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5 Questions with Leah Blair

THE WORLD of fashion is picking up the pace, and it’s getting harder for consumers to keep up. Fashion bloggers cycle through trends faster than ever—it’s estimated that there are now 52 micro-seasons of fashion.

To keep up, consumers turn to “fast fashion” companies, like Zara and H&M, with a high turnover rate of product that are based on the most current fashion trends. However, in the long run, fast fashion is hurting our environment.

Leah Blair’s new exhibition, “Disposable Culture: Examining Fast Fashion,” opens at Non-Fiction Gallery on Aug. 11. She examines the environmental impact of the fashion industry and presents the information in an immersive installation.

Sunday, she hosts a discussion with Scott Boylston of Emergent Savannah and Erica Jarman of House of Strut to learn about issues, alternatives, and solutions.

We spoke to Blair last week.

How did you first get started on the topic of fast fashion?

Fibers is an interesting program. It’s the intersection of fine art, design, and fashion. Throughout my education I started learning about the fashion industry and I started understanding it and learning tidbits, and then started digging deeper. I watched the documentary True Cost, and that was kind of the first time I was like, “Whoa, there’s a lot here.”

What did you learn from that?

Specifically, social justice issues, outsourcing the poor quality of life, the minimal pay people receive in factories, but it also talks about the environmental impact of fast fashion, and that’s something that really interests me. Then, come to find out it’s the second largest polluter after big oil. There’s so many hidden costs that people don’t understand—it’s this huge globalized industry that most of the production, and even the post-consumer post-production life, we don’t understand. We’re just like, “Cool, $5 t-shirt!” I grew up shopping at H&M, not even thinking about it at all. It’s something I kept thinking about and taking a little deeper. There’s an interesting amount of research done, obviously a lot on the social element, but it’s really hard to determine the exact impact because there’s so much, it’s really complicated. If you take from the very beginning of growing the crop, the amount of resources needed to grow that crop is astronomical. A lot of this is being made using nonrenewable resources. On average, you get six wears out of a clothing object. The quality is really poor, and then we just throw it away, but even the donation cycle is this dizzying thing.

Do you think there’s a solution? Will we be able to reverse that cycle?

We need to change our disposable culture. Essentially, we need to consume less. This is in general, but we need to consume less and consume smarter, but there’s only so much that a conscious consumer can do—the whole production system needs to change. We operate in a cradle-to-grave method of production. We need cradle-to-cradle. After it’s served one purpose, it needs to serve another, instead of seeping toxic chemicals into our land. There are some interesting models out there—Patagonia guarantees their clothing for life. A lot of companies now are doing that. H&M is trying. There is some attention being brought to this issue, but then weighing the cost and using organic cotton isn’t necessarily better. There aren’t real solutions.

How does your exhibition tackle this issue?

I’m doing installations that act as visual cues to represent some of these issues. I’m basically just presenting the facts. I’m trying to be unbiased. It’s hard, but the facts speak for themselves. I’m mainly trying to shed light on the issue. Sunday is about solutions and alternatives—upcycling, reusing, repurposing your clothes, doing clothing trades with your friends. I’m trying to stay specific to the environmental impact. There’s really only three elements to the whole show—production, post-consumer and disposable waste, and an interactive portion. I feel like most art that is political of this nature or the base of activist art or social practice is giving people something they can do.

What would you like people to take away from this exhibition?

I’m trying to convey the scale. Hopefully it’ll be impactful so people will be more aware of their consumer choices. But also, you know, as much as I talk about how awful it is, if I see something cute at Target, I’ll buy it. The pressure should not be on us and our consumer choices because in the grand scheme of things, it has an abysmal impact. I understand the whole logic behind voting with your dollar and picking issues to support, but companies that are all organic and sustainable charge hundreds of dollars for one piece. Long-term, it makes sense, it’s high quality, but what you spend for that one piece is what you would spend on 20 pieces at Forever 21. There is chaos to that.

I always say with my work, I’m not saying this is how the world needs to be. I’m really just presenting the problem and trying to start a dialogue about potential solutions. I’m sparking a conversation about ways that we can effect change.