Can Angelina Jolie make us care about sustainability?

Can Angelina Jolie make us care about sustainability?

Angelina Jolie has made a reputation for herself as one of Hollywood’s foremost humanitarians, harnessing our attention for refugees, war-zone sexual assault and international adoption – but can she change the way we think about clothes?
On Wednesday, the actor introduced Atelier Jolie, a fashion business with an unorthodox and purpose-driven business model. “Atelier Jolie wants to join others in their effort to democratize the fashion industry, allowing the customers to have access to a collective of emerging designers and master artisans,” she wrote in an Instagram caption accompanying an image of a brand logo in jangly art-deco-style font over a leathery metallic gold background.

Aside from its fall launch date, the brand has made few details available – “Bear with me,” Jolie signed off on her introductory note. “I hope to grow this with you” – but hints at an ambitious, globalist aim. “I am building a place for creative people to collaborate with a skilled and diverse family of expert tailors, patternmakers and artisans from around the world,” she writes on the brand’s site. “A place to have fun. To create your own designs with freedom. To discover yourself.”
Emphasizing the global reach of an industry deeply entrenched in Western values has become the luxury business’s new obsession over the past year. Chanel staged a fashion show in Senegal last December, while Gucci mounted one in Korea earlier this month. Dior has highlighted their use of Indian ateliers for embroidery – a practice many French luxury businesses engage in but often go to lengths to obscure in the name of preserving French artisanship.

Still, the business remains oriented around Western notions of luxury. Jolie’s brand seems aimed to disrupt that, if gently. “When you’re using language in the fashion industry space – and by that I mean, this Western-centric and U.S. version of the fashion industry as we know it, with fashion month in New York and Paris and Milan and London – [like] ‘atelier’ and ‘tailoring’ and ‘craftsmanship,’ that codes to me as very high end,” says Emma McClendon, a fashion historian and assistant professor of fashion studies at St. John’s University in New York.
On the other hand, McClendon says, “consider how clothing is made around the world, and actually, this notion of engaging with textiles, engaging with tailors, getting custom-made stuff is not necessarily [in] the upper echelons of clothing production in other parts of the world.” In many parts of Africa, China and India, it’s neither unusual nor expensive to have a neighborhood tailor make your garments. Perhaps Atelier Jolie can offer “a more global perspective,” says McClendon, showing “who has these skills and elevating them and giving them visibility.”

Clothing brands are popular means for celebrities to trade on their names – everyone from Rihanna to Beyoncé to Kate Hudson to Tyler, the Creator has had their name on brand tag. But Atelier Jolie suggests the actress is not out to proselytize for her own sense of style. First, consider Jolie’s status within the fashion industry itself; unlike Rihanna or the Olsens, she is not known as a fashion plate, instead choosing a wardrobe of neutral suiting separates by subdued luxury brands such as MaxMara and Michael Kors. In recent years, she’s made headlines in the style world when her children have re-worn her gowns from past red carpet moments – a “vintage” style statement hinting at her own shifting perspective.
On the brand’s website, Jolie declares an intention to “use only leftover, quality vintage material and deadstock.” (Deadstock fabrics are excess materials unused by brands or mills.) That would put Atelier Jolie more in line with ethical luxury brands such as Bode and By Walid, which make pieces from antique textiles and quilts; and Marine Serre, a Paris-based designer who almost exclusively uses deadstock T-shirts, towels, and linens. This production model means that these brands are small – there is only so much old stuff to be made into newer goods. (Bode, by the American Emily Adams Bode Aujla, has expanded her business by adding reproduction garments to her lineup.) Neither is it cheap: a By Walid jacket can cost upward of $3,000.

For as popular as the term may be, sustainability remains a hard sell in fashion. (Notably, Jolie does not use it.) Businesses that emphasize recycled fabrics and upcycled deadstock may earn a lot of press, but they are up against a seemingly unstoppable machine of fast fashion, whose star brand, Shein, a business valued at $64 billion this year. When it comes to sustainable goods, consumers are often motivated by the same desires behind any other fashion purchase: a thirst for novelty. Can she get us to change our ways?
Perhaps McClendon says it best: “I’m going to be really disappointed if it’s just a product roll out.”

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