Photographer: Dvora, London 2019
In the latest in our Life as I know it series, following the 100th episode of her podcast ‘Wardrobe Crisis‘, Clare Press shares how she went from promoting trends to dedicating herself wholly to sustainable and ethical fashion.
You know that joke, “I’ve got a face for radio?” Honestly, that was about the extent to which I thought about audio-format storytelling before I started the Wardrobe Crisis podcast. I’d done some radio appearances as a sustainable fashion expert. I liked them because you could turn up with smudged mascara and spinach in your teeth, and the audience was none the wiser. The odd radio spot seemed like a useful way to promote my books, but I never hankered after being the host. I’m not one of those people who listens to music while they work – I need silence to write.
Books were my first love. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I started writing a “novel” aged eight. It was as good as it sounds. But it got me started. I’ve written every day since. I write like other people play sport or piano – it’s just the thing I love to do. I studied politics at university in Sheffield, and toyed with the idea of a career in news journalism, but I suspected magazines might be more exciting. I was right. By 23 I was a senior writer at Rolling Stone. Lenny Kravitz once called me up from the Bahamas.
Dreaming of writing a book
At 26 I was living in Sydney and had a wonderful new job as the features director of Australian Vogue. This involved improbable things like talking to Cate Blanchett about balloon sleeves, and flying to Innsbruck to go to a party. I first experienced Rome as a guest of Bulgari. I had a driver at my disposal and every time I returned to my fancy hotel room, there was gift tied up with ribbons – a pair of sunglasses, a box of chocolates.
Back home in my tiny flat, I’d eat free chocolates and stolen canapes for dinner – there was never anything in my fridge. I earned a pittance, and spent that on platform sandals I couldn’t run for the bus in. Priorities, people! It was the Carrie Bradshaw era. We all thought this sort of rubbish was perfectly acceptable. I knew a girl who lived with her parents through her twenties purely so she could afford her designer shoe habit.
For years I wrote about art and clothes and fashion shows. I squandered words detailing which handbag you should aspire to own, and making you worry that your favourite long skirt was all wrong now because knee-length was back. I apologise for that. The tyranny of trends is completely ridiculous. Just wear the skirt you like the most, and keep on wearing it. Wear your oldest skirt, proudly. When it gets holes in it, mend it. Then pass it on so that your kids, or your friends’ kids, or total strangers can wear it too.
(L) Dabbling in radio as a guest on ABC Radio National (R) Hosting my own show
It’s true what they say: you get older, you get wiser. One day I literally woke up and thought, “There are millions living in slums and I have a special drawer just for belts – there’s something wrong with this equation.” That’s a line from my book, Wardrobe Crisis, How we went from Sunday Best to Fast fashion. It probably didn’t happen in a flash like that. More of a creeping realisation that there was something wrong with the fashion system.
There were two catalysing moments for me. One was Rana Plaza. Maybe you relate? I think that devastating garment factory disaster in Bangladesh inspired the activist in many of us.
Then was another, more personal, moment for me, when I interviewed Simone Cipriani for a Vogue story about the Ethical Fashion Initiative. It wasn’t even in person. We spent perhaps 30 minutes on the phone talking about how fashion, done right, could be a pathway to economic empowerment for some of the people who need it most – women in marginalised communities. We discussed how he’d set up the EFI as part of the International Trade Centre, to make a positive, tangible difference in people’s lives and to do it by the power of fashion. As a result, 7000 people now had dignified work and fair wages, mostly in Kenya, Burkina Faso and Mali, but also in Haiti and – in the future – in Afghanistan.
Hosting a podcast in Nairobi
As we talked, I felt as a sort of rising panic, like a boiling pot. My existential crisis. When we were done, I blurted: “Oh god, you’re changing the world while I’m just telling everyone which sandals to buy! WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO?” He told me, very firmly, that since I was a writer, I’d better write a book about fashion’s problems and solutions. So I did. I also vowed to dedicate my work purely to sustainable and ethical fashion. I’ve never looked back.
Simone doesn’t remember this conversation, which is telling. It just goes to show that the things we say and do can have impacts on others we may never be aware of. It matters what you put out into the word. Even what you say in passing could spark something major in someone, something wonderful. Throwaway comments can stick.
It was a friend of mine (Felicity Loughrey, host of Head Ovary Heels) who convinced me to try podcasting. She reckons the explosion of podcasts was like the early days of fashion blogging – there was still time to be a pioneer in early 2017. I got in just before the boom. I didn’t know of anyone making a brilliant, serious, sustained podcast about fashion, let along about sustainable fashion. None of my journalist peers were doing it, none of the magazines were.
I launched Wardrobe Crisis with Clare Press as spin-off from my book, the one Simone encouraged me to write. The podcast series take up where the book left off, because there’s always more to learn. My guests range from Livia Firth and Dame Ellen MacArthur to Rosario Dawson, to Bangladeshi garment worker union leader Kalpona Akter and climate scientist Tim Flannery. A highlight was making an episode on modern slavery recorded inside the House of Lords.
I’ve travelled to China, the UK, Italy, Germany, Kenya, Japan, Denmark and Finland to podcast. Last year, I made a show in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum with the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Next year, Simone and I are launching a podcast together. Funny how things turn out.
Today when I look back on the early days of my magazine career, I think I was lucky and I had a blast, but I couldn’t do it now.
Some people are speared with purpose from a very young age. Look at Greta Thunberg. I wasn’t like that. It took me a while to figure out what I’m on this Earth for. But now I know. I’m here to make a difference. Then again, we all are, aren’t we? The job of living is to figure out how; to drill down on your why, and apply it.
Listen to more Wardrobe Crisis podcast episodes here.
Read more inspiring stories from our ‘Life as I know it‘ series.
Discover more podcasts to source your sustainable news from.