brands like Andrea Iyamah, MaXhosa, Loza Maléombho, Orange Culture, Simon and Mary, and Pichulik. Exclusivity and sustainability is key for The Folklore, so each season, it carries a limited stock of each luxury item. Most of the fashion, accessories, and homewares available were handmade by local artisans based in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and Cote D’Ivoire.
Maison de Mode is a luxury online ethical fashion retailer founded by Amanda Hearst that specializes in unique ready-to-wear, fine jewelry, accessories, and home goods. The product icons indicating recycled, organic, made in the USA, artisan-made, etc. allow you to easily shop according to your values.
YOOXYGEN is a division within YOOX that is dedicated to featuring a curation of responsible fashion. It chooses its selection based on the brand’s transparency, and if their products are created while being mindful of the planet, people, and animals.