The Future Of Men's Fashion Through The Eyes Of Donny Lewis
By Patrick Duffy
This is an exciting time for the fashion industry and now more than ever the future of the planet depends on a complex system that is in need of a redesign. The demand for industry wide change isn't easy and requires perspective, persistence, and a whole lotta philosophical reflection to help us navigate the pressing issues linked to our everyday lives.
Enter Donny Lewis. A poet, philosopher, and actor born in Lubbock, Texas. You probably recognize Mr. Lewis, as he has worked with every major international fashion brand earning him supermodel status. Hailing from a town so small his graduating class was just 12 students, and where he is a proud member of a farming family who raised cotton, sheep, and even boarder collies to living and working in New York, Sydney, London, Milan, Barcelona, Paris, and Munich.
I caught up with Mr. Lewis to talk about his passion to change how the fashion industry works, from the inside out. His personal mission is to help find a holistic way to permanently solve the human destruction of our planet and the ethical crises we face. If that isn't swoon-worthy, well...I don't know what is!
How did you get into the fashion industry?
That is a pretty good question and one that I am happy that someone actually asked me. I have heard and read several versions of this story through the years, most of these stories have surprised me. lol So, since you asked, let me end the myth. Ready? I was showing sheep, at a stock show, in Texas when a former Miss Rodeo that had done a fair bit of modeling approached with the idea that I could maybe be a model and make some money to pay for college. I did not know what she was talking about but was flattered nonetheless. She offered to pay for some pictures at a local photo studio and she would send them to a contact she had in Dallas. This contact was Mike Beaty and he worked at the Campbell Agency in Dallas as well as ran a model search expo called the MB expo. Basically, a sheep show but with people in it. I was not really sure what I thought about all of this but I went along as it could not hurt anything, and as I said, it was flattering. I was still in high school at the time so for me, there was no rush. I went on to sign up with The Campbell Agency, (still my agency in Dallas to this day). I was not sure I would really try the modeling thing though until I met a model scout named Tony Perkins. Mike Beaty invited me to be a special guest at his MB expo so that I could meet all the agents from around the world. Tony and I hit it off. He was an avid reader, always a big plus in my book, and he had traveled all over the world nine times in his never-ending quest to find the Next face of the fashion world. I could listen to him tell his stories of his travels for hours and did. It was really through him that I decided to give modeling a real chance, well, that and I had run out of money for college and the agency was willing to front me a plane ticket, place to stay, and a bit of spending money to try it out in NYC. I was having fun up in NYC and got what I considered to be a great job back then, a showroom for Giorgio Armani, this put enough money in my account that I could afford to stay in NYC, and really see if I could make it as a model. Soon after that, I landed my first Guess jeans campaign with co-stars Laetitia Casta and Ian Somerhalder shooting in Miami. That was really it from that point there was no looking back, I was in the fashion industry.
Along the way did you realize that the industry wasn’t all about beauty and glamour?
I am not sure exactly when I started to add things up and put things together that there might be something hiding behind the glitz.
Also, I am not here to bash on the fashion industry either. We have all made mistakes in our lives that we have had to try to correct. As someone that has been on the inside of the business for a good number of years, I can say that the people in the industry, the creatives, really are just about creating beautiful things. They are artists in many ways. Very often I am afraid we just never thought about where the paint and the canvas came from or what happened to it once the painting was complete.
Now that I have said that, this was sort of my journey as I started in the business during the Anti Fur of the ’90s that was the PETA cause, “I’d rather be naked than wear fur!” remember that? Then we heard about the child labor issues from time to time, it would come in a news cycle but then it would go away and you just thought it was fixed. Then came the fast fashion which was so fun as long as you did not look deeper. The luxury sector had to do something to keep up so that started the massive production excess, and more collections a year than months. That’s when the outlets as a business model started. They were producing so much, knowing that they had no real market for it but that consumers would buy it at a discount from an outlet. The fast-fashion excess went to landfills or was dumped for pennies a ton in poorer countries or even burned. Again though, you would have to look deeper if you wanted to discover any of these things. You might be able to reasonably figure them out if you just sat and wondered about what happens to all the waste but that is just not where humanity has been until recently I believe. This past year a lot of people, have had a lot of time, to sit and ponder things as we all slowed down. It’s one of the few positives I think we might be able to take out of the pandemic.
My personal journey to a deeper understanding of some of the issues facing the industry came slowly as I traveled the world modeling for so many brands. I am a farm boy from a really small town in rural Texas and as such, I was not exposed to a lot of extremes either in excess or lack, both were more just concepts you read about in the paper or the many, many novels. When I was able to really experience these things it continued to help form a fundamental understanding and philosophy for me. I slowly started to see how we are all connected as humanity inside nature, and that people are people. This may seem very simplistic or overly obvious but it seems also to be something that we all often forget. The fashion industry seems especially prone to this as we very often just turned a blind eye to the ugly parts and shined the light brighter on the beautiful bits.
Was there ever a moral dilemma with your work? How did you address that?
I have certainly worked for brands that are not sustainably driven! If you have worked much at all in the fashion business you have done that. hahaha Seriously though, for a very long time I was just ignorant of the dirtier issues that the glamor of the fashion industry covers up so well. Also, I am a model by profession and as such, I do work for those that pay me. That is the job after all. The moral dilemma gets assuaged because I think that my position in the modeling world actually gives me a unique place to speak to people from inside the business to try to help steer the change. I look at the fashion industry as a giant cargo shipping vessel. You don’t turn those things on a dime, it takes time and effort to change direction. It also takes those little tugboats that push up to them and help them move.
Your talents go beyond the runway and pages of a magazine, as a writer, poet, and storyteller you’ve woven this into your work and now focused on sustainability consulting circularity and mending the fashion industry. Where did you begin and what is your process?
After I was able to start seeing the problem as a whole, the overconsumption, overproduction, and waste in the industry, I started looking for some way to make a difference. That led me to AI in 2016 and it’s not as crazy a jump as you might think. My penchant for philosophy has often led me down the road of science and technology from physics to some light reading on super-intelligent machines. Then eureka! Let's use this in the fashion industry!
I thought, it would be great if we would be able to build specific algorithms (A.I. edit) for brands that could help them to utilize the mountains of data they have available. It could help eliminate waste by streamlining supply chains for a start, but as each company has different needs you could set up custom-tailored solutions to each band's problems! This was a win-win way to fix things from the inside. It was to that end I started working with AI expert Simon Schneider and ECSI consulting in the creation of a platform to help the industry utilize this resource. What we soon discovered was that fashion is on the cutting edge of fashion, but they have been left on the cutting room floor concerning technology. This was really a wake-up call to me, on several fronts. A swift reminder that cash is king in business, if the bottom line is not impacted sufficiently you cannot effect a change. This rewarding learning process gave me huge insights into the inner workings of large fashion companies, it also helped me understand that we would need to inform the consumers of their direct impact to change the bottom line so that we can help the industry improve to a more circular model.
That circular model is the key to everything. My process is to keep in mind that everything is connected. I try to look at each problem individually and holistically. Meaning what is the micro problem and how does it affect the whole. Can we find a way to improve both simultaneously? Let's say I'm looking for a partner to create a capsule collection, for example. I will try to learn the strengths and the needs of my partner and see if I have the resources and ability to help them improve on the circular path, be that through outreach and brand awareness or through consultation and forming cooperation with perhaps previously unknown circular fashion solutions. That is really what the DVS Fashion by DL is all about. The Tee-shirts or DVS Ts are produced in partnership with the trusted circular Tee-mill group, these shirts help support two of my favorite charities as well as Tee-mill and their amazing transparent circular supply chain. This is important I believe in showing that it is not just a pipe dream, these products are out there and they are available now.
As far as the writing is concerned and how it fits, well, I have always expressed my own personal creativity in the written word, even as a very young man. Though as time has passed much of what I write has been informed and influenced by that simple philosophy that I mentioned earlier, we are all connected and people are people. I try to express this idea through a story, with the hope that the more it is understood the more we will all be willing to look at our mistakes be they, personal, industry, or even society-wide, and do our best to correct them. To me, it is part of the circle or the loop we hope to close as we move into this brave new regenerative world.
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