September 9th, 2013
An Interview with Margaret Maynard
by Nadia Buick
Cover of Margaret Maynard’s Out of Line: Australian Women and Style.
Associate Professor Margaret Maynard is one of Australia’s most respected dress historians. She has published widely in the field and taught for decades at The University of Queensland (UQ) at a time when dress and fashion subjects were few and far between. She continues to hold an Honorary Research Consultant position at UQ in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History. Maynard has contributed greatly to publishing on Australian dress and fashion. Her book Fashioned from Penury re-evaluated Colonial dress in Australia, debunked previously persuasive myths about the impact of the British Empire, class and gender while arguing for institutional acquisition of everyday clothing rather than ‘high fashion.’ In Dress and Globalisation she was one of the first to discuss clothing and sustainability and cross-cultural dressing practices. She also edited the Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands volume of the Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion.
Margaret Maynard and I are both based in Brisbane (arguably quite far removed from the ‘centres’ of fashion) and I have been fortunate to work with her on a project about fashion in Queensland called The Fashion Archives. We spend a lot of time chatting via email and I recently took the time to ask her these questions…
You are a dress historian whose work has also occasionally examined fashion. What is your working definition for these terms?
Fashion for me is the highly volatile aspect of attire and behaviour—the latest look and comportment at any one time. It is a transformative concept or social ideal (not necessarily just reflective). Shaping and reshaping the body, it is an active and material demonstration of change, the nature of its visibility inextricable from social and cultural experiences. The other point is that fashion is inseparable from the industry in which it is made and more recently the commercialisation of its marketing and promotion.
For me fashion is a form of dress, so the term dress encompasses all attire, irrespective of economic factors or class. My view is that one can’t fully understand the workings and nature of fashion unless one takes into account wider processes of dressing. In fashion photography, for instance, one should bear in mind technical processes and the whole marketing structure of the industry. It has been said that fashion is where ‘costume’ and ‘dress’ converge but I don’t think that fashion should be thought of in this way. There are also degrees of fashionability dependent on class and economic circumstances as well as aspirations to look stylish.
Is ‘dress studies’ no longer fashionable?
Yes, I agree that ‘dress studies’ has the lower rating at the present time. Fashion studies today have cachet largely because they have become almost professionalised by the academy and the obsession with dense kinds of theory has lent to a sense of superiority amongst some practitioners. There are also convenient links to contemporary interests in design and lifestyle. And there is no doubt fashion benefits from its association with visual pleasure, aesthetics and artistic creativity.
Dress studies on the other hand seem intellectually less demanding and its subjects can give an impression of being mundane even drab. It is often downgraded as mere social or working-class history compared to fashion. It is interesting that second-hand dress rates more highly perhaps due to its association with self presentation as a creative form. The media loves fashion as allegedly newsworthy, with its links to the latest upmarket designs. Thus most newspapers have columns on ‘fashion’ where they seldom have on dress. The term ‘costume’ used to have the same low standing but somewhat upgraded now it has become the accepted term for theatrical performance attire.
Many theorists and critics interested in dress and/or fashion have observed the field’s relationship to women and femininity, and suggested that this close link is the reason that dress and fashion studies have often been overlooked. Have you also found this to be true? Do you think this is something that continues to happen?
I think that the association of dress/fashion with women’s interests was prevalent until the later 20th century. Historically fashion has been associated with vanity and folly, thus contributing to the perception it is not a serious study. The topic has been disparaged, written about defensively and considered frivolous. But this has certainly not been the case in the last decade or so. In academic circles the subject is flourishing. Publishers like Bloomsbury have catalogues saturated with books on the topic. This said exhibitions of women’s fashions are huge drawcards, suggesting women are still objects of desire as opposed to subjects of analysis. Countering this are the many women who have in recent times written seminal studies on the complexities inherent in dress/fashion and forged new pathways for the study
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Posted in Interviews, Publications, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion
September 21st, 2012
Sustainability is Sexy: Design Intelligence; Fashion
by Ingrid Mida
Design Intelligence; Fashion New York
Fashion acts as a mirror of society, which is what art used to be. It seems that fashion has supplanted art in reflecting cultural values, but has largely lacked critical reflection on its practices. At the Design Intelligence; Fashion event which took place September 18 and 19 at Parsons New School of Design in New York, questions of how intelligent design could impact the issue of sustainability were considered by a group of 100 “influential players in fashion”, including fashion designers, academics, manufacturers, trade council reps, and media. On the first day, participants were divided into small groups of five to six people to talk through some of the issues. On the second day, a series of lectures featuring such notable speakers such as Joel Towers, Hazel Clark, Otto von Busch, Sarah Scaturro, Gudrun Sjoden, Rebecca Earley offered their perspectives on the issue. This post summarizes my thoughts after the event.
At my table, the question posed to the group was: Emotions make us buy, whilst feelings make us keep. How do we create fashion that has a chance not only to connect emotionally, and create attachment, but also to retain it?
This question made me think of my work as Collection Co-ordinator of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. Each garment is imbued with the memory of its wearer, in the imprints of their body, in the stains and signs of wear in the textile and in the stories sometimes noted in the records and more often untold but still embedded in the folds. Garments offered for donation to a collection typically are ones that hold a special memory to the owner. They might have hung at the back of a closet for years before they are offered for donation.
You only need to ever handle an item of couture once to know that such items demonstrate enduring quality. Think of the Hermes Kelly bag or a Chanel jacket. These are not items that get tossed in the bin after a season, because they are classics, and made to endure. Buying such a thing represents an investment and involves a ceremony of purchase. In the past, there was also a deeper level of involvement in the making of a garment. Whether it was a visit to a couture house or a local tailor, acquiring a garment was a thoughtful process that had an element of ceremony, imbuing the piece with emotion and memory.
In contemporary society, consumers are divorced from the production process. Clothes have become commodities and the purchase of a garment can be an impulsive act. Getting something new for a single event is not uncommon, and that piece might only be worn once, after which it might be discarded and end up in a landfill. Fast fashion and the media fuel desire for the latest item and the result is long-term environmental damage from toxic production processes and post-consumer textile waste. It is estimated that over 21 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste gets dumped into US landfills each year (Eric Stubin, Chariman Council for Textile Recycling). If some of that could be diverted for reuse and up-cycling, this could have an enormous impact.
The idea of attachment and emotional connection to a garment encourages the wearer to retain that garment and to wear it beyond a fashion cycle. Engaging in thoughtful design is part of the solution, but is only part of the story. People need to make more thoughtful purchases and consider such options such as resale or swaps and the remaking or recycling of the garment. Some companies have already implemented such practices, with labels offering recycling information and facilitating sharing among communities of wearers. Hazel Clark referenced the slow food movement which equates closer ties to the producer and sensorial engagement with the product as a possible model for sustainable fashion.
But, there is no single prescription to the problem, because our economic model is driven by consumption. Fashion has become linked to entertainment, and people want to buy more than they need in order to fit in, to create an emotional lift, and/or to satisfy aspirational motives. The fashionable image, hyped by the media, has created an insatiable cycle of desire for change.
To date, sustainability has largely been presented in the media as a fringe issue when it actually is an issue that affects us all. The question is: can we really afford cheap things? The cost of an item at the register actually represents a very small piece of the “real” cost if the costs of disposal as well as the costs of human rights violations and environmental damage were factored into the price tag.
What is needed is a fundamental shift of values so that sustainability becomes a shared paradigm. This might seem like an unattainable goal, but there is a precedent. Smoking used to be cool, but over time, government policy, education and social censure have redefined smoking behavior. For a similar thing to happen with sustainability, there must be a fundamental shift in values. Our purchases must be considered in terms of their true costs to the community and to society as a whole. Such a paradigm shift requires collaboration between designers, producers, consumers, media, educators, and government. If I drew a visual map, this would take the form of a spider web with the values of sustainability at the core, and webs linking all the players in a shared goal to encourage thoughtful participation in the acts of producing and consuming fashion.
Sustainable fashion can embrace a cool and sexy vibe, but requires thoughtful and intelligent choices on the part of both the designer and the consumer. Sweden seems to be on the forefront of this issue by sponsoring this Design Boost event and the rest of the world should take note. Government policy can encourage and support our actions and education can help change value systems, but in the end, we each make choices and by making small steps towards better choices, we are all better off.
Some of the choices we can each make include:
1. Making more thoughtful purchases, looking for lasting quality and when possible, embracing designers who use sustainable practices. Some designers to consider include: Gudrun Sjoden www.gudrunsjoden.com
, Preloved www.preloved.ca
, and bodkinbrooklyn www.bodkinbrooklyn
2. Washing clothes less often, using less detergent and hanging to dry when possible.
3. Repairing and remaking clothes. Sarah Scaturro of the Costume Institute of the Met, suggested fashion hacking
as a way to “recreate” a designer piece.
4. Recycling all clothing, footwear and textiles, either through resale or donation to charities that support recycling initiatives (such as Goodwill). Do not throw clothing items into the garbage, even if they are torn or stained. Visit www.weardonaterecycle.org
for more information on recycling your clothing.
During the course of the event, it was clear that fashion cares. One look around the room told me that embracing sustainability as a cause does not equate to frumpy and unfashionable. I think it is time to declare that sustainability is sexy.
Posted in Lectures, Sustainable Fashion
September 7th, 2012
Interview with Sass Brown: Fashion + Sustainability – Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
Sass Brown’s first book, Eco Fashion, published by Laurence King Publishers in 2010.
Sass Brown likens her work to that of a fashion curator, one that looks beyond aesthetics and into the realm of ethics and ideas. Her book, website, and blog feature designers from around the globe who unite fashion and ecology in thoughtful, innovative ways. Brown entered this line of inquiry after years working as a designer in mainstream fashion, a background that gives her a unique perspective on the distinct qualities, and currency of ecological ideas within the fashion sector and valuable insight into the role of fashion education within the broader global information network that supports, and defines sustainable fashion today.
Mae Colburn: To begin, how do you interpret this word – sustainability?
Sass Brown: Well, sustainability has a defined meaning that you can look up in the dictionary: not depleting, not polluting, not taking away what you can’t get back. Where it gets muddy is when you start putting it in different silos such as sustainable fashion or sustainable lifestyles – that’s where it starts to get more interpretive and where words like eco or green are much more broadly used because they have less defined meanings.
MC: I’m sure this thought process informed the title of your first book, Eco Fashion.
SB: (laughs) To some extent, yes. I actually wanted it to be called Sustainable Fashion but my publishers fought me on that one because they felt that sustainability wasn’t a completely understood term. Plus, my publisher is British, but [the book] was distributed in the U.S. and also translated into Italian and Spanish, so they felt eco was an easier term for people to grasp on to, and in fact it’s actually more correct than my initial title.
MC: Both your book and your website highlight the work of a wide variety of designers working in eco fashion. How do you go about conducting your research?
SB: Well, when I first started this research years ago, one of the nicest surprises was that eco designers would give me all of the contact information for their biggest competitors, because they supported them, too. It’s a very collaborative industry. […] People want to share because they believe in the development this area of design – and that’s dependent upon all of us understanding and knowing and sharing resources. It’s not like the mainstream fashion industry where everybody jealously guards their contacts and knowledge.
A screen shot from Sass Brown’s website.
MC: You research and write, but you also lecture and teach workshops on fashion and sustainability. Could you elaborate on the role of information sharing within this movement, and specifically your own role in shaping this dialogue?
SB: I think information sharing is absolutely vital and that my role, or what I see as my role, is to research, share, and collaborate on that information. Designers in the industry and students who are currently studying to graduate and move into the industry need to see concrete examples of what is being done, how it’s being done, and who is doing it. I focus equally on fashion as I do on ecology. I’m not interested in writing about the next beige t-shirt – whether it’s being produced ecologically, fair trade, or what. There are enough people already doing that. Fashion is a world of inspiration and aspiration and I think it’s incredibly valuable to inspire designers about what’s possible. One of the best ways of doing that is showing some of the best aesthetic examples of what’s being done with sustainability, ecology, and design.
I’ve been described as a curator by several people and that’s probably more accurate than anything because I really am curating already existing content rather than developing my own; I might be rewording and rewriting and collating it in different ways, but I’m working with things that have already being done. I think that’s actually quite a good description of what I do, especially in certain digital media like Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest, or StumbleUpon, or any number of other areas. It really is about collating and collecting and disseminating.
MC: This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit – this question of how specialized knowledge about production, consumption, and so on, can be translated to a broader public in a way that seems relevant.
SB: Well, I think most of the issue is that most of the specialized information comes from activistic circles and is accessed by those who are interested, as opposed to being disseminated to everyone whether they’re interested or not. It hasn’t gotten to a level where the average person on the street is aware of Labour Behind the Label or the Clean Clothes Campaign, or any number of other advocacy bodies who police or certify the fair trade or sustainability of our industry. Digital media and blogs are beginning to bridge the gap, whether it’s my blog or blogs like EcoSalon or Ecouterre, which aim for a more fun, cool, interesting notion of ecology as opposed to a grassroots, hardcore, tree-hugging ecology, which I think is still very foreign to a lot of people and off-putting in a lot of cases.
MC: Do you have any last thoughts about education, information sharing, and sustainability?
SB: As I said, I think that having multiple channels is really important, whether it’s the structured educational field through curriculum and classes, or personally-motivated websites and blogs, or activistic and certification bodies who really get down to the nitty-gritty of who is doing what, how, when, and where. I think it’s really vital that there are lots of different perspectives and different voices. That’s the only way we can reach the broad variety of people out there. It’s never one-size-fits-all.
Sass Brown is Acting Assistant Dean for the School of Art and Design at F.I.T. and former Director of F.I.T.’s study abroad program in Florence.
Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.
Posted in Designers, Publications, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, Textiles, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
August 19th, 2012
Interview with Laura Sansone: Fashion + Sustainability – Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
One of Sansone’s two Textile Labs, which she carts to greenmarkets in and around New York City.
Laura Sansone readily acknowledges that she comes from a “crafty background.” She received her B.A. from the Philadelphia College of Art and her M.A. From Cranbrook Academy of Fine Art (both in Fiber). Now, at Parsons’ School for Design Strategies, she teaches spinning and dying, organizes field trips to fiber farms Upstate, and takes students to greenmarkets in and around New York City as part of her mobile Textile Lab. For Sansone, “crafty” means more than technically adept or playfully skillful; it signifies a thoughtful, soulful, tactile appreciation of material productivity.
Mae Colburn: I’d like to begin by asking you about your relationship to this word, sustainability.
Laura Sansone: When I think of sustainability, I don’t just think of environmental issues. I think of the socioeconomic aspects of sustainability, and how to enrich communities through material production. Also, looking at who is making the work and where the materials originate. It’s really about designing with transparency, about realizing the interconnectedness of products and systems, and finding alternatives to commercial production. I think one way to do that is to think about things in a decentralized way, in a way that’s more local, so that communities are more in control of production and consumption.
MC: Could you describe how you arrived at this interpretation?
LS: I started becoming interested in sustainability when I moved to the Hudson Valley in 2003. My partner and I bought an apple orchard up there, and our neighbor, a local farmer, started farming our land and selling at greenmarkets here in the City. So I started to realize how these resources in Upstate find their way to the City, and the importance of venues like greenmarkets. That’s when I began thinking of ways of linking the things that I do [with fiber] to farming.
I was working with Tyvec at the time, so I was already interested in no-waste production. It’s a recyclable polyethelene material with many applications (envelopes, hazmat suits, even high fashion back in the 1960’s in sort of a playful way). I was sending my cutoffs back to Tyveck for recycling, and asking consumers to do the same. The products folded up into envelopes so they could be sent back to be recycled. So I was already thinking along those lines. Once I moved [to the Hudson Valley], I decided I had to go beyond that and try to use natural materials so that everything could be composted. That’s when I started working with organic cottons and natural dyes and that led me to investigate local materials. That’s when I realized that there were fiber farms right up there in the Hudson Valley, and a really active fiber community.
“Paper Wear,” Sansone’s line of recyclable Tyvec clothing.
Years ago, everybody had a spinning wheel in their house, and a loom. Families and villages were really self-sufficient, and while I’m not saying that that [model] is the answer to our global problems, I do find that handcrafting is a way to bring people together. There’s this cohesive nature to it, a real social connection that transcends age, gender, race, economic status. It’s amazing. That’s what I find when I take the Textile Lab out to greenmarkets. Everybody has a story about something that their mother used to knit, or all the yarn they have in their basement, or about how they’re addicted to crocheting. It’s an activity that reminds people of their past. It excites people. Maybe production can happen on a smaller scale, and maybe it can be supported by communities. You know, there’s a certain social importance to being able to produce as a culture, and I find it problematic when a culture stops being productive in a material way.
MC: It seems like every decade experiences a resurgence of craft in some form or another. How would you characterize what we’re experiencing today?
LS: Bauhaus was all about that. Arts and Crafts was all about that. There are these movements in art and design that have to do with seeing an imbalance and searching for a more assertive equilibrium among producers and the way things are made. It does happen frequently and it’s mostly this convergence, these moments in history where craft and design and art converge; right now we’re at this point where there’s a convergence. I call it vernacular craft. That is, more like folk crafts, where designers are really lifting folk methods and adapting them, using them in their designs.
MC: Could you describe the Textile Lab in a bit more detail? You’ve got a cart…
LS: Yes, a cart, and there’s a shelf that comes out in the back and a stove that sits on top. Inside, we have all of our equipment to make dyes: pots, a scale, and a blender to make paste.
MC: What do you do about electricity?
LS: When we bring it to the park, farmer Joe (the farmer who farms on my property) brings a generator for us and sometimes we can plug it in at an outlet in the park, so we find a way.
I have another lab that I received funding for from City Atlas, a project with City University of New York and Artist as Citizen, a smaller one. I spent a good deal of last spring, summer and even fall taking the smaller lab to neighborhood greenmarkets all over the City. That one has gas burners.
The Textile Lab dyepot with sunflowers (above) and stick spinning with local wool (below).
MC: There’s something I really love about your Textile Lab idea, especially in the context of education. You’re teaching students these techniques, then taking students with you to greenmarkets around the city where they teach these techniques to the public. It’s almost viral.
LS: This stuff happens online all the time; there are even social networking sites specifically on handcrafting, like Ravelry. But there’s a social component to going out and making it happen in an organic context like New York City, especially a place like Union Square where people are constantly coming and going. People stop and talk to you, trade stories, share knowledge. We bring the Lab out to the Union Square greenmarket and students just lure people in. Once we had a hearing impaired group come up to the Lab. So there I was trying to explain what we were doing, pointing to things, flailing around, and then all of a sudden one of my students walks up and starts signing. She knew Sign. I was so happy. We had another woman come over, she was from Algeria and she didn’t speak a lot of English, but we gave her a drop spindle. It was a top whirl spindle, and she was trying to spin with it, but we could tell she wasn’t that happy with what we’d handed her. Then we realized she was actually used to using a bottom whirl spindle, the kind that you spin near the ground. We also had a guy from Tibet come up and show the students how to spin on a stick, just a stick, probably like he’d been taught as a boy. Children also come over, especially at Union Square because they have all sorts of educational programs. It’s wonderful, a really nice inclusive moment for everyone.
MC: What would you like to see markets like this become five, ten years down the line?
LS: In my world, I would love to see the market become more than just a greenmarket. To become more like a real marketplace, selling fabric, and handmade shoes, handmade kitchenware, a place of real material commerce in the sense of material goods (not just consumable produce). The market is becoming that way to a certain degree. Something really natural happens there where there’s this sort of bartering that occurs, and I think that’s so important. Like, “I have this, you have that, let’s trade” (the farmer does that with us, he gives us food and farms our land, he brings us bread from a guy at the market who he trades with). You have to produce in order to engage in that sort of economy, but again, a productive culture is a strong culture so it goes hand in hand.
Laura Sansone is an artist, designer, and adjunct professor at Parsons the New School for Design’s School for Design Strategies.
Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.
Posted in Designers, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, Textiles, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
August 9th, 2012
Interview with Hazel Clark: Fashion + Sustainability—Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
Hazel Clark derives her perspective on fashion education and sustainability from years of experience as an art and design scholar, educator, and administrator. Her work is informed by a sustained belief in collaborative inquiry and an enduring curiosity about the changing role of fashion through time and space. Old Clothes, New Looks (2005) combines the work of anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and art and fashion historians, and The Fabric of Cultures (2009) features an equally diverse roster of scholars (Clark co-edited both titles). It is this bringing-together of disciplines that also defines Parsons’ M.A. Fashion Studies program, which launched on Clark’s initiative in 2010 and now serves as a vital meeting point for thinkers, and re-thinkers, across the expanding field of fashion.
Mae Colburn: What does sustainability mean to you, especially within the context of slow fashion, which you describe in “Slow + Fashion – an Oxymoron or a Promise for the Future…?” (2008)?
Hazel Clark: To me, sustainability is about trying to establish new parameters of thinking about dressing without excessive waste. We’ve still got to have clothes, and I feel they are a very interesting part of our identity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve got to have the excessive waste surrounding them that we’ve become so used to.
When I wrote [the article you referred to] in Fashion Theory, it was very much instigated by a one-day symposium that I’d attended in Milan organized by Ezio Manzini, who was then at the Politecnico in Milan. It was a bringing together of people from the slow food movement and design, which I felt provided a very useful way of thinking about clothing. It’s very obvious to think about how we can make changes within old models, but it’s the models themselves that need examining, and using parameters or concepts from one area and bringing them to another can be very helpful. It was just a good way of rethinking longevity, and systems, and communities, and the local. Agency as well – thinking about how individuals have agency over the way they dress.
MC: In the introduction to Old Clothes New Looks, you and Alexandra Palmer write that “consumer agency and taste are the final determinations of sales, costs and, ultimately, the fashionability of dress,” which is interesting because we often think of designers are the ones fashioning a more sustainable system. Could you describe that tension?
HC: I think that consumers should have agency because they’re putting out the dollars to buy things and I think there is a tension for designers now, certainly with what one might call the do-it-yourself movement (if, indeed, it is a movement), and this recognition that began a number of decades ago that fashion is not just a one-line dictatorial process where the designer is the auteur and has the agency. It’s a myth that designers have total agency; it’s a seductive myth, but it’s a myth nevertheless. Very few designers have complete agency because they work as part of a team. The production of clothing is teamwork, even though in many cases members of the team (pattern cutters, seamstresses, etc.) remain anonymous. The problem often is that the user doesn’t have the sense of agency, or that sense of confidence to dress themselves. It would be wonderful to think of fashion more as self-styling, more about giving people the means to be comfortable in what they wear, to be confident in what they wear, to know their bodies. I don’t think people are completely dictated to by fashion; fashion is so diverse and so multifaceted that one doesn’t have to be, but I think that building a sense of confidence to create an interesting personality with clothes should be considered a part of fashion.
There are interesting examples. One company I really like is Junky Styling, in London. They have a service called ‘Wardrobe Surgery,’ where people actually take clothes [from their own wardrobes] and work with the two women who run the company to restyle them. I actually mentioned [Junky Style] once at a conference and I remember somebody saying, ‘oh, but it’s terribly expensive’ – but it’s all relative, and I think that’s the other point about how much one is actually paying for clothes and where the profits are being divided. We’ve got to think about the value factor here. […] It’s only been in the last hundred and fifty years that people have had more than three or four things in their wardrobes. That’s why I particularly like the work of British scholar Kate Fletcher, because she’s talking about these different modes or models one might have for different types of clothing so that you can think strategically about your wardrobe.
MC: I wanted to ask you about scholarship in particular. Do you see this moment as an opportunity for a new methodology surrounding dress, one that represents perhaps a more holistic perspective and includes history and theory but also, for example, subjective narratives like oral histories?
HC: I think oral histories are important. There’s been some recent scholarship looking at wardrobes, particularly in the U.K., and scholars like Daniel Miller and his student Sophie Woodward, who are coming from a more material culture or anthropological background, are thinking more carefully about relationships when it comes to clothing. I think one of the issues [with fashion] is that it’s so predicated on the visual, on the image (in fashion magazines and now the internet), and I think we’ve got to consider more the sensorial relationships, the materiality of clothing, and also the capacity that clothes have to sustain us, make us feel as well as look good. […] I just co-taught a two-week course, ‘Fashion and Everyday Life,’ a couple of weeks ago with my colleague from the U.K, Cheryl Buckley, a design historian at Northumbria University. It was a graduate class where we had M.A. Fashion Studies students and M.A. History of Decorative Arts and Design students working collaboratively and we encouraged them to, for example, look at their family histories and bring in personal photographs – to talk about their experience of fashion and clothing within the context of the everyday.
Thinking about the sorts of qualities and relationships we have with our clothing goes hand in hand with acknowledging continuities and sustainability. It really brings us down to a more involved, intimate level and the recognition of the individual experience, and this is being recognized in scholarship. Sophie Woodward, for example, is not just talking with women about their wardrobes; she’s talking with women in their wardrobes (that is, in the presence of their clothes). One of the first books that Daniel Miller produced about consumption, Material Culture and Mass Consumption (1987) – there were a couple of articles in that book where he talked about the problem of dealing with the artifact, and in this country, fashion historian Valerie Steele has used the work of Jules Prown, a leading scholar of material culture [along those same lines]. We still need ways of thinking about and dealing with the artifact, but I do think it demands scholarly discourses that are more collaborative. This is what we’re trying to do in Parsons’ M.A. in Fashion Studies. We called it Fashion Studies because we’re drawing from a variety of disciplines. Fashion exists outside of fashion design and I think teaching this will lead to more collaborative work by faculty, and also by students. It’s a bit of an open space at the moment, but I think there’s a lot of potential there.
Hazel Clark is Research Chair of Fashion, and former Dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory, Parsons the New School for Design.
Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.
Posted in Designers, Fashion & Technology, Publications, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
June 27th, 2012
Interview with Christina Moon: Fashion + Sustainability—Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
Image taken during fieldwork research: shoe factory assembly line, China, 2007
Christina Moon joined Parsons’ School of Art and Design History and Theory faculty this past September with a freshly minted doctoral degree from Yale’s Department of Anthropology and a markedly holistic perspective on the fashion industry. Her practice involves going out, interviewing people, and thoughtfully translating these stories into broader global narratives. Her PhD dissertation, Material Intimacies: The Labor of Creativity in the Global Fashion Industry, brought her everywhere from kitchen tables in Los Angeles, to shoe factories in China, to what she calls the “fashion streetscapes” of New York City and beyond.
Mae Colburn: Could you describe how you arrived at the theme of Material Intimacies?
Christina Moon: I was interested in writing about this larger historical transformation, these larger cultural phenomena that were going on, and tying these to the personal narratives of the people I was meeting, interviewing, and working with in the fashion industry. That, for me, was the greatest challenge of my dissertation, but also the most fulfilling one: how to bring out the stories of individuals and their experiences, but in a way that they would not simply be dismissed as ‘drop in the bucket’ personal, or anecdotal, stories. I wanted to show how these individual stories were part of much larger ones about the history of fashion and clothing, but also the history of political, economic, cultural, social movements occurring around the world.
So, for instance, during my fieldwork, I spent time with families working in the informal clothing markets of the fast-fashion industry of Los Angeles, which are dominated by Korean Brazilian Americans (if you can imagine that!). They’re Korean clothing traders who left Korea in the 1960s and, because they couldn’t get visas to the United States, ended up in South America (mostly in Brazil), where they imported textiles from Korea, set up cut-and-sew factories in Brazil, and sold their designs in markets they created. They raised their children in [South America] but, because of the uneasy economic and political climate of the 1990s, moved with their children to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. Now, many of their children consider themselves Korean Brazilian Americans. […] These families run the informal clothing markets of L.A., which have become, within the last decade, the main hub for the design and distribution of the majority of fast-fashion within the U.S. and across the Americas in general.
The matriarch of this one family, whom I spent quite a lot of time with (she was really in charge of the family business), spoke to me at length about her experience working in the fashion and garment trade over the last three decades [on these] three different continents. Her stories revolved around lace because when [she and her family] first came to the United States, it was by selling her lace designs. She was only able to make one connection to a vendor, and he was a lace vendor, and so for her first three years here, that was basically how she supported three children, a husband, and her mother-in-law. It was so interesting because that story only came up after she had shown me photos of her daughter’s wedding, and explained how she had created her veil out of lace. It all came out as her personal story, but it still illuminated this larger history of changing economic and production systems in the globalization of fashion.
I wrote some of this in a piece [titled] Intimate Materialities. I’d been told throughout graduate school that there wasn’t any room for narrative in anthropological writing, that those days of narrative ethnographic accounts were long gone with The Nuer and The Golden Bough, and that books were part of a capitalist market, which liked things delivered as neat, tidy, and under a certain number of pages. But I felt like without narrative, this story and history wouldn’t be interesting at all. I knew I could deliver this history through statistics, in huge broad strokes about the globalization of fashion through trade laws and political economy, but I felt like when I read those histories, I had a hard time finding my own personal way in. Before I got my job at Parsons, I had put out a handful of job applications and got an initial interview with the University of Texas in Austin, Anthropology Department. There’s a really incredible anthropologist there named Kathleen Stewart who interviewed me along with other members of the department. I had to give all these writing samples and chapters of my dissertation for the interview (which I didn’t think they’d read so thoroughly) but when it came time for the interview, it became apparent that Stewart had read every single word that I had written, including the narrative [described above]. When she asked me what kind of classes I would be able to teach, I said ‘I can teach this or that…’ and rattled off a list of traditional anthropology courses, but she said ‘No, no. What about teaching a class called Intimate Materialities. That’s the part of this dissertation that I really liked. That’s the kind of history we need to be writing.’ And that gave me fuel and a newfound sense of confidence. From there, I developed this idea that ‘intimate materialities’ which means that the materials are ‘intimate,’ but if you switch it around to ‘material intimacies,’ the base of that phrase is the word intimacies, which is important because the dissertation I ended up writing was about relationships between people in an industry often described as impersonal, anonymous, and economic, [and] how clothing and fashion become the mediation or form in which all these relationships take place – across generations, across continents, across cultural divides.
MC: How would you position this practice, narrative writing, within the scope of fashion and sustainability? Do you see your role as more practical or more theoretical?
CM: I think both are really important to my research and to understanding issues of fashion and sustainability. Practice for me means going out, interviewing people who are part of the process, understanding why they make the decisions that they make, their values within these systems, and where they belong within this enormously complex global process that’s constantly changing, full of kinks and complications. […] Interviewing people always keeps me hopeful. People are always trying to figure things out, no matter how challenging and trying their lives and situations are. Theory for me is about the universal, the conceptual, the importance of the metaphor. It allows me to understand issues of fashion, globalization, and sustainability alongside other moments in time, history, in other industries. […] Regarding sustainability, I’m actually just beginning to learn more about this word. I was just on a panel on fashion and sustainability recently and I said on the panel that [while] I was really interested in the history of this word, I was really more interested in other words.
MC: Which other words do you identify with?
CM: The words that I identify with are pretty old school, like quality of life, viable futures, self and collective preservation. ‘Sustainability’ […] brings up more questions for me than answers. Who’s deeming what more, or less, sustainable? With the communities that I’ve spent time with, people have been looking for sustainable solutions forever, so there’s something very sinister and very patronizing about that word. I feel quite ambivalent about it. Also, what does sustainability mean if it’s not accessible to everyone? I think communities have long tried to figure out how to provide for one another. That said, I really hope for a more sustainable future.
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Posted in Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
June 20th, 2012
Interview with Tamara Albu: Fashion + Sustainability—Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
Tamara Albu teaching design fundamentals to young weavers in Maheshwar, India.
Tamara Albu: It seems that fashion, in general, has a slow start in whatever is happening in the global industry and I think that the same slow start happened with sustainability. We are at the beginning stage in fashion here, but I think we’ve passed the stage of resistance. It’s happening. I’m feeling optimistic now.
As Associate Professor in Fashion Design at Parsons The New School for Design and former Director of the AAS in Fashion Design program, Tamara Albu plays a central role in defining Parsons’ fashion curriculum. Her enthusiasm resonates throughout the program. Originally from Romania, she travels widely, witnessing for herself the many breakthroughs now occurring within the global fashion system. She described the work of Anne de la Sayette who, for the first time in human history, is effectively producing natural dyes on an industrial scale in France, planting (in Tamara’s words), “huge areas with the blue, the green, the red.” She described a vertically-integrated textile manufacturing plant in India, Pratibha Syntex Ltd., which employs some 8,000 local people and sells cotton seeds to local farmers at half price, asking for payment only after the crop has sold. She described the 2006 Yamamoto exhibition in Antwerp, where visitors were invited into the design process by touching, and even wearing, garments on display. Her optimism, grounded in these discreet innovations, reminds us that sustainable fashion is, perhaps, best defined by example.
Mae Colburn: It might be helpful, at this early point in the conversation, to establish a working definition of sustainable fashion.
TA: Yes, I can name two things that we’re talking about when we refer to sustainability, but before I name those things, I want to say that it’s a very complex system. What might be, let’s say, a good example of social sustainability might not meet the economic or ecologically-sustainable dimension. I think it’s actually easier to define what is sustainable in the food industry than in the fashion industry. It’s more clear-cut, but nevertheless, there are a few factors that may contribute to an item being sustainable or not.
One of the key factors is, of course, the carbon footprint, which brings us to local versus global, or ‘glocal’ – a new term that describes exactly the kind of complexity we’re arriving it. So [a garment] might be produced locally, but distributed globally, or vice versa. Glocal is really a good term to describe this mixture between what is sustainable on a small scale, and what is systemic on a large scale.
That brings us to fast fashion against slow fashion. Slow fashion is more related to the local, where you grow your own animals or plants to obtain the fiber, extract the dyes from plants or insects, make the fabric, create the samples of the collection and produce with a relatively small assembly line that might include members of one’s family or particular community members. […] The social aspect of slow fashion is providing meaningful work to people who would otherwise have to give up their skills in order to make a living. It’s something very valuable on many levels, and very much related to wellbeing. It nourishes the soul and it nourishes the body at the same time.
Handloom women weaver at Gudi Mudi, the social business supported by the WomenWeave Charitable Trust.
I went to India in January with a colleague of mine, David Goldsmith, for a research project (Slow Fashion: India) and we spent a good portion of our trip in Maheshwar, where a group of practitioners and scholars […] were meeting to put together the basis for the Handloom School. The school was launched by WomenWeave to provide education in design, textile technology, business, and sustainability for handloom weavers in Maheshwar, and also to awaken a general knowledge and appreciation of “low tech” hand weaving (which has now been replaced almost entirely by “high tech” fast and large production vertical systems). That being said, I believe that the vertical and horizontal systems can not only co-exist and interact, but can, in fact, complement each other superbly.
MC: How do you think fashion education factors into this larger discussion about changes within the industry?
TA: I think it’s the key element. You get used to something; you don’t want to change. It’s comfortable; you want it to remain that way forever. It’s not easy to change.
MC: And yet fashion is predicated on change, right?
TA: Well, I think it’s a kind of change, but I don’t consider it real change. It’s more like a habit. I mean, maybe I don’t make such a good advocate for fashion (laughs).
But back to why I think education is such a key factor: our students are young, and full of energy, and ready for change, willing to change, eager to change. I mean, we educate our students to not only look at how pretty the fabric is, but where it came from, how it was made, what was involved in the entire process; to not only look at where they bought that pretty fabric, but to be interested in how, who, and why it got to be pretty. And also, what is pretty? When certain factors are considered, you might not find that fabric so pretty. We, as educators, are the ones that need to inject these parameters within every course we’re teaching. I don’t care if I’m teaching Portfolio, or Studio Methods, or Drawing. In every class, there’s so much you could give to make [students] sensitive to these issues. I don’t think [students] should have the option to choose sustainability or not. Every course should have a component of sustainability, no matter what you’re teaching.
MC: So you’re saying that now that we’re past this stage of resistance, the word itself, sustainability, is perhaps no longer needed as a distinguishing factor in programs such as Parsons?
TA: I don’t think so. It was so overused in the beginning. It was just a fashionable way to say nothing, really. To me, it was a buzzword that I felt would come and go. But the more I started reading and being exposed to the word (not being involved myself, just by just listening to what other people had to say), I started becoming more interested. It’s sort of like the air you breathe – it has to be integrated everywhere: the way you eat, clean, smell, touch – all your senses, and all your thoughts, should be guided by this because there is an end to how much this planet can give. It’s not a joke. It’s reality.
MC: How many years have you been at Parsons?
TA: Many years. I started at Parsons in 1992 as an adjunct instructor, and then I became full time in 2000, so twelve years in this position.
MC: So I’m sure you’ve witnessed other changes during this period?
TA: Yes, but I think this is the most dramatic of all. Parsons is really committed to being as involved in this movement as possible. I mean, if I hadn’t had Parsons’ support, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to these conferences, and talks, and symposiums. I went to France, to La Rochelle last year; to Italy for two very important workshops on sustainability; to Sweden – that’s where I met Yvon Chouinard. He was the key speaker at a conference, Design of Prosperity, about sustainability within the fashion industry. I think it was David Goldsmith who asked Yvon about his definition of beautiful fashion, and he said, ‘you know, everybody thinks about fashion differently, but when I talk about what is beautiful in fashion, I think of a seventy-year-old lady in a gorgeous coat that was beautiful twenty years ago, and is still beautiful now.’ For me, that’s a perfect definition of fashion.
MC: Would you add anything to his definition?
TA: No. It’s very much connected to how I feel about fashion, and I know fashion changes every season, so the twenty year old coat, it’s the opposite of what you would think. But for me, it’s beautiful. So no. It should have a long life, not a short life; it should gain value with age. You can look at it for eternity, really admiring every detail and the whole harmony between the labor, the fabrication, the color, the texture. This is why I consider fashion a form of art.
MC: As way to tie up, are there any projects or initiatives at Parsons that have really inspired you?
TA: I’ll give you an example of a course developed by Luciana Scrutchen and Julia E. Poteat called Textile Design Exploration. It’s about making the materials, the dying process, and designing the textile surface in the context of cultural, economic, and ecological imperatives. It’s exciting to see how our students are starting to realize that they can design a garment from scratch by making the fabric (weaving or knitting it), then playing and mixing various types of fibers to create their unique collection. When they are designing that way, they become so much more aware of the power of experimentation and the benefits of trial-and-error, which is so important in the creative process. They learn […] that process is a crucial and rewarding component of their education. It is an education in itself, experimenting, and not only in fashion. I think it’s a general value. When you make your mistakes, you try again, and improve the process as you try, and go a little bit further, a little bit further, and then you perfect that.
Tamara Albu earned her M.F.A. in Fashion Design and Illustration from the Academy of Fine Arts in Bucharest in 1976. She is now an active artist and Associate Professor of Fashion Design at Parsons School of Fashion.
Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.
Posted in Designers, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, Textiles, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
June 7th, 2012
Interview with Pascale Gatzen: Fashion + Sustainability—Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
A student’s response to Jean Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural from Pascale Gatzen’s class of the same name, Fall 2010.
Pascale Gatzen: Sustainability has to do with awareness, with love, with wellbeing, with the realization that we are creating this world together. It’s about exploring what we can be and who we can be, about connecting to a sense of play, pleasure, love, care, to a place where we value each other, where we see and are seen by others, and where we are willing to share, to be vulnerable, to be courageous.
Pascale Gatzen describes her position at Parsons’ School of Design Strategies as that of a facilitator, nourishing “a productive flow of energy” between students. She isn’t interested in perpetuating disciplinary distinctions, social constructions, or the capitalist paradigm. She’s motivated by love, which for her involves movement, exchange, and relationships. Her logic stems from the realization, after years working in fashion and art, that creative production is too often motivated by insecurity and the need to prove oneself. Her focus now lies on the relational aspects of fashion, on alternative models of exchange. She describes student projects that include gifting, bartering, trading – models that explicitly forge a sense of proximity, immediacy, mutuality between people, between materials. For Gatzen, sustainable fashion is about nourishing a productive flow, motivated by love, of clothes, ideas, and identities.
Mae Colburn: You, and others, often use the words ‘love’ ‘play’ and ‘beauty’ to describe your practice. How did you develop this relationship to fashion?
PG: Growing up, I was interested in the idea of clothing, and fashion eventually became the focus of my education. I didn’t understand the notion of fashion practiced at that time. I didn’t see any real progress, or any movement. I didn’t see the difference between a shirt that was produced in one kind of cloth one season, and in another kind of cloth the second season. For me, they were the same shirt. I can’t say that my work was necessarily playful at that time, but I did at that time become aware that love was very important to me, that it brought me the most life energy, and that the closer I stayed to myself and to my own fascinations, the more vibrant my work would be.
Later, when I started teaching at Arnhem [ArtEZ, Hogeschool voor de Kunsten, Arnhem], I discovered that with the introduction of H&M and Zara, students had stopped touching their own clothes. There was this illusion that because they had access to fashionable clothes (which they could buy, because they were cheap), they were participating in fashion. So I started doing assignments with students that were very much about dressing. They had to dress themselves; they had to dress each other. They had to experiment with the notion of clothing, the power of dressing, which is a very vulnerable process. We have a lot of investment in how we dress and how we see ourselves, but something beautiful happens when we move beyond our comfort zones and everybody starts to feel vulnerable at the same time. Things become less absolute, less fixed, and people begin to feel a sense of play with their clothes and identities.
MC: On the Parsons’ website, you’re quoted as saying that you want students to “test the intersection between fashion and reality.” What do you mean by this?
PG: If I said ‘reality,’ I was probably referring to habituated reality. We live in this seemingly fixed reality, or at least we think we can trust certain things around us. With clothes, most people identify with a certain style, and they gain confidence from what they think they are and how they present themselves to the world. I did a workshop once where I compared the work of Coco Chanel to the work of Yves St. Laurent. If you really look at the work of Coco Chanel and see how it’s made – her attention to the make and finishing of the garment was amazing; how the lining was quilted into the jacket, the small metal chain against the back hem to weigh the jacket down, ever so lightly, the lack of interlining and shoulder pads, the way the sleeves fit into the body of the jacket allowing for movement and comfort – it’s very much about the person wearing the piece of clothing rather than the clothing as image, which is what I see on the catwalk and what Yves St. Laurent never escaped. Even if it’s an image of comfortable clothing, his clothing remains mostly image. Catherine Deneuve is quoted as saying that that you can wear Yves St. Laurent under any social situation because you’re protected, but I think Coco Chanel would say that clothing shouldn’t take up all the attention, that it should allow a woman to emerge as herself.
How do you engage the world? Do you engage in the world from a position of curiosity or do you engage in the world from a sense of fixed reality in which you have to protect yourself from everything that can happen? For me, of course, the first is more interesting and has a lot more potential for growth.
MC: Could you describe a workshop or project that you’ve done that encompasses these notions of curiosity, play, love – one that you’re particularly proud of?
I’ve done many projects and I always feel they’re very special. For instance, I worked one summer, as part of the Parsons’ DEED project, in Guatemala, with five students and two artisan women’s cooperatives, Ajkem’a Loy’a and Barco in San Lucas Toliman. The beauty of that was being together for a month and seeing those students for who they are, completely. There was so much love between all of us. They were so focused – taking care of each other and taking care of me – and very responsible towards the work we were doing. There was a fullness of experience, of exchange.
That’s something that I also felt when I did an intensive program in DasArts, a post-graduate program in The Netherlands for theater and performing arts. They don’t have a fixed program; they have a sequence of different artists come in and do three-month intensive workshops with twelve students. We spent whole days together. We cooked together, ate together, and were living and learning together. I structured our days so that we did yoga together in the morning and had singing lessons three times a week. There was a real exchange of knowledge, of experiencing together, of going through rough moments and very amazing moments. I love the notion of life becoming part of teaching, teaching becoming part of life.
I also created a sequence of core classes, what is now known as the Fashion Area of Study in the Integrated Design program in Parsons, and the third core class, Love, is really about this, about students recognizing that fashion is not an isolated practice. It’s about integrating that practice in your everyday life, where they live, how they eat, and in exchanges with friends. That’s the most important thing I can imagine teaching to my students, and teaching with my students, because a lot of them just naturally understand these things. […] The traditional notion of learning involves a hierarchy between the teacher (who has the knowledge) and the student (who doesn’t have the knowledge). I think that’s the first assumption that we have to abolish if we want to grow a different type of world. Everybody possesses knowledge, which is of value to us all. I know knitting, I know sewing, I know patternmaking, but I’m much more interested in seeing students teach each other how to knit. If the students are teaching, then they understand that they have the ability to teach and grow and that’s what will support them when they’re out in the world. I think that’s the most important lesson: that they can always learn, always grow. And teaching and learning, growing are definitely not confined to the classroom.
A “singing blanket” that student Daniel Anesiadou made for a public event at DasArts in Amsterdam in spring 2005.
MC: What kind of theoretical background do you share with your students?
My teaching is very much about experience, but I do include some theory in class. Last semester I wanted my students to understand the capitalist paradigm, so we read Marx and Being Singular Plural by Jean Luc Nancy, and now we’re looking at Hannah Arendt. We read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and we read The Gift by Lewis Hyde. We also read and look at the work of Sister Corita. Those are a few texts that I definitely use, but I don’t overwhelm them with theory. What I’ve learned in the past is that theory is more easily understood when there’s an experience to accompany the theory. The most successful theorists speak from a deep engagement with the world around them, and I think that’s very important.
Other people that are very influential to me – the way I think, teach, and practice – are people that I invite to teach. Susan Ciancolio is a very big inspiration for me. She has been teaching in the Fashion Area of Study for four years. I also have a very lively connection and exchange with Caroline Woolard, who teaches the barter class [at Parsons], and I’m very happy that Otto von Busch has joined our team. I’m very inspired by the people that I’m surrounded by.
MC: What do you hope to see your students to achieve in coming years, in fashion and beyond?
PG: At the moment, I think it’s about creating hybrid types of practices, hybrid types of life. Some of my students who graduated last year formed a business and living cooperative, building a business and growing their own food in a community garden nearby. If you support students in what they’re strong in, in what they want to do, they become more confident, more capable, more able to master their lives and make informed decisions.
I know from working, and many of my students know from working, that if you are really immersed in a dynamic relationship with your work, you will come up with unexpected insights that will result in unexpected outcomes. For me, it’s important that we constantly re-invent the forms that we engage with and relate to in order to give other possibilities for life. That’s what practice is about – constantly advancing the forms, because the forms are only ever temporary, limited, never sufficient for our ever-changing nature. We are always changing and always in a state of flux so we need to re-invent and continuously open up new possibilities for life to continue.
MC: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
PG: I love the exchange of collaboration, of growing together. I just think that cooperation is a much more natural way to live than practicing individually. It’s about care, and love, appreciating and respecting the things that we live with: the people, the objects, everything.
Pascale Gatzen is Associate Professor of the Body Garment Track at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons the New School for Design.
Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.
Posted in Designers, Performance, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, Textiles, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
May 31st, 2012
Interview with Otto von Busch: Fashion+Sustainability—Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
“In your skillful hands, the sewing machine is a tool for liberation!” reads a passage on Von Busch’s website, where users can download everything from ‘zines, to toolkits, to recycling “cookbooks” such as the one featured above. Cookbook by Otto von Busch.
Otto von Busch is a craftsman, researcher, and activist. He joined Parsons’ Integrated Design Program (IDC) this past September and has since become the natural cynosure of a lively conversation about fashion and social engagement. His website,>SELF_PASSAGE<, features essays on topics ranging from mending, memory, and mindfulness, to spirituality, cyberspace, and sustainability. He speaks English with the lilting, faintly lyrical accent of a highly spirited Swede and has the remarkable ability to detect and demystify subtle metaphors buried in otherwise familiar words (fashion-able, sustain-ability). He is, in short, a master of remastry.
Mae Colburn: You completed your PhD, “Fashion-able: Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design,” at the School of Design and Crafts at the University of Gothenburg in 2008. Could you describe how you arrived at that topic?
Otto von Busch: I started studying different crafts at craft schools in Sweden after finishing high school. I really wanted to become a guitar builder, so I was studying carpentry and cabinet making, building guitars, restoring mandolins, banjos, and those sorts of things. Then I decided I should try something else, so I went to another prep school for printing and weaving and started taking patternmaking and sewing classes. But after a while it all felt very introverted, so I started studying art history. I thought ‘ok, I can try this for a while,’ and I got sort of stuck and studied art history for many years.
Later, I studied at a program called Material and Virtual Design (sort of interactive design and industrial design coming together) at Malmo University in Sweden, and that’s how I got into more ‘computer-ish’ thinking. That came together in trying to understand how open source, hacking, and open platforms could apply to fashion. I was recycling clothes and thinking about how I could produce fashion recycling programs (I called them ‘cookbooks’) that people could download, where people could follow my simple instructions but apply them to their own projects, like what was happening in hacking, Wikipedia, Linux, where the user was suddenly engaged as a collaborative knowledge producer – where the user’s knowledge is acknowledged.
So the question became, how could designers encourage people to become designers themselves, so that fashionable meant not only dressing people fashionably but also making them fashion-able – how could that engagement happen? And as a designer; how could you merge that sort of network thinking about open source with fashion? That’s how it came together at the end of my studies, which also became the theme for my PhD.
MC: You discuss Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and John Dewey’s Democracy and Education in your PhD. Could you go into more detail about how educational theory influenced your approach to fashion?
OVB: Of course they were influential as I tried to see how fashion could be turned from a phenomenon of passivity, or of very limited choices funneled through our socio-economic position, into a more liberating or capability-building process. I’m especially fascinated by the heritage of sloyd, the heritage of craft education, or shop class, and how that emerged in the mid 19th century – Friedrich Fröbel and the Kindergarten movement, and the birth of the Montessori school and these sorts of alternative pedagogical models that are very much about producing craft skills, hand-eye coordination, having agency in the world, agency because you are learning how to produce things, how to fix things.
It comes down to basic freedoms: if I know how to fix my bike, I have a choice that I didn’t have before. Knowing how to do something also produces another attendance to the world, another attention, another awareness. If I, as a designer, teach people to reclaim the sewing machine, they can also learn to see the complexity of the details of clothing – they can recognize good craftsmanship, and that’s an agency of empowerment, I think.
MC: I’ve noticed that you’re often described as a heretic, demagogue, hacker, subversive – kind of a ‘bad student.’ And, indeed, much of your work in fashion is about subverting, questioning the system. How does this role translate into your experiences teaching at institutions such as Parsons?
OVB: Those terms are a little provocative of course, but at the same time, as I write in my thesis, a heretic isn’t necessarily an infidel. It’s somebody who uses the system to give way for liberation. Also with demagogue, hacker, I try to put the emphasis on constructive critique, or positive change.
From a pedagogical perspective, working with social engagement in general can be very tricky within the academic industrial context, but that said, you have to create your own free space. I think it was a student of Georg Simmel who wrote about his lectures that he felt as though he was at a place where thought was being born, not where thought was being repeated. I love to do projects like that, where I’m as curious about something as my students, and I hopefully manage to convey that curiosity in a structured way. I’m lucky at Parsons that some of the courses in Integrated Design allow that space to happen. Currently, I’m leading a course called “The Gift,” where students set up Etsy stores, but also challenge the borders of what’s sold on Etsy. Could you sell services? How can you find your own independent voice within a standardized framework like Etsy?
In Otto’s Community Repair Project at the London College of Fashion (2011), students explored the social dimensions of home sewing by collaborating with community members to repair unused clothing. Garments by Rachel Clowes (top) and Renee Lacroix. Photos by Otto von Busch.
MC: You use two phrases throughout your writing that seem to define a certain pedagogy – ‘small change’ and ‘action spaces.’ Could you give us some examples of how these ideas come through in your teaching?
OVB: You’ll have to come and see. Some of the latest projects have turned out really well, such as the Community Repair project with MA students from Fashion and the Environment at London College of Fashion. We used garments in need of mending as probes for students to get to know their neighborhood and their neighbors. Instead of leaving it to the tailor or just throwing it away, how could you engage your neighbors in the repair by barter service in a site-specific way? It produces all these histories, sort of a narrative litmus paper, and brings out local qualities. Of course it’s a small change, but as a fashion designer, how could I set up a brand that would actually work exactly like that? A brand that produces new local action spaces rather than only happening within the commodity economy?
MC: Could you say a few words about how your work relates to sustainability?
OVB: I don’t talk about sustainability in my work, and if I do, I usually talk about abilities and the ability to sustain values. I think that we have to disseminate abilities, whether it’s the ability to repair, or the ability to have attention to detail, or the ability to use the sewing machine. It’s about building those capacities rather than disseminating the commodities. How do we produce the ability, the courage, to dress and interact with the fashion system differently?
Otto von Busch is Assistant Professor of Integrative Fashion at Parsons the New School for Design. He holds a PhD from the School of Design and Craft, University of Gothenburg.
Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.
Posted in Designers, Fashion & Technology, Performance, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
May 23rd, 2012
Interview with Timo Rissanen: Fashion+Sustainability—Lines of Research Series
by Mae Colburn
MLS Pyjamas, 2011
When I met Timo Rissanen, he was fielding a flurry of emails and phone calls. His office was crowded with books. Sample garments were piled next to the door. The arrangement was clearly deliberate, testament to his belief in the productive synthesis of research and design. Rissanen is one of few academics globally to bear the word ‘sustainability’ in his title. He developed the idea of Zero Waste fashion in his P.h.D. dissertation, “Fashion Creation without Fabric Waste Creation.” Now, he’s teaching Zero Waste at Parsons the New School for Design, where he is Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability.
MC: How did sustainability inform your own education?
TR: Zero waste fashion design started for me in 1999. We had to do a written dissertation in our final year of undergraduate before we went into final collection, and mine was on Madeleine Vionnet and her influence on Issey Miyake, John Galliano and Claire McCardell, and myself. I actually wrote in the conclusion that it might be possible to design clothes without wasting any fabric. After graduating, I went into industry, had my own label for a few years, and worked for a few other people. Then in 2004, I decided to put the label on hold and got interested in postgraduate study. […] It’s been just over seven years now.
It’s been interesting the shift over these seven years, too. People were skeptical [of zero waste] in the beginning. Things like ‘I’m not sure it’s possible to design without fashion waste.’ Or whether it’s possible within the industry from a cost point of view. And also a very valid point about the much bigger problem of waste connected to the level of consumption, the idea that we don’t hang on to the clothes we buy. When I started my PhD, the main focus [in fashion and sustainability] was on materials. That’s still important, but it’s just one piece of a much bigger picture: the fashion industry as a system, fashion consumption as a system, human culture as a system.
I would encourage more fashion designers to get into research, although it’s still a fairly new thing. That’s been one of the responses from people [regarding my PhD]: “I didn’t know designers could do a PhD.” It’s sort of a duel challenge because if you look at fashion design in an academic context, it’s done a pretty good job of isolating itself from other design disciplines, so there’s loads that’s been written about design theory over the past 20 to 30 years in particular, but most of the time fashion design doesn’t enter the conversation. I think it’s partly the fact that fashion has lived this very insular existence. Even with the way that fashion media writes about itself or writes about the industry (and particularly fashion designers), there’s a lot of myth building about the practice of fashion design.
MC: Do you feel like there are enough educational resources available to teach sustainability?
TR: When Kate Fletcher’s book came out four years ago, it filled a massive gap, as did the book by Janet Hethorn and Connie Ulasewicz, which I was in as well. Before then, apart from some conference papers and journal articles, there was very little [on fashion and sustainability] in terms of books. I had a book out last year with Alison Gwilt, and I know that Kate Fletcher has a book out this year with Lynda Grose. They’re really the two people that I look up to because they’ve been doing it for two decades. They’ve been so generous with information, recognizing that the problems are bigger than us as individuals and any of the institutions that we might work for and also bigger than any one country. The industry is global. The really tough problems cross boundaries on so many levels. It’s going to take collaboration.
MC: In terms of educational infrastructure, it seems like there are some very strong sustainable fashion programs in England. Am I right?
TR: The London College of Fashion had the first MA program in fashion and the environment but Parsons was quite forward thinking in that sense, too, in that they started advertising the role that I’ve got in 2008. Apart from Kate’s role at LCF, which is Reader in Sustainable Fashion, I think my position is one of the few still globally where the word ‘sustainability’ is actually in the title. I also know that within a couple years, sustainability will be implemented into all of Parsons’ core courses. Quite often, sustainability has had to reside in electives or students get introduced to it in their third or fourth year of study, but really it has to be present from the ‘word go.’ It’s going to be consistent from 2013, and it’s going to be part of the education that everybody at Parsons gets.
We’ve had increasing numbers of seniors taking sustainability on of their own volition. I’m also aware that in the junior and sophomore years there is an increasing number of students that are interested, which is fantastic because they are the future. I feel very optimistic for the industry. That’s the beauty of teaching, really. You see these young people that are so passionate and so committed to keeping what’s amazing and what’s beautiful about the industry but then really working on the things that aren’t. That’s how I see the next 20 to 30 years: trying out lots of different solutions to lots of different problems. It’s going to take us at least 20 to 30 years before we have an industry that’s really about producing beauty in all its aspects. That’s how I look at things now: let’s create an industry that’s about creating beauty, and not just beauty in its garments, but beauty all around.
Endurance Shirt I, 2009
MC: How does the Zero Waste curriculum tie into these themes?
TR: I present Zero Waste within the larger context of fashion and sustainability and explain that it’s is one potential solution to this problem, but that there are of course other problems that have other solutions. The one thing that I really didn’t expect to come out of my research (it was kind of a nice side finding) is that Zero Waste fashion design can really be a gateway for other fashion design. You simply can’t design Zero Waste fashion in the same way that a lot of fashion is designed in the industry, where design is considered to be a sketch which is then given to a patternmaker. In Zero Waste fashion design, you have to begin making the pattern before you know how the garment is going to look. What that’s saying is that patternmaking is integral to the design process. That’s a shift in thinking and a challenge for a lot of people – both students and a lot of industry people that I’ve spoken with – because historically in fashion education, but also the way the industry is organized, all of those skills tend to exist within their own categories: you’ve got the designers, the patternmakers, the cutters, and the machinists, and there’s kind of a hierarchy. With Zero Waste, you have to bring the patternmaking and the cutting and the making into the design process. Once that shift happens, it actually becomes very easy.
When I show students [examples of] Zero Waste pattern layouts, I always ask whether anyone is scared. Some of them always say ‘yes’ because they see these beautiful, finished Zero Waste pattern layouts. To some of them, these look like a form of witchcraft or black magic. But that’s just the final product. The process of getting there can be quite messy. That’s probably the one thing that’s shifted in my teaching: I make sure that I show the messy parts of the process, this combination of sketching, patternmaking, paper-folding, draping. Quite often I can’t say that ‘I designed that garment through draping’ because there were all these other messy parts to it. So I share that with students, but I don’t expect them to work like me. Every designer works differently. It’s dangerous to paint a picture of fashion design as one formulaic process.
Endurance Shirt I (Pattern), 2009
MC: Can you describe how sustainability integrates itself in the classroom setting, within the curriculum, even within the student dynamic?
TR: With my class of seniors, a lot of [the curriculum] has to do with asking questions and figuring out their place in the world as designers and as human beings. I’ve had students say ‘Why would I design anything ever, the world doesn’t need any more clothes.’ To me, that’s the most beautiful thing a student can say. Of course to complete their degree, they’ll have to produce their ‘six looks,’ but it’s a beautiful question to be faced with, because you only have to go shopping for half an hour to know that there’s too way too much stuff in the world.
Whether you worry about fabric waste or animal rights – whatever it might be – all of those things have to do with personal ethics. And that goes back to my teaching. I don’t impose any of those things on my students. What my job really is, is to give students the best possible information and a variety of viewpoints.
MC: You mentioned that research is really important for fashion designers. Could you explain?
TR: What I would really love to see is more questions asked about fashion design practice itself. Historically, I think that a lot of what we – fashion designers – thought about fashion design was based on assumptions. But it’s shifting. Every year there’s more fashion designers doing either Masters or Doctorate degrees, and that’s great. It’s not about academizing fashion design. It’s really about learning more about what we actually do and how it can be done in the future.
Timo Rissanan is Assistant Professor of Design and Sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design. He previously taught fashion design in Australia for seven years.
Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.
Posted in Designers, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series
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