Sarah chats with Fashion Revolution Australia's Kirsten Lee
At just 17 years of age I packed up my life and moved to Sydney to begin my degree in Fashion Design. I had big dreams of some kind of Devil Wears Prada transformation – country girl turned city chic. While the last five years have been a rollercoaster of welcome change and growth it hasn’t exactly been in the high fashion, Anna Wintour style I first imagined.
Now, with the influence of a few special people in particular, fashion is so much more to me than just the lavish pieces coming down the runway. The future of fashion allows each piece to tell a unique story, built with every pair of hands that it passes through from fibre to finish. Fashion has the potential to create positive change in all aspects of its lifecycle – so why not let it.
I’ll always be thankful to the ones who catalysed this change in my approach to fashion, the first of whom was The Boundless Edit and the second, Kirsten Lee. She has no idea how much she influenced me, I don’t think I even really realised until recently if I’m completely honest. She went from being my teacher in my first year of University– to now, a mentor and a friend. I was lucky enough to interview Kirsten and gain some insight on how exactly she got where she is today and her involvement in Fashion Revolution Australia!
SARAH : Let’s start with Fashion Revolution! Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved with the organisation and what exactly you do for them !
KIRSTEN : I was working as studio manager for the first carbon neutral company in the southern hemisphere, Bird Textiles, and was running the Surry Hill studio on my own (the main studio was in Byron). Sometimes I would pop next door to visit Melinda Tually, who had an ethical homeware business I Ran The Wrong Way. We had some hilarious conversations and situations together, and I was sad when I got a job as a designer for a big underwear label and had to leave. Years later, Mel contacted me and told me this new campaign for ethical fashion was starting, in response to the horrendous Rana Plaza disaster. She asked if I would be on the team and I instantly said YES! I couldn’t think of a captain better to steer this ship than her. And we have an incredible team of powerful women on board. Its an absolute honour to be a part of!
This year we celebrate 5 years of the campaign, and we have gone from 55 countries with a Fashion Revolution committee (in the first year!) to 92! The social media action in the first year was already 40K posts worldwide, which was up to nearly 120K last year! I cant wait to see what happens this year! Its certainly gotten bigger each year, but what really amazed me is how big it was from the start. It took off like wildfire. Our main call to action is social media posting and the first year I remember the feeds on Facebook and Instagram going OFF. I couldn’t even keep up and read them all. Theres a great page on our website if you want to see more about how we have grown… https://www.fashionrevolution.org/2017-impact/
But in terms of my experience, its been so amazing getting to work with such inspirational humans on the AUS NZ team, and to work with such a power creative woman like Mel, who is also so much fun with such a caring heart! I have had so much fun getting my uni students involved, and also organising events. I try to make them really fun and informative! Actually, that’s another big change… In the first year it was called Fashion Revolution Day (to commemorate the day of the Rana
Plaza disaster), now there are so many events its Fashion Revolution Week - and some events are spilling out of the week this year! It may well become Fashion Revolution Month!
S : I remember you getting us to pose for ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ pictures in first year! It’s amazing how much momentum the movement has gained since then. We’re seeing such a huge shift in the fashion industry that makes me so excited! What are some of the most memorable things that you’ve experienced during your involvement – any particular achievements?
K : The most memorable event so far has been attending the Good Design Awards to receive 2 awards, including best in class, and the MAAS award, along with my team member Laura Mc Manus, on behalf of the Fashion Revolution AUS NZ team. Also, this year I hosted a panel with some of my favourite ethical fashion designers, writers and activists. It was such an honour to have them all show up for Fashion Revolution, be able to discuss ethical fashion practice with them, and have them all in the same space!
S : That’s amazing! Such a big achievement, congratulations! I was lucky enough to go to a few of the Fashion Revolution events around Sydney this year and was really blown away by the amount of people committed to making improvements within the industry. So, I want to ask you - Growing up were you always interested in sustainable and ethical fashion? Was there a particular moment that you remember? Because I know for me it’s still a relatively new concept. It’s not something that I was exposed to or encouraged to think about growing up.
From my first industry job, I was lucky to work for some incredible early pioneers in ethical textile and fashion, so whenever I had a stint working for a company where those values and systems were not yet in place, I was hyper aware of, and impacted by the disparity. I actually found it incredibly upsetting to work in a situation where I knew my actions, as a designer, had such huge implications but little consideration for the environment and for other people and living beings.
Working as a designer, I realised first-hand what a massive challenge we face in the industry, and how important education is to change attitudes and awareness early on. To provide awareness and skills to new generations who will be our fashion industry in another 4 or more years!
I've been an activist and crazy about issues such as feminism, social justice and animal rights since I was very young. This was largely inspired by my own experiences growing up, and then discovering others faced much worse, via early education.
Most people I know, when asked about why they shop ethically or went vegan (two of the top polluting industries are animal agriculture and fashion), regard education the key factor.
Personally, I became politicised initially through my 6th grade teacher, who had us writing letters for Amnesty, taught us about menstruation and feminist issues, and who taught us the detailed Indigenous history of Australia. She inspired me and always comes to my mind as someone I want to emulate. Films have also had a big impact, and I became vegetarian after watching Baraka when I was 15. Seeing Peaceable Farm at yoga teacher training eventually turned me vegan, after many attempts and years of education and encouragement from my yoga teachers at Jivamukti. I’m passionate about education, because everyone I know who is interested in their personal impact says it was education that inspired the change in their lifestyle.
I teach first year fashion students, who always care and really want to know how to make a difference. The early stages of education are the most important, as they set up habits and design processes that become the foundation of the rest of a designers’ career. The opportunity to set up new, ethical awareness, design behaviours and thinking needs to be taken advantage of. These highly creative minds could be utilised not just for designing the look of the fashion future, but how it will sustain and enhance the planet and people’s health and lives around the world.
S : I think that that’s so beautifully worded and 100% true. You definitely influenced me in a way that I have been able to carry through my design approach and processes.
So, when it comes to buying new clothes, what’re your methods? Are there particular things that you look out for? Because I know that it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming when you’re trying to keep true to your morals, looking for something that’s vegan, ethically sourced and with minimal environmental impact – it almost seems impossible. What tips can you give us when starting out trying to buy ethically and sustainably?
K : I shop mostly at the markets; the inner west of Sydney has sooo many good ones! Also, local ethical brands, online ethical brands ( I get a hit from discovering hot new ethical brands on Instagram) and get lots of my casual gear from clothing swaps with friends! All of my yoga pants atm are from swaps! I’m friends with a lot of yogis and yoga teachers haha!
At present, loving your clothes, mending them and washing them mindfully.... buying good quality and made to last (not cheap, fast fashion) is best! Second hand always saves materials and resources from waste, and added toxins leaching into landfill! These two actions alone make the biggest difference.
If you then want to go further, always do your research for the brands who are doing it right. A google search for an ethical product, or asking around. Check out the Good On You app! Or Ethical Shopping Guide. Lots of ethical brands are small, so it pays to do some research and even check out magazines like Peppermint, that showcase ethical labels. Support locally made, smaller labels, and Fair Trade or B Corp labels.