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Thomasine Dolan Dow: Moving Beyond Fast Fashion with an Industry Vet

Thomasine Dolan Dow: Moving Beyond Fast Fashion with an Industry Vet

From LA to New York to London, Thomasine Dolan Dow dove into the fashion industry head-first. Determined to change the industry, she took her design experience—spanning from Banana Republic, Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren—and pivoted into sustainability advising. Our founder, Carole Murphy, spoke with her about the state of fashion in New York, why cheap clothes and synthetics persist, and exciting materials innovation. Read the full interview below or have a listen to the audio recording

Thomasine in New York City

Carole

This is Heart stock radio and I'm your host Carole Murphy. Today our guest is Thomasine Dolan Dow. She is a sustainability advisor and a fashion designer. Hi Thomasine!

Thomasine

Hi Carole. Good morning!

Carole

Thank thank you so much for being on Heart Stock. Where are you speaking with us from?

Thomasine

I'm in New York City, more specifically, I'm in Soho, which is downtown Manhattan.

Carole

That's a great spot to be. We all saw the difficulties that New York had during Covid, especially with the Delta variant. What's it like there now? 

Thomasine

Actually a lot of good things came out of the craziness of the last year and a half…well of course there were bad things too, but I'll focus on the good. In order for businesses to stay alive, they had to become more external.

Specifically, restaurants needed to open up their doors and put tables out on the sidewalk in the street. So for that reason, it feels very European with outdoor cafes year-round. In that way, it's really, really nice, like there's all this outdoor dining and strolling around the city. I mean New York has always been a walking city, but now it's even more of an eyeful and it feels kind of celebratory all the time because people are out dining and socializing and sharing. 

And for the most part, it's done rather safely. If you go indoors, everyone's wearing masks, and precautions are taken. So it's gotten people out and I think it's a good way for people to just feel again, because so many of us have been isolated, not being able to travel or go to offices to work with other people. 

My neighborhood has just been chock full of people because there are a lot of restaurants here. It's also because there was a lot happening with social justice movements and marches, especially after George Floyd. So downtown Manhattan became a real focal point probably because we're not too far away from City Hall and the courthouses. 

And so naturally a lot of protests will emanate down there. But after the dust settled, it's become this place of people coming together again. There are tons of subway stops near us, so it's become a destination place for people to be and hang out and it's more diverse than ever. But I’ll tell you what has not lacked is the traffic. It's worse than ever actually, which is sort of surprising.

Carole

I imagine that there are all kinds of reasons for that too. You haven't always been in New York, can you give our listeners an intro here about your journey and what you do as a sustainability advisor?

Thomasine

The sustainability part came as an offshoot of my fashion career about five years ago. I wanted to put the brakes on and I was like, what am I doing? Who do I want to work for? And because making fashion means putting more products out in the world, who's doing it responsibly, in a way that I can feel okay about?

I looked around and there weren’t that many brands based in New York that did that. Of course, Eileen Fisher is one of them and I started talking to those people. But many people have been there for 20-25 years, so the circle is rarely punctured in terms of new people coming in. I was in contact with them for a couple of years. Lovely, lovely people. They really live by what they do. Their belief systems about resources and about sustaining things from the beginning.

For me sustainability came about kind of as atonement, to put it in religious terms. I just knew I’d been putting products into the world for so long. I never worked for a fast fashion brand, so I don't feel like I was responsible for a lot of that, but I was definitely somewhat deaf and dumb to the overproduction that was going on, the devaluing parts of the supply chain that have these lower prices to lure in customers. 

Even brands outside of fast fashion do this. You know, they want to make big margins and don't want to charge the customer a lot. It's just this domino effect of devaluing everything from the farmer to the weaver to the cutter and sewer. Looking at all that, I thought, who do I want to work for? And then I realized, I just need to focus on sustainability and how can I help advise brands on becoming sustainable.

I wanted to help them because I'm so familiar with how design works, how design interacts with merchandizing, and how design interacts with production. I thought I could be of use in trying to track that down. A big part of it is materials–knowing where to source the materials that have transparency and are sustainably made or grown. But it's also a mindset of getting everyone to think about how to operate because it's not just about the clothes, it's about how you operate. 

It's everything, from how you get up and how you operate at your desk and when you go out to get lunch or you're bringing it back in a plastic container. So there are all sorts of things that. We need to like look at things in our lives that we've not paid any attention to for a long time.

Sustainable living and thinking goes hand-in-hand with changing fashion.

So that was why I took a couple of years to study sustainability on my own. I was largely self-educated, I did classes online with the University of Michigan and with Central Saint Martins’s fashion sustainability school. With the shutdown, we were doing Zoom town halls or webinars and that sort of thing, but there's a ton of reading and it's all out there, it's not hard to access.

Carole

What was it that sparked all of this? Was there an aha moment? 

Thomasine

Well, I think the aha moment was partly based on where I live. It's Soho and it's a big shopping destination. It used to be known for art galleries. But like 10 or 15 years ago, Chanel moved in and then Prada got a big corner store. More and more luxury brands came in and the galleries went away because they couldn't afford the rent anymore so they moved to Chelsea. 

But then along with that came the fast fashion, Forever 21, H&M, Zara, and Old Navy all used to be here. Some don’t exist anymore but there are plenty more and they are churning out products. So I would see in my neighborhood all these people carrying big plastic shopping bags and the streets would be clogged with people and the windows always had markdown sales. 

It just made me think like, my God, where is all this stuff going? It just felt so suffocating to me. That was pretty much it. I wanted to do something different and I looked for people who were doing it differently and asked how I could learn from them.

I looked at Eileen Fisher and to a large extent Patagonia, which puts their practices in a little bit differently than Eileen. They do a little bit more offsetting with how they work because they use a lot of synthetic fibers in their clothes, which we know were not good for the environment. But they do so much to offset that with their environmental work, repair program, and protections.

Carole

And tell us just a little bit about what you did prior to being a fashion designer and an adviser. I think you also went to school in London?

Thomasine

Well, London was actually much later on. That was my adult life after I had already been in fashion for 20 years.

So I grew up in Maryland and I worked and went to school at the art school there and then I moved to LA. And was thinking I would go into advertising because I was studying graphic design because there were no schools that offered fashion design courses and I was not hardy enough to move to New York City then. I didn't know anybody and that was so scary to me.

So I studied graphic design and then I moved to LA and got a job in advertising. I worked for Ogilvy and Mather [now just Ogilvy] and another agency that goes by a different name today. But then I still wanted to move to New York. LA wasn't satisfying me anymore.

I was looking for a more fast-paced world in the 80s. When I moved to New York with my friends, that was definitely it. I met a fashion designer and it all came flooding back to me, it was like, this is what I wanna do. So I (this is before cell phones and computers) kind of stalked him using a landline. I was like, hey can I show you some sketches? He shockingly took a chance and hired me as an assistant.

That was really the beginning of my work in fashion.

Carole

Who was it that hired you?

Thomasine

I'm sad to say he's passed on. His name was Charles Nolan and this was for Bill Blass. That was a really long time ago, in the late eighties. He was good and he was very kind to bring me in. I learned a lot on the job. But the whole design team was let go. And I was like oh my God, I'm in New York City, I don't have a job, I only have one year under my belt of being barely an assistant, but I knew that's what I wanted to do. So then that was pretty scary, just like sketching and trying to figure out how do I do this.

And then I put together a bunch of sketches and I started cold calling and literally showing up at people's offices. I don't know if you can still do that now. I would find out where places were located and the names of people who ran certain departments and I would bring a portfolio. I did that for Liz Claiborne, I did that for Ralph Lauren and, ultimately, I got a job at Ralph Lauren. I had to show up for four different interviews so they could presumably see what I was wearing each time. But then I did it, so that was pretty good tenacity.

It was a sink or swim situation. I was like, I have to pay rent and this is what I want to do.

Carole

I would really love to talk about something you mentioned earlier, that consumers and their role in this sustainability adventure things are changing. You know how alluring things can be because they’re cheap. Where are we going with all of this? Are consumers ready for how much sustainability is going to cost?

Thomasine

I'm so glad you brought this up because it's the hardest thing. Retailers, and across all industries, have trained the customer to wait for sales to buy it cheaper. People will buy in bulk and we really need to be retrained. It wasn’t always this way. And I don't want to sound like someone who’s like, “it was better in the 70s or whatever” but one of your previous guests whom I adore, Dana Thomas, talks about this in her book, Fashionopolis. You know, the buying habits of apparel for Americans in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, how they kind of stayed the same for a few decades–like people buy six items of clothes a year, and now we're up to 60 items per year.

That's a clear signal that people are buying inexpensive things that they're not keeping for long because they're not investment pieces. They’re good enough to get people through a season. It’s gonna be really hard to retrain the customer and it's gonna be hard for brands.

Brands are going to be super resistant to raising their prices and they'll have to raise their prices if they start making less of things. They do volume production runs right now because if you tell a factory I want to make 100,000 of these versus I want to make 2,000 of thesef they're going to give you a much better price because it keeps their workers working and it’s reliable income. 

But we have to pull back on that because now we also realize that most brands have inventories they don't know what to do with. Everyone's got to slow down. We need to make less and buy less. 

Not to sound like I'm living in the past, but people used to buy more investment pieces. You bought things and you handed them down to your siblings. I have things from my mother that she had when she was a young woman. It's hard for people to think that way, buying less instead of buying 50 things that each cost under $30. Maybe you only buy 20 things this year, but each thing is gonna cost like $50 to $100.

The number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000. An estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually from the fashion industry.

Most of us have enough clothes to last us for the rest of our lifetimes in our closets, with the exception of kids who are growing out of things all the time.

As you said, sustainably-made products are gonna cost a little more. I think there are two different audiences. One is the customer audience that really does care and seeks it out and the other audience that is not even aware it's a problem. Then within those two silos, there's a big spectrum because it's not just one kind of person who comes from a certain kind of income or background. That's my opinion and why is cheap so bad.

Carole

That's a hard thing to convey to customers that this fast fashion habit with lots of cheap clothes is a bad thing.

Thomasine

Yeah, there are several reasons. One is that it's devaluing the supply chain, which means the farmer, the weaver, the sewers, the cutters, and the knitters all have to wonder how much they get paid if you're buying a sweater for $20. Like someone has to put the yarn in the machine. Hands touch it.

The other thing is for the farmers who have all sorts of struggles because their livelihood is dependent on the weather and now the weather is just nuts. But also I just think people know what's involved in farming practices. It’s another that's another tricky industry where, because of the pressure put on products that they produce, they've had to forego more sustainable practices because they've become industrialized.

The other reason things are cheap is that a lot of that fast, disposable fashion is made from synthetic fibers, which are the cheapest fibers out there and they come from plastics, which as your followers probably know, come from the oil industry. So it's a petroleum product.

And what we know about those sorts of fibers is that they will never go away. We don't even know how long they last in the environment because it's still a fairly modern fiber. So because it's a waste product for the petroleum industry, it’s very cheap and it's durable and people like that it takes color well. It does lots of things that people are attracted to. And brands don't have to pay much for it so they can make big margins.

But we have to wean ourselves off synthetics. They’re just the worst.

Carole

And that's a good segue to the Material Innovation Initiative. Can you share with our listeners your work?

Thomasine

Thank you for asking about that. We're a small group of people (a nonprofit). When I say small, it's like maybe 10 people with a lot of volunteers who are also a big part of it. But we're trying to create an ecosystem of innovators and scientists and investors and then myself being a fashion person. It's an ecosystem for sustainable materials.

So the innovators are also entrepreneurs in many cases and they're also working alongside scientists because, in order to create these laboratory-grown or made materials, you have chemical engineers, textile engineers, scientists, and chemists. And these people are working alongside entrepreneurs and innovators who want to make things sustainably. So it's really interesting. We're trying to help them with investors and pair them up with brands who want to either invest in or want to be part of testing and ultimately purchasing their materials.

So most of the people are still in the R&D phase. There are a few who have made national headlines and international headlines, especially for the alternative leather materials. Certain brands are using them. We see it popping up in the sneaker industry a lot. That industry has always been really innovative. That's kind of how sneakers have worked since they've been invented back to Goodyear when they took vulcanized rubber and put it on the bottom of the shoe.

So I get to see materials that are still in R&D and I can put them through low-tech testing. Like what would happen if you were to wear it? Does it scratch? Does it wear? It's not just leather materials. It's also hopefully solving for things that can replace synthetics. If we can solve things like that, we can replace all like the fleece pullovers that we all love that are warm and cozy, those are generally made of acrylics and synthetic. 

During laundering, a single fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers and water treatment plants can only filter out about 60% of those.

If we can come up with fibers to replace them that are sustainable, that means they don't pollute while they're being made, worn, and washed. They're not going to be harmful to the planet because they biodegrade naturally over a much shorter amount of time. So that's the end goal, something that won't last on the planet for 100 years. It's really interesting the leaps and bounds people are making. 

For a long time, I had no idea that as I was wearing clothing that was leaching pollutants into our waterways. It's heartbreaking and we're due for some change.

Carole

Could you share some highlights of the innovations that are currently going on?

Thomasine

For me, it's finding the replacement for the synthetic industry when you try to solve for natural fibers like silk and wool. 

Polyester emulates silk and acrylic emulates wool, so they’re used a lot to replace them. When you try to recreate silk and wool in a sustainable laboratory setting, you'll take away the need for synthetic fibers. That's the most exciting thing for me because the synthetics industry has caused the shedding of the microfibers and microplastics into waterways. It's even on the tallest peaks in Tibet from mountain climbers and trekkers. It’s an innovation we need for marine life, as well as on land. 

Carole

And how might listeners find you carry on the conversation?

Thomasine

Well, I don't have a website. I am on LinkedIn. People can certainly message me there. I also have Gmail at Thomasine.dolan@gmail.com. If I can be of help to anybody or if you have any questions, absolutely reach out.

Carole

Thank you for sharing your story and for the work you do!

Thomasine

Thank you, Carole. It was awesome talking to you.

Carole

I'm your host Carole Murphy and Daniel Hogan is in the studio. We've been speaking with Thomasine Dolan Dow and as usual, we will be back with you next week for another conversation about sustainability and fashion. 

Heart Stock Radio is a production of KBMF 102.5 Butte America radio. Our program is every Friday at five p.m. Mountain Standard time via Livestream at http://www.butteamericaradio.org/

 

Thanks to our contributor: Kasi Martin

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