For a long time I’ve wanted to write an article on how to build a conscious wardrobe and sustainability, but I felt overwhelmed with the ambiguity and inconclusiveness of the concept. At the same time SUSTAINABILITY was rated as one of the most popular words for 2020. Of course that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world!

And because of the latter, some predict that sustainability might take a backseat, especially when the world is facing such urgent matters like racism, unemployment and healthcare.

Yet I personally think there’s no better time to talk about sustainability – we simply can’t keep compromising the health of our planet and people because we are so interconnected.

That’s why I’ve decided to dedicate some time and online space to sustainability. I’m starting with fashion, the most controversial industry when it comes to ethical and conscious consumption and production.

sustainable wardrobe

At the time when COVID-19 started spreading across Europe, it was Fashion Week in Milan and then Paris. Despite the pace at which the virus was moving and the warning signs from China, I remember most of the fashion crowd moved without hesitation from Milan to Paris, pretending that nothing was really going on. I’m not here to shame anyone, especially when I’m one of those who frequently visits designer’s fashion shows during Milan Fashion Week. However, the whole situation massively reinforced the question: Do we need so many Fashion Weeks and so many people flying around the world for a couple of days to only see one designer’s show?

The answer is that we may indeed not need so many Fashion Weeks and so many fashion collections in one year. But this would also mean less money spent on airplane tickets and in the restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels, which also means less people employed and less income for everyone…and that’s the point at which a lot of people give up! It’s easier to either NOT change the system, or just park the thinking required for a later date.

The thing that we need to realise though is that COVID-19 came to remind us of the stark reality that we may not have much time left! In fact, we can never know how much time we have, but that’s exactly why we need to start living and being more responsible right now!

So, where do we start with sustainable and responsible living? Recycling may be one step in the right direction but is it enough? What more can we do for the environment and our health? 

I personally turned to rethinking my spending habits, my consumer choices and my way of living. During lockdown I had the time to reorganise my home and specifically how conscious my wardrobe is. I felt this inner desire to live with less and dress more simply, but more authentically. I asked myself, “Can I buy only sustainable – what’s out there at the moment and what can I afford? How much should I buy in the future? Do I need so many clothes, shoes and accessories?”.

With a head full of questions and a heart desiring answers, I reached out for some help and mentoring from someone I’ve secretly admired and been following on Instagram for several years. Virginie Peny used to be a fellow blogger in the fashion world who seems to have mastered a conscious wardrobe. She’s a writer and creative who has often shone the spotlight on the subject of sustainability, even before it became popular on Instagram. 

She used to blog on her former blog about “Do it Yourself” (DIY), which in some way also means sustainable living, because it’s about self-sufficiency. She’s demonstrated all sorts of things like how to alter pieces in our wardrobes that don’t fit anymore or that we feel bored with. Virginie has worked with The Fashion Revolution Switzerland, whose mission is to hold brands accountable and encourage citizens to become aware of the complex topics that define today’s fashion industry. Virginie has also been a contributing writer for Annabelle.

When I called Virginie, it turned out she was finishing a brand new project, namely writing a book about her personal story with health. On her journey with sharing experiences and knowledge about living better with less, fashion still has its place in her new project.

I know that Virginie has a lot to say on the topic of sustainability, and here’s what we discussed:

Virginie Peny

Tsitaliya: Hello Virginie, let’s start at the core – what does sustainability mean for you when it comes to fashion?Peny: Sustainability is a complex topic, moreover in fashion. For ardent believers it has to be the combination of fair work conditions and sustainable materials and sourcing. No one really talks about good design and long-lasting properties. I’ve seen ‘sustainable’ designers not being able to sell their smooth leather bags because of one single fingernail scratch. For me sustainability means to buy less and better; to search for good craftsmanship, qualitative materials and timeless designs.

Tsitaliya: In what way do you practice sustainability in your wardrobe?

VP: In 2015 I attended a preview of the movie ‘The True Cost’ in Zurich, and this event changed my life. I realised how our purchasing decisions have an impact on a much larger scale, and that every single one of them counts. So I started re-editing my wardrobe with the vision of making it focused on essentials. Today nearly 70% of my wardrobe are essentials like blue jeans, black jeans, white jeans, pencil skirts (tailor made and in classic colours), a few wool sweaters, white t-shirts, a trench coat, and a biker jacket. Mainly brand new, partly second-hand. The rest of my wardrobe includes ‘desired’ things – items I don’t wear very often and that are easy to match with my essentials. 

Last but not least, I’m used to upcycling things that don’t fit the right way or that I get bored with. Building a conscious wardrobe is a process that needs time, self-reflection and knowledge, which I believe everyone could and should practice. It’s kind of like personal-development, where you might get to know yourself better. Also, learn how to sew – it’s always useful.

sustainable wardrobe

Tsitaliya: How about leather accessories? What’s your approach to leather and faux leather? At the moment there are a lot of vegan leather products flooding the market, but they’re not really sustainable because the largest part of today’s textile production involves plastics, with dramatic impact on nature and humans.

VP: I think here it’s about a deep self-reflection. Are you the type of person who likes to change items frequently like each season? Or are you able to keep on loving items and wear them almost ‘pour toujours’? Personally, I’m the second type. I’d rather invest in genuine leather items because I know I’ll wear them for a long time. The first type might prefer to buy leather in second-hand stores and/ or leather alternatives. Depending on the item, I’m open to these options too. 

Indeed, there are some very innovative brands on the market experimenting with leather alternatives, like the Swiss brand QWSTION. They’ve developed their own materials to achieve the highest sustainable quality. They use organically grown fibers and PFC-free water-repellent coatings in order to avoid harmful substances and make healthy products. Recently QWSTION released Bananatex®, a new shell fabric made from the fibers of banana plants. Truly fascinating! There are other brands too working on vegetable leather using pineapple or apples to create accessories and shoes.

Tsitaliya: Where does the journey to a sustainable wardrobe start?

VP: I suggest starting with some open and non-judgmental self-reflection first. Start with yourself, define what truly matters to you. Check your own wardrobe and go through every piece you have.

Your wardrobe can tell you a lot about yourself and your lifestyle, but it can also make you think of your dreams, expectations and vision for your life! Then get informed about the consequences of fast fashion, about (local) brands. Start slowly – throwing items away simply because they’re not sustainable is definitely not sustainable!

Tsitaliya: Can you share what your favourite sustainable brands are?

VP: I recently discovered denim jeans by Good Society, like the black pair I own. I have great respect for Calida’s commitment regarding underwear and tees, as well as for Jungle Folk, which so far is my favorite slow fashion brand. I now count on the French names Sezane, Coralie Marabelle and Olistic the Label. For sneakers I particularly like Common Projects and Veja. The sandals I’ll wear again this summer are from the Spanish brand Naguisa.

Tsitaliya: What are you hopeful about in terms of sustainability in the near future?

VP: I’m very hopeful that a new level of consciousness is going to be reached in people’s minds. The current situation suggests that time has come. We can do it differently. I also hope the frequency of the Fashion Weeks and more generally, of cycles in fashion, will slow down. It simply has to!

You can follow Virginie on her Instagram and discover so much more interesting lifestyle tips on her webpage.