When I close my eyes and think of shopping, I have a vision that feels strangely archaic: there is a cheerful and sophisticated person helping me—she is French, or at least vaguely European, and wearing a scarf—and she hands me a glass of champagne while I put on a pair of boots that fit perfectly. I realize they will change my life. I buy them, they are gingerly wrapped in tissue paper and slipped into a box, and my life, indeed, is changed.
This is a fantasy, obviously, and one that in many ways was never real (especially that last part). But it’s true that shopping used to be about slower, more satisfying pleasures. Over the past decade, and particularly over the past five years, with the boom of ultra-fast fashion, the great American pastime of shopping has become broken. Just take a look at the hashtag for #Sheinhaul on TikTok. Women recount the pieces they’ve purchased on the app, where most garments cost between $5-$17. In many cases, they’ve spent a few hundred dollars, which might get you one deeply discounted party dress at a department store, but on Shein gets you a mountain of plastic-wrapped baggies. In late April, the company was valued at over $100 billion, making it one of the largest unicorn companies in the world, essentially tied with SpaceX. It’s a far cry from the soft tissue enveloping a single (if pretty expensive!) pair of elegant boots.
Fast fashion, and Shein in particular, are often cited in reports about the climate crisis and fashion’s role in it. Even if the idea that fashion is the most polluting industry in the world is allegedly a myth, it’s still a business that thrives on convincing consumers we need more stuff. During the pandemic, when travel and other forms of entertainment were impossible, shopping online (especially with the once-in-a-lifetime discounts on offer) became a new form of leisure. Social media has encouraged us (even people beyond the average Shein demographic, which skews heavily Gen Z) to adopt a habit of wearing-once-and-discarding, whether it’s on Poshmark or The Real Real or just in the trash.
This pains me because I love to shop. I recently found a $7 T-shirt on Shein of a skeleton relaxing in a shopping cart and giving a peace sign. The skeleton was wearing a cute little outfit that itself could easily be cobbled together on Shein, and the text read “Live your best life.” I felt like I was witnessing a piece of propaganda for shopping’s horrible future. This is what businesses like Shein hope for us: the afterlife is a store. We are a product. We are dead—and loving it.
In the midst of all this madness comes a slender new manifesto in glossy black, by the British writer Alec Leach: The World Is On Fire and We’re Still Buying Shoes. Leach is a former editorial director of Hypebeast who is now a consultant specializing in sustainability, and also started the Instagram sustainable fashion space Future Dust. He told me in a conversation this spring that while most of the discourse around sustainability and shopping is about getting us to stop shopping, he was more interested in a guide to helping us have a better relationship to fashion, including how we acquire it. “The sustainability efforts mean nothing so long as our shopping habits keep on getting more and more excessive,” he said. “Consumption is projected to only increase over the coming decade.”
You are not opting out of fashion, but rather becoming a more active observer.
“Shopping is a distraction so much of the time,” he reflected. “It can be something that really brings something to your life, but only when it’s done intentionally.” In other words, he wants us to become more mindful shoppers.
Leach comes from the streetwear world, and spent years trapped in its miasma of hyped products and drops—a system which, as he outlines in the book, creates an environment in which consumers are barraged multiple times a year with products marketed as extremely limited, therefore falsely increasing the urgency to buy. But his lessons about how to develop a smarter relationship to clothes are equally applicable to the fast fashion and trend-mania of womenswear. The book is chilling and can be read in under an hour. And best of all, you’ll emerge a more mindful shopper. How do we reach this kind of pure nirvana? (Can there, indeed, be ethical consumption under capitalism?!)
One of the keys is to avoid the trend-mania that has dominated fashion discourse over the past several months. The boom of fast-fashion retailers like Shein has made it seem like a huge amount of people are doing something incredibly niche all at once, which simply isn’t true. Shein has no identifiable aesthetic but rather seeks to offer the possibility of every trend at every moment. (One day last month while perusing the app, I saw for sale a pair of sweatpants that said “STOP LOOKING AT MY BUTT” and a pair that read “I DON’T HAVE A BUTT.” Perhaps this is part of their specious efforts to encourage size inclusivity.) Designers like Jerry Lorenzo, of Fear of God, are already speaking to a customer who’s sick of this constant (and suspicious) churn of trendiness, but you don’t have to adapt a uniform of understated suiting to live this way. Simply investing in your own sense of personal style can make you a more sustainable shopper, by figuring out what kinds of trends you really like and how you can work them into what you already own. (This was the subject of an essay I wrote in early 2020, which Leach mentions in his book.) In 2017, for example, I bought a pair of sneakers from Virgil Abloh’s original collection for Nike. I kept wearing them even when, around 2019, fashion snobs decided they were passe. Of course, they are now collectors’ items, which is the kind of cycle that any person who really believes in their style is destined for. You are not opting out of fashion (which would be very sad, anyway), but rather becoming a more active observer. In fact, you should still let fashion seduce you, and let yourself fall prey to its irrational pull. Just remember that that does not necessarily mean buying whatever it is that has captured your heart. At the very least, the objects of your affection should really work to win a place in your life.
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But the second is to become an excellent browser, and to develop a deeper (even spiritual) relationship to your belongings. Shopping often results in a feeling of lack or loss, but it doesn’t have to. In Leach’s book, there’s a graph of what we think a new item will do for us versus what actually happens versus what should happen. We imagine our lives will improve (just as I described above). Instead, the product doesn’t live up to our expectations. (They usually don’t.) When you buy something carefully, though, or thoughtfully, or with an affirmative sense that this garment can give you confidence or joy or even just pleasure, the line goes up, and stays steady, until (hopefully many years later) you’ve worn it so much it’s no longer decent or able to be repaired.
Independent retailers in particular, said Leach, who is now based in Berlin, can be fonts of knowledge about products and brands. “Some of these places do genuinely have such an amazing way of being able to present the context around things in a way that I just think is really awesome,” he said, naming in particular Tres Bien and Voo Store, based in Sweden and Germany, respectively, but shoppable internationally. “I think now is definitely a really good time to start to think about brick and mortar again. People also just forget what you can kind of get out of retailers. If I was looking for a cobbler, I would just ring up one of the stores in Berlin and [ask], who’s your cobbler? And they’d tell me!” (I have a guy at an independent boutique in Soho with whom I have such a great shopping rapport that he’ll tell me when someone has had a bad season, and suggest that I save up instead for the next season.)
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Think of shopping as research and knowledge collecting, in other words—your chance to see not only how a particular item fits and feels but learn more generally about that brand’s universe. Think about how it fits into your wardrobe and into your life. Does it feel aspirational, pragmatic, realistic? (There are no wrong answers here!) Is the silhouette or the fabric something you already have a lot of? Once you develop more scrutiny, you’ll find that fewer things live up to your standards, and you’ll simply buy less.
But even better, you’ll have things you really love. Last spring, I put in a number of gleeful browsing sessions when Jonathan Anderson’s Spring 2021 Loewe collection started coming into stores. That was one of the first collections I’d covered extensively during the first round of “pandemic fashion weeks.” I had treasured the books and other strange ephemera Anderson had sent to journalists, and had a handful of long, weird conversations with the designer about where everything was going and how everything felt, plus what kind of art and photography he was looking at.
Loewe’s pieces are very often out of my own budget, but I certainly fantasized about the life I’d have in a totally wackadoo blue knitted sequin skirt and top that dragged to the ground and tied into knots, like a washed-up mermaid’s uniform. Eventually, I began plotting purchasing it as a sort of keepsake for the season when I felt like I’d really become a fashion critic. I spent three months chucking money away for it and finally hunted it down on a deep discount. And every time I wear it, I feel like I’m actually on the line of fantastical ascent predicted by the dream of buying. That’s not the case with everything I own, but it’s the standard I have in mind.
This isn’t just for big fancy purchases and event-wear, of course. It has to be an everyday practice. Leach said this was true of the hoodie he was wearing, for example—it’s something he hunted for, and truly believes in. “It is really annoying shopping that way,” Leach admitted. “It takes a really long time—it’s taken me so long to find a hoodie that I really love. You really have to put work in.”
“But when you get it,” he said, looking up at the ceiling in joy, “you’re just like, Okay, this is perfect.”
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US