I Went On A Fashion Fast And This Is What Went Down

Confessions of a shopaholic...

I’m overly sensitive. Sometimes I let my dirty dishes pile up in the sink. I have an irrational fear of confrontation. But recently I discovered what might be my greatest flaw of all: I’m a hypocrite.

I’m sitting on my bedroom floor amid a mountain of crumpled clothes. Under the strict instruction of Marie Kondo, she who inspired the world to cut clutter in the name of joy, I’ve emptied the entire contents of my wardrobe onto the bed. But
it doesn’t fit, so it’s spilling onto the ground like oozing lava. There are blazers, belts and boots, colourful slip skirts, a slew of silk shirts, more white linen dresses than I care to count and a stack of jeans I’m holding on to in the clichéd hope of fitting into them once more.

And yet I claim to care about the environment.

Unless you’ve been living under a, ahem, pile of clothes of late, you’re probably well versed on the impact our collective and relentless hunger for fashion is having on the planet. The garment industry is the second-worst polluter in the world, and of the 53 million tonnes of clothing produced each year, a whopping 87 per cent ends up in landfill*. On the human front, a damning Oxfam report recently revealed the systemic exploitation of international garment workers who make clothes for some of Australia’s biggest brands.

So, is it possible for a fashion addict to consume with a conscience? While I rarely buy on a whim and avoid cheap trend pieces likely to fall apart faster than a Married at First Sight relationship, I still shop more than I should. My job as a fashion writer doesn’t exactly encourage moderation, and I’ve never loved re-wearing special outfits – even back before social media was a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye. For me, fashion is a form of self-expression and creativity, and my wardrobe is stuffed with meaning and memories.

But as I sit submerged in leather, lace and even some crackling polyester, it’s clear that something’s gotta give. Although we live in a throwaway culture where Instagram brands can whip up a bodycon Kardashian knock-off overnight, the fashion industry as a whole is moving towards a more sustainable and ethical future. And I feel compelled to do my bit by embarking on a “fashion fast”.

The premise is simple: stop buying new clothes. Women the world over are pledging their commitment to the cause under the hashtag #nonewyear, and I intend to join the fray for one month. Before you groan, I know – 30 days sans shopping is hardly a mean feat – but my deadline doesn’t allow for a full fashion-free trip around the sun. Instead, I see the shorter challenge as an opportunity to reset my habits while going cold turkey, like the elimination phase of a hardcore detox.

Women today wear a piece of clothing on average seven times before throwing it out

Back on my “KonMari” clean-out, I set about picking up each piece of clothing and asking myself if it sparks joy. A vivid green knit from Amsterdam? It radiates good vibes. A pair of sheer black culottes that pucker and pull around my hips? Less so. A denim playsuit I only purchased because the shop assistant said she liked my hair? No joy. I end up with three large IKEA bags to go, which I’d usually drive around in the boot of my car for eight months before dumping beside an overflowing charity bin. This time, I take two bags to Dress For Success, a Sydney-based not-for-profit that provides professional clothing to women in need, and one – which includes some designer pieces – to the local consignment store.

Second-hand shopping, I discover, is totally acceptable in the challenge, given that these pieces already exist in the retail cycle. I turn to Ella, marie claire’s fashion assistant and resident queen of vintage, for some tips. “I’d say 70 to 80 per cent of my wardrobe is vintage,” she tells me. “Originally it was about the aesthetic, but as I’ve gotten older it’s also become about the eco and ethical impact.”

But what about those of us who veer towards clean – even cautious – colours and lines? Ella is a white-blonde wisp of a thing and today she’s wearing a blue gingham pinafore and puff-sleeved white blouse. She looks like an absolute dream. If I wore that, I’d look like I was going to a Wizard of Oz convention. “Start slowly with simple, timeless pieces that you can work in with other items,” she advises. “Also, you can still play to today’s trends: right now a lot of designers are referencing the ’80s, so I’m on the lookout for original pieces from that decade.”

Armed with those insights, I jump onto Vestiaire Collective, an online emporium specialising in high-end vintage, and bookmark a Cult Gaia handbag ($238.85) and sweet Marni shift dress ($191.08). But the truth is, I’m now halfway through my fast and am no longer craving a quick-click purchase. Once you remove the temptation and stop opening those pesky weekly newsletters, the resounding pressure to consume is gone. It’s freeing, really.

Then comes my first real challenge. I’m being sent to Italy for work. Italy! I’ll be attending two pre-fashion week events in Rome and the international glitterati will be out in force. So, what to wear? My excitement dims a little when I realise this is no longer an excuse to wear something new and fabulous, until a girlfriend suggests I try a clothing rental site.

Today’s sharing economy means we rent music, split car fares and borrow apartments, so it makes sense that we would hire clothes, too. I choose luxury rental site The Volte because you hire directly from the lender, and pick out a red Zimmermann wrap dress (it’s new season and retails for $550, but I’ve got it for the week for $175).

The frock works a charm at the dinner in Rome, a glitzy affair in front of the towering Colosseum. I feel like I fit right in – after all, the celebs and influencers have no doubt borrowed their lavish looks too. Buoyed by my sustainable shift, I get through the rest of the week purchasing naught but a box of panettone for my mum. Of course I’m aware that next month will be the real test: Dry January is all too often followed by Drunk February. But with my “fashion fast” coming to an end, I fly home feeling transformed and virtuous. Hypocritical, me? Never.

Every 10 minutes, 6 tonnes of clothing goes to Australian landfill

Dear reader, I lied. Did you really think I’d manage a trip to Italy, birthplace of Gucci, Pucci and Monica Bellucci, without falling prey to temptation? My intentions were pure, but old habits die hard.

It’s the morning after the fancy dinner, and I’m wandering Rome’s quaint cobbled streets, ignoring the chain stores and their shouty saldi (sale) signs. But then I stumble across a hole-in-the-wall boutique, and something draws me inside. It smells like sandalwood and musk, and brims with costume jewels, strappy shoes … and the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen. It’s made from delicate black lace, with a softly ruffled bodice that flares gently into a modest train. There’s no harm in trying it on, I think. Except it fits like a glove. I have a big party to attend that evening, and although I’ve brought a KITX number to wear from home (the brand scores points for its eco cred), this gown is something special. Nobody has to know about my little slip-up, I tell myself, as I sheepishly pull out my credit card. And I’ll feel like a million dollars at the party.

But a funny thing happens as I step onto the red carpet that night. I don’t feel like a million dollars. Maybe I’m just having one of those days, or maybe it’s because I’m surrounded by beautiful people. I’m self-conscious about my strapless bodice falling down and people keep stepping on my train. It’s especially awkward when I have to tap top model David Gandy on the shoulder as he’s planted his foot so firmly that I can’t swivel away.

Although the drinks are flowing and the music is pumping, the party fizzles before it’s really kicked off. By midnight, I’m back in my hotel room in my dressing gown, chowing down on room-service pizza and watching Queer Eye re-runs in Italian.

Writer Kathryn Madden
(Credit: Writer Kathryn Madden in the pivotal dress)

The first thing I see when I wake up the next morning is my dress draped over a rococo lounge chair. I feel sick, and it’s not just the medley of Negronis and champagne swirling in my stomach. It’s guilt. Guilt because I’ve cheated, guilt because I spent an obscene amount of money, and guilt because this impulsive, potentially one-wear purchase negates all my gains in sustainable style.

I should have re-worn my lovely KITX slip, but I was seduced by the power of the new. And the fantasy – I think on some level, I thought the dress would take me on an adventure. In a creation that exquisite, I should have been whizzing around the city on the back of a moped, like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, then dancing on the street with some handsome foreigner. It was naive of me, really, as we all know the best nights of our lives usually happen when we’re sporting dirty hair, denim cut-offs and an old pair of thongs.

Not that I dismiss the power of fashion to spur emotion. When I think about my (freshly decluttered) wardrobe, it’s filled with pieces that make me feel something: a Max Mara trench I splashed out on after a promotion fills me with pride each time I put it on; and a creamy cashmere V-neck that belonged to my late dad always feels like home. It’s a reminder that when our clothes are embedded with happy memories, we should wear and re-wear them, rather than perpetually seeking out something brighter and shinier. There’s no question that a new outfit can make you feel great, but if it languishes at the back of your wardrobe after just one wear (and one Insta post), it will probably become entwined with guilt and remorse.

This idea that clothes are made to be worn and loved and worn again is echoed by Maria, the crimson-lipped owner of a vintage store I visit the next day. “Everyone’s always obsessed with what’s new,” she drawls in her thick Italian accent, as I thumb my way through racks of pre-loved pastel skirt suits. “But, in fashion, nothing is really ever new. It works in cycles.”

Cycles. I want to make it my buzzword as I continue to reset my fashion habits. Going forward, I’ll be enforcing a strict one-in, one-out rule in my wardrobe, renting rather than buying for special occasions, and experimenting with vintage
(I think I’ll start with accessories). More importantly, I intend to be more mindful about why I shop – and if I’m seeking to fill a void or fulfil a fantasy with a few bolts of fabric. And hey, next time I’m going to a glam event, I already have the perfect dress.

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