INTERVIEW: "Organic by John Patrick: The Ethical Designer and Tiffies Winner Explains Why the Fashion System is Broken" – The Fashion Spot


The Fashion Spot's Nika Mavrody interviewed John Patrick on his business and design practices:


theFashionSpot: People are becoming increasingly concerned about the ethical dimension of fashion, but you've been operating your business according to 'eco-friendly' practices for over a decade. When you first started out, were there many other designers pursuing transparent sourcing and production?

John Patrick: I basically started to do the research and the development in 2002 and 2003. So, no. At that point, we'd just moved into a new millennium and there was a lot of confusion in the underlying parts of the industry, and there was very little direction.

At the end of the last century, there was a handful of visionary designers that were working to change a silhouette, to change the way that fashion actually appeared on the surface — but as far as the deeper digging, what I call the archaeology of fashion, it hadn't really been addressed since the 80s, when Suzy Tompkins [Buell] and maybe Katharine Hamnett had brought the conversation to the table. But then of course, the 90s happened. And then it got swept under the carpet. Every generation and every decade has its difficulties and it has its challenges; it has the movements, it has the trends, it has an overnight explosion — boom, boom, here I am! wow, look at me! But right now in our industry, in the design world, there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of brands and companies and designers all trying to chase after attention. So it makes it even more difficult, sometimes, for some voices to be heard — those that choose not to promote or advertise.

So what happened in the past couple of years is that the large corporations, they figured out that they could get a little temporary lift by pulling on people's heartstrings — you know, cause marketing. Cause marketing is not sincere, it actually has a detrimental effect on the internal marketplace of supply and demand because it creates false demand and false hopes within the supply channels. So when people say, "We're going to do a program with, say, organic cotton. We're going to make it a big, huge promotion. It's going to be a huge push. We're going to use 100 million pounds of organic cotton!" Well, there isn't 100 million pounds of organic cotton available. So they create this false bubble and then the supply community — whether it's the farmers, the spinners, the weavers — thinks, "Well, if we need 100 million pounds of organic cotton this year, then we'll certainly need 120 million pounds of organic cotton next year." Well no, that's not true! Because it's a big corporation that's really just doing it because they felt that it was on-trend. And then the market goes back down. And then the farmers and suppliers are less inclined to make the commitment the next go-around, because they got burned once already. 

What we have to look forward to in the coming decade will be extreme transparency in a certain part of the industry. That is both good and bad, because it creates this false sense of a reality sometimes for the bigger brands, they think — "Oh look at Patagonia! Great business model! Yeaah, we really want to do something like that!" But they only want to do it at the top of their pyramid, which is 1/100th of one percent. So it's meaningless! But spin and the consumer, they don't really get that. Because the poor consumer is always the victim. The consumer always gets blamed. They're not thanked for the support…"The customer should know," is what a lot of people say and that's the exact opposite of what should be happening. We have to revere the customers that appreciate good and ethical design — not hoodwink them!Corporations manipulate consumers because they have to meet the bottom line. They have to pump up those numbers. I basically don't concern myself with any of that stuff because we don't participate in any of it anymore. We just have our customers, our retail partners. And we stay true to the aesthetic of our brand, to the ethical aspect of it. But also, it's fashion first. And we spin fashion first. Even though, initially, when we started to talk about organic and ethical and sustainable textiles and recycled textiles in 2004/2005/2006, people didn't really know what I was talking about. 

tFS: So why did you want to make that a core component of your label and brand? When it might have been easier to just follow the standard industry practices?

JP: Because I wanted to do something that I knew was the right thing to do. And also, it's almost like being an investigative journalist or reporter, I wanted to find out for myself. It was a very personal mission, initially. And then the more that I learned about it, the more I wanted to share it with the universe. And then … it happened. I've been very fortunate that I've had a lot of opportunities to share and tell my story and help tell the bigger story and help other people. We did a book, years ago, with Earth Pledge — Diane Von Furstenberg wrote the introduction — it was called the Fashion White Pages. It's not so well-known anymore because it went out of print. But at the time, it was Julie Gilhart, myself and a host of other people who were early adaptors. We knew that the material supply chain was in need of a change. I don't know if anybody understood the full scope of how damaged it all was.

I wrote a speech this spring that was read at Fordham Law. There's no title to the speech, but it was read ten days before disaster happened in Bangladesh and I was talking about the last disaster that happened in Bangladesh, in November 2012. And I was basically warning the industry that if they didn't pay attention to this kind of stuff, that something of a larger magnitude and scale was going to happen. To my saddest regret, it happened ten days later. These are the kinds of things that I'm constantly thinking about and working on and being aware of personally. And sometimes at a great emotional expense. It's hard because we're not a philanthropy — as people remind me. 

The climate conference that just happened in Warsaw is interesting because it's parallel to the conversation our industry is having…sometimes people just don't want to hear it. Inexpensive clothing can be wonderful but it also can be very damaging to the people who make it. I think that's the hard aspect of it, because we all need clothing. We need utilitarian clothing and we also need clothing for beauty, to make people happy. Even in the simplest way, in indigenous communities, they use clothing as a language — you know, the language of embroidery, the language of pattern. Maintaining a lot of these traditions — that's something we're at a critical juncture with now. Because a lot of that is being lost due to big box stores opening all over the world, making it much easier for people just to run and buy some little inexpensive thing just to cover themselves. There's not the reverence for the heritage as much anymore.

It's interesting because the young people, they're going to be the ones to carry the movement to the next level. By developing their own brands and supporting things that they believe in. Because I think with the younger generation…they don't buy into the old school stuff. They don't know what it was like in the 80s or the 90s — even like the 2000s. That might as well be 2,000 years ago, to them! Now people are like, "Oooo, VFiles. Oh yeah, all this new stuff…" And I'm pretty turned on by that. We look at everything here. We're cognizant of what's going on in the world, to a point. But when one of my programmers here said to me before, they were like, "Let's just like pay attention to it for like 20 minutes a day and the rest of the time, let it ride." And I thought, "Yeah, that's healthy."

tFS: One of the things I'm curious about, that you're sort of touching on: There all these major fashion industry figures, they're not necessarily connected to sustainable fashion or any kind of ethical fashion movement, but they still will constantly talk about cheap clothing as something problematic. Suzy Menkes is an example this. She's been quoted saying something along the lines of, "There's something immoral about a dress that costs as much as a cappuccino." And she's absolutely right, but that's because the process of production is itself immoral. It's screwing people over. That's the immoral part. It seems like there could be a symbiotic relationship between these more ethical goals of transparency and also the desire to celebrate and elevate luxury brands and promote high-end design. The mainstream luxury fashion establishment — and so not just designers, but also critics, people who aren't necessarily so financially bound to one brand's profits and losses — could push for more ethical production, but I never hear that connection made explicitly, not by anyone at the center.

JP: Basically, it's a state of mind. When you go through the rabbit hole and you realize… You go from being a voracious consumer and part of the system and wearing $2,500 shoes that are handmade in Paris and the latest Italian coat and having your face rubbed with the most expensive cream ever on the planet. You're riding in an Uber to get on your Gulfstream or your G5 or your G-whatever. Or you want to be that person. This is all on one side of the wall. So there are all of these people that are there and people that are aspiring to be there. And the people that are dressing them and making it all up and picking the colors and decorating the houses and ordering the chandeliers and getting the appointment with the man that walks around your garden — the whole nine yards. And then you go to the other side. Which is actually a completely different side of the coin. And that's where the cheese is made, the wool is spun, the farmers are farming. The real world. There's a disconnect. And I think that the disconnect — I mean, we should really hire Sigmund Freud to come in and analyze. We need like, deep analysis, to understand why a company has to achieve world domination, with like $17 billion worth of profits. 

We're just in the beginning of the process of having transparency and ethics come into the whole design and manufacturing process because the canary has definitely died inside of the coal mines. And what you're seeing, also, industry-wide, both in manufacturing and in retailing, is this deep deep change. We're at a juncture. And it's not the end of the world, it's the change of the world. It's the end of peak oil, yes. It absolutely is the end of peak oil. For sure. So it makes people more conscious and more aware. And that's why the prices keep rising for even basic things. Inexpensive socks and underwear and stuff, they're not so inexpensive anymore. This may be part of the answer to the question that you're asking, which is why these people don't talk more about it, that have the ability to. Because if they do, they're going to raise the prices even higher and then the manufacturing and the apparel economy and the supply chain economy will collapse even more. The people who know know and the people who don't know, don't want to know.

And in a way… I don't really read Suzy that often, I think she's a brilliant writer, I cornered her a couple years ago at a party, and I really started to talk to her… She's very intelligent and she's seen a lot, so it's interesting… I know that she has traveled to some symposiums and some meetings. I think there was one in India that they had this year, it was somewhere. But then they go on this junket, it's like a booze cruise of sustainability. It's like, "Oh wow. What a good idea!" But then nothing changes. So my idea of how to make things change is: Do it. Just go and do it.

I made the world's first organic oxford cotton shirt. It took me two years to get the fabric made; I had to beg a mill to make the fabric. I'm glad that I did that, because that in turn raised the consciousness of this mill. They then got the benefit that they had done this early on, and now they have the experience and the expertise. But to make the commitment takes a different way of looking at things. And also, part of it — it's the design schools. The schools! They're not really teaching young design students how to think different. They're just kind of little training grounds for people to poach talent out of.

It's unfortunate that … who suffers? It's the people that produce the clothing, the people that produce the fibers. The consumer. Because the consumer is being taken advantage of. When something costs $2.50 to make and then the wholesaler has to mark it up and then the retailer has to make it up… The standard retail markup now is 2.5x. So if something is $10, it retails at $25. The Wall Street Journal just did a piece about the $1,000 sweater. It was a little 3-minute film and they're saying now, that the cost of a sweater now is $1,000 — sometimes $2,000! And it's like, no, it doesn't have to cost that much! Our industry can still produce a responsible, ethical sweater for $135 which can then retail for $300. We're actually capable of producing sweaters for much less, if you have the economy of scale. Because the economy of scale, it's easier to make beautiful things if you're making lots of them.

Jessica Napolitano