I meet Caitlin Pupillo in the cozy, beat-up basement workshop of Common Sort, a Toronto based thrift store where she works as a seamstress and designer, quietly promoting zero waste fashion. Currently, Common Sort has a range of clothing made from repurposed materials that Caitlin has been heading. In an instance of kismet, she shows me a piece she’s been working on. It’s a pair of pants I sold to the store about six months ago. Clearly, we were destined to talk today. Caitlin has had a storied history with fashion and the arts; having some formal education with textiles at OCAD University, then a two-year apprenticeship at a tailor-shop in the west end of the city. She’s bursting with energy, only to be bolstered later by some much needed caffeine. It’s clear: this woman loves what she does. Working in a creative industry can be torturous for those of us who love it: you have to recognize the impact your work has on others, and the world at large. You ask: “Am I contributing meaningfully to the world in my work?” and “Does the work I do actively harm others?” In the fashion industry, this means addressing a growing waste issue, overblown consumption needs, as well as human rights violations in the global textile industry. Caitlin sat down to talk me through these issues, and how she addresses them as a garment worker.
Mind your consumption
Caitlin Pupillo and I sit down on the inviting, college-reminiscent leather couch in the workshop and get down to talk textiles and zero waste fashion. She tells me she’s always grateful to have a moment for her hyper fixations to be seen and heard. In thinking over my own interactions with the fashion industry, I’m surprised to realize I’ve had very little exposure to garment workers talking about clothing production. I’m interested in fashion, and have been watching, reading and looking for it since I was a child. I’ve only really heard from fashion designers, models, and celebrities and influencers. It’s hard to find information from anyone directly involved in the manual production process in fashion news, which seems deliberate. Caitlin mentions North America’s divorce from production as one of the many reasons for mindless consumption: “We need a more holistic perspective of the global garment chain. The UK is centuries ahead of us. They treat textiles as a manufacturing science, rather than gendered, ‘unskilled’ work.” Caitlin cites disconnection from production as a major factor in consumers devaluing the labour and cost required to produce a sustainable, long-lasting piece of clothing. “There is a huge gap in the labour required that we outsource overseas, where workers are paid vastly under a living wage, and the dollar value that we as North Americans pay for these garments. I really hope people start caring about clothing production. We don’t understand how much clothes should cost.” I come from a line of textile workers: both my grandmother and my mother worked in an underwear factory to pay their bills. My grandmother lost a friend to what she called “cotton lung”, a preventable illness of the lungs from workers not being provided personal protection while working with fabric particles. I think about what might have happened should the work and wellbeing of textile labourers have been valued as much as the product itself. Caitlin Pupillo reminds me that textiles were the original currency, but have lost this value in modern day western sensibilities.
Sustainability is a style
So, how do we shift these mindsets in North American consumer culture? For Caitlin Pupillo, it means rethinking our relationship to our identity. “Toronto has such a performative creative culture sometimes. It’s like; to have this identity that stands out, you have to cultivate a strong personal brand. A lot of that brand comes from work being done in impoverished communities by women of colour, if you’re thinking about visual identity [as clothing].” Speaking as an artist and creative, I have to agree with her. People remember the artist with the killer outfit, or the content creator with the hyper-curated Instagram feed. Caitlin asks me, “How many outfits do we see on Instagram that are not actually ever worn?” Trend cycles for consumers are only getting shorter, and the value placements of new, trendy and bold dominate the social media sphere. Astutely, Caitlin points out that the capitalization of personal aesthetic is to blame for these cycles speeding up. To circumvent this issue means to rethink how tied your personal identity is to capitalist structures. Not that identity should be separate from garments. Caitlin is completely behind personal expression in clothing: “I think dressing yourself is the one democratic practice you can have every day. If you are not meant to exist under white supremacy, or hetero-patriarchy, then you are a gift. Your presence is a gift. Garments are a great way to celebrate that.” I ask Caitlin how we might unbraid identity from consumption: “There’s very little we can do on an individual level, but leading by example is the only option. You can make anything out of anything, you just have to see it done first. If we can accept that the world is close to the Hunger Games, we can also accept that we can exist outside of these trendy aesthetic categories. If I have one wish, it’s that everyone can move away from the profit margin and further toward enriching themselves.”.
GREEN FLAGS FOR THE ECO-CONSCIOUS CONSUMER
- Smaller studios with smaller runs, where the clothes are more expensive.
- Local brands to reduce carbon emissions in the shipping
- Brands who buy and use deadstock materials
- Styling rather accumulating wardrobe pieces
- Union made, or fair trade options
- Local, thifted items