Friday 21st August

| BY Amanda Gorman

How Prada Is Prodding Towards The Future: Amanda Gorman’s Take

Horses clip-clop their hooves on the dark pavement of West 52nd Street, tossing their gleaming heads as pale morning light touches their carriages. I hop out of the black van, along with the rest of our camera crew, hugging my arms warm amid the first biting chill New York City has seen this November.

I turn right past the horses, my stomach churning queasily. My gut knows I am not here for a carriage ride, but for the daunting task of speaking at the Shaping a Sustainable Future Society conference, hosted by the fashion giant known as the Prada Group. The event is to take place at Prada’s US headquarters in Manhattan, just a stone’s throw away from the writhing Hudson River. This will be the group’s third edition of their annual Shaping a Future conference in partnership with the Schools of Management of Yale and Politecnico di Milano, the series’ goal being to stimulate debate on the most significant changes taking place in contemporary society. It is clear that the group has developed a strong muscle for hosting the convening by now.

The social media camera crew follows me as we are guided onto the low-ceilinged ground floor. White badges neatly await us on long tables. Next, a wide, silver lift smoothly deposits us on a higher level, where the conference is to take place. I step into the space and my jaw falls open.

The room glows sky-bright, with light from large windows reflecting off a shining white floor and chairs with white desks attached, reminding me of a classroom. A black platform has been erected in the centre of the room, with a small breakfast counter placed to the far right. I head there immediately and sip on some black coffee. It’s only 9.30am, but it’s already been a long day. I got up early so I could take a morning stroll through the orange autumn leaves of Central Park and film with Prada’s social team.

Prada AW20 by Jason Lloyd-Evans

Now that I’m finally at the conference, I take some alone time to lean against the counter and observe the room buzzing with people. At 21 years old, I’m definitely the youngest speaker here, if not one of the youngest attendees. Adults in crisp suits and well-fitting dresses, who hail from a wide range of places, from Milan to NYC, mingle and peruse the smooth white booklets outlining the agenda for the morning.

My eyes fix on a deep blue backdrop behind the stage. White lettering declares the mission of the gathering: “raising awareness on human dignity, respect and equal opportunities”. Granted, these words should be all of our missions, not just Prada’s. Luckily, the global fashion industry is increasingly realising the need for sustainability and adaptability in a society where consumers demand more from brands. Burberry, after a backlash from their burning of millions of dollars of unsold merchandise, ended these practices and announced a plan to cut down on its greenhouse-gas emissions. Chanel, who previously had used exotic skins in their designs, have banned the use of these materials and invested in green technology. Just this summer, 32 fashion companies led by Kering signed a sustainability agreement known as the G7 Fashion Pact. The awakening of luxury giants to the urgency of the climate crisis is invigorating, what with the apparel industry producing about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.

While the rest of the fashion community is just beginning to make strides in environmental awareness, Prada’s sustainability goals remain some of the most ambitious. In 2019, Prada Group launched the Prada Re-Nylon collection, six bag silhouettes made of nylon that has been recycled from ocean and textile waste. Most excitingly, the company announced its goal of converting all Prada virgin nylon into regenerated nylon by the end of 2021. This summer I travelled with Prada as a reporter to Slovenia, where I was able to witness how old materials are broken down within an Aquafil factory and then transformed into Econyl, a high-quality nylon. As I walked through mounds of discarded fishing nets and touched heaps of carpeting that had been tossed away, I realised the vast potential of taking trash and making treasure. It was astounding that a small, mountainous country in Central Europe was a hub for recycling waste.

Yet perhaps the most lasting lesson I learnt was that the project of sustainability goes beyond any one country, individual, industry or company. Prada’s chairman, Carlo Mazzi, reminds us at the conference of this truth as we take our seats and he takes to the stage. His silver hair seems to glow under the lights as he proclaims in a rolling, low voice: “Sustainability goes beyond the border of any nation. We must remember that progress cannot take place in a vacuum but within society.”

This wide-reaching call is best embodied by the keynote speaker of the conference, the Tanzania-born British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE. Despite being recognised as one of the leading architects of his generation, Adjaye is softly spoken and unassuming on stage. He is dressed in a comfortable black shirt and jeans, black sneakers and a dark scarf that’s wrapped around his neck. He is almost the counter-image of my own outfit, which I picked out sleepily in my hotel this morning: a red sweater with a loud yellow scarf, sunflower earrings, a pleated white skirt, and white, block-heel ankle boots that I’m hoping will add some height to my short stature.

Adjaye, however, doesn’t require the extra height. Rather than use the podium, he favours sitting down on one of the seats on stage. As he leans forward to begin his presentation, I feel a sense of intimacy, as if I am about to be told a secret or a story that can only be uttered in this brightly lit room. While Adjaye’s style remains humble, his projects are nothing short of transcendent. I probably look like a squirming fangirl in my front-row seat as he talks us through the design process behind the $540m Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, which remains one of my absolute favourite buildings in the United States. “A building can contribute to the lifeblood of a city and the stories that define these communities,” he tells us. “This is not about a token gesture, but one of community.”

As he speaks, I furiously scribble notes in my programme booklet. I feel a tingling under my skin. It might be from the caffeine I’ve been pounding into my bloodstream since daybreak, but my guess is that it’s something else entirely: the knowledge that my art, too, can contribute not only to this conference, but to shaping the world. I may not work with materials, as Adjaye does, but I can still build alongside communities with my words.

All too soon, the salt-and-pepper-bearded professor and journalist Gianni Riotta, who is moderating the conversation, is calling me and the rest of the round table up to the stage. I do my best not to trip on my skirt as I take my seat, facing the rows of desks and pairs of eyes that are focused on where I sit. I smile at all my fellow speakers as they take their seats: dark-haired Amale Andraos, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; deep-voiced Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation; the spirited Mariarosa Cutillo, chief of strategic partnerships of the United Nations Population Fund; bespectacled Kent Larson, director of the City Science group at the MIT Media Lab; and Livia Pomodoro, president of Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, who is attending via a video connection.

Then there is me, Amanda Gorman, the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, and the only representative of Gen Z on the panel. Yet my anxiety comes not from being young, but because of the roadblocks, I’ve met in fashion as a black girl and advocate. I’ve travelled to Slovenia for the Re-Nylon project, marvelling at the clear, tree-lined waters of Lake Bled. I’ve visited Milan twice for Prada’s fashion shows, roaming the neoclassical palazzos and admiring the tall spires of the Duomo di Milano. But for the most part, demonstrating
that Gen Z activists deserve a voice in the fashion industry has been an uphill battle. I’ve been approached by countless apparel brands who want to cast activists, and yet have not made any lasting changes within their companies to promote the values we stand for, namely a sustainable future.

These thoughts spark in my brain as Gianni finally hands me the microphone. The words leap off my tongue: “Envisioning a sustainable world requires a magnanimous imagination. It requires the courage to take up circular systems that have never been tried before. It means a freedom of a new order, where we not only have the economic ability to purchase what I need, but to make informed choices about what I’m purchasing. We have to realise that sustainability does not mean scarcity. In the future we are building, sustainability does not signify a lack of resources, but an abundance of reimagined resources.”

The audience applauds and I smile, secretly glad that I get to pass the microphone on to someone else. In that moment I know there is more work to be done and there are more steps to be taken. But I also know that all of us together, those in this room and beyond, you reading this and even those who aren’t, we are not heading into the future. We are shaping it.

Top image: Amanda Gorman, at Prada Group’s Shaping a Sustainable Future Society conference, November 2019. Taken from Issue 64 of 10 Magazine – BEST, FOOT, FORWARD – which is on newsstands now.