What Is the Best Sustainable Formal Wear?

I have two words for you when it comes to sustainability and fancy dress: rent and rewear.

Together they are the simplest answer to the issue of how to get gussied up in a responsible way. The longer a garment stays in circulation, the lower its environmental footprint. That means vintage or the sharing economy.

And while those options may seem antithetical to the mind-set often served up by the fashion-celebrity-influencer circus, which thrives on the idea that every special occasion needs a new dress, even that world is increasingly coming around to the concept. With great attention, after all, comes great responsibility, to paraphrase Spider-Man.

I remember being thrilled when Cate Blanchett decided to wear only outfits she had in her closet during her much-photographed stint as president of the Venice Film Festival grand jury in 2020. I got even more excited when Louis Vuitton dressed its gaggle of Met Gala guests in vintage pieces last May.

(LV’s designer, Nicolas Ghesquière, spoke on a panel I chaired back in 2021, and to everyone’s great delight, he introduced a new term for these clothes: “living archives.” Sometimes it’s all in the framing.)

And it was all topped off by the appearance late last year of Catherine, Princess of Wales, in Boston at the Earthshot Prize event in a bright green rented gown by Solace London that she found on HURR, a British platform that also allows you to buy after you try. (By the way, Kate’s dress is still available to rent for 74.40 pounds, or $91.10.)

HURR is but one of a number of digital and physical sites making rental and resale easy. And yes, there are environmental impacts involved in the cleaning and transport of rented garments, but it is net less than buying a garment new. Especially one you may wear only a few times.

For other options, Brynn Heminway, the founder of Display Copy, a magazine devoted to the joys of circular fashion, offered up her favorite secret resource.

“If you’re in N.Y.C. or L.A.,” she said, go to “Albright Fashion Library. Each ‘luxury for hire’ location boasts 7,000 square feet of vintage archival and upcoming season designer pieces.”

For those who want to shop from the privacy of their desk, she also suggested resale sites like the RealReal and ReSee, which offer a wide variety of styles and prices. And there’s always Rent the Runway and, for plus sizes, NuulyRent.

As to how to approach your search, Abrima Erwiah, a founder of Studio 189, a social enterprise that promotes African design and in 2018 won the CFDA Lexus Fashion Initiative for Sustainability, advised starting with keywords like “vintage couture” or the name of a high-end designer or creative director who makes black-tie-worthy fashion — Tomas Maier or Tom Ford or Yves Saint Laurent.

She also recommends checking out younger designers like Christopher John Rogers, Aliétte and LaQuan Smith. And for more general inspiration, consult Red Carpet Green Dress, founded back in 2009 by Suzy Amis Cameron, the actor, model and wife of James Cameron, specifically to reconcile the idea of sustainability and high fashion.

And finally, Ms. Erwiah said, think creatively. “You can purchase accessories from secondhand shops to make the item feel different,” she said. “I recently wore a Chanel belt as a head piece.” The point being to impact eyeballs, not the earth.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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