The Department of Sanitation is Trying to Infiltrate High Fashion

Housing Works thrift shop in Chelsea hosts “ReFashion Style Squad” evening, part of the Department of Sanitation’s ReFashion Week (NYCityLens/Alice Chambers)

The New York Department of Sanitation doesn’t usually concern itself with high fashion. But it did last week.

From 6 to 8 p.m. last Wednesday around 60 shoppers drank champagne, ate cupcakes and got style advice from five New York Instagram influencers, while they browsed racks of secondhand clothes at Housing Works, a thrift shop in Chelsea, all thanks to the city’s sanitation department.

The event, called “ReFashion Style Squad,” was part of the first New York City ReFashion Week, a weeklong series of activities organized by donateNYC, a program in the Department of Sanitation. ReFashion week celebrated sustainability and the reuse of clothes in fashion; its events were meant to show city residents that “thrift stores can produce runway-caliber looks.” The backdrop is the mayor’s goal to send zero waste to landfills by 2030.

Housing Works thrift shop in Chelsea hosts “ReFashion Style Squad” evening, part of the Department of Sanitation’s ReFashion Week (NYCityLens/Alice Chambers)

“The department does trash and snow very well,” says Cameron Williams, the creative coordinator of ReFashion week. “But I wanted to bring a mainstream fashion perspective to sustainability.” Williams works at the sanitation department’s Center for Material Reuse, which does research on and promotes how the city reuses materials. He had been dreaming of putting on an event to unite the fashion world and the environmental one for the last three years.

Currently, the city sends 200,000 pounds of textile waste – clothing, shoes, and accessories – to landfill each year. That’s equivalent to 900 Statues of Liberty or 12.5 Brooklyn Bridges.

“The inspiration behind this is that there’s a lot textile waste out there,” said Eszter Csicsai, senior manager for reuse and donations at the department. There are over 2,250 entities in New York that the city classifies as ‘reuse organizations’ because they facilitate the reuse of old products. “If all these places were being patronized, how much could we divert [from landfill]?” asks Csicsai.

By working with partners like Housing Works or Goodwill, the organizers tried to show New Yorkers that fashion and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.

As Ashley Lake, marketing coordinator at Housing Works explains, “the most sustainable way to purchase clothes after buying nothing is to thrift.” And thrift stores have a lot of cool clothes.

Many of the customers at last Wednesday’s event were already thrift shoppers. But fewer said that they had thought about their habits from a sustainability perspective.

“They have really great buys and fashion,” says Peter Morley, who’s a regular Housing Works customer, who came to the event along with his dog Natasha. He describes himself as a treasure hunter. “Sustainability is not first and foremost,” he said, explaining his reason for attending.

As she flicked through a rack of coats at the back of the store, Christina Atkins noted that she had other motivations for coming. “I don’t like to buy what everyone can buy,” she says. She comes, she says,  because they have beautiful clothes and great prices, and because of the cause (Housing Works is dedicated to fighting AIDS and homelessness). What about sustainability? “Oh, I’m a thrifter, I definitely believe in that,” she added almost as an afterthought.

The Instagram ‘Style Squad’ was there to help make the connection between thrifting, fashion and sustainability more obvious to the browsers. It’s an idea borrowed from mainstream fashion. “They’re having great luck with these collaborations,” says Csicsai. “We want to use the opportunity to amplify our message.”

The five female style influencers between them have 48,000 followers on Instagram where they post photos of their outfits and offer fashion and style advice. There was no formal introduction of them at the event and their role wasn’t entirely clear. But they did walk around the shop looking at clothes and chatting to other shoppers or friends. Some of their followers turned up to meet them in person, but only three of the Instagrammers promoted the event in their Instagram feed.

What’s more only two of them post regularly about sustainable fashion: Tania Gabriela of Sustainably Stylish and Leigh Ray of Pink Vintage Heart. Gabriela and Ray’s outfits that evening were both entirely second hand, as per usual: neither woman shops for new clothes from regular high-street stores anymore.

The other Instagrammers talked more about incorporating thrifted items into a mainstream wardrobe and how there are cost and style benefits. “It’s great of course for the environment,” says Instagrammer Kendall Becker, whose boots and belt were thrifted. “But it’s also a really great styling hack. The 80s was a trend last fall, 70s are coming back this fall, and it’s a great way to get it for less!”

Gabriela, who has the highest number of followers in the group explained to NYCityLens how, four years ago, she realized her clothes did not reflect her beliefs on the environment or climate change. “I turned 30, looked in my closet, and I wasn’t proud of it,” she says. She took a year off shopping to reframe her attitude to clothes. Now, she only buys clothes from thrift shops or from sustainable brands that she trusts.

That meant a complete reframing of how she shopped. It’s not easy to find just what you need in a thrift shop when you need. Gabriela says she visits thrift stores regularly and buys clothes when she sees them to fill gaps in her wardrobe.“Those are the questions I get asked most often: how do you do it?” she said.

But not tonight. No one asked her how to make their wardrobes more environmentally friendly.

The 60 or so people who came for the event were mostly gone by 8.15 p.m., and the stragglers balanced plastic boxes of leftover cupcakes to take with them. The trashcan overflowed with a mixture of plastic champagne glasses and paper cupcake plates. So much for recycling.

Cameron Williams, the ReFashion Week creative coordination found that detail frustrating. He recognizes that there’s more to do.

At the end of the week, the hashtag #ReFashionWeek that the Department of Sanitation was using to promote its initiative had only 114 posts on Instagram, most of these from the organizers’ and partners’ accounts.  The standard New York Fashion Week also has a hashtag on Instagram. The number of posts associated with it? 5.7 million.