Mediaplanet: When did you first learn about sustainability in fashion?

Jeanne Beker: Sustainability is a topic that’s been discussed for a while in the fashion arena, both in terms of materials and production practices. I became acutely aware of the problem of sweatshops back in the mid-‘90s, when I met with labour and human rights activist Charles Kernaghan, who exposed unethical labour practices in the production of Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line.

Vintage shopping, which I adore, is also a great way of making fashion more sustainable. And I guess you could say I discovered the joys of that back in the early ‘70s, when I moved to New York to study acting and was low on cash. I frequented a divine little shop called “Like A Rolling Stone” where I found all kinds of ‘oldies but goodies’, including a faded old pair of baggy denim overalls, which became part of my uniform.

MP: What’s your favourite piece of upcycled clothing?

JB: Hard to say, because I have so many vintage pieces in my wardrobe that I love. But likely a toss-up between a lipstick red, ‘70s-style ‘Oscar de la Renta’ gown I got at Toronto’s Vintage Couture, and an old quilted ‘Suttles and Seawinds’ vest I bought when I was living in Newfoundland in the mid-‘70s.

MP: How have you seen the industry change when it comes to adopting a sustainability mindset?

JB: I’m encouraged when I see designers like Stella McCartney forging into the future, developing new fabrications and new ways of recycling. For example, for the past six years, all Stella McCartney bags have been lined with a fabric made from recycled water bottles, and all the polyester her label uses is made of those old plastic bottles.

Gradually, we’re starting to see more fashion companies looking for ways to recycle and be both socially and environmentally responsible—though they still have miles to go. As we all begin to realize how the textile and fashion industries are polluting our planet, I believe there’ll be more change to come.

MP: Who are your favourite sustainable designers?

JB: I really admire Toronto’s Lindsay and Alexandra Lorusso, who started the kidswear label Nudnik a couple of years ago—a line that upcycles discarded fabric and turns it into really cool clothing. I also admire Toronto-based Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks who creates beautiful garments using local Alpaca, organic cotton, and upcycled woven denim. Triarchy is another cool label that does some great things with upcycled denim.

MP: What advice would you give to fashion-lovers who love haute couture, but also want to become more sustainable with their shopping habits?

JB: I’d advise fashionistas to remember that less is often more when it comes to great style and building a fabulous wardrobe. Invest in pieces you’re likely to hold onto longer.

Canada, has some phenomenal vintage boutiques and many are located off the beaten path. With the help of a good tailor, you’ll be able to sport unique, original pieces that are right on trend, and likely to be coveted by all those in the fashion know.

MP: What is your favourite decade of fashion?

JB: I came of age in the ‘60s, so that era is definitely my favourite in terms of style. It was the first time that kids WEREN’T dressing like their parents. The “Youthquake” of the time—as the late great Vogue editor Diana Vreeland coined it—was a real cultural revolution, and clothes were sexy, spirited, and very upbeat. The influence on the ‘60s continues to be felt on runways season in and season out. Hey—come to think of it: Let’s bring back paper dresses! Now they would be easy to recycle…

MP: What trends are you seeing in the fashion industry that are particularly innovative?

JB: Mixing fabrications is perhaps the most inspiring fashion direction at this time, and of course, the trend of experimentation in creating new, sustainable materials is really exhilarating.  I particularly love fashion’s high/low mix, both in terms of materials used, and the level of personal comfort this approach lends itself to.

MP: What’s the one item of clothing every woman should have in her closet?

JB: A great fitting, go-to garment that’s a classic basic, and that will never go out of fashion—like an old friend you’ll always be able to depend on! It could be something like a little black dress, or a great pair of pants, or the perfect shirt or sweater.  Besides that, it’s always great to have one “WOW” piece in your closet—the kind of garment that will always make your heart sing and make you feel great, whether you’re wearing it, or just looking at it!

MP: What excites you most about the Canadian design scene?

JB: I’m enthused by all the energy, all the innovation, and all the eclecticism on the scene. But I do worry that we’re turning out a lot of talented fashion students that may have trouble finding jobs in the future. The industry is changing—in terms of the way fashion is designed, produced, and distributed—and those aspiring to work in the fashion arena must be realistic about where fashion is headed.

MP: You’ve been a trailblazer in the fashion industry for the last 30 years— what’s next on your horizon?

JB: I’ve got myriad projects on the go, but my pet one— one that I pray will indeed come to fruition— is recycling, or you might say upcycling our amazing old ‘Fashion Television’ archives.

We have countless hours of videotape that have to be digitized and properly sorted so that we can feature this precious old material in innovative new ways, and turn future generations on to the way the fashion scene—and its legendary players—once operated.

I’m currently working with Bell Media, who owns this treasure trove, to try and bring this remarkable material back to life.  I can’t think of anything more exciting! Stay tuned.