The equivalent of a garbage truck full of clothes ends up in landfills every second. Fashion may have been fast and fleeting for as long as we can remember, but things need to change. Driven by a growing number of people who care about the planet, the fashion industry is being challenged to change.
The considered efforts made by a growing number of small, eco-conscious businesses to prioritise sustainability and thoughtful design cannot be ignored. As wonderful as they are, they currently represent just a tiny segment of the fashion market. But there is something new on the horizon that could spell the answer to the challenge of how we can indulge our love for fashion and clothes without hurting the planet.
The answer lies in a dress I remember well from my university days – a black jersey dress that could be ‘worn in 100 ways’ (all of which made me look like a bridesmaid and none of which I’d wear now). But the concept itself is worth exploring.
Convertible clothing, often referred to as transformable or multifunctional clothing, is a garment that can be designed to serve multiple purposes. These pieces can be easily altered or manipulated to create various looks, making them an ideal choice for individuals seeking to maximise their wardrobe’s potential. They transcend trends, occasions, and often seasons too, and are, in essence, super-versatile clothing.
My fascination with convertible clothing grew when I decided to pursue my childhood love for fashion and launch my own small clothing brand, POLKO. This passion project would give me, as a documentary filmmaker and journalist, some joy in days otherwise consumed with dreary emotions around climate change, record-high heatwaves, wildfires, and floods. But how could I enter the fashion world without becoming a part of the problem that I was trying to escape? I went back to my roots.
As a little girl growing up in the 90s in Pakistan, there was little to no ready-made clothing available. We wore what we created, and I spent many weekends with my mother immersed in fabric markets, finding trimmings, and sketching designs. Culturally, clothes required emotional involvement; it was fun, exciting, and creative. I even recycled cushion covers and made them into dresses. But the care with which we approached clothing was in stark contrast to the way the fashion industry approached Pakistan – as a dumping ground for rich nations’ discarded clothes.
Meeting demands of eco-conscious consumers
The overproduction and overconsumption linked to fast fashion have come under the harshest scrutiny since the shift towards more conscious and responsible shopping. Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled, while the length of time we actually wear these clothes has fallen by nearly 40%. Would we give in to impulse buying if the clothes we had never worn went out of style?
Circling back to my wear-it-100-ways dress (though I wonder if this sales pitch might have been a slight exaggeration), convertible clothing isn’t a new concept. It was originally associated with a limited range of styles or a utilitarian aesthetic, but reedited designs today are making it more sophisticated and mature.
It all starts with innovative and purposeful design. Convertible fashion requires huge levels of commitment and creativity from its designers. It is the ingenious use of zippers, snaps, buttons, patterns, and fabric that enables a single garment to seamlessly transform into several different styles. There is also a lot of trial and error in perfecting these designs. Of course, all these elements make convertible pieces more costly to produce, which means they come at a higher price. But this is the future of design, and the industry will need to adapt. Fast.
From the perspective of style, convertible clothing offers a dynamic wardrobe that thrives on self-expression and curiosity. Most people wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time, but dressing up with dynamic pieces, experimenting with different combinations, mixing and matching, and mastering new styling tricks can make getting dressed a more fun and personalised experience. It helps us all wear each item more ways, more often, and for longer, considerably reducing waste. For example, extending the active lifespan of a garment by just nine months could reduce its carbon, water, and waste footprints by as much as 30%. This is a great lesson; creativity – not buying more – is the answer to solving wardrobe boredom.
Convertible clothing is great news for those aiming for a minimalist and eco-friendly lifestyle. These versatile pieces can be dressed up or down, streamlining both your wardrobe and your mindset.
If we begin to see our future clothing purchases as investments – purposeful and long-lasting – then fast fashion seems less appealing and more problematic. The growing slow fashion movement takes pride in repeating outfits. It values the quality of garments over the quantity and classic styles over changing trends.
Maheen Sadiq is the founder of POLKO, the creator of a forward-thinking and innovative new fashion outfit that can be worn 14 different ways.