WORDS BY LANDON PEOPLES
After more than 10 years in the fashion industry, stylist and consultant Rachael Wang has learned a lot about the business of style. Chief among them? How to reconcile her personal morals with the primary function of her day job: to waste less while promoting the consumption of more, more, more during a climate (and fashion) crisis.
When it comes to “fashion people”—those who, personally and professionally, live and breathe the clothing industry—even the most sincere patrons can earn a bad rap. Its signature naiveté has historically stretched from the supply chain to the editorial level where those who decide on each season’s trends are generally spoiled, seldom nice, and blithely unaware of anything outside the proverbial cerulean bubble. But some, like stylist and consultant Rachael Wang, redefine what it means (and can mean) to love clothes.
Really, Wang is one of the best kinds of fashion folk: She didn’t grow up with a conscience for clothing—instead, Wang was raised in rural Southern California where style didn’t matter—and she didn’t wield any sort of influence until she worked her way up the traditional masthead to, ultimately, leave it (which, in the age of influencers, was once an iconic way to stay relevant).
After serving as the fashion director of Allure, she sought greener pastures outside of the corporate structure of Condé Nast and became a freelance stylist and consultant. Wang, who comes with an innate sense of the natural world, embraced the then-novel concept of sustainability; she pitched stories ranging from ethical shopping guides to spotlights on brands using techno-fabrics that go beyond organic cotton. And it has proved a lucrative market (and continues to).
But it was a chance encounter with a topic so disconnected from style that changed her entire perspective on fashion. After joining a protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Wang’s understanding of what matters suddenly changed—shifting a focus on material goods to basic ones, like clean drinking water and land ownership. She has since established herself as one of the few stylists who are encouraging a greener fashion narrative—one that isn’t just less wasteful but as diverse in textiles and supply chain innovations as it is in size, race, gender, and more.
In an interview with Atmos, Wang walks through a career that started out rather unsurprisingly—going from intern to editor to director—yet took a turn for the leading-edge, as one of the lone figures in her industry turning the page on the next chapter of change. Though Wang is a more conscious stylist than she ever aspired to be, she’s not to be referred to as a sustainable stylist (or a member of the ethical fashion police, for that matter). Because, in her words, hyping fashion ideas for the sake of consumption is—at least in 2021—an oxymoron.
Walk me through what you did before you went full-time as a consultant and stylist.
I worked as a fashion editor in the editorial fashion magazine world for about 10 years. I started from the bottom as an intern at W magazine and then worked my way up through assisting. I assisted Edward Enninful for a time when he was a contributing editor at Vogue and also the fashion director at i-D, including various publications like Style.com (RIP) as the fashion market director there and then Allure magazine, where I was the fashion director.
What did you learn about fashion then that might be different now?
I think that was really when I had the opportunity to see a little bit more behind the curtains of fashion. I was attending fashion week and interviewing designers and really getting to understand a deeper look at the fashion industry beyond what clothes look like from the outside. But I realized that, even though ‘fashion director’ was the most powerful title within the department, I was still operating within a corporate structure and the corporate structure was a reflection of decades of doing business in a certain way.
Eventually, I got to the point where I realized that I had more to say. And in order for me to feel really fulfilled working in the fashion industry, I wanted to have more freedom to choose what I was working on and who I was working with. I left my full time position to start a consultancy that allows me to work closely with brands that are trying to become more ethical. It is a holistic process to work to uncover the goals of the brand and to hone in on how to achieve them. My work with certain clients has naturally progressed into a more thorough excavation of what a company stands for, which is how I came to specialize in this sort of brand identity consultation.
It also allows me to provide guidance on ways that companies can become less wasteful, less exploitative, and less harmful in areas that are often overlooked to find ways for them to nurture, empower, support, and uplift their employees and workers, to create items with care that are useful and long lasting and with as little impact on the environment as possible.
Was there a shift or a specific moment where you knew that you wanted to do better when it came to creating fashion stories and images that had more purpose to them?
I spent a lot of time and childhood in nature, camping and road tripping, and I was brought up to respect and appreciate our national parks and the nature that we have. My mom was a girl scout, so she was always teaching me to leave no trace and how to respect the land that we have access to; I think those were little seeds that were planted early on.
Eventually, I saw An Inconvenient Truth and it rocked my world. But I didn’t know what to do with that information at the time. But then I went to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. I realized there, the inexplicable connection between people and the environment; that people cannot thrive unless the environment is thriving; that there is great power in choosing action over inaction. And I realized, in a lot of ways, I had been sleep walking. I had been involved in various protests and progressive thinking, but when I finally took action—it changed my life, going and participating in an Indigenous-led resistance against the building of a pipeline that could burst and pollute the waters that people drink.
So, I came home on a mission to just start finding ways to do better. I kind of had a conversation with myself: Am I leaving the fashion industry because it’s an exploitive industry and hurts the environment? And, if everyone with a conscience leaves the fashion industry, then what is left? So, I felt responsibility in a way to stay. Maybe I could use all of the network and resources that I’d accumulated in the industry and try to use that for good.
I didn’t want to perpetuate and uphold white supremacy by sleepwalking through life. I finally saw the truth that in order for me to be truly free all people have to be free. And in order for us to be free, we have to be seen.
When you embarked on your own path, did you encounter any challenges or any pushback from anybody in the industry who maybe wasn’t there yet?
I was often pitching stories around—shopping stories, fair trade gift guides, etc.—and it was amazing how difficult and how limited the options were once I looked into it. And I was getting feedback that these stories weren’t getting clicks. So, therefore, they weren’t interested in these stories.
When I asked certain brands that were known for being ethical if their items were fair trade, they often couldn’t verify that for me. And that’s when I realized, Oh, there is this dark side to the fashion industry where a brand could be focusing on the environmental impacts of their products but not thinking about the human impacts, too. You can’t claim to be an ethical brand if you don’t treat people humanely.
Would you call yourself an ethical or sustainable stylist? Or just a stylist?
The idea of a “sustainable stylist” to me is a joke. The purpose of a stylist is to make clothing compelling to buy; that is a stylist’s primary job, to take a garment and to make it so appealing and so compelling that the person is moved to purchase. If you are really focused on minimizing our collective impact on the Earth, and therefore people, being motivated to consume at the rate that the fashion industry promotes with its number of seasons, drops, and more, is not sustainable. Inherently, the role is not a sustainable job. So, I would never call myself a sustainable stylist. I am a stylist that cares about being an ethical person; otherwise, I don’t present myself as a sustainable stylist because, to me, that just feels like an oxymoron.
That said, I have recently bumped into so many stylists who are calling themselves sustainable, ethical, or conscious, and I’m so happy to see that. I’m inspired that there are people who love fashion and also recognize that we can do fashion in a better, more conscious way.
What is a lesson you’ve learned in expanding your scope on the emotional and physical impacts of fashion?
African-American social activist Toni Cade Bambara said that the goal of the revolutionary artists is to make the revolution irresistible. We need everyone and all of our dynamic skill sets to make change, to inspire a revolution. And it takes artists to participate in the revolution, too; part of our jobs is to make change irresistible. Sometimes the message within the editorial pictures that I make is not to sell clothing but to make people feel included and empowered.
I’m not the ethical fashion police. We need people who are militant about less harmful fashion and then we need people that are realistic about it, too. I’m the first to say that I don’t solely work with ethical brands. I try as much as possible to prioritize conscious brands, but I’m not, financially, in the position where I can turn down work from every brand that isn’t Patagonia or Eileen Fisher. And even those brands are not perfect.
It doesn’t work to just call out or eliminate any brands that aren’t already perfect from participating in the conversations, but rather, we should keep an open door to brands that are interested in making change and extending some flexibility in supporting them as they learn along with us throughout the movement at large.
What else do you want to see within the next few years?
The fashion industry evolved from the cotton industry, which was powered by slavery in America. It has this capitalistic drive to keep overhead low and to exploit people and resources in order to earn a profit; that is the underlying driver of all brands. So, that isn’t going to change just because people are asking for organic cotton T-shirts—new ideas need to be implemented systemically because exploitation is so deeply ingrained in the way that business is done here.
There’s so much more to what is sustainable, what is conscious, what is ethical, and what reduces impact on the planet than whether something is organic or not. We have to take into consideration the entire process; there is no way for any of this to be controlled unless it’s regulated with not just technological and social advantages, but repercussions if change isn’t enforced, too.