photographer and content creator Zach Thomas sitting by a table

Zach Thomas on Fast Fashion, Personal Style & Representation

Zach Thomas is a queer photographer and content creator. Here, they discuss the process of saying no to fast fashion, developing personal style with vintage, and gender representation in the vintage community.

  • Liisa Jokinen

  • Mar 12, 2024

Photos: Zach Thomas

Zach Thomas works as a full-time freelance photographer and content creator out of Somerville, MA. They have worked with several Boston-area vintage businesses like Lexie Butterfly Vintage and We Thieves.

Here, Zach discusses their journey from fast fashion to a more sustainable style and how queerness and sustainability are inextricable.

How did you get out of the fast fashion trap and what was the process like?

“Getting out of the fast fashion trap was a clunky (and ongoing) process filled with mistakes. At the time, capsule wardrobes felt like the end-all be-all of sustainable fashion. I desperately tried to make it work for me, and I mean it when I say desperately. I purged so many pieces of perfectly good clothing in pursuit of this ‘perfect’ capsule wardrobe. I was buying clothes I thought I needed to fill the ‘gaps’ and ‘maximize utility’ in my wardrobe because that’s what this approach prescribes. In the end, it was too restrictive for me. That’s not to say that a capsule wardrobe won’t work for some folks. It’s absolutely a means of moving more ethically and sustainably. Yet it’s not the only method. What I’ve learned since then is (1) I needed to give myself grace throughout this process and (2) there cannot be one method or one path forward.

I’m a collector at heart. I am drawn to the tender imperfections of well-loved things. So, my sustainable practice needs to make space for that. Of course, we all ought to move towards the same goal — an ethical, sustainable fashion industry — but the particular means we choose for ourselves need to make space for our own approach to clothes, be it collecting or streamlining.

Do you have any advice or tips for people who would like to quit fast fashion?

There’s this fantastic quote from Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom that feels quite relevant:

“[The trick of choicelessness] is a compassionate trick, a trick to help us realize that there really is no exit. This trick of choicelessness is, in turn, related to what Trungpa called ‘the myth of freedom.’ This phrase doesn’t mean that freedom is mythological, that it doesn’t exist. Rather, the myth is that it’s accessed by means of will or escape, rather than by radical acceptance, which includes a species of hopelessness.”

The majority of the mistakes that I made along the way were because I was trying to escape the fast fashion system rather than accept the fact that so many aspects of my profession and personal style are inextricably embedded within it. It’s why I was quick to rid myself of so much clothing and dive headfirst into the capsule wardrobe approach. What I didn’t realize was that accepting hopelessness was a launching point, where harmful ways of doing things can be composted, and healthy ways of being in a relationship with textiles can be nurtured.

So, if you would like to do the same, know that there isn’t an exit. There’s only what comes next. Take your time to reflect on how you can choose what works for you from the plethora of solutions available.

You have written about how vintage can help to find your true personal style. Can you explain this?

Shopping vintage is predicated on patience and chance. You never know when you’re going to find a piece that resonates with you, much less what it will be.

Thankfully, since vintage is already ’dated’, it can’t go out of fashion. There’s no pressure to be relevant or trendy.

As that pressure dissipates, we’re granted the opportunity to release the cloying sense of urgency that fast fashion generates. In the absence of urgency, we’re left with space — the space to be curious, to experiment, to make mistakes, to study, to be creative.

Once we’re sitting in that space of creativity and curiosity, we can be guided by our personal references. These are rooted in what feels silly or nerdy or fantastic or delightful or powerful or comforting for you, whatever that might be in particular. For me, a significant one is the costume design from sci-fi films. As a queer kid, seeing people of all genders wearing what looked like skirts and dresses in these movies struck a deep chord. There was always so much fabric that my favorite protagonists were swathed in. I loved how it moved and billowed, how it constructed silhouettes that transformed the shape of the body. I carry that with me as I’m getting dressed.

What does ‘personal style’ mean to you?

Fast fashion demands that we trade in an authentic sense of self for the hollow promise of temporary relevance.

Consequently, I think folks are craving a stronger stamp of ‘personal style’ for themselves and from the creators they follow online. I’ve noticed a huge influx of ‘personal style’ type content — videos like ‘POV: You found your personal style’, styling hack tutorials, and ‘How to dress like [insert whatever aesthetic core is trending here]’ —yet I find they dilute the meaning of personal style because a wardrobe that can be cloned by a fast fashion or thrift store haul simply isn’t personal.

To me, ‘personal style’ is less about the clothes and more about recognizing that time is on our side. Time affords us the opportunity to meander and explore our style at our own pace. Time gifts us the joy of discovering designers or silhouettes previously unknown to us. Time offers us the space to steadily accumulate a wardrobe according to our ever-evolving tastes. We can’t rush it, and we especially can’t force it.

How would you describe your current style? What kind of items do you like to wear most?

I’m trying not to limit myself to a specific style. I used to silo myself with the narrative that I could only pursue one ’look’ but I sensed there was more joy to tap into. Now, I like to make space to be curious and playful with the references and ideas I’ve collected. My favorite moments are when I stumble upon a vintage gem that carries my style into new realms of creativity.

Photography work for We Thieves Vintage

I tend to be very sentimental about what I wear. I love anything that’s delightfully haunted by the lives of its past wearers.

By this, I mean that I’m always drawn to clothes that show signs that they were worn and loved. Perhaps there’s some careful mending to fix a tear or some sweet embroidery to cover a stain. It’s beautiful to witness these physical markers of care and then, throughout my time with those same pieces, contribute my own.

This care is a collective act — I know this because, when I find a piece of clothing that’s been mended, I thank the previous wearer for their efforts, and vow to do the same. This is how we ensure our garments remain wearable and usable, even if they need to be transformed. Let us show our clothes the same tenderness we deserve. And, by extension, let us apply these same lessons of collective care to our communities.

How can we all improve gender representation in the vintage world?

If vintage vendors want queer people to care about vintage, they need to center the needs and perspectives of queer people in their business practices. I can’t speak for every queer person, so I’m going to share snippets of my personal experience.

While a person of any gender can, and should, wear any article of clothing they desire, the reality is that most vintage clothing was designed with a gendered body ideal in mind.

Queer bodies are not the bodies vintage clothes were made for. When I first started to dress more femme, translating my measurements into the vintage women's sizing system was stressful. I had no point of reference for what the size on the tag meant, especially if the garment’s measurements weren’t included. That’s why I shop vintage in person, particularly when returns aren’t offered. I need to have the opportunity to try a piece on and make sure that it fits and won’t trigger any feelings of discomfort.

That said, shopping in person inherently comes with concerns about my safety and comfort. Whenever I stop into a vintage store I’m unfamiliar with, I’m faced with the inevitable question, ’How are the staff and other customers going to respond to me trying on femme clothes?’. There’s always the possibility that my gender nonconforming presentation is met with hostility or gawkers. While I’m now able to fortify myself enough to shop how I want, regardless of who’s present, I used to avoid it when I felt that there were too many people around me.

How each business chooses to address these realities is up to them. While the most effective solution would be to hire more queer folks or pay queer folks in the vintage community to consult on these matters, some easier ones could be to offer private try-on appointments, to explicitly mention that they can take a queer person’s measurements and offer guidance on design choices that can help eliminate dysphoria concerns, and include measurements on the garment tag.

This work is going to come with a lot of missteps. Businesses and community members need to be ready to hold themselves accountable when they inevitably make a mistake while remaining committed to this practice of inclusion.

Photography work for Lexie Butterfly Vintage
Photography work for Lexie Butterfly Vintage

You mention on your website that ‘Queerness and sustainability are inextricable.’ Can you explain and open the sentence a bit?

Part of queerness, to me, is a commitment to sustaining joy despite the marginalization that our community faces.

Clothing is a powerful medium for making my queer joy legible to myself and others.

It’s a means to communicate how I understand gender, my queerness, and how I feel at home in my body. I’m able to use clothing to take up space in a world that’s not always particularly pleased with my existence.

However, that pride, that joy, cannot come at the expense of others, which is why I, personally, cannot ignore the cognitive dissonance that is required to express my queerness through clothing made through unsustainable systems of extractive labor and environmental harm. Sure, it would be a lot easier to go out, buy a sheer top from the Mugler x H&M collaboration, feel the fantasy, and call it a day. But how can I ethically claim that what’s most important is that fast fashion makes me feel ‘free’ and ‘empowered’, while communities are suffocated by mountains of textile waste? That’s a mindset that only centers my queerness rather without consideration for the lived realities of queer folks on a global scale. It disregards the fact that fast fashion causes disproportionate harm to people across the globe, queer folks included. Queerness and sustainability must be entwined in order to build towards a more equitable future.”

Sustainable Queer