Meet the Designers Who Are Working Hard for a Queerer Sustainability Movement

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it’s sometimes hard not to feel like sustainability is just another exclusive club. It’s a trend, and much of it is nearly impossible to keep up with: Buy a Tesla! Go organic! Stop shopping at Zara! So many of the eco-friendly gadgets and lifestyle modifications being marketed are prohibitively expensive, and the industry regulations being considered in Congress are still being drafted by mostly white, straight, cis men.

This is a bleak version of our future: one where we’re sold paper straws in place of plastic ones to pacify us while the world continues to burn. But that’s not the future that designers like MI Leggett (of Official Rebrand) or Ting Ding and Luz Fernández (of HECHA / 做) envision. Because here’s the thing: true sustainability is inherently queer, and the movement won’t — and can’t — continue without the queer community.

“With climate change, the most vulnerable people, the most marginalized people, are the ones who are impacted the most. So there’s solidarity there,” Leggett says. “Think about it: when queers in the global south are having their lives fucked up by climate change, what is the point of being able to go to H&M and buy a unisex hoodie?”

Model wears Official Rebrand black t shirt against a white wall.

Photo by MI Leggett

By definition, queerness is a diversion from the norm; a new, often radical way of living that rejects heteronormative standards. In the same way, an effective sustainability movement is one that rejects the norms of consumerism and pollution in favor of more empathic, eco-friendly practices.

For Official Rebrand and HECHA / 做, April 22nd should have been a celebration of this rejection of norms: an Earth Day party was on the calendar at Brooklyn’s Nowadays, complete with take-home hand-painted totes and zines. But the coronavirus pandemic has forced the collaborators to think outside of the box — and, of course, cancel their event (don’t worry — a collaborative collection and an “Anti-Green-Sheen Zine” are still available online).

Luckily, these are two brands for which thinking creatively is in their DNA. Both sell hand-painted garments, upcycle fabric when they can, and hardly let even a single thread go to waste. Even HECHA / 做’s business model is, according to Ding, “empathy-driven” instead of sales-driven. For these designers, the cliché rings true: less really is more. They just need the rest of the world to get on board.

“We have a collective, inherent misconception about [sustainability],” Leggett says. “It’s not about buying a more sustainable product; instead, we need to realign our entire relationship to products. There’s this sustainability rhetoric that says you have to buy these really expensive items to have that guilt-free purchasing experience. But actually, being sustainable is simply about buying less and working with what you already have.”

The other obstacle facing independent queer designers? They don’t have the same marketing budgets as their corporate counterparts, and they get overlooked. This is not a new problem for small businesses, but when queer folks are looking for clothing that doesn’t adhere to the gender binary, for example, brands that design with fluidity in mind are more important than ever. HECHA / 做’s focus on gender-flexible garment construction is answering a demand ringing out from the queer community for better, more inclusive, more responsibly-made apparel.

“Right around when we started HECHA / 做, I started thinking about how silly it is for clothing to be gendered in the first place,” Fernández says. “We didn’t set out to make shapeless, oversized garments; we were making clothes that a huge variety of body types could wear, without having to label something masculine or feminine or even unisex. It’s flexible and fluid and more inclusive. At the end of the day, what makes something ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is so subjective, so it’s not our place to really say what that is. It just becomes what the wearer wants it to be.”

What, though, does the wearer actually want? Depends on who you ask. They might demand more inclusivity, sustainability, style. But at some point, you must address it all: because queer liberation and true sustainability are so intrinsically tied, we cannot achieve one without also pursuing the other. It’s a blessing and a curse, Leggett says.

“There is still so much more fighting that has to be done for actual queer liberation,” they continue. “Acceptance is being achieved in some echelons of society, but if we’re not fighting for truly sustainable practices at the same time, there’s really no point. If you don’t have water to drink or air to breathe, how are you going to fight for queer liberation or celebrate your own queer identity?”

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Emma is a writer and editor from Texas currently based in New York City. Find her on Twitter @emmacbanks.

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