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Sass Brown

"The inherent problems in the industry in my view are certainly waste, whether pre- or post-consumer, environmental impact particularly in terms of pollution, and the human footprint or undervaluing and mistreatment of the labour that go into garment production."

Sass Brown is fashion designer, researcher, writer and educator, whose area of expertise is ethical fashion. Prior to joining Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI) as Founding Dean, Brown was the Interim Dean for the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) School of Art and Design in New York, and was Acting Associate Dean, and the Resident Director of FIT’s campus in Florence, Italy.


Author of two books on sustainable fashion: Eco Fashion and Refashioned, Brown holds a Master’s in Global Fashion Management from FIT, a Bachelor in Fashion Design from Ravensbourne College of Art and Design, UK, and is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.

Hi Sass, I am really interested in your perspective, sitting outside the commercial world as such and working with the new generation coming through that are not necessarily confined by commercial constraints and are in theory driven by purpose to challenge the status quo. 



Firstly let’s define the topic! I am interested to know what sustainability and ethics in relation to fashion and clothing means to you?

Thank you for asking this question firstly. Too often sustainability is considered a matter of interpretation, just like the terms ‘green’ or ‘eco’ are. But the truth is there is a definition for sustainability, and it was defined by the Bruntland Commission who coined the term Sustainable Development back in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That meaning rings true no matter what industry you are talking about, so equally fashion as mining or agriculture.

The challenge when talking about ethics is that they are highly individual and personal, what one person thinks is acceptable is different than another. That said I far prefer the term ‘ethical fashion’ than sustainable fashion these days as sustainability is so misinterpreted and misunderstood.

"For my own personal interpretation of ethical fashion, it is making the best decisions possible in terms of people and planet through the design process, that includes every part of the process from inspiration through sourcing, production and end of life considerations."


Often what is possible or feasible is not the same as what you aspire to, but to maintain an open and honest dialogue and trajectory that aims at consistent improvement.

You’ve said in the past that fast-fashion is not necessarily the ‘problem’, that it’s the disposability of our clothes that is fundamentally the issue.  As one of the early voices pushing for change where do you see the inherent problems in the fashion industry today?

I have argued this issue both ways in the past and have heard persuasive arguments on both sides. Fast fashion is a problem or more correctly cheap clothing whether it is fashionable or not, in as much as it tends to be cheaply made and therefore does not lend itself to longevity of service. Fast fashion is also driven by short term trends which by default have a short shelf life.


"And yes, the disposability of it is a major problem, when you are only paying the same for a pizza or a fancy coffee as a top, it is fairly inevitable that it will be considered just as disposable."


Never the less there are some interesting arguments about total circularity, shifting the concept of disposability and waste to instead resource and raw materials, with some academics talking about speeding the cycle up to allow for ongoing disposal and recycling. There are of course energy concerns with circularity, so it’s not without problems, but it does pose an interesting concept.


The inherent problems in the industry in my view are certainly waste, whether pre or post-consumer, environmental impact particularly in terms of pollution, and the human footprint or undervaluing and mistreatment of the labour that produces, grows, finishes and prints the fabric and raw materials that go into garment production. Transparency is another major issue, and the overly complex supply chain that has obscured responsibility.



One of a series entitled Noir et Blanc for Korean Vogue by Lee Gun Ho

Trebene produces hand woven scarves in a tradition handed down as a rite of passage in the Kashmir hills

Designer Nana Stech and her collection Sweet Salvation featuring hand painted and illustrated designs

What role does the consumer play in this, how can we engage them effectively?

I think the consumer has enormous power to demand change, whether by voting with their dollars or dirham and choosing who they support through their purchases, or through demanding change through social channels. Ultimately brands make what sells, so collectively we have enormous power to determine what and how our clothing is made.


I think however a big part of the challenge in engaging consumers is effective communication of the problems. The impact of fashion and the textile supply chain is still very poorly understood by the average consumer. Part of the problem with communication however is the scale and complexity of the apparel supply chain, which does not make for nice neat bite sized pieces of information.

What about the role of business in politics and global affairs. There is interconnectedness to industry, society and consumers that can effect change, and some business are emerging with strong views on global issues. Where do you see the responsibility for creating change both within the fashion industry and for example with related issues such as climate change and modern slavery?

I think the industry bears enormous responsibility in affecting positive change. After all who better to change an industry than those in it? The fashion industry has been a huge part of the problem when it comes to consumption, designed obsolescence, pollution, chid labour, sweatshop labour and an enormous energy and water footprint.


Only through the industry taking responsibility will we be able to affect the change necessary.


When it comes to corporations and brands voicing political perspectives, I am in complete agreement. Not everyone will agree with that perspective, and that is why so many brands have traditionally been reticent to express an opinion. Never-the-less the power that a brand wields when they use someone like Colin Kaepernick as the face of their campaign speaks volumes about their brand values. Fashion brands have a global platform, and as such have the opportunity to be part of the solution instead of the problem by simply taking a stand for what is right.

There is a push towards circularity as an answer to the unsustainable nature of the fashion industry - how do you see circular business models working effectively for the fashion industry?

The concept of the circular economy has indeed become more popular in fashion circles and does address waste within the industry, by re-contextualizing waste as resource. Two of the greatest proponents are of course Fashion Positive, an outgrowth of Cradle 2 Cradle, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who recently added apparel and textiles to their remit on circular economy. There are some detractors that don’t see it as the silver bullet it purports to be, due to the increased environmental footprint required for recycling. I have however been a major supporter of multiple responses to the human and environmental impact of the fashion and textile industry. There is no Nirvana or perfect solution. I think one of the biggest problems we have had in the industry in general is the single model of how to do business, so I absolutely support a multitude of responses of which circular economy is definitely one.





What about in terms of the handprint of fashion, the craft and craftsmanship, the artisans and makers spread around the world. How do you see this visceral aspect of our clothing fitting into the future of fashion?

I am an enormous supporter of slow fashion, artisanship and craftsmanship. I think it would be of enormous sadness if traditional crafts ended up in books and museums instead of living material culture. Ultimately it is the most altruistic expression of luxury, work that has a long cultural tradition, that is rooted in a specific geographic location, that is slow and time consuming and requires great knowledge and skill to produce.


Given the democratization and corporatization of many luxury brands, honestly I believe that traditional artisanship is the only real expression of luxury left.


Honestly I believe that traditional artisanship is the only real expression of luxury left.

I would love to see the development of luxury couture collections out of Africa, Nepal, Laos and a host of other indigenous and traditional cultures. I would also like to see European luxury brands investing in long term partnerships with artisans around the world just as LVMH have invested in the sustainability of the French metiers.

What vision do you have for the future of fashion, how would you like fashion to look in 5 or 10 or 20 years time?

I would like to see an end to the term sustainable fashion, because all fashion is by default sustainable. I would like to see clear communication and labelling requirements that tracks brands and individual products carbon, environmental and human footprint, much like you see health warnings on the outside of a cigarette packet.

Is there any movement, technology, innovation or designers that you are excited about at the moment?

I find some of the material innovation particularly exciting, whether it is Modern Meadow’s lab grown leather, or Pinatex pineapple leather, or MusKin mushroom leather. The work that is being done with responsive clothing or adaptive clothing that is more diverse and inclusive than fashion currently is. The work of Suzanne Lee, Helen Story, Ying Gao, threeasFOUR and Iris Van Herpen are all particularly inspired uses of technology and innovative material use.



What was it about the new role at DIDI that appealed to you and what are you hoping to achieve?

The opportunity to affect great change. One of the issues with sustainable fashion is the limited circles you move within, making it difficult to reach outside and affect greater change. Being part of the planning and set up of a new University with such important partners as MIT and Parsons has allowed me to impact curriculum and development across so many areas of the University that is unprecedented.

Graduates are facing uncertain and ever changing futures, how can fashion schools equip their students to move into this evolving industry, when roles they will go into might not even exist yet?

This is a challenge for all educational fields right now. At DIDI we are addressing it by ensuring that all students work across more than one discipline, and that their approach to design is based on creative problem solving and not just producing more stuff. The curriculum we created at DIDI is cross disciplinary, with students choosing to study across two areas of concentration that include Product Design, Multimedia Design, Fashion Design and Strategic Design Management. This gives them a broader understanding of design across disciplines, with a focus on digital literacy.


If there were one thing you could get the industry together to change first, what would it be?

Complete transparency. Where the materials they use come from, what their impact is on the environment and the people in the supply chain, how their textiles and clothing are made and by who.

Sass, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and inspiring words. We are excited to see how the program develops at DIDI and watch your influence shaping tomorrows' fashion and design thinkers.


You can read more about Sass here, follow her on Instagram @clothingethics and Twitter @sassbrown01 and find out all about DIDI here.

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