Arizona Muse started modelling as a teenager but her career didn’t initially take off. When she got pregnant with her first son Nikko at the age of 19, she took some time out to think things over. When Nikko was one and a half, she decided she was ready to throw her energy back into modelling. She moved to New York, rented an apartment for 6 months to do fashion week and focused on making it work. Since then, she hasn’t looked back. She has gone on to grace the covers of the fashion world’s biggest publications and open many of its most famous shows.
When did you first start thinking about the environmental impact of fashion? Was there a catalyst?
Yes, the catalyst was Jessica Sweidan at Synchronicity Earth. I went to an event about five years ago and heard Jessica speak about the work they do. I was really moved by what she said about the environment. Of course I was aware that we have to look after our environment, as we all are to some extent. But it had never hit home quite so powerfully as it did that day.
So, you had this environmental ‘awakening’ and then you started to think more about how it relates to what you do and the fashion industry?
Yes, exactly. Up until that point, I’d been starting to feel that I wasn’t having very interesting conversations anymore. I was feeling a bit passionless and not sure what my purpose was. My career had gone well and I was incredibly lucky but there comes a time where you’re not really climbing anymore, you’re just carrying on the way you always have. After a few years of that, I felt that it was no longer enough, and that’s when that first seed was planted and I started thinking much more about fashion, sustainability and the environment.
Since then I have devoted pretty much all my spare time to learning more about it. I’ve become quite nerdy about environmental science! I spend a lot of my time reading and researching, watching documentaries and meeting the key people in fashion sustainability in London. I’ve learnt so much and met so many fascinating people.
The fashion industry’s dirty secret
From your own experience and from what you’ve learnt in the last 4 or 5 years, how would you sum up the negative impacts of fashion for our environment?
We’ve really ignored the fact that fashion is hugely toxic to the environment to start with and incredibly wasteful to finish. If you look at the lifecycle of a garment now, including the seeds from which the garment was grown, all the way through to the dump – or the ocean – in which it ends up, it has a huge but also very complex impact. It’s not just the individual t-shirt or dress that’s wasted. I don’t think of garments so much as what they are anymore, but more as what they’re made of. I’ve become very passionate about materials, that’s what I’ve focused on, because I’ve found that without healthy materials, there’s really no hope for a healthy fashion industry. So, in talking about impact, you need to start with the materials.
It’s a depressing picture, but are there any positives you’ve found to the fashion industry? At its best, what can fashion contribute?
At its best, fashion can be an incredible platform to influence the rest of the world. The messages in fashion travel extremely quickly to millions of people – that’s an extraordinary power that we need to harness for good, rather than just for superficial or entertainment purposes. Creative directors and others who work for brands have so much power in their hands, and that can be – it should be – a fantastic thing. Fashion is also an industry that impacts many other sectors: it crosses over with agriculture because of the materials used, it crosses over with mining because there’s a lot of metal used in fashion… to me, the potential for fashion to influence other industries is very exciting.
Change is coming
So you think the fashion industry is genuinely starting to change? When do you think that really started to happen?
Yes, I do think that. Just in the last year or two. I know people in the industry who’ve been here for 15 years saying let’s change, we have to do something, this is an emergency. Many of these same people, last year and perhaps the year before, finally feel like there is a lot of traction happening for sustainability in fashion right now – so I guess it was 2017 that was a really pivotal year.
What would you put this change down to?
Climate change! The science on climate change continues to come out, and governments are finally beginning to acknowledge – not all governments, as we know, but most governments – that we really do need to start changing the way we do things. I think that has had an effect on fashion, leading many in the industry to finally realise that it was time to actually do something. Then sustainability became a buzzword and now it’s cool to talk about it, even if people don’t always really understand what the word means, they’re using it all the time. Sustainability is cool now in a way that it just wasn’t five years ago.
Can fashion find a new voice?
Do you think that fashion models could potentially have more of a voice and a more positive influence?
Models generally have much more of a voice than they did 20 or even 10 years ago. I think it has a lot to do with Instagram and with people finally getting to know who models are. In a magazine you can’t get to know who a model is: they are wearing someone else’s clothes, someone else was the art director, someone else took the pictures. It’s a creative job, but it’s generally other people’s creativity, not the model’s. I do think Instagram has allowed models to have more of a voice.
Yet at the same time, Instagram is sometimes cited as a contributing factor to the phenomenon of fast, unsustainable fashion, with some people not wanting to be seen wearing the same outfit more than once for their Instagram feed.
That’s true, it does also have that kind of negative impact, but even so, it has definitely helped to give models more of a voice. As a model, before Instagram, you’d have an interview once in a while, but it really wasn’t your voice – the interviewer would write down whatever they chose to say, it was a matter of luck whether you really shone through. They often made you seem like something you weren’t, or what they wrote simply didn’t reflect your interests in any way.
I personally have done a lot of interviews in which I’ve specifically asked to talk about sustainability in fashion. The interviewer says, “yeah, sure, tell me a bit”, then “OK, and how many times do you work out each week?” It has a tendency to quickly circle back to something physical, but as I said, I think that’s starting to change.
Reaching new audiences
Who do you consider to be the most important audience you can reach and have an impact on?
I think women and particularly mothers are the most important audience I can speak to. I’m trying to reach people who are not necessarily in fashion because until now I’ve had a very fashion-centred following, which is great, but I’d really like to branch out. Fashion can be a bit of an echo chamber. I recently did a feature with Town & Country magazine, which is really exciting and I’m really happy with the content. I approached them and asked them if they wanted to do a shoot with me about agriculture – because I’m interested in biodynamic farming – so I’m really pleased with that because it is a totally different audience. These are people who might have seem me before in a magazine or on a billboard, but who don’t really notice me because I’m a model. They’re not ‘fashion’ people so they don’t follow models. It’ll be great to reach people who might previously have had absolutely no interest in what I had to say.
Honestly, I’m kind of desperate to be known for something else, other than being a model! I love it when I’m chosen for modelling campaigns not because I’m a model but because of my interest in sustainability, and that has started to happen, which is amazing! I speak a lot now and am often asked to take part in or moderate panel discussions.
Is it frustrating that many people see you first and foremost as a model, before anything else?
Well, it has its pros and its cons. One pro is that I can say almost anything and it sounds impressive, because for some reason people still think that models are never going to have much to say. There is a kind of stigma around models, so in a way I can walk into a room and if I speak well and have confidence in what I say, then people are impressed!
Being a model opens many doors for me that I wouldn’t have otherwise, so I’m really grateful for that. But I do have the feeling that I’ve been put in a box that is not my box, so I really want to break out of that.
Buying clothes better
Coming back to the issue of sustainability in fashion, clearly people aren’t going to stop buying clothes any time soon. What advice would you give to people who want to buy clothes better?
People need to dress, we all need to wear clothes and we all want our clothes to reflect our personal style. That’s a wonderful thing, but we just need to focus on the messages we’re sending through our purchases, the messages we’re giving with the brands we wear.
For buying clothes better, I would say the first thing to do is simply to choose more carefully – make sure you really like it. We always hear “Buy less!”, but the question is how do you buy less? By thinking really carefully each time you buy something: What am I going to use this for? Am I going to be able to use it more than a