The Art of Repair
January 12, 2023 • 5 min read
Andrew James McKay is a Vancouver-based visual artist, engaging with the world through a conscious and considered lens. In this article, he shares his thoughtful approach to sustainable menswear, choosing to mend and repair his existing wardrobe rather than buying new, whenever possible. Andrew outlines three pieces – boots, eyeglasses and a jacket – demonstrating how, though there is little overlap between the pieces, with creativity, commitment to longevity, and patience, each item can be fully brought back to life.
A Pair of Boots
Eight years ago, I ordered a pair of boots from Brave Gentleman. Produced by Mr. Joshua Katcher, the line emphasizes sustainability and insists on animal-free manufacturing. As a long-time vegan myself, I had passed through maybe 15 years of less than durable canvas and/or PVC footwear before the market caught up and sustainability as a notion really began to converge with the somewhat limited aims of an article simply being free of animal products. Well enough that the life of a mammal would be saved, but that this would further down the line come at the cost of schools of fish contaminated with microplastics was a reality that took some time for the market to arrive at.
The boots, the original iteration of the Visionary style made in a black suede-like material, have aged remarkably well. The fabric has required little in the way of conditioning and aside from the soles having worn down, getting what is approaching ten years of use out of a pair seems a good start. There is still however the issue of the impact of non-animal textiles and their reliance on PVC. The degree of the impact of PVC v. Leather is still up for the much-rehearsed and cliché debate the climate change question often encounters: not that it and its impacts exist, but rather it is a question of degree.
Persons on either side of the PVC v. Leather debate (as well as climate change deniers) are open to obfuscate and try to speak only to the evidence which works in their favour, tending to get bogged down in abstract problems of information and its interpretation: it is a massively complex problem and despite our many achievements, we aren’t quite yet able to delineate exactly what and where and how a given thing may be happening in real-time. If we can’t get the whole of it there is a tendency to cherry-pick ourselves into one camp or the other and so deny that the very nature of choosing a side isn’t going to help us resolve the issue(s). Determining which is the lesser of two evils is helpful, but it is the innovation of non-evil alternatives which seems to be the obvious answer, if we can ask so much of ourselves.
In terms of animal-free textiles, the vegan community might say that the impact of their use is less than that of animal leather but largely skirt the issue of what these alternatives are made of (read: plastics). Those who advocate for leather say as a plastic-free textile leather is biodegradable. The toxicity of the tanning industry is likewise put to the side and the life and well-being of the animal isn’t much mentioned at all. The innovation of Mirum appears to be an advancement both sides might agree upon, being at once animal-free as well as PVC-free, making the new textile entirely biodegradable. Mr. Katcher has begun to use this in his latest line of footwear, and will presumably move toward this as the primary fabric used by his firm.
Rather than leap all over this new line however, I did still have a pair that probably just needed a bit of tidying up. At a cost of a third of what it would have been for new boots, I took my pair in to a cobbler not far from where I’m writing this for a re-soling. The middle bit of the sole was, in fact, in such good shape that a complete re-soling proved unnecessary and so just the heel and front of the midsole were redone, a not uncommon service I gathered.
Practice: Rather than tossing your footwear at the first sign of erosion, consider enlisting the help of your community cobbler. The right polish or shoe shampoo, an easy re-soling, etc., are simple, traditional maintenance and mending techniques that will drastically elongate the lifespan of your footwear.
I bought a pair of deadstock Tom Ford frames many years ago, around 2012 or thereabouts. I’ve gone through two other frames since, but owing to the ‘heft’ of these they were still in decent shape. As it tends to, the acetate from which the glasses were produced did oxidize over time, and this left an unsightly white film atop what should have been a lustrous black. Keeping them as an alternate pair, I figured there must be something I could do with them but I didn’t quite yet know what. We are inundated with plastics of all kinds, and although I was able to rescue this particular pair from the landfill by taking it out of a deadstock warehouse and putting them to use, the idea that once a plastic item began to show signs of wear would render it useless for reasons of unsightliness didn’t much sit well with me. If other items could be serviced, polished, repaired, etc. couldn’t plastic also be refurbished?
I had a look around and saw that in Japan, a cream is produced for polishing eyewear acetate. The cream was $55! And that wasn’t even including shipping! But getting the idea from this cream, I took a chance and bought a small pot of a product Turtle Wax makes. As advertised it’s for restoring cloudy headlights on cars. Judging that the principle was more or less the same, I taped off the lenses of my glasses and spent an hour with the polish and the fine micro mesh pads which came alongside it. To my surprise it worked marvellously and the fog of oxidized plastic was entirely removed with the frames being returned to a high-gloss.
I’ve seen some frames cut from things like bamboo but these are decidedly of one kind of aesthetic. Horn, I’d suppose, would be a more natural alternative, but then this comes up against the same questions noted above as regards the textiles from which shoes are made.
Practice: Plastic is at least for now probably unavoidable in some quarters of the consumer goods we make use of, but I would highly recommend that before you pitch whatever plastic item you may have which has become a bit tatty for wear, try and see if this plastic polish couldn’t be a remedy.
Paul Newman repairing a jacket
A Jacket for a Wedding
I had a wedding approaching on my calendar at the end of this past summer and found that my jacket of many years fit less well than I should have liked after I’d put on some muscle in the interim. So, I went on the search for something new. And by new, I mean second-hand. I’d used Grailed before and found some very good things, and not long ago started taking the odd look through a newcomer to the world of used menswear, Marrkt.
In short order I found a Margaret Howell jacket in a brown Harris Tweed which had the measurements I was looking for, was a terrific cut—the generous dimensions of Margaret Howell in general lend their garments to an especially easy alteration—and wasn’t near the £1000 they tend to come in at new. I ordered it, had the sleeves taken up slightly at my local family-run tailor, and came away with a jacket I’ll get years if not decades of use from if I don’t go too mad with exercise…
Practice: Try browsing sites like Grailed and Marrkt to find pre-loved menswear options, while also leaning on your local tailor/seamstress for help in altering your unique finds. When we deviate from the pushed, modern narrative that clothing is just another mass-produced commodity, we find ways to resurrect fashion as an art, falling back in love with expert tailoring and well-crafted pieces.
Although I’m not an expert in sustainability by any means, I do feel that there are more than a few who advocate the outright purchase of new, ethically-produced goods, rather than promote and engage in the maintenance of existing goods. For me, I try to look at sustainability with as wide a lens as possible. Probably I have an easier time as a man when engaging in practices of sustainability because:
1. The trends turn over less than they do for women;
2. The fabrics used in male-orientated clothing seem to use less mixed-materials and/or fewer textiles centred around stretch and form-fittingness, thus making them more recyclable and suited to alteration;
3. Overall, despite the growth of men’s fashion, there is still a prevailing feeling that men continue to be generally resistant to engage in clothes-shopping to begin with. Not necessarily a bad thing insofar as not buying anything is both the easiest and most sustainable practice by default. Repair and maintenance may offer a positive alternative to this last phenomenon, with labour-centric practices of restoration perhaps being preferred to those which are more shopping-centric (for those still adhering to traditional gender norms).
The problem of what sustainability is and how it operates is a highly complex one but no one the least familiar with Arti’s writing will be surprised by this. I have done my best here to outline a scant few examples of my experiences and how sustainability moving forward will likely involve any and all practices which have a positive impact.
Sometimes this means supporting manufacturers offering goods more sustainable that those previously to be found on the market, sometimes this means doing a DIY-refurb job on existing goods, and sometimes this means a review of sustainable ‘support’ enterprises like tailors and cobblers which have existed for centuries but have retreated from the fore in the face of cheap consumer goods. The bad news can seem overwhelming at times, but the good news is that there are as many ways ahead as can be thought of and shared.
Looking at sustainability through the above-mentioned items, I hope I have been helpful in providing an easy access point to some of the questions raised by sustainability and menswear, and thus, opening the door to future possibilities
Thanks very much for reading and sending my best, Andrew.
Some articles on the topic which have stood out to me recently are “On Emotional Durability” written by Mr. Derek Guy, and “A Sustainability Framework: Stoffa and Permanent Style” by Mr. Simon Crompton. Taken together, they comprise a decent overview of both the social or emotional, and material concerns, to do with sustainability in menswear.
About the Author
Andrew James McKay is an artist working from Vancouver, BC. His work may be viewed at andrewjamesmckay.com
Andrew’s practice is an exploration of the relationship(s) between the component and the whole. That is to say: What are the individual and specific details of the life we experience? How do we record and arrange those details to make a work which can tell of that experience? What are the compositions of our communities as far as the relation of the individual to the collective experience?
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