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Borrowing garments to save us from living on borrowed time

Higher Studio founder Sara Arnold discusses Extinction Rebellion, circular economies in fashion, and the key role fashion students have to play in the fight to save the planet.

We all know that fashion has particularly dirty hands when it comes to its impact on our environment, but what tangible actions are being taken to get them clean? Sure, there are countless pledges and pacts to alter production techniques, to swap to more ‘sustainable’ materials, but the essential problem remains that the industry is geared towards the unending creation of more stuff. “The fashion industry as it currently stands is a linear economy, in that we extract resources from the earth to make products. Most clothing is made from synthetics, which come from oil, the rest being made from grown, natural fibres,” explains Sara Arnold, founder of Higher Studio and member of Extinction Rebellion, the non-violent civil disobedience movement that shut down key points in Central London this April in their bid for immediate government action. “Less than 1% of what’s produced is actually recycled into new clothing. The rest is either degraded—turned into stuffing, for example—or sent to landfill,” she continues. 

It’s a harrowing statistic, one that makes you gulp and consider just how much of a bargain that cut-price pair of jeans you just bought really was. But what, feasibly, can be done? Enter Higher Studio, Arnold’s startup dedicated to offering both archival and contemporary pieces from established and emerging designers to rent. Introducing the concept of the circular economy to fashion consumption, the rental venture allows consumers to access exquisitely made clothes without the need for individual purchasing, in turn limiting designers’ expenditure of precious resources.

It’s not just a sensible environmental move: free from the comparative financial burden that comes with the all-out purchase of a piece of high-end clothing, rental customers are able to experiment more freely with their fashion choices, safe in the knowledge that if it doesn’t work out, they can simply return it for something else. 

We sat down with Sara to discuss Higher Studio’s business model, why it’s near-impossible for fast fashion to ever be truly sustainable, how she got involved with Extinction Rebellion, and the key role fashion students have to play in bringing about a needed shift in cultural attitudes. 

You once wrote that Higher Studio, “on the surface, rents clothes, but the motivation has always been to practice an alternative to consumerism that can cultivate creativity in a more responsible way.” Could you perhaps elaborate on Higher Studio’s business model in relation to that? How does rental cultivate a more responsible approach to fashion creativity?

Rental really allows you to be more experimental. As a consumer, you’re not weighing up a garment’s up-front cost, how often you’re going to wear it… It’s things like this that drive people towards buying a nice little black dress rather than things they actually want to wear. When you’re renting, however, you’re solely thinking about what you want from that garment in that given moment. It opens up so many more possibilities, as you no longer need to be afraid of making a mistake. 

If you’re not sure about something, you can take it, wear it once, and, if it doesn’t work, just bring it back! It frees fashion consumers from how consumerism typically works and allows them to fully explore their creativity. If that can be done for consumers, we can do the same for designers: they can actually be producing clothes for rental, thinking about what people really want from their clothing. That opens up so many possibilities and helps you to reconnect with the purpose of what you’re doing.

“If you can’t engage with something that you’re taking part in, there must be a fundamental flaw in the system that prohibits you from doing so. You’re selling a certain lifestyle to other people, so you should at least be able to experience it yourself to some degree.”

Higher Studio started out offering archival pieces from Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake and Margiela for rent, which continues to this day. Why were these brands particularly relevant as the basis for a rental practice? 

Well, when we pay for clothing, it’s for its performance rather than for the actual item itself. Yes, there’s the functional aspect of protecting us and keeping us warm, but, ultimately, you’re paying for the experience of wearing something. For me, the best creators of experiences are those brands! But I also saw a certain magic in rental, in that it allows you to be more creative than you might otherwise be. I wanted to take full advantage of it, and these brands were the best way to do just that! 

And what about the younger designers you work with, like Patrick McDowell, Phoebe English and CONGREGATIONdesign. What governs your selection of the newer brands? Shared ethics, perhaps? Or a particular aesthetic? 

It’s less to do with a particular aesthetic than it is about choosing things that I respect, that were produced with integrity. That integrity, however, means something different to each designer. With rental, you’re earning money from the longevity of the item, and that needs to be emotional as well as physical. I was thinking about how things become emotionally durable and realised that it comes down to the intention and care invested in a thing’s making. If you look at Phoebe English’s pieces, for example, they may not make loud statements at first sight, but when you wear them, you notice the attention-to-detail in the pattern cutting and construction. Everything’s been thought through: that to me is integrity. It’s something that will last. 

So how do customers rent garments? Does the fee vary from piece-to-piece? 

It’s quite simple, it all works on a subscription basis. You choose how many items you want to have at any one time—either one, two or three items—and pay a monthly fee accordingly, starting at £85 for a single item. That can be exchanged whenever you like, so you could, in theory, have thirty different items in a month… But because there’s such a strong focus on the quality of the pieces, people tend to take things out for quite a long time—they just fall in love with them, which can become an issue in itself. Sometimes, people just don’t want to bring things back—something will be gone for six months and I’ll have a building waiting list of others that want to wear it!

“If businesses are creating profit in a way that’s not aligned to our natural resources and planetary boundaries, it’s just borrowing those resources from the next generation.”

Do you find that, because of the genre of pieces that you stock, you attract a  customer who’s particularly aware of what they’re looking for? 

Yes and no: customers often have a degree of awareness of this niche of fashion, but you have to be very privileged to have actually had access to these things. So we’re opening up them up to a new world, where things that were previously unattainable on a catwalk are things that you can now actually experience on a daily basis. 

You make a good point regarding the privilege it takes to be able to wear Yohji Yamamoto on a daily basis… But it’s so interesting how many people working in fashion just don’t have the means to wear the clothes they’re supposed to know so much about. 

It’s absolutely absurd! If you can’t engage with something that you’re taking part in, there must be a fundamental flaw in the system that prohibits you from doing so. You’re selling a certain lifestyle to other people, so you should at least be able to experience it yourself to some degree.

It’s also interesting how ready people are to criticise those that engage with fast fashion—I can certainly criticise the industry, but I don’t criticise the individuals engaging with it, as for many, it may be all they know. 

Yes, there’s an inherent elitism in assuming a unanimously critical stance on people that consume fast fashion when it may be the only thing they’ve had access to. In any case, it’d be great to learn more about your career trajectory: you studied BA Fashion Design & Marketing at CSM, before completing a Masters at Imperial and then setting up Higher Studio. What took you from taking your first steps towards a career as a fashion designer to where you are now? 

I always wanted to have my own brand, but when I graduated in 2012 and thought about how that would take shape, I came up against the contradiction that, yes, you can use more sustainable fabrics, but as long as you’re persuading people to buy more and more stuff, it’s not really sustainable.

Faced with that realisation, I wasn’t prepared to go forward with a brand, but I didn’t really know of any other way of doing things. That’s why I went to Imperial to study for an MSc in Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management; I felt like there was this problem that needed solving, and I didn’t know what the solution was. I started looking into the idea of the circular economy and realised that rental was a great way to incentivise a circular way of thinking in fashion. I started researching other rental companies to see what was out there, and I just felt that there was nothing that would satisfy me, so I saw a gap to fill.

“If we’re going to bring about this complete system change, we’re going to need cultural change. Fashion students are the people to create that cultural shift: they need to get to work on that!”

So what exactly is a circular economy, and how does it translate to a fashion context? 

In a circular economy, resources circulate without waste, with a perfect system producing none at all. There are separate cycles for synthetic and organic materials, as the organic materials can decompose into soil, while synthetic materials should just go round and round in this perfect loop. In fashion, this is all rather difficult, as we’ve been mixing technical and biological materials together for some time, polycotton being a good example. They’re then extremely difficult to separate, meaning we can’t recycle them. 

Even if clothing is recyclable, energy, whether by hand, machine, or a chemical process, is required to separate the fibres and put them back together again. The best thing we can do is to make things that last in the first place, making sure that cycle turns as slowly as possible in the first place. It’s like if you have a glass jar: don’t just use it once and then melt it down to make another jar, just reuse it! 

This is why fast fashion’s attempts to sustainably maintain the speed of its production cycles, melting things down with chemicals and turning them into something else just isn’t that simple. And replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources isn’t a perfect solution either: solar panels have to be made from something, and can only be used for however many years before they become waste: there’s always collateral. 

You spent time working at a large London brand, and were responsible for overseeing its wholesale operations in Paris. Was there a particular ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ moment where you realised that working directly within the system wasn’t going to allow you to fulfil your aims of instigating industry change?

One thing was the omnipresent inertia, and the realisation that if people at the top don’t really want change, and simply see sustainability as something to be done because everyone’s talking about it, the gesture doesn’t mean much. It’s not just about implementing sustainability, it’s about instigating a cultural shift within a company. If that doesn’t come from the top, it’s extremely difficult to do, it requires a constant battle. When the IPCC 1.5 °C  report came out in October 2018,  that was when it all clicked. I was already aware of all of the stuff it contained, but if the IPCC is writing about it as though it’s a real emergency, it means that we really are in a very bad situation. I just couldn’t wait for people to change. If they’re not doing the right thing, then that doesn’t deserve my or anyone else’s attention, We have to fight it, because that’s what it is now: a fight; a non-violent war. 

The first of its kind! What drew you to the idea of ‘intrapreneurship’, promoting change from within, in the first place?

Realising just how hard it is to be an entrepreneur! You just don’t have the scale to provoke change in the beginning, and that can be really frustrating. There was this promise of being able to have an impact on that much bigger scale, where a difference could actually be made. But that promise is very far from reality.

Very soon, we won’t have cotton, we won’t be able to use resources to grow things to make clothes. What will the fashion industry do then? When there isn’t enough food on the shelves to go around in the supermarket, will you really be worrying about what you’re wearing?”

I guess that in large companies, responsibility is so broadly delegated that it can hard to try and bring about a universal sense of commitment to a cause.

Yes, but it also came down to simple things, like trying to get people to separate their recycling in the studio: nobody cared! I’d organise the bins in a certain way, and then two minutes later, everything would have moved. First of all, you have to educate people, and if nobody’s willing to be educated, it’s a lost cause. 

When the IPCC report came out, I realised that civil disobedience and targeting governments for system change is what we need. It’s a waste of time dealing with these companies in which people don’t give a shit. Instead, the people that do need to target government;  we need change from the top, and these companies need to be dealt with by the law. That’s what led me to seek out Extinction Rebellion. 

On the topic of education, you studied at Imperial after your time at CSM. Do you think that the comparative lack of business education in fashion education is at all complicit in the industry’s lacking sustainability? It often feels like students are trained to become cogs in the pre-existing machine, rather than autonomous agents who are able to consider their impact and affect change. 

Yes, absolutely! I’ve been doing the Extinction Rebellion talk within UAL and RCA, and it’s lead me to realise how much of a problem this is. If you enrol in a fashion course, you expect, and you’re taught, to use the world’s resources to make stuff, and the system wants you to make more and more of it. Essentially, what universities are doing right now, especially on fashion courses, is training people to be machines for their own destruction. And just think of how many of those destructive machines are being put out each year. But it’s not the fault of those students if they don’t see any other choice. What needs to happen is that universities need to declare climate emergency and they need to ensure that everyone is trained to solve the problems we face. It’s not about trying to do things in a ‘less bad’ way, like by changing from cotton to organic cotton. Everybody needs to be a problem solver, working out how to regenerate the environment. 

We also need to reconsider what business means in this day and age: we’re taught that the intention of business is to create profit and to create jobs when we need to think about what really defines our economy. More than anything, it’s our natural resources. If businesses are creating profit in a way that’s not aligned to our natural resources and planetary boundaries, it’s just borrowing those resources from the next generation.

It’s like the 2008 financial crisis, but on a global, physical scale! All this talk of literal global collapse brings me on nicely to speaking a bit more explicitly about Extinction Rebellion. How did you first get involved with the initiative? 

When the IPCC report came out, I thought that we needed a really drastic way to go about this problem, now. I’ve joked in the past about tying myself to railings—I think I knew that it was going to come to that in the back of my head—but I knew that doing that without a strategy or group behind me would be pretty stupid! 

Very shortly after that, there was news that a group called Extinction Rebellion (XR) was going to launch on October 31st. I’d been researching them leading up to then, reading all I could so I could discern whether their strategy was the right one. I was looking at other things, and I thought that this was the only one that could actually work.

And what about #XR52 and #XRFashionBoycott, how did they come about? Was that down to you and other members involved in the fashion industry? 

Last fashion week, some other members and I coordinated the swarming actions at LFW, and then around the time of the rebellion in April, somebody in XR came up with the idea of doing year-long boycotts. Because the fashion industry has such a massive environmental impact, it was one of the first to be suggested. As the person who initiated it had many other things on their plate, I called them up to say that I felt really passionately about it and really wanted to take it forward with them. 

#XR52 isn’t just about fashion though; it’s an umbrella for other year-long boycotts that will be taking place within XR. While our overall aim is system change, we feel that this is a great way for people to feel empowered, which is so important. Under consumerism and capitalism, we have been disempowered, made to feel that the way we can vote is through spending, but you actually have a lot more power if you’re willing to go out into the street and block the road. 

XR member Laura Frandsen staged a die-in at the Royal College Art graduate show this year, marking the start of #XRFashionBoycott. For many fashion students and young professionals, however, it can be very difficult to consolidate ethics with the role you play in the industry. What do you think students can do to engage and work towards encouraging the development of an industry in which your beliefs don’t have to lie in conflict with your job?

Firstly we need to tackle the truth because a lot of people really don’t understand what it really looks like. Very soon, we won’t have cotton, we won’t be able to use resources to grow things to make clothes; it will be absurd when we’re struggling for food, and we’ll wonder why we ever did it in the first place. And oil production will stop, because it’s killing us. What will the fashion industry do then? When there isn’t enough food on the shelves to go around in the supermarket, will you really be worrying about what you’re wearing? Once we’ve understood the problems that the cold hard truth presents, we can start to think about what things really have value. I don’t know where that leads us, and it’s not really for me to say. That’s why at Extinction Rebellion, we say that citizen’s assemblies are the way forward, we all need to be having these discussions. For students, it’s a case of getting together and thinking about what will give clothes value if there’s a fashion industry that doesn’t have resources, and people are no longer as concerned with what they’re wearing. They need to be re-evaluating what it means to wear clothes.

But the most crucial thing is to realise that this is a real, life-or-death emergency. And it’s not like we’re all suddenly going to drop dead: it’s going to be painful; we’re not going to have food. That’s going to create real divisions in society. If there’s not enough food, I’m going to have to decide who I share my food with. 

I was recently reading about the impending ecological apartheid: it does make fashion seem a bit frivolous, doesn’t it…

Perhaps, but there is a place for creativity. If we’re going to bring about this complete system change, we’re going to need cultural change. Fashion students are the people to create that cultural shift: they need to get to work on that! Get involved with the rebellion, be creative, and work out how you’re going to persuade these ‘cool kids’ buying trainers to stop, that they don’t need the latest Supreme t-shirt.

The IPCC said we have 12 years, and that was last year—we’ve made absolutely no progress, and time is running out. I don’t believe we even ever had 12 years, the IPCC is, after all a conservative diplomatic body. If you look at the most recent permafrost melt, it’s taking place 70 years earlier than they thought it would. The Arctic is melting at a rate far exceeding the IPCC predictions. We don’t have 12 years, we’re living on borrowed time already. Keep your eyes out for the dates of the next rebellion, and be there as though your life depends on it. Because it really does. 

Photography Ottilie Landmark