Sustainable Fashion Lessons From Put This On, Billykirk and the Late William S. Burroughs

Photo: My Favorite Shoes by Chris Tackett

What's your favorite pair of old shoes? Mine are an old pair of gray Converse, which I've had for about 10 years. They've seen better days, have an assortment of scuffs, stains, rips and holes, but they fit perfect and feel great. As Lloyd says about architecture, "the greenest building is the one already standing," you could argue that the most sustainable shoes are the ones already in your closet.

But some people want aged things right out of the box. This is a post about that and other things.
A few days ago, Michael Williams at A Continuous Lean posted about how one of his friends had beaten the crap out of the $325 Billykirk bag he'd given his friend as a thank you gift.

This led Jesse Thorn over at Put This On to make a great point about his dislike of this trend of intentionally distressing their clothing and bags.

After highlighting some of the ways some other people were claiming they'd abused this Billykirk bag, Jesse wrote:

I have to admit that as lovely as this bag is, I'm not on board for the whole "crazy stuff done to distress something" thing. Why not just use your stuff? If you take your bag out back and kick it around and wash it with bleach and so on and so forth, you're transforming it into a simulacrum of what you'd like it to be, aren't you? To say nothing of using up much of its useful life, which bothers me nearly as much. Why not enjoy it as something new, then enjoy it as something old, rather than trying to create the latter state with abuse?

I couldn't agree more. Trying to add years of fake wear to new clothing is just poseur behavior. Plus, the bag was a gift and this doesn't seem like a grateful way to treat a gift. It's worth-saying that this specific bag beating isn't a big deal and while I know this guy wouldn't say what he was doing had anything to do with sustainability, it did get me thinking about my own take on sustainable fashion and the broader issue of faux-aging and why we make things look old, which I'll expand on below.

The tl;dr version: Beating up your stuff is dumb, except when it isn't.

Billykirk from The Scout on Vimeo.

To appreciate where I'm coming from, it's helpful to know a bit about the Billykirk brand. Billykirk is a company run by two brothers using excellent craftsmanship to create heirloom products. Watch the video above to get a sense of what these guys and the Billykirk brand is all about. Notice how much care and skill goes into producing one of their bags. The guys talk about how their products are built to last, able to be passed down between generations. On their blog they proudly post pictures from customers showing how good their products look after months and years of use. When they speak lovingly about the leather boots their father owned and how these have touched several generations, it's clear they are proud to be producing quality products that will get better with age, not just hustling cheap products that simply meet a temporary craving, like so much of consumerism, fashion or otherwise.

This is sustainability. Sure, sustainability is lots of other things, too. But buying quality goods built to last, instead of cheap, disposable crap is an important lesson here. (Quick aside, I know there's another conversation to be had about where leather fits into the sustainability picture. I tend to feel that it's okay if used on a product really built to last. Buying used is acceptable, as well.)

The Billykirk line is also produced with the help of Amish leather workers using techniques and machinery from the 1900s. Plus, the leather is vegetable dyed, instead of using chrome, which is better for the environment.

With these facts in mind, something about busting up a Billykirk bag and using bleach to get "10 years of wear in an afternoon" just seems anathema to the ethos that these guys are trying to bring to their work. Wouldn't it be better to get that 10 years of wear from, oh, I don't know, 10 years of use?

Photo: My Favorite Bag by Chris Tackett

Sustainable Fashion Is About Making Things Last
I think one of the reasons this bag debate jumped out at me is because for the past 10 years, I've lugged around this waxed canvas bag above. As my book and laptop bag during college, it took a daily beating. Since then, it's served as an overnight bag while traveling or my camera bag during camping trips or music festivals. It's been kicked under airplane seats and spent hours on dozens of coffee shop floors. The canvas is scratched, stretched and the strap is falling apart, but it doesn't look like this because I took a blow torch to it or worked it over with a rake in the backyard. It's the result of years of use. If I'd wrestled with it on a gravel pile, I'm sure I could have gotten it to look like this in a day, but I doubt I'd still be using the bag today.

One of these days, I'll repair the strap and re-wax the canvas. I plan on having this bag for another 10 years and maybe someday I'll pass this along to my kid or someone else that will appreciate the fact it has been repaired and loved over the years. And maybe the aged look is what they'll like best. And that's fine. I don't think there's anything wrong with appreciating quality things that are aged and look like there's an interesting story behind them. It's the foundation of the vintage, thrift and antique industries, which are an important, if unintentional, part of the sustainability movement.

Photo: Shoes, William Burroughs' Stuff by Peter Ross, used with permission.
For a Sustainable Future, We Must Appreciate the Aged...
A while back BoingBoing posted a great series of photos by Peter Ross of William S. Burroughs' stuff. This may sound boring, but for those that know of Burroughs' work and eccentricities, it was interesting to see the possessions he kept with him late into his life. There were great shots of his foot stool, quilt and other items, but the shot of his shoes was especially interesting to me due to the angle of the shot and visible holes worn into the soles. Clearly, Burroughs used these shoes. Most of his other items in the series, such as the shoeshine kit and patchwork quilt were also visibly worn. Looking at the shots, I can't help but think of Burroughs sitting in his apartment polishing those shoes or mending the quilt by stitching on a new patch. Looking at them now, can you really picture Burroughs taking a belt sander to these shoes to get that cool, broken in look? Or picking up a faux-vintage quilt at Urban Outfitters? Of course not. There's an authenticity visible here that is hard, if not impossible, to fake.

Bedspread, William Burroughs's Stuff , by Peter Ross, used with permission.

In an interview with The Morning News, Ross was asked about how he decided which of Burroughs' stuff to photograph. Ross replied,

"Shoes are just shoes, but only one man wore the holes into the bottoms of this pair. Just think of where these shoes have been, the conversations they have witnessed. These shoes likely have met many of my heroes of New York's 1970s and '80s culture."

The sole really does tell the story. What is the story behind a faux-aged Billykirk bag? Or a $100 pre-ripped t-shirt?

For Sustainable Fashion, When In Doubt, Avoid the Illusion
In case you were wondering, you can actually buy pre-distressed shoes. And no, I don't mean vintage or pre-owned. The pair above is from a collection of pre-distressed shoes at Details that Valet Mag pointed to. I didn't waste time trying to figure out what ridiculous price stores are charging for these, but we can safely assume it's too much.

Faux This, But Don't Faux That
While the comment response to Williams' post on A Continuous Lean were about split, a few other bloggers responded to this Billykirk bag beating. InModWeTrust wrote:


"The whole point of using real, quality leathers and nice canvases and waxed fabrics and denim is that, not only do they age well, but they also tell a story. The only story this bag tells is one of pre-washed disingenuous aging akin to whiskered jeans that I can get at Gap."

It is hard to disagree with that. But to be fair, Nick Maggio, the person that beat up his Billykirk was proud enough of his technique to tell ACL how he did it, so it's not like he's totally posing and hiding the fact he did this. And though I don't know much about him, if he's getting beautiful bags gifted to him from Michael Williams, I doubt he's the type to be wearing pre-ripped jeans from the Gap, so that's worth-saying. But looking at the negative comments at ACL, Put This On and the other blog's that reacted to this story, there is something going on here.

What is it that makes us respond this way about pre-aged clothing, when there are so many other ways people pre-age things to create a certain look?
Photo: The Brick House by Morgan Satterfield
In Defense of Faux-Treatments and Pre-Aging
Let me share a great DIY bench recently featured on Apartment Therapy. Using some rotted fence posts, which were salvaged after being replaced, Morgan Satterfield at The Brick House upcycled this wood into a beautiful bench. Using a belt sander and some oil, Satterfield has created a beautiful, functional and possibly even heirloom piece of furniture. Treated well, I see no reason this bench couldn't still be getting use in another 10 or 15 years.

Are You Breaking It In or Breaking It?
Baseball gloves need a serious breaking-in. I can remember getting a new glove as a kid and my Dad showing me how to "season" it with oil and how putting a ball in the glove before wrapping it tight with a belt would help it form the proper shape. This is a matter of functionality, however. Try catching a fly ball with a brand new glove and you'll soon see the value of this process.

Intentionally uglifying your bike to look less desirable to thieves is a sensible reason to faux-age a new product. But this too seems different. Buying used bikes to begin would be better, but it is good for bicycle owners and the environment for bikes to not be stolen.

Photo: Jimmie's Uglified Camera via MAKE
Jimmie's Uglified Camera was another nice example of how to faux-age a device to discourage theft. Again, there's something sensible, even sustainable, about this technique. It would certainly be worse for Jimmie and the environment for his camera to be stolen and need replacing.

What's the Sustainable Fashion Lesson?
To me, sustainable fashion means investing, editing and caring. Invest in quality craftsmanship, good materials and classic designs that can be worn for years. Edit what you have so you don't need a lot of space to store it all. And care for the things you keep so they will last. Additionally, buying used items from vintage and thrift stores helps to reduce demand for new products and conserves resources. And mending and tailoring help, as well.

What do you think of this definition of sustainable fashion? What are your thoughts on the debate over faux-aged, pre-distressed and intentionally beat-up stuff?

To try and bring this all full circle, I want to point to a quote I saw on the Billykirk about page. (Coincidentally, the guys also seem to be fans of William S. Burroughs.) I think the quote nicely sums up both their brand and my thoughts on the faux-aging debate.

"You can't fake quality anymore than you can fake a good meal."

-William S. Burroughs


For more from the people and sites mentioned in this post, follow them on Twitter: @PutThisOn @AContinuousLean @BillykirkInc @ValetMag @AptTherapy @The_Brick_House @InModWeTrust @BoingBoing @MAKE @TheMorningNews
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