Cate Blanchett is perhaps the most acclaimed actor of her generation. She has won numerous accolades including two Academy Awards, 3 Golden Globes and 3 British Academy Film Awards. In 2001 she received the Centenary Medal from her home country of Australia. She has two Doctor of Letters and TIME Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Cate has spent almost three decades in the limelight, starting with her breakthrough performance in Elizabeth at the age of just 29, for which she won a Bafta and a Golden Globe. In 2019 she received the Golden Icon Award at the Zurich Film Festival. Cate is an avid supporter of women's rights and refugees. She is increasingly known for her humanitarian work for the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.
But my conversation with her today is focussed on another issue close to her heart: the topic of sustainability in the fashion industry, particularly with respect to recycling and re-wearing. Cate has long been an advocate for the creative and conscientious re-wearing of clothing both on and off the red carpet. In an exclusive personal interview, she shares with Stil her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the fashion industry. Cate lives with her husband Andrew and their four children in the UK.
STIL: At the 2020 BAFTAs, guests were asked to wear something that they had previously worn. While some celebrated the moment, many felt this was a hindrance to designers and current fashion. How do you think designers can be celebrated while making fashion sustainable? You recently re-wore a number of outfits at the Venice Film Festival. What can you tell us about them?
CB: Yes, the churn of the fashion industry is unsustainable and exhausting on a creative level for the designers. There are so, so many collections now, so many sub-seasons that a hyper-growth has been manufactured which has created and fostered in the consumer a hunger for the next, the new and the latest. Honestly I think it’s more about money than beauty or creativity. I do wonder if this erodes a sense of personal style somewhat... in the sense that one is always grabbing at an elusive future ‘something’ whilst also being in dialogue with the past. You know the old-fashioned adage ‘if you keep it long enough it will become fashionable again’… one accrues a sense of style over time, don’t you think? In Venice, as the Ateliers and Fashion Houses were all closed, I saw an opportunity to revisit beautiful things I’d worn in the past that I luckily had in my closet, and restyled them for the events. Like repurposing the embroidered top from an incredible dress Sarah Burton made for me for the BAFTAs a few years back, wearing it this time with pants.
STIL: At the heart of Stil’s ethos is the idea of investment dressing: we offer timeless pieces of exceptional quality, designed to last a lifetime. Recently we started offering pre-owned clothing on our online store. We are actively trying to encourage our customers to buy well, wear long and ultimately recycle the items they no longer use. This facility also gives those with smaller budgets access to the beautiful labels we stock. (The service is complimentary — it works like a small circular economy. Our customers get paid for their pre-loved garments in Stil vouchers.) How can we start to create a desirability when it comes to re-wearing?
CB: It’s an inspiring initiative. We all bang on about the joys of architectural salvage – why not do the same thing with clothes, some of which have only been worn once or twice? I think it allows your clients to find a truly unique personal style – mixing new, current pieces with items from the past, items that people can no longer get elsewhere. It’s inadvertently a very exclusive opportunity and an extension of what happens naturally – most of us have favourite items that have sat in our wardrobe for years that we constantly return to. Personally, I find an amazing vintage find inspiring. When we are in a creative mood we invariably work with what we find. Excess and bloat always lead to stasis. And bloat is rarely a beautiful thing!
STIL: If you were to reimagine the fashion system, how would it be different from the way it is today?
CB: So, how would it be different? It would be normal. I think that any industry that has a heartbeat and strives to be engaged and relevant has to address sustainability. And of course when we talk about the fashion industry, fashion encompasses all industries from agriculture to communication. It’s vast. It’s an industry full of pollutants. Shamefully, it’s an industry that has, and in some quarters still does, employ slave labour. So it would be a more nimble, less polluting industry of course! But also, on a personal level I would love to imagine that our taste would become more discerning – the world now consumes a staggering 80 billion pieces of clothing each year... this is up 400% from two decades ago. I would have hoped that we would cherish what we have rather than ‘buy and toss’ as many people still do. It’s unthinking. Often all it takes is for us to take five seconds to read the label – where did it come from, how is it made? If we don’t demand these things then changes won’t happen. Women have the power to direct this change. It’s easier than we think to make low-impact fashion decisions.
STIL: You introduced me to CLOSED. They are one of the most environmentally progressive labels we offer, and one of our most popular. Their attention to detail is evident in every step of the production process, from sourcing fabric to delivering the finished article ready to wear. Can you share with us what you appreciate most about this label?
CB: Aren’t they great? I must confess that I was initially drawn to their clothes because they are so wearable: beautifully cut, great fabrics. (I’m a sucker for double, or even triple denim). I also relish the fact that between seasons one can mix and match the pieces. It was only after the fact that I discovered that sustainability was in the brand’s DNA. They are a case in point, that sustainability in fashion does not mean compromising on aesthetics.
STIL: What is your favourite “timeless” piece of clothing in your wardrobe? How often do you wear it?
CB: Actually my eternal favourites are two black pre-loved Yohji jumpsuits: one wool, one cotton, that I bought several years ago from a brilliant consignment store on New York’s Lower East Side (TOKIO 7). Jumpsuits are a working mother’s friend. I am a jumpsuit fan. Oh! And a fabulous Belstaff leather jumpsuit that I wore in the OCEANS film AND a red flight suit I wore in an Armani commercial. Strangely all came to me in a pre-loved kind of way. I have a friend in New York, and sometimes when we see the other wearing something that we love we simply say ‘I think that’s mine’ and we have to hand it over!
STIL: What was the best fashion era in your opinion? Will we see you reusing clothes from this period?
CB: I do like a shoulder pad and have a soft spot for the much-maligned 1980s. But it would have to be the 1940s where women literally wore the pants and embraced traditionally masculine tailoring — or the 1970s for the shapes, the colour and the free-flow of it all.
STIL: In your recent film, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, you played an architect who designed a "Twenty Mile House”, in which all the material sourced for the construction was from or created within a twenty-mile radius. How did that film impact your opinions on sustainability, and have you managed to incorporate any local materials into your home or garden?
CB: We recently discovered a derelict greenhouse at the back of our property and as it was decaying. We salvaged every piece of wood and every brick that we could – many had been scattered around the garden over time – for its reconstruction.
STIL: What book, film or individual has had the biggest influence on your own environmental activism? Does it surprise you that almost sixty years after it was written, the challenges raised in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring regarding the impact of agricultural chemicals and other pollutants on human health have still not been addressed?
CB: I remember seeing Koyaanisqatsi when I was at school. It singlehandedly changed the way I looked at the world. Given the events of recent weeks and months, sadly I’m unsurprised that total positive change hasn’t occurred. There is so much still to do. BUT there are so many incredible, creative minds already making astonishing advancements to turn around environmental degradation. Unsung heroes who work in the business sector who are innovating, who are not waiting for the leadership vacuum to be filled. In terms of fashion, so many new fabrics have been developed. BOLT THREADS for example, are derived from fermented sugars, salts, yeast and water. The fabric is a very durable silk that Stella [McCartney] has used. Econyl is a regenerated nylon (and you’d never know this from feeling it) made from recycled waste products. Also, Soko Chimica, an Italian company, has made big advances to reduce pollution and water consumption in the stone-washing of denim.
STIL: How successful has the fashion industry been in adopting a holistic approach to sustainability, including the preservation of eco-systems and promotion of social justice? Which designers, in your mind, have actively embraced a socially and environmentally responsible approach to their work?
CB: Stella McCartney is of course one of the leaders – she makes fabulous pieces that are effortlessly cool, infinitely wearable and that are made responsibly and respectfully. She is also a great collaborator, extending these low environmental impact principles beyond her brand which helps shift their sustainable DNA. I know Sarah Burton has recently started to look at the back catalogue of fabrics she uses. Roksanda is really engaged in this space too. Marine Serre, whose clothes are amazing, did a 50% upcycled collection. But other designers are delving into sustainability in other ways – Mr Armani for instance is passionate about the preservation of traditional crafts.
STIL: Biodiversity loss and climate change are at the forefront of environmentalists’ concerns. The consequences of inaction on these issues are so grave that life as we know it on this planet may cease to exist. What do you think will have to shift to get people to change their behaviour as consumers?
CB: People wear clothes obviously out of necessity and functionality, but also as a form of self expression — to amplify or express who we are. It’s far more pleasurable and engaging to wear garments that we know leave no stain on the planet. It’s a wonderful extension to being our best selves. And by choosing to purchase garments which have low or reduced impact we shift production; and in turn we shift ourselves into a new, fresher space.
STIL: What impact do you think the Covid-19 pandemic might have on our collective actions around the environment? Amid the tragedies and losses, do you see opportunities for re-greening, cooperation and positive change?
CB: There is a huge opportunity for emerging changed from these globally challenging times. Without a doubt it’s been a monumentally difficult and tragic time for so many people. There was a survey taken in the first lockdown asking people if they wanted to return to the ‘old normal’ once the pandemic subsided, and only around 12% did. The way we were living and consuming was not working. It was unsustainable – emotionally, psychologically and physically. I think there has not been a lot of great leadership over these months, but on an individual level there has been a deep sense of introspection and reflection. I am hopeful that some of this mindfulness will stick as we re-emerge.
I leave you with Cate's own words, because for me she touches on the essence of what it takes to lead a good and meaningful life. The Ancient Greeks called it praxis (thought + action) — an acknowledgment that without embodying our values, without putting them into practice, our words and ideas are of little consequence.
“Things present themselves to you, and it's how you choose to deal with them that reveals who you are. We all say a lot of things, don't we, about who we are and how we think. But in the end, it's our actions — how we respond to circumstance that reveals our true character.”
Following on from my interview with Cate, she has kindly donated a collection of her own clothing and accessories which we will soon be presenting in an exclusive charity initiative. Cate is a UN Goodwill Ambassador to UNCHR and she elected that all proceeds of the sale will go to UNHCR Relief efforts in Greece, including Lesbos.
The sale will commence online in December.
Photo taken by Steven Chee from Cate’s personal collection.
With thanks to: Fritha Wolsak and Christine Polyblank.
This interview and photo is the property of Stil Lifestyle and cannot be used or copied without permission.