Signs of Life

August 21, 2023

Have you ever Googled a specific stain? And not because you wanted to remove one.

I had just seen the closing look for Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2023 collection. It was a floor-length dress made of repurposed City Bags that were ripped apart, distressed and stitched back together. The model skirted around a makeshift mud pit, dragging a flank of leather with dangling purse handles through the dirt. It was rumoured that Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, had hired a team to destroy the clothes. The purpose of this worn effect was to remind “the wearer of the effect of the passage of time on clothes.” A more cost-effective approach would have been lending the garments to skaters. Or to someone who not only destroyed a Balenciaga bag (aforementioned Google search), but counted an Hermès Kelly she had worn down among her “wardrobe full of decaying designer threads.” None of Demna’s metaphors for decay could compete with the image of Mary-Kate Olsen walking around LA with a stained Balenciaga Motorcycle bag in the early 2000s. Before any starlets got on the waiting list, the Olsen twins were shielding themselves from the paparazzi with them. Mary-Kate favoured the status bag in a sunbleached mint that shifted to pistachio in the right lighting. As the bag hit peak saturation in 2004, she was snapped out and about with a crimson blotch on hers. Had the lambskin leather been soaking in red wine? Ink? Blood? Who cares? It looked so much better beaten up. In an interview with Wa year later, the bag had, according to writer Marshall Heyman, accumulated so much more wear and gunk — stains, pen marks and even gum — that the mint green had taken on a dingy gray colour. “It explains my life,” Olsen would say, elaborating that she had a “tendency to wear things out.” In that aughties slash boho era, everyone’s clothes and Converse were hanging on by a thread. At that time, you didn’t wear life on your face but on your clothes. You outlived them before they were démodé. Maybe we let our clothes unravel because we couldn’t see 2008 coming. Either way, this was reflected online, where sites like the Cobrasnake documented wear and tear in nightlife. There was Cory Kennedy smoking in an alley with her weathered Chanel bag on the floor. Or Amy Winehouse walking around Hackney in bloodied ballet flats. It’s a stark contrast to the last few years, where trends are in and out faster than ever, and we don’t even have a chance to break anything in.

The rapid cycle of trends has broken down the connection between clothing and flesh. Things move so quickly, it’s like we’ve barely made a mark in anything. Instead of pursuing a lifelong commitment to personal taste, a sense of style is simply adhering to newness: staying on top of trends or ahead of them. Instead of learning to develop your own taste and building a core wardrobe around it, we’re now encouraged to hoard everything in sight. Consequently, it doesn’t take long to come across someone’s weekly Zara haul on social media. Thrift stores are now stocked with Shein – tags still on. And influencers never repeat outfits. Their pristine white trousers never catch coffee or pasta sauce spills. Their t-shirts barely absorb their sweat. The leather in their handbags is barely cracked. Ironically, while impermanence drives our consumption patterns, it also fuels our demise. According to a UN report, the fast fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global emissions and 20% of clothing in the US is never worn. Nothing, not even the concept of longevity, has a leg to stand on right now. And yet I find myself taking solace in disclaimers from vintage sellers. One of my favourites explains that their items are “used” and “will naturally have some wear,” which “just adds to the piece’s charm.” These reinforce the idea of a shelf life in the sense that while everything is crumbling around us, good clothes will not only outlast us, but they’ll carry some evidence of our existence. Until that happens, we have some time to really ingrain ourselves in garments, extend their utility, add some imperfections and influence their resale value. By forcing ourselves onto material things, we inject them with signs of life. The more trends cycle out, the less skin can brush up against fast-fashion fabrics. I think it’s why more people are lured to broken-in vintage Levis or torn single-stitch t-shirts that drape like lace curtains. Destruction nullifies disposability. But with that comes responsibility: in order to value clothing, you need to know how to care for them. In order to accrue good cobblers, dry cleaners and stain-removal tips, you not only have to be reckless with what you wear but competent enough to reverse the damage. Have you ever caught someone cooking dinner in a silk shirt with a glass of red wine in their hand? That’s a tell. Preserving vintage clothing is a way to connect the dots between someone’s past and our presence. The only way to achieve staying power right now, is to have something last long enough to be passed down to other generations. For one thing, it makes you feel far less disposable: you get to hold onto time rather than watch it go by. There’s beauty in collectively adding our own touches to something that has existed for so long. Case in point: More than a decade after she debuted her stain-soaked Motorcycle bag, Mary-Kate Olsen emerged from her NY brownstone with it. The mint hue was restored and most of the stains had been lifted. It didn’t look new at all, but like her image, it was refreshed.

East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship. Visit our news & stories page to read more. Sara Black McCulloch is a writer and content editor living in Toronto. She has contributed to publications such as Maclean's, The Believer, Garage, Hazlitt, i-D, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. As a writer, she's drawn to the stories hiding in plain sight. In other creative endeavours, she's more preoccupied with things that are out of reach — taste, ways of living, dying art forms — anything that is challenging to seek out and articulate. If words fail to capture it, she wants to know about it.