Clare Press: Wardrobe Crisis
Her roster of past interviewees includes Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé but, within sustainable fashion, journalist Clare Press is a celebrity in her own right. As the world’s first Sustainability Editor for Vogue Australia, Clare helped make the climate crisis into a mainstream fashion conversation.
Beyond Vogue, the Yorkshire-born adoptive Australian is the Make Fashion Circular Ambassador for The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Sustainability Expert for Fashion Roundtable, and an advisory board member for Copenhagen Fashion Week and Global Fashion Agenda. Her intimate and informative podcast, Wardrobe Crisis, started in 2017 and is currently in its fourth season, boasting over 100 episodes.
Journalism is Clare’s main tool, but communicating the climate crisis is her ultimate purpose. And while designers like Demna Gvasalia paint a bleak future with apocalyptic fashion shows, Clare prefers to put a positive spin on things. Over coffee (in a reusable cup), Clare explained how to get ahead in fashion journalism without compromising your conscience, why it’s better to inspire change than incite fear, and who she wants to be her next podcast guest.
In February 2018, you became the world’s first Sustainability Editor, for Vogue Australia. How did that come about?
I pitched it to them. At that time, no-one seemed particularly excited about sustainability as a regular feature for the magazine; it was still considered something for a themed issue, so I had to hustle for it. Change takes outliers who are willing to push ahead when everyone else isn’t there yet. But the purpose of a magazine like Vogue is to tap into the zeitgeist and reflect it back at the reader. It presents where society and fashion are moving, so it makes sense to cover sustainability. I have been very privileged to work for Vogue and have such forward-thinking bosses, but I do want people to know that I was the architect of this role, because it hasn’t always been easy to get people on board.
“Change takes outliers who are willing to push ahead when everyone else isn’t there yet.”
The media is generally rallying around sustainability issues and covering the climate crisis in a deep way now, which is fantastic. Previously, it felt like the reserve of a handful of news journalists. I always looked up to Lucy Siegle and Tamsin Blanchard. Their pioneering books (To Die For and Green is the New Black respectively) came out over ten years ago, before this was a mainstream conversation. Both of them wrote primarily for newspapers, so this wasn’t really something the monthly, glossy fashion magazines were tackling.
What does the role entail?
I made it up as I went along. There was no job description, so I wrote my own. For the magazine, I contribute features in print and online. I also host conversations and panel discussions, and represent Vogue at events with a sustainability focus. I’m an editor-at-large, so I do lots of other jobs alongside it.
“The conversation around climate in Australia is intensely politicised and disappointingly so, which is stopping us from taking the action we need to take as a society.”
You live in Australia, where the effects of the climate crisis are much more visceral than in the UK. Do you think that had an impact on your appointment as the first Sustainability Editor?
I wish! Australia is asleep at the wheel. The catastrophic fires we experienced recently – which began in July and escalated over the Christmas period – are unlike anything we’ve seen before. The conversation around climate in Australia is intensely politicised and disappointingly so, which is stopping us from taking the action we need to take as a society. In Europe, the general consensus is that the climate crisis is a science-based fact, caused by human activity. In Australia, it’s still a raging debate. We’re talking about sustainable materials, circularity and upcycling, but we’re still not talking about the climate question.
“The next generation has got different expectations of what their business might look like, as well as different drivers and concerns.”
How do you think the climate conversation is developing internationally?
In 2020 and beyond, all industries are going to have to look more deeply at the climate impacts of what they produce and fashion is no exception. Some designers are already doing exceptional work in that space, while others are only at the beginning of that process. I think the UK is ahead conversationally. You only have to look at the Fixing Fashion Report that the Environmental Audit Committee put out last year and the level of cross-industry conversation to see how advanced London is. But I see emerging designers upcycling in Milan, Sydney and Melbourne. They’re everywhere, because the next generation has got different expectations of what their business might look like, as well as different drivers and concerns.
“In order to bring the majority of people along, we need to offer solutions and encouragement. We have to create a positive, inclusive movement that people want to take part in.”
You try to maintain a positive spin in your public posts and your podcast – why is that?
It’s important to be positive. In order to bring the majority of people along, we need to offer solutions and encouragement. We have to create a positive, inclusive movement that people want to take part in. I researched social movements a lot for my 2018 book, Rise and Resist: How to change the world, so I know this to be true. Only a small percentage of people will respond to messages of doom and gloom and the remainder will bury their heads in the sand. We can see that in our own spheres. If you ask your friends to come to Fashion Revolution’s Disco Make event and have loads of fun upcycling, they’ll say yes. Ask them to sit in a room and cry over climate grief while we rant about governments that can’t change in the short-term and they’ll say no.
If you are serious about being a change-maker in your chosen sphere, you have to be strategic. I’m being strategic when I try to maintain a positive outlook and messaging. Sometimes it’s hard, because I often feel intensely frustrated by political inaction and the depressing statistics around the climate situation, but people want positivity. You want to talk about ocean acidification or the sixth mass extinction? Those are hard topics. Ice melt and which countries may be underwater soon – these are not happy, cheerful ideas. Denying it is useless. If we want to engage those who are not already engaged, we need to make it inviting. I’ve got Post-it Notes on the wall in my office, with words that I try to keep focusing on and ‘inviting’ is one of them.
“If you are serious about being a change-maker in your chosen sphere, you have to be strategic. I’m being strategic when I try to maintain a positive outlook and messaging.”
What are the other words on your wall?
One note says ‘take massive action’ and another says ‘courage’. I make so many mind-maps. If you can’t see it in front of you, how do you know where you’re headed? The 2020s are demanding more from those of us who work in the climate movement. I consider myself a climate activist, because activists act on behalf of a cause they are passionate about and make a stand, as opposed to sitting by passively. I like the idea of taking ownership of activism. ‘Take massive action’ was about trying to force myself to be bolder and not be constrained by whatever things constrain people: fear that no-one is listening or that it might be inappropriate or you might not get funding…
“I consider myself a climate activist, because activists act on behalf of a cause they are passionate about and make a stand, as opposed to sitting by passively.”
How do you put those words into practice through journalism?
If we’re talking about communicating sustainability in a clear way, one of the most important things is depth. When you look at something like the relationship between soil and fashion, those areas are very complicated. You can’t expect the average consumer, who hasn’t done a deep-dive into it, to know. If you ask people, have you considered the carbon footprint of your emails? They wouldn’t even realise that was something to worry about.
A lot of the coverage around sustainable fashion focuses on the aesthetics or on small consumer choices we can make, but those things are quite shallow. Advice about switches you can make to be more eco-friendly are entry-level. They may bring in more people, but journalists need to deliver content that accurately and thoroughly unpacks the deeper, intersecting issues that underpin this whole thing. Fashion journalism has traditionally centered design, so that is a big ask.
“Journalists need to deliver content that accurately and thoroughly unpacks the deeper, intersecting issues that underpin this whole thing. Fashion journalism has traditionally centered design, so that is a big ask.”
What does that mean for fashion journalists who may not have training in sustainability?
There are numerous examples of fashion journalists who have written wonderful, transportative pieces about collections, designers and clothes. That’s still highly relevant and I’m not going to dumb that down, but it is a very different set of skills. We are now asking journalists – sometimes the very same ones – to immerse themselves in 25 COP meetings and read around why the political stasis means we’re not acting to desperately reduce emissions to stick to the Paris Agreement. How are you supposed to make the transition from being someone who knows everything there is to know about the Dior archive to that? Journalism is about learning and research, but that is quite a big leap. It’s so great that the next crop of journalists who are interested can actually be trained in this area of expertise. Trying to bolt sustainability onto the existing way of doing things has been hard, and that’s why we haven’t seen vast progress in conventional fashion media’s coverage of sustainability.
How has your own approach to journalism changed?
Fashion has always been about beauty. We’re a bunch of people who cry at McQueen! We can still do that, but the opportunity for more is really exciting. I’m delighted to be learning and not stuck writing about silver shoes. I studied Politics at university, so I was taught to think critically. When I started writing about fashion, it wasn’t considered a serious subject. There were some fashion journalists I looked up to, but it was primarily shopping pages. I’m very lucky that we weren’t in the eye of the climate crisis when I was starting out.
“Trying to bolt sustainability onto the existing way of doing things has been hard, and that’s why we haven’t seen vast progress in conventional fashion media’s coverage of sustainability.“
By the time you had the realisation that fashion needed to address its climate impact, you had already built a platform. What advice would you give to a fashion journalist just starting out, who has already had that realisation, but doesn’t have the platform yet? Especially when so many entry-level jobs in fashion journalism require them to write shopping pages and not be too critical of the industry.
There are two sides to this piece of advice. The first is that everyone has to start with boring stuff, in any industry. You start at the bottom, you get experience, you prove your worth and then you get promoted. Doing things that don’t thrill you to your core is part of climbing the career ladder. I’ve spent 20 years getting to this point in my career. I’ve written books I haven’t sold, I’ve had many failures and I’ve done loads of unexciting writing jobs. That’s okay, because that’s how it works. You can’t be the President tomorrow.
If someone invites me to a talk, I always go, because they will always say something I haven’t heard yet or teach me something new. You have to be open-minded. I interviewed Nigella Lawson once, and she told me that a good writer could write about a wheelbarrow and make it interesting. Even if you have to write about something that you deem to be below you, the process of doing that will teach you something.
“Doing things that don’t thrill you to your core is part of climbing the career ladder. I’ve spent 20 years getting to this point in my career. I’ve written books I haven’t sold, I’ve had many failures and I’ve done loads of unexciting writing jobs.”
What’s the second part of your advice?
Seek out independent magazines that reflect your interests and write for them. I used to be a commissioning editor at Vogue Australia – I was the Features Director – so I would get many approaches from writers who wanted to write for us. People often sent a hopeful hello, having never written for another publication. Some didn’t even send a pitch. I would reply, asking: What areas are you interested in? Which comparable titles have you written for?
Start where you can. Write for your student paper, an independent paper, start your own magazine, write a blog. Just contribute words into the world, so you can build up a body of work that proves your worth, shows your interests and marks you out as an excellent contender for the job. Look at the industry like a mind-map. If the middle of your mind-map says you want to write for Vogue, you need to plan a route, because you won’t just go straight there. The diversity of a portfolio is important too. I’d like to see that other editors have seen the worth in you. It’s about proving that you have been go-getting enough to deliver a body of work and make it sparkle. People are not proactive enough.
“Write for your student paper, an independent paper, start your own magazine, write a blog. Just contribute words into the world, so you can build up a body of work that proves your worth, shows your interests and marks you out as an excellent contender for the job.”
What else would be on your list of secrets to success?
Be strategic and professional. Determine to act like the professional version of yourself would, even if you aren’t that person yet. Think about what would make you the easiest, most efficient, most productive and effective choice. This is a very judgemental industry. People judge you and it’s brutal. I wish it wasn’t like that, but that is a hangover from fashion’s past that does not seem to be dissipating any time soon. Don’t be intimidated by that, work with it and present yourself accordingly. Quite a lot of fashion journalists of great repute wear a black jumper and trousers every day, but you can see when someone is living and breathing fashion.
“Determine to act like the professional version of yourself would, even if you aren’t that person yet.”
The fourth thing I would add is to be authentic. You can fake it til you make it, but only if this is what you really care about. That’s one of the hardest things you can learn as an evolving human. It’s taken me 20 years. People will see through the veneer of silly rubbish that doesn’t matter to you.
What was the watershed moment when you realised this was what really mattered to you?
It wasn’t climate for me, it was the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013. The size and magnitude of that disaster, the obvious failure of brands to take responsibility and the whole way it unfolded was shocking. I had been aware of garment factory accidents and fires previously, but that collapse was just ridiculous. In fairness, my fashion world wasn’t directly implicated in that event. I’ve always focused on luxury or emerging, independent designers. However, I’ve written shopping pages in the past. They probably weren’t the labels implicated in that event, but the whole system is interconnected and you can’t make those distinctions. I was at a point in my career where I wasn’t climbing the ladder anymore, so I was able to make a change.
“I felt frustrated, being part of the problem and not the solution; I had an existential crisis.”
I met Lucy Seigle when she came to Australia and I asked her what to do. She told me about Fashion Revolution. Australian was the second country to come on board, so I wrote a story for The Australian about its launch and then I joined the advisory board. The same year, I interviewed my friend Simone Cipriani, who runs the Ethical Fashion Initiative with the UN, for a Vogue story. I told him that I felt frustrated, being part of the problem and not the solution; I had an existential crisis. He said, “You should write a book”, so I did.
That book became Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion (2016). What did you learn from that process?
I gave myself an education through research. I write narrative non-fiction, so I’m not the expert here; I’m seeking out experts in order to deliver their stories to the reader. That is the same approach I take with my podcast and my writing. It’s a wonderful way to learn things.
“We are in a moment when young people are stepping up in a way they haven’t had to before, but recent and more distant history is full of people who were driven by purpose to do something for their community.”
You said recently that sustainability gave you a sense of purpose that fashion journalism never had. Could you expand on that?
I was perfectly happy before, but the purpose I have found in sustainability is an extraordinary thing. All of the rubbish that got in the way of me doing the best work I could just fell away. A good friend of mine is Orsola de Castro, who co-founded Fashion Revolution, but she also has a purpose in helping her students become the best versions of themselves they can be. Many professions probably have that, but I don’t think fashion journalism is a purpose-driven field. It depends how you define purpose. You asked me before if I was an activist, and to me, those things are intertwined. I’m not trying to say that the way I worked before was shallow or pointless, but I didn’t have a clear map of what I was doing and why.
I just interviewed an incredible young woman in the Australian climate movement called Varsha Yajman, who is 17. She has huge amounts of purpose. There have always been inspirational young people; I just wasn’t one of them. We are in a moment when young people are stepping up in a way they haven’t had to before, but recent and more distant history is full of people who were driven by purpose to do something for their community. I hadn’t applied my politics to my work. When Rana Plaza happened, I started to look more deeply into what the fashion system does.
“The best figures suggest that one billion animals were killed in the Australian bushfires, including about a third of koala bears. It’s rotten knowledge to absorb.”
How has your understanding of sustainable fashion evolved?
It evolves every day. The more you learn about how the system operates, the more areas you want to delve into. When I wrote Rise and Resist, I thought I knew a fair bit about the situation going on with our planet – biodiversity loss and climate – but I didn’t. When I got a grasp of the staggering losses we are on the brink of facing – if not facing right now – that was shocking. You can’t not know it now. The best figures suggest that one billion animals were killed in the Australian bushfires, including about a third of koala bears. It’s rotten knowledge to absorb.
When I was writing Rise and Resist, I had a moment of panic that I shouldn’t be telling people what I knew. I remember saying to my husband, “What I know is too much for people to handle. I don’t know if their hearts can take it.” This was before Greta Thunberg proved that their hearts can take it. Now, you’ve got 12-year-old children with that knowledge, but I felt such a weight of responsibility. I’m quite a robust person, but I’m traumatised by the knowledge of what we’ve done to this planet. My readers think they’re reading about Fashion Revolution, which is really inspiring, and then they get dragged into the dispicable, corrupt reality of mining in Australia.
How did you overcome that trauma?
I haven’t. The job of a journalist is to tell the truth. I’m always going to do that, but I was worried about how people would react. It’s been very interesting to see the effect of school strikes on young people and their awareness of this stuff. Now, people are talking about climate grief and the mental health ramifications of living through the fires. Even if you weren’t in the direct path of the fires, you still had to read about it and see the images and breathe in the smoke. The messages and placards you see on school strikes are harrowing – ‘No sport on a dead planet’ – how do you deal with that?
“The job of a journalist is to tell the truth.”
It’s intentionally harrowing, because that seemingly makes for more effective messaging. Where do you think the balance lies between fear and positivity?
Communicators have different jobs and audiences, so we can’t generalise. If you’re an investigative journalist for The Guardian, you better tell us about the dead koalas. But if fashion communicators want to make it more accessible and post about it on Instagram, they need to think about how much is too much, and where the balance lies between truth-telling and solutions-providing. I try really hard not to be the person pointing out the dead koalas every day. Providing solutions is vital, even if those solutions are only going to have small effects. We change culture through many people making small changes.
Having worked in journalism, written books, given speeches, done podcasts and now exploring film – how does the medium you work in change the angle of your message and the way that people respond? And how do those different roles serve your ultimate purpose?
As a journalist, you have to think about the voice and the audience of the publication you are writing for. I’ve written for so many different publications, from The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald to InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, so I’m adept at using different voices. These days, the voice I use in my books and podcasts – my voice as a sustainability advocate and change-maker in sustainable fashion – is the most powerful. That also applies to my various ambassadorial roles. I have a lot of pathways to get my message out on and I collaborate with (and learn from) a lot of organisations who are working towards the same goals as me. Juggling all of those things might sound chaotic, but they’re all moving in the same direction.
“Everyone has to figure out their own path and no path is less valid than another, but we’re in a time when being open to breaking down the old barriers is a useful attribute to have. “
I have yet to see as much collaboration as I would like to see from businesses, but there’s a lot of collaboration in the change-making space and I love being part of that. Collectively, the other stuff I do makes more of an impact than me writing an online article about what I saw at London Fashion Week. It’s about the movement of the whole and working with people who are trying to make the same changes. Journalism is a tool within that, but my podcast is my main mouthpiece. Everyone has to figure out their own path and no path is less valid than another, but we’re in a time when being open to breaking down the old barriers is a useful attribute to have.
Let’s talk about the Wardrobe Crisis podcast. What drew you to podcasting and why do you think it’s such an effective tool for communication?
Fashion is visual, so podcasting isn’t always that effective, but I’m a talker. Years ago, I recorded an interview with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard over the phone and I got three hours of his best ever words. I could only use a few relevant quotes in my book, but I wished people could hear the whole thing. The recording was scratchy and terrible, but the power of hearing him unedited was so special that it inspired me to make a podcast. Podcasting has been my most natural format. I like that it’s about the strength of your interviewing skills. It’s incredibly hard work. If you don’t show up week in, week out and deliver, you lose your audience. The best is when people listen and love it and learn something new.
“Either they’re someone you’re excited to hear from because they have a big profile, or they’re someone you’ve never heard of who will provide something very original and absorbing.”
How do you choose your guests?
I want the conversations to be extraordinary. Either they’re someone you’re excited to hear from because they have a big profile, or they’re someone you’ve never heard of who will provide something very original and absorbing. It’s obviously all hinged on fashion, but we stray very far from that, and sometimes the fashion component is simply three minutes of chat about Ancient Greek togas (that was Tim Flannery). It’s actually quite selfish: I want to talk to all these people, and I’m sure you want to hear it too.
The wall with my Post-it Notes also has the names of people I want on the podcast. I creatively visualise that in my future, so it’s very intentional. Only a small percentage of my guests are last-minute additions. I don’t accept submissions – unless Oprah wants to get in touch.
Who else is on the wall, besides Oprah?
Gwyneth Paltrow. Joseph Stiglitz, the Pulitzer prize-winning economist. Tim Jackson, another amazing economist. Tarana Burke, who founded the Me Too Movement, was on my wall for a long time and just featured in Series Four. I’ve got a lot of people from the wall already. Raj Patel was on there for a long time, but getting him was hard. You’ve got to be persistent. Someone I interviewed for Series Four took nine months to arrange. It’s also about benchmarking: if people see you have other amazing people on the show, they’ll be more inclined to agree.
“The concepts are deep and you might have to listen a few times, but I like challenging people to look things up.”
Which episodes were the most profound for you?
Kalpona Akter – I cried during that one. Kalpona is the Bangladeshi garment worker union leader who was a former child worker. On the podcast, she talked about her colleague being murdered, presumably for daring to stand up to those who wanted to silence him, although there is no evidence for that and they never caught his killers. She also talked about the aftermath of Rana Plaza, where she witnessed people struggling to find their sisters, mothers and daughters in the rubble. It’s a really compelling interview.
Another favourite was Sinead Burke. She does interview gymnastics. It’s not good on paper, but it’s good on audio. I like the twisty-turny nature of conversation. I like to be prepared with an arsenal of background material so I can recall and respond to what they’re saying. I don’t want it to be too structured. The best gymnastic conversations on the podcast were Sinead and Bill McDonough. The concepts are deep and you might have to listen a few times, but I like challenging people to look things up. If you listen to Raj Patel and think, ‘What on earth is he on about?’, that’s good. He’s really charismatic, so you can follow it, but if you haven’t thought about the history of colonialism as the antecedent for our current corrupt, patriarchal, capitalist system, he’s your way in. With jokes!