Is there anyone lovelier than Clare Press? I don't think so. She's warm, knowledgeable, hilarious, and has impeccable style, and most importantly, loves ethical fashion. Also, Vogue created a position for her because of her vital contributions to the conversations about fashion, waste, and the environment —that's how badass this woman is.
Clare is an author, journalist, speaker, podcast host, Fashion Revolution volunteer, cat lover, plastic hater, and the first sustainability editor at large of a fashion magazine, Vogue Australia. I chatted with her while she was in New York and left feeling inspired, informed and ready to tackle the world.
I think when you read it, you'll feel the same way.
Clare, welcome to the Frontlash and New York City. You just arrived from Australia a couple of days ago?
How was your flight?
It was actually fine. You know, when you live in Australia, you get really used to traveling long-haul all the time. And, actually, New York seems quite easy. Better than going to London.
Okay, yeah, that’s true. That’s a good point.
And it’s cold here, which I love. And I live in the hottest place you can think of, and I don’t love it. So when I come here, and it’s freezing, I just think, yeah.
Clare Press, she loves the cold. Okay, so you’re here to promote the U.S. release of your book, Wardrobe Crisis.
Very exciting. I read it before it was released here, but I’m very excited that other people here will get to read it.
Before we get to that though, I want to know more about your journey, how you started out. Did you always want to work in fashion? Tell us a little bit about that?
I wanted to be a journalist writing about political issues and about, culture and society, but I never envisioned myself as being a fashion journalist. That kind of came about as a happy accident. But I have been doing it for 20 years, and I love it. The way I approach fashion journalism is to look at that intersection between culture, politics, society, and how we dress and what we wear. This book has done that — it looks at fashion as a serious issue.
So did you always want to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a novelist. I still want to be a novelist.
There’s still time.
I have a dark novel under my bed, metaphorically speaking. It’s not actually under the bed. But, I wrote a novel, a detective novel set in the fashion industry. I found it quite fab, but I couldn’t sell it.
Oh, no. Well, maybe that will change.
Well, no. I think my skill set and what I really have to offer in this conversation is in non-fiction. I’m writing a new one right now, but the current one that I’m here to promote in the States is Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion. It’s a book about how the fashion system operates and how we’ve lost that connection that was once so deep with how our clothes are made.
Was there a particular moment where you suddenly realized that ethical fashion would be a passion project for you?
I think there was. I’ve been writing about fashion since my early twenties — so for 16 or 17 years. And through that process, I’ve always written about designers and how they make stuff. I’ve always been curious about that and the craft of clothes, how we do it, how it goes from sketch to garment. But putting the puzzle together to understand how that fits in with sustainability and with ethics, particularly, came about after Rana Plaza, which I think was a kind of watershed moment for lots of people in the industry.
When Rana Plaza collapsed outside of Dhaka in Bangladesh and it killed more than 1,134 people, which is just crazy and terrible. I think we have to be careful about saying that was an accident we needed to have. Of course, we didn’t need it. But it was certainly a wake-up call that would make people understand that someone is making our clothes. Our clothes don’t just spring forth as if by magic in the shopping center. Someone is making them. And if they’re making them in less than acceptable conditions, then we need to look into that. We need to figure out whether or not we’re culpable, to what extent, and how we can change the system if it’s not functioning properly.
Well, I think it also – and I wonder if you feel the same way because you were saying that you always sort of were interested in how clothing was made from sketch to creation....
And the creativity. But I focused on that supposedly magical spark in someone’s mind of coming up with a collection, and all that stuff is very exciting and positive. But I suppose there’s a dark side to some fashion, which I hadn’t explored until after Rana Plaza happened, well, not in any great depth. So after that, I got involved with Fashion Revolution.
Which is fantastic, love them.
Fantastic. And that campaign began in London, but is now spread to more than a hundred countries I think it is.
Yeah, something crazy.
It spread globally, and it has now become a really amazing vehicle for education and awareness-raising around supply chains and sustainability in fashion. I got involved with helping out with that as a journalist, and the book sort of grew out of all of that. What I started to realize was that if I didn’t know about how our clothes are made and how the system operates, then most people didn’t know.
If I’m a professional, and I didn’t understand the environmental impacts and the impacts on people that the fashion industry can have, what are the chances of your average consumer knowing this stuff?
So, I wanted to write a book that tried to explain that in a really accessible way and also asked the salient questions that we need to ask: What are the sociological and political and economic impacts of the way that the fashion system works? How has it changed? How have we gone from this place where you used to know who made your clothes? I mean, it was literally the seamstress down the road, the milliner around the corner, the shoemaker, you actually had relationships with many of the people who made your clothes, and not long ago, a few generations back. Or, you made them yourself. You bought a Vogue pattern from a department store, the fabric, and then make your own clothes.
But, we’ve largely stopped doing that as a society, and those connections have been severed. When clothes are made in places that we’ve never visited, maybe even never heard of, it’s much more difficult to make those connections. And, to feel that sense of people making our stuff.
It’s hands making our clothes.
And in many cases, it’s women. In most cases, it’s women. Eighty percent of garment workers are women.
In your book, there is some hard-hitting information, but you can absorb it. And, I think that a big part of your appeal is that young women really appreciate the way that you talk about ethical fashion and the access that you give them. So, how important do you think it is that young women are getting this information?
It’s so important. Often we have been guilty of looking at fashion as frivolous and just about adornment and kind of silly, and a bit of fun. We can still enjoy that, but I think that when we look at fashion purely in those terms, we’re missing a beat. Fashion is not just about looking fabulous and going out and sparkling in a great frock. It’s also about: Who made those clothes? What sorts of conditions did she make them in? Is she suffering for our beauty? That’s quite a heavy thing to say, but that’s actually the core point of what I’m talking about in the book. Our clothes are really important, and the way that we manufacture them is really important.
The book’s funny because I want to give a deep and meaningful message, but I also want you to be entertained. [However,] we need to be serious as well and ask that question, like, How do we [all] fit in that system? If we don’t like the way the system is working, how can we change it? It’s a cliché, but it’s a truism, knowledge is power. So, we need to know. We need to take some responsibility as fans of fashion and of lovers of clothes and glamor, to actually scratch the surface a bit and look what lies beneath it.
To further your point, there’s also quite a few problems with referring to fashion as frivolous, right? It's seen as "women’s business," and it’s a bit silly, and that's completely sexist. If you look at history fashion — for example, hemlines, and the way we’ve worn our clothes, the way that they’ve been constructed, and where they come from — tells a lot about the story of women.
And the story of men and different cultural touchstones. And I think it’s a real problem that we don’t address those or think about those anymore.
I’ve worked in fashion for a very long time, and some of the most intelligent and deeply-thought people that I’ve ever come across work in fashion. It’s full of amazing people doing amazing, creative work. And, yet, the perception, perhaps, from the outside looking in persists that it’s all daft, that it’s all The Devil Wears Prada, and a bit bitchy and silly and surface-driven. I dispute that. Of course, you and I know, there’s a lot more to fashion than just the surface. There’s lots of clever thinkers working inside fashion, who are offering really interesting perspectives on what it means and what it can do. Culturally, we think it’s really not very serious, and I do bristle against that. It’s also a massive business.
I was going to say, it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry. There are some with a vested interest to have you think that it’s frivolous and not put too much thought into it.
Well, yeah. That’s another side.
It’s interesting what you were saying about the history of women’s dress and status, and how is really deeply linked to what we wear. You know, part of fashion’s great power is its visual impact. We can speak through our clothes. We can make political statements, personal statements, statements about power. That’s something that I think we also ought to acknowledge — that fashion has enormous power even in its surface-driven nature. I love it. You find your tribes through clothes and you communicate through them — that’s part of the joy of it for me. And coming back to this sustainability conversation, if you’re wearing something that becomes a talking point that people admire or are interested in, that’s also a really great way to get into some of this deep stuff that maybe is difficult to talk about, especially with strangers, you know? It’s a conversation starter.
Absolutely. With that in mind, did you have a moment where you were like, “Right, I am only wearing ethical clothes.”?
Yes. And it’s awful because actually it’s very difficult because — I mean, there’s harder things in the world — but it has been personally quite challenging.
So when did that happen, right after Rana? Or was there a different moment where you were like, “Okay, I acknowledge my contribution to this problem.”
First of all, I was never a fast fashion customer. I haven’t got a wardrobe full of Zara and never have had. But, certainly, there was a moment at which I had to start really considering what I was going to be wearing and that was when the book came out in Australia. When I became someone who was called upon to ask about sustainability and ethics, you cannot be doing that in the wrong clothes. People are going to say to you, “What are you wearing?,” you better have a good answer.
It throws up some interesting problems because I’m also very, very passionate about this idea of trying to reduce waste. And what am I going to do? Just not wear anything unless it’s one of those magic, ethical labels that we all get so excited about? Am I going to get rid of all my clothes that weren’t made by KITX? Of course not. I now only wear ethically-made or sustainably-produced fashion or vintage because I want to live my values. It’s not just, “Oh, I might be seen. I’d better wear something that I can talk about.”
It does mean that some things are sort of lurking in my cupboard that I don’t wear anymore – fur. I’ve never bought new fur because I’ve never believed that that was acceptable for my own moral compass. But through writing the book, I became someone who thinks that vintage fur is not a good idea either. So I have vintage fur in my cupboard and to my great shame. I don’t know what to do with it, someone said to donate it to a charity that uses it in native animal rescue in Australia. They line the cages with them.
Oh, that’s a wonderful idea.
Even just clothes that don’t have a good story behind them. Perhaps, they’re not unethically or dreadfully made., but I want to wear clothes that I can use as conversation starters. I don’t want to be in a position where I say, “I don’t know where this came from. I don’t know how it was made.”
Well, you always look incredible. So I think it’s pretty safe to say that making that choice hasn’t impacted your personal style.
No, no, no, no, no. It makes it better. God, no.
There you go.
No. It’s an absolute misnomer that sustainably-produced or ethically-produced fashion is somehow less than. It’s better. There’s a lot of amazing stuff out there.
I couldn’t agree more, and I do think that some people feel that is a roadblock, but that also just comes from not having all the information.
But, it’s not just clothes, it’s everything. Once you start getting obsessed with the origins of things and trying to find the most environmentally-friendly option, it’s everything. You know, there was a time when I looked at our shower curtain and I was like, “Oh!” What do you do with that? We had a vinyl shower curtain. Ugh. It can’t be recycled, can’t get rid of it.
Yeah. Now it exists.
Food as well. It spreads its tentacles into other areas of your life. It’s about how can I personally be as sustainable as possible with all of the items in our house and all of the things that we buy?
Try having a child.
Yeah. But I have a cat!
So, yeah, when you are asked the question: “Does it make it more difficult?” No from a fashion perspective, but yes from a life perspective. Because our modern life systems just aren’t set up yet to be circular or to be entirely sustainably-driven. And it’s tricky, you know? I have a cat. I watched a film called Blue about ocean change and realized that I couldn’t feed my cat her tuna anymore.
Yeah. So, I want to talk about two things with you really quickly. You have a fantastic, new job.
Please tell me about that because I’m so excited and congratulations.
Thank you! So I’ve just been made Vogue Australia’s Sustainability Editor at Large.
It’s exciting because it’s the first time that any Vogue masthead has ever had a sustainability editor.
And they just created this job for you?
What does that job involve exactly?
Well, it involves bringing the sustainability perspective regularly to the magazine. I hope to help normalize that conversation in the mainstream fashion space. It's new and it's very forward-thinking and inspiring of Edwina McCann, our editor-in-chief.
I share that hope with you. You know, there’s nothing that I want more than to see this conversation normalized. And, I think that fashion magazines especially have a huge responsibility to be talking about this at length and promoting these brands.
Yeah. I think that magazines have been, you know, tentatively getting into this space. But to commit to it as a regular thing in the magazine, which is what Vogue Australia is doing, is really forward thinking and really, really cool.
I’m so excited to see everything that you do there. Congratulations. That’s super-exciting.
Thank you. We’re seeing so many more designers really embrace the tag of sustainability and really own that space and talk about themselves in that way. It’s a natural progression for the media to get on board with that. It’s not niche anymore.
So, aside from writing books, articles and working at Vogue, you also have a podcast...
I have a podcast. I love it.
I love it.
Well, I love that you’re on it, Laura. So in an upcoming episode, it will be all about you, which is great.
One of the things that I really love about your podcast is, aside from the fact that it’s so entertaining and very informative, is that you have such a wide array of guests.
Yes. On purpose.
Can you tell me a bit about that because you have everyone from designers and garment workers and then scientists and economists. You really come at this from many different angles.
The podcast, which is called Wardrobe Crisis is a spin-off from the book, and it’s all about looking at sustainable fashion, looking at the ethics of fashion, looking at fashion for its creativity, it’s possibility. But that to me does not mean that I have to interview only designers. I feel that this conversation needs to be broad. It impacts so many people in so many different ways that I wanted to bring that to the table in terms of the guests. So I basically make everyone talk about fashion, even if they don’t know a thing about it.
For instance, I got Tim Flannery, who is possibly Australia’s leading climate change expert and an incredible scientist who’s been revered for 30 years and has written lots and lots of books about climate change. I got him on the show and really wanted to talk to him about what’s happening with the [Great] Barrier Reef. I asked him about fashion and he didn’t have much to say, but I made him. I think to engage people from all different walks of life in this conversation around sustainability, and if I can bring it back to fashion, then great. As we said at the beginning of this conversation, everyone wears clothes and everyone judges each other from looking what they’re in.
So the fact that you are so passionate about this, and work so tirelessly in this space and are very well-informed, you must have hope.
Oh, I really do actually. I was interviewing someone recently who was a climate change activist in Australia. And I said to her, “How do you navigate this space because there’s so much bad news and it’s so scary? I’ve been trying to immerse myself in this stuff. And the more I find out, for instance, about the melting ice caps or the species list, the more overwhelmed I feel and I start to freak out. What can I do?” And she said to me, “Ah, I don’t feel like that anymore at all.” And I said, “Well, how?” And she said, “Because I’m working in this space every day, I’m making a difference every day.” And so if you’re actually doing something about it, you stop feeling depressed, you stop feeling worried. And so for me, I’m no climate change expert, but just being active in the fashion space and wanting to do something positive about how the system works, I don’t feel overwhelmed. I feel excited because I’m doing something about it every day. And in that context, I’m meeting amazing people who are completely changing the world all the time. And there’s loads of them. Every time I meet young people, I see that they’re doing things completely differently to all the old dinosaurs that I know. And I feel like, yeah, we’ve got this. It’ll be fine.
Good. I hope you’re right, I really do. Thank you so much honestly. I could talk to you for hours and hours and hours. But we didn’t talk about your new book, upcoming book, but --
I haven’t written it yet.
We can always come back to that. It will give me a reason to talk to you again.
*this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Camera: Laura Jones
Film Editor: Antalya Atkinson
Words: Laura Jones
Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon