Elizabeth von Guttman of System Magazine
Whenever the word ‘sustainability’ is mentioned in fashion, a whole vocabulary of earth-shattering terms comes to mind: CO2 emissions, carbon footprint, factory collapses, farmer suicides, landfills, over consumption thanks to capitalism. But also: ’green fashion’, eco clothes, and organic cotton — terms that generally go hand in hand with an idea of garments that are neither innovative nor aesthetically pleasing. Largely, sustainability is an unglamorous topic that has reached a level of compassion fatigue in a time when empathy and awareness are most needed. To contribute to a much needed change in perception of the term, a trio of industry insiders got together to make a publication that educates and excites readers to see things differently: Ever Manifesto, founded in 2009 by Alexia Niedzielski, Charlotte Casiraghi & Elizabeth von Guttman. In a statement about the magazine, they write: “We believe in positive change – that we can still fulfil our missions and dreams but in a way that doesn’t harm our environment. Our intention is to convince people to see things differently, to drive awareness, conversation and change.”
With similar intentions, two of its founders – von Guttman and Niedzielski, who previously worked at Industrie Magazine — subsequently went on to start another publication 4 years later: System Magazine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they still continue the conversation on sustainability, albeit in a more disguised form. In the first issue this manifested in their controversial cover story with Nicolas Ghèsquiere, which unveiled the reality of the corporate business of fashion and brings many questions to mind about how the industry should actually operate; what actions are necessary, and who should bring change? Will it be a good idea to have a round-the-table discussion with the world’s leading designers, much like what happened with the launch of Tidal (though less marketed towards supporting a ‘product’ and more towards ‘fixing an out-of-the-hand situation’), and openly talk about what needs to be done differently? Should the system of pre-collections change? Reform fashion weeks? Stop flying journalists all over the world to attend private shows? Let employees go home before 8pm without being threatened to be fired? Stop burning unused fabrics, samples, and unsold products? Start paying factory workers the living wage? The industry has much to answer for, and the content discussed in System Magazine shows it’s evident that leading creatives want change to happen.
System Issue 1
“THE BRANDS AND ADVERTISERS ARE PUTTING MORE AND MORE PRESSURE ON PEOPLE WITH AN OPINION, BECAUSE THERE IS SO MUCH MONEY INVOLVED THAT THEY WANT TO MAKE SURE THEY CAN CONTROL AS MUCH AS THEY CAN.”
Sitting in a booth with leather turquoise couches on the first floor of Dishoom, in July, looking outside, we see a figure appear with tied blonde hair and wearing a navy suit. One minute later, she sits across/beside us and introduces herself as Elizabeth von Guttman. Her eye colour matches the couch, and they’re intriguing, smiling, and at times critical throughout our two-and-a-half hour conversation. While drinking a mint tea and a ginger and apple juice, we discuss a wide range of topics — from the balance one must find when working with advertisers, to rumours of Katie Grand replacing Anna Wintour at Vogue, and how sustainability must be pushed more to appeal to a young audience. Von Guttman is sharp, analytic, humorous; much aligned with the content of her magazine.
When they featured Ghèsquiere in System’s first issue, it sparked a lawsuit between the designer and his former employer, all because of speaking freely. It is evident that fashion journalists cannot say much these days, and that press is becoming yet another marketing tool which brands can use to spread their power. Think about the banning of critics at shows — which journalists like Cathy Horyn and Tim Blanks at times consider a peculiar sort of trophy — for giving their unabashed commentary on a brand’s newest outpourings. “It has become very controlling,” Elizabeth starts. “The brands and advertisers are putting more and more pressure on people with an opinion, because there is so much money involved that they want to make sure they can control as much as they can.”
With regards to having a print or digital publication, it has also become harder to have advertising revenue: “When they do give you money and support, they expect a lot in return. Before, they would just do it because they want to support the magazine, but now they’re very controlling in what they want, so they put a lot of pressure in terms of the credits. That’s why in most magazines you just have total looks, which is crazy. The whole point of styling and editorial is to give the stylist the opportunity to mix all these brands and to create their own vision through styling. Usually, people don’t go into the shop and buy the total look, to begin with. It’s really sad to see it in editorial shoots, because you don’t know what’s an advertorial nowadays. Most of these shoots are advertorials, it’s just one look, you might as well go to VogueRunway.com and look at the shows.”
System Issue 2
“PEOPLE CRITICISE BULLYING AT HIGH SCHOOLS, BUT IT’S EXACTLY THE SAME CONCEPT THAT YOU’RE HAVING WHEN LOOKING AT INTERNS WHO WORK AT THESE BIG FASHION HOUSES.”
The pressure did not seem to have influenced the team when they decided to run the interview with Ghèsquiere. A lot of people might have been scared to get into trouble, but even if they took the risk, Elizabeth’s happy they did it. “When you have an independent magazine, you need to have an opinion or want to do something different, because otherwise there is no point in making an independent magazine. I’m not interested in doing a magazine otherwise. That’s my whole joy — to try and provoke opinions, the good and the bad. Even if people talk about you in a bad way, that’s still positive, because it means you created a reaction and a conversation.”
We can plead for several case-studies related to that — for example interns getting hit and having to sign a discretion contract so nobody will ever hear about it. In any other industry, there would be a lawsuit straightaway, yet fashion works in its mysterious ways: everybody wants to be a part of it, so competition is fierce. If you don’t want to stay and work until 4AM and get back to the studio at 8AM, you’re fired. These are topics that must be discussed. In fact, they should cause so much media attention worldwide that employers will actually reform their systems. “People criticise bullying at high schools, but it’s exactly the same concept that you’re having when looking at interns who work at these big fashion houses. There are people who are being slightly abused. Some of these big companies are really taking credit for their work, and there has to be some kind of regulation. Once again, it’s a shame because it is a creative industry where people should express themselves. It should be about joy and inspiration and you should learn a lot when you do these internships.”
It brings us to the topic of young people and sustainability. Whenever the word is mentioned, designers kind of run away, with the exclusion of a handful of enthusiasts. In the last Ever Manifesto, contributors like Pharrell Williams and Amber Valetta came on board to actually show that, “it can be cool to make efforts and to be conscious, and to try to get away from this cliche of Birkenstocks, hairy legs and hemp,” Elizabeth says. “I think the whole technology and the innovation side is really exciting in terms of sustainability. Even the word sustainability is not good. It’s an oxymoron in fashion, because you can’t be sustainable in fashion. But you can be conscious. That side is important because you have to think twice about everything. You’re conscious these days about what you eat. People want to know more about where their food is coming from, and now it’s great to have an organic juice, coldpress, homegrown vegetables. So, if that’s appealing, it should be cool to be wearing clothes that are recycled in a good way, or are innovative in their fabrics or their production. Hopefully that’s going to be the next wave.”
“BEING JUST A TALENTED DESIGNER IS NOT ENOUGH THESE DAYS. YOU NEED TO HAVE BUSINESS, RETAIL, PRODUCTION KNOWLEDGE.”
But should making those ideas more widespread come from the big Groups? Elizabeth argues that creating a support system is essential, especially because of the production costs. At the moment, she is working on a fashion fund where brands and designers will be pushed to produce in a more conscious way. “I think there’s going to be more of those funds or think tanks where they will encourage designers and provide them with the resources. It’s great to talk about it, but if you don’t put the resources in those ideas, it’s not gonna go anywhere.”
The LVMH Prize is a good example, with its generous sum of €300.000 funding. Perhaps not every young, independent designer is keen to become associated with a conglomerate business, but ‘hey, it’s money,’ Elizabeth starts. “You can make a better collection; get exposure… Times have changed, you have to ask for help, because money is not growing on trees. You have to be smart about how you use it. When you get the money, then the question is: OK, now what am I going to do? You need advice from business people. Being just a talented designer is not enough these days. You need to have business, retail, production knowledge. People like Tom Ford (together with Domenico de Sole) and Marc Jacobs (with Robert Duffy), would not have been as successful without the business minds.
Students seem to lack education in sustainability, one could argue, even though the 2nd year Fashion Design With Marketing and Fashion Journalism students at Central Saint Martins dedicate a whole project to it. “There has to be more transparency from the brands,” Elizabeth argues, “but it should also start at school. The new generation is learning about sustainability and recycling from a very young age. Those children are going to be the next consumers in ten years, and they’re hopefully going to demand to know how these clothes have been produced.”
“IT’S COMING TO A POINT WHERE EITHER THE CREATIVITY OF THE CLOTHES IS GOING TO SUFFER, OR IT’S GOING TO BE THE PERSONAL HEALTH OF THE DESIGNER THAT WILL SUFFER. I DON’T THINK IT CAN LAST.”
She also mentions Burak Cakmak’s (former Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Swarovski) recent appointment as the Dean of Parsons, where he will be making it his mission to implement the principles into education. “Sustainability in fashion should not be a different university course; it should be integrated in all the courses. It’s like with magazines, seeing the Green Issue makes me cringe. It shouldn’t be this ‘special thing’, it should be part of everything. Even a brand shouldn’t label itself as a ‘green brand’; it should be a great fashion brand, it should be great design, and on top of it — the cherry on top of the cake — is that it’s made in a conscious way, but that shouldn’t be the first thing to see.”
The host walks up to our table with a refill of green tea and carrot juice, and the conversation slightly sidetracks. We return to the idea of sustainability visible in a designer’s health. Cathy Horyn has been following Raf Simons for a whole year now for System’s new issue, which will be released mid-November. Why? “It’s to show the crazy schedule and timetable that these designers have, because they have to produce so many collections a year: pret-a-porter, pre-fall, cruise, couture… Plus Raf’s got his own brand, and to produce so much in such a short amount of time, and to be on top of it… I find it dangerous for the mental health. I don’t know for how long and how much you can push these designers, even if they have all the resources in the world. Some people can handle it, somebody like Raf has really got his head on his shoulders. Karl Lagerfeld even says that the more he works, the more creative ideas he gets.” But isn’t that because those kind of designers have had the time to come to terms with the increasing speed? It’s difficult for young designers to now start out and not cut corners. “I really hope it can change,” Elizabeth says, “because it’s coming to a point where either the creativity of the clothes is going to suffer, or it’s going to be the personal health that will suffer. I don’t think it can last.”
“IT’S EASY TO GET CAUGHT UP IN THIS WHIRLPOOL OF SHOWS.”
Even as a journalist you need to travel all over the world to keep up with the pace. Von Guttman laughs about not going to complain too much as she calls it a ‘problème des riches’, but admits it does become exhausting to do four weeks of fashion week twice a year, plus now having to go to cruise weeks all over the world because every brand tries to out-do the other brand. “One day they fly you to Seoul, the next day they fly you to the South of France, then Palm Springs… All within a week. You can’t even digest what you’ve seen. Once again, it’s not a huge problem, but I think it is a waste of money, time and energy for the big brands to do these huge extravaganza things. It needs to be scaled down in every kind of way, the whole industry.”
“It’s easy to get caught up in this whirlpool of shows,” she continues, but missing a couple of them is fine, as there are solutions like re-sees, or meeting with the designer at a later point to discuss the collection. “It’s gone excessive, there are too many shows. You can’t focus. If you take people like Suzy Menkes, they spend weeks looking at shows, they’re on the road so long, I don’t know how you can have an opinion at the end of the day. I admire those who can, but I think a lot of people who do that might not have the best point of view as they lose perspective. Cathy Horyn makes a point. She doesn’t go to all the shows. She doesn’t fly around the world. She goes to specific ones. She also watches some of them online, and it doesn’t take away from her ability to write her opinion and to be one of the best journalists in the industry. You don’t have to fly around the world. Even though brands do give you quite a lot of pressure.” It’s a challenging time for independent magazines such as System – as they navigate how to retain their independence and stay afloat. How do they stay clear-sighted? “It’s difficult. When there are people who are that powerful that do not agree with you, you have to be very politically correct, but yet again not compromise too much. It’s OK to compromise, but you have to find a middle ground. It has to be worthwhile for you and for them. If not, it’s not worth it.”
In an industry that’s spiralling out of control, catalysts of change like Elizabeth von Guttman are invaluable to guide our generation in order to take action and break with the system once and for all.