‘Alternative Fashion Strategies’

by Mae Colburn

Indigo dyeing workshop at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery. Photo: Chris Hyun Cho

‘Alternative Fashion Strategies: Design Incubator with Green Eileen’ (March 30-April 5, 2015) in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at The New School’s Parsons School of Design was a little like a game of Twister. Students, designers, farmers, and members of the public maneuvered around a portable loom, a knitting machine, an industrial sewing machine, and various other hand-crafting implements stationed throughout the gallery to examine the interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, testing areas of contact and overlap. Throughout the week, design samples accumulated on walls, tables, drying racks, and even on the radiators, whether de- and re- constructed sweaters, needle-felted fleece, or indigo dyed garments. Some were made in advance of the exhibition and others at workshops held throughout the week on topics ranging from fiber processing to bengala dying to machine knitting. A sense of purpose coursed through the exhibition, and so did a sense of excitement, the kind that emerges when people and materials meet. Laura Sansone, first interviewed on Fashion Projects in 2013, curated the exhibition. Our conversation shuttled between the work she does with fiber farmers in the Hudson Valley and with designers in New York City, tracing what she envisions can become a tight-knit local supply chain.

Mae Colburn: Let’s start with some of the broader ideas at work. What motivated you to put on the exhibition?

Laura Sansone: Well, I’m interested in this interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, specifically agrarian businesses, and specifically how those things can work together […] I think it can really help to create economic diversity and grow these smaller enterprises. That’s what motivated me to do this project and what motivates me in my own work as well. […] It’s not always appropriate for them to work together, but I think that it’s a way to start to see a shift, those moments when these two entities can come together – it can shift the economic power and be a good way to rethink how things are structured.

MC: And the idea to shape this into the ‘Design Incubator’?

LS: This started off as a partnership between Eileen Fisher and the students here at Parsons. The Green Eileen program is an initiative with Eileen Fisher where they take back clothing from their consumers, so they have people send back clothing and they resell it in green Eileen stores but the secondhand clothing that they can’t resell they call ‘third life’ and they ask designers to repurpose it. So I had been working on that, and in my quest to repurpose her clothing, I was mixing it with materials from the Hudson valley, from Upstate New York, […] so I started using those materials in combination with the repurposed secondhand clothing, and that became the parameter for the course I teach at Parsons, and also for this partnership. That’s really where this all began.

Eileen Fisher sweaters dyed with indigo and unraveled to be re-woven. Photo: Chris Hyun Choi
MC: So, there were prototypes on display and workshops. There was also a printed material on the walls. How did all of this come together?

LS: The prototypes were from students, and then we added to them during the exhibition. We had lots of workshops going on, and as we generated work we would hang it – so it was kind of an incubator where things were growing. The printed matter came from someone that I had met at the Textile Society of America conference in 2014, Helen Trejo, who is a PhD student at Cornell University and is writing her dissertation about the feasibility of a Fiber Shed in New York State. So we’ve been exchanging information over the past year and I asked her for permission to display some of her research and so a lot of the diagrams that were included in the exhibition were from her. She had some really great maps that showed where the mills and fiber farms are in New York, so that sort of located those for people who came into the gallery to see the work.

MC: What was a highlight of the exhibition for you?

LS: One highlight for me during this exhibition was having people from the farming community come and actually speak to the students about their experiences as farmers and fabric producers. We were talking about the supply chain and one of the farmers who came actually said, ‘I’m going to start right at the beginning of it, and I’m going to tell you what I feed my sheep,’ and I thought that was so incredible to have fashion and design students sitting there and listening to this and making that connection, that it starts with the fiber that comes from the animal, that it starts with the diet, and how that effects the quality of the fiber and the form – I think that’s a great lesson.

MC: To encourage designers to consider other variables beyond say, color and drape?

LS: That’s right. So for me, waste is essential. It’s something that I’ve always cared about and wanted to consider as a designer. Like, where do my cutoffs go? If I’m generating product, what kind of impact does it have? And with the natural dyes as well, we use the waste from farms, we use the carrot tops and concord grapes that you can’t sell – there’s this link to the origin of where things come from, and how that can be integrated into the design process. […] So [at the workshops] a lot of students were deconstructing sweaters and we were re-knitting them and I thought that was really exciting. I also have students who are working deconstructed sweaters into felted pieces, which is really great – mixing the fleece with the Eileen Fisher’s mohair and merino and cashmere materials.

Map of New York State Fibershed showing fiber farms and mills. Helen Trejo Fiber Science & Apparel Design, PhD Student, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University.

MC: I thought it was interesting that the word ‘sustainable’ didn’t appear in any of the material related to this exhibition.

LS: I was trying not to because what happens is that if things get overused – language – they become diluted and people start to dismiss it as something that isn’t important. So I think it’s really useful to always be rethinking things and reframing them. I think that’s part of growth in general. […] I was also trying to steer away from this word ‘artisanal’ because I think that’s also becoming diluted, but that it’s actually really important because ‘artisanal’ can talk about a smaller way to produce things, you know. It can talk about localizing things.

MC: But you did use the word ‘fashion’?

LS: Of course, absolutely, because I really want the fashion industry to play a critical role in changing things. I think it’s so important, because they’re responsible for a lot of the waste that we see in the supply chain – where we’re diminishing value where we could be increasing it. So yes, but I also see what I do as being completely cross-disciplinary. It’s dealing with fashion. It’s dealing with interiors. It’s dealing with architecture – we’re starting to think about how wool can be used as insulation, wool that is waste wool.

MC: So how do you envision the project moving forward?

LS: Well, I would like some designers, especially those who are located in New York and who are on this large-scale level, to build ties with some of these local artisans. They’re doing it globally, but I would really like to see it happening here in the U.S. So that’s something that I would like to see, and for me as a professor, I try to get my students to take on the responsibility of educating consumers. I think that trying to encourage them to design ethically and then to sort of take on this role of educating – I think it’s really necessary for designers: to take on this big task of shifting consumer behavior. You know it’s huge; in a capitalist system, it’s a huge thing to take on and designers need to take on that role.

Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, Textiles, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series

Off the Runway: Print as Performance in Contemporary Fashion

Marin Margiela SS1990 Show photographed by Bill Cunningham for Details

Coming up on Friday, September 26th, I will be speaking together with K8 Hardy and Susan Cianciolo on a panel about art, fashion and independent publishing at the New York Art Book Fair taking place at MoMa PS1. The panel runs from 12:30 to 2:00pm. The talk is organized by James Mitchell and Susan E. Thomas, who will moderate.

Below is the full description:

“The fashion industry has long used publications as a means of marketing, typically in glossy magazines and coffee table books. Throughout the 20th century these print forms embodied complicated relationships among artists and designers, the fashion industry, and publishers. The punk wave of the 70s and the later rise of lifestyle magazines like The Face, i-d, and Paper Magazine marked a shift from presenting fashion for the affluent to promoting the anti-fashion of youth subcultures. By the end of the century, new serial publications like Visionaire and Purple had dispensed with any obligation to present fashion, per se. They adopted the techniques of artists’ books and zines to make print objects that investigated fashion subjects. At the same time, individual fashion designers and artists produced print publications and worked as guest editors or art directors for magazines. Other book artists have parodied the fashion industry. This session explores the intersection of art, fashion design, and independent publishing.”

Francesca Granata

Posted in Designers, Lectures, Performance, Publications

A Review of “Silks and Prints from the Abraham Archive – Couture in Colour” at MOMU

by Philip Warkander

Hubert de Givenchy, Winter 1971/72. Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri. Gazar Brodé Chenille, Winter 1971/72. Silk and entamine, shantung appliqué. Abraham Archive.

In1982, sociologist Howard S. Becker published the book Art Worlds, in which he argued that art is not the production of single individuals – artists – but rather the result of a number of interactions among people and materials, together constituting the contexts in which art works can be defined as such. According to Becker, art is not the result of one person’s work, but is a value constructed according to specific settings, or art worlds. This perspective has become hugely influential in art theory while also having an impact in fashion studies, most notably through sociologist Yunyia Kawamura’s Fashion-ology: An introduction to Fashion Studies (2004). Explaining how fashion comes into being, Kawamura aligns herself with Becker by claiming that fashion should not be understood as the product of designers working in creative isolation in their studios, but instead as the effect of an entire system of interactions, based on the negotiations between designers, stylists, magazine editors, PR consultants, retailers as well as a number of other actors.

Currently on view at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp is an exhibition exploring the effects of this theoretical perspective on the textiles, prints and fabrics manufactured by the Swiss company Abraham Ltd. The exhibition was originally produced by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, but the Antwerp version (in the museum’s own words) “recaptures and expands” the original version. Placing the materiality of the fabrics and the print designs at the center of the exhibition, the process of producing prints is explained in detail, not only making for a pedagogical but also for an aesthetically advanced display. For example, the exhibition shows how a rose pattern, which was one of the company’s trademark prints, required nine stencils to print nine colors in nine separate print runs. The fabrics produced by Abraham Ltd. were so intricate that they became – due to the high cost of production – often reserved for haute couture, thus establishing intimate interconnections between the Swiss company and French couture houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. As a result, Abraham Ltd. became one of the key players in the high fashion industry of the twentieth century, their patterns and textiles shaping much of what is otherwise generally assumed to have been designed within the couture houses.

Installation with 20 Abraham scrapbooks, 2010. Abraham Archive

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Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Museums, Textiles

Review of Fetishism in Fashion, MOBA 2013

by Philip Warkander

“We are born in bondage, a cord wrapped around our baby body”, curator Lidewij Edelkoort stated in her introductory speech to this year’s Mode Biënnale in Arnhem, Fetishism in Fashion, open June 9 through July 21. During an interview, she tells me that the starting point of the exhibition is the trauma a child experiences after birth when it is separated from its mother through the cutting of the umbilical cord, resulting in a lifelong search after new unities to be part of. According to Edelkoort, this feeling of lack explains the charm bracelets around our wrists and crucifixes around our necks; magical substitutes for the physical connection between mother and child that was lost at birth. For the biënnale, Edelkoort has chosen 13 different perspectives on the theme of fetishes, presented in separate rooms along long corridors, ranging from patriotism to sado-masochism, the common denominator defined as attempts to reconnect and retrace what was lost at birth, to find meaning in matter.

Philosopher Sara Danius has claimed that when fashion evolved into a modern industry in the nineteenth century, fashion objects took the place of religious artifacts and became the new fetishes of the emerging consumer society. At the Arnhem biënnale, this is made especially evident in the rooms devoted to spirituality and shamanism, but also in the room devoted to high-speed consumption, labeled “consumerism”. Designers such as Written Afterwards (Japan), Luke Brooks (UK) and Kosuke Tsumura (Japan) have integrated a critique of fast fashion into their design, creating outfits out of worn-out shoes, plastic flowers and disposable waste products. On the theme of “infantilism”, designer objects are mixed with large plastic pacifiers and milk bottles found through online fetish sites, creating interesting hybrid expressions of fashion, innocence and pornography, in pastel colors but with a dark edge. According to a text in this room, this demonstrates how “the choice of baby clothes, diapers and coddling textiles expresses a need for being cared for and a wish to never grow up [...]”.

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Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Interviews

Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process

On occasion of her new book on fashion design education, Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process (AVA, February 2013), Fiona Dieffenbacher–director of the BFA in Fashion Design at Parsons the New School for Design–reflects on new and exciting approaches to fashion education:

by Fiona Dieffenbacher

The main question to be asked of fashion education today is “Are we training students to design clothes or to create fashion?” To be makers, creators, or both?” At Parsons The New School for Design we have re-approached our curriculum to address these questions, which has led to innovative, new pathways for our students to develop as designers.

In order to understand the difference between the spheres of making and creating fashion, we have focused on design thinking as a method of envisioning a reality that does not yet exist, and as a means for achieving innovation. Fashion thinking involves harnessing the vast array of skills at the designer’s disposal, while embracing the chaos of the process itself. This might include upending traditional approaches or reapporpriating them to unearth new ways of creating and making clothes.

“Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process” highlights the work of nine students, documenting their responses to a variety of design briefs and their process: from idea to concept and design. These projects demonstrate that there are multiple entry points into that process and a million ways out. In between there are some consistent doors that each designer will go through (albeit in varying orders) and there are consistent tools they will utilize to accomplish the end result, but the rest is up for grabs. Emerging designers must learn to develop both their own personal philosophy of design and a particular way of working, which involves taking ownership of the process itself.

Traditionally, fashion design texts have tended to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the design process: research – sketch – flat-pattern – drape – fabrication – make. While this order works for many designers, and are essential building blocks of the design process, this does not work for all. At Parsons we have developed a curriculum that encourages a variety of approaches to design versus heralding a formulaic method. If we persist in training fashion students to design via a process that is rote and mundane, we have missed the point entirely.

Not everyone begins with a sketch; indeed some don’t sketch at all. Isabel Toledo is one such example, “I don’t start new things at the sketch pad or the drawing board. For me, fashion design begins at the sewing machine and the pattern-making table. I know that I am creating a design when I make things with my hands, giving them form and shape, often inventing new techniques to fold and manipulate cloth as I experiment with my designs and perfect them over time.”[1]

Dissatisfaction with a particular way of working can also lead to a breakthrough in the design process and this was true for Rei Kawakubo, two years before her first presentation in Paris in 1979. I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to do things that have not been done before, things with a strong image.” Speaking of her decision, Harold Koda commented on her process, “…‘to start from zero’… has become a constant of her design process. Season after season, collection after collection, Kawakubo obliterates her past… Liberated from the rules of construction, she pursues her essentially intuitive and reactive solutions, which often result in forms that violate the very fundamentals of apparel.”[2]

In the BFA Fashion Design program here at Parsons, we have witnessed a distinct shift away from a right/wrong philosophy of teaching toward a more problem-based approach to learning. A student-centric model now exists where the fundamentals of design, construction, digital and drawing are taught in tandem with a full roster of studio electives and liberal arts that students select from a wide variety of options open to them across our university, The New School. Students learn traditional techniques and immediately apply them within the context of their own approach to design. In doing so they begin to articulate their own aesthetic and visual vocabulary from the outset of their experience in the program. Additionally, students are now encouraged to develop a central body of work that is re-contextualized across their suite of electives, which informs their work in new ways.

There is no “right” way to approach design; there are no “wrong” turns. Everything matters. Designers are problem-solvers and problems present challenges that often lead to creative solutions that could not have been conceived of any other way. Within the unpredictability of the process ‘mistakes’ transform into new ideas, yielding fresh concepts that drive silhouette and form forward. Innovation happens on the heels of error in the midst of chaos and complexity.

Jie Li, “Knitting and Pleating”.

[1] “Roots of Style, Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion” by Isabel Toledo

[2] “ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo,” MOCAD [Museum of Contemporary Art], Detroit, Exhibition catalogue, March 2008

Fiona Dieffenbacher is Assistant Professor and Director of the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons The New School for Design. An alumna of the program, Dieffenbacher has served as a faculty member since 2005. Prior to being appointed director of the BFA program, she served as the director of external partnerships for the School of Fashion, where she oversaw projects with Coach, Louis Vuitton, MCM, Swarovski, LVMH and others. In her current role, Dieffenbacher has led the program though the development and implementation of a new curriculum. Dieffenbacherholds an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Textiles from the University of Ulster in the UK. At Parsons, she was the recipient of a Designer of The Year Award (1993). In 1998, she launched a ready-to-wear label Fiona Walker, which was shown at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and sold at select retailers in the U.S and internationally. The collection was featured in WWD, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, Lucky, and Cosmopolitan

Posted in Designers, Publications, Research/University Programmes, Textiles

Designing the Second Skin: The Work of Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo 1971-1991

by Francesca Granata

Veruschka wearing Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Vogue 1972, Photo: Richard Avedon

As part of my newish position at Parsons, I taught one of the most interesting and stimulating classes I have ever taught. For a course I developed, called Fashion Curation, graduate students from various programs–Fashion Studies, History of Decorative Arts and Design and MA in Architecture–curated an exhibition of the work of the late Italian-Argentinean designer Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo in the Parsons Gallery at 66 Fifth Avenue, which is due to open December 4th. Focusing on his use of innovative stretch fabric, “Designing the Second Skin” is the first exhibition of the work of Giorgio di Sant’Angelo in New York. A special thanks goes to Martin Price, di Sant’ Angelo’s partner and collaborator, as well as to Tae Smith.

Below is the press release and a sneak preview of some of the garments that will be on view:

On Tuesday, December 4, the opening reception for “Designing the Second Skin: The Work of Giorgio di Sant’Angelo 1971-1991” will be held from 6 to 8 PM at the Aronoson Gallery on 66 Fifth Avenue. The exhibition is curated by graduate students in the MA Fashion Studies, MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design, and Master of Architecture program at Parsons under the supervision of faculty member Francesca Granata. The exhibit will be on view until Friday, December 14.

Parsons presents the first New York exhibition of the work of designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, an innovative Italian-born American designer from the 1960s through 1980s who explored the ways in which garments truly become the wearer’s second skin. Playing with texture, transparency, and newly discovered fabric technology, Sant’Angelo examined the relationship between exposure and concealment. A highlight from the exhibition is a nude sequined jumpsuit worn by Naomi Campbell and featured in an editorial shoot for Harper’s Bazaar in 1991.

The works on view are drawn from the Parsons Fashion Archive—a collection of nearly 10,000 garments, including a number of pieces donated to Parsons by the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Sant’Angelo works were originally donated to the Met by Parsons faculty member Martin Price, Sant-Angelo’s design assistant and partner, who has been an instrumental force in keeping Sant’Angelo’s spirit alive.
Event Details:

Designing the Second Skin: Giorgio di Sant’Angelo 1971-1991
Dates: Tuesday, December 4 to Friday, December 14
Opening Reception: Tuesday, December 4 from 6 to 8 PM
Gallery Hours: Open daily from 12 to 6 PM, open until 8 PM on Thursday
Location: Parsons The New School for Design, Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Avenue
Admission: Free and Open to the Public. Wine and Hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Textiles

Innovative Exhibition Design Strategies for Cristóbal Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons at Musée Galliera

by Ingrid Mida

Balenciaga Cape du soir, 1963 and Collier c.1895

There couldn’t be a more unlikely exhibition venue than Aux Docks – cité de la Mode et du Design in Paris. At the other end of town from Musée Galliera’s permanent home, which is currently under renovation, this temporary venue sits in a gritty industrial part of town overlooking the river Seine.  This contemporary space has exposed  concrete walls, punctuated by industrial pipes and has been the temporary home for the musée Galliera  exhibition of Cristóbal Balenciaga, collectionneur de modes and Comme des Garçons White Drama. Two adjacent long and narrow rooms served as the exhibition space. Bringing fashion into these blank, cold, industrial boxes must have been a curatorial challenge, since there is an apparent lack of temperature and humidity controls as well as absence of hangable wall space. Nevertheless, Olivier Saillard and his team of the Gallieria rose to the challenge with display techniques that are as innovative as they are creative and the result are two tightly curated exhibitions featuring selected works of two notable designers – Cristóbal Balenciaga, collectionneur de modes and Comme des Garçons White Drama.

Balenciaga Installation Shot by Ingrid Mida

In the first room, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s personal archive of historical garments, print material and other artifacts is presented beside selected examples of his work. This personal archive was recently donated to the museum and  includes a range of items from the nineteenth century such as dresses, collars, corsets, shawls, mantles, capes, as well as fashion plates, books and journals. Set alongside Balenciaga’s design work, the reinterpretation of fashion history for design inspiration is made evident. Key to the creation of this link is the innovative display techniques, incorporating modular drawers with clear protective insets, which sit underneath cube-like metal vitrines. The drawers are stacked in fixed position, but open, suggesting links between adjacent pieces. For example, beaded and embroidered black capes and mantalets from the late nineteenth century are shown alongside a Balenciaga cape du soir from 1960, and a 1945 jacquette de soir. The shapes, colours and beading techniques are remarkably similar, and creating links through time and history. Although there is minimal text, none is needed; the objects speak for themselves.

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Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Museums

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

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

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

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About Fashion Projects

Fashion Projects began in New York in 2004, with the aim to create a platform to highlight the importance of fashion — especially “experimental” fashion — within current critical discourses. Through interviews with a range of artists, designers, writers and curators, as well as through other planned projects and exhibits, we hope to foster a dialogue between theory and practice across disciplines.

We are primarily a print journal, however we also publish web-based updates and interviews (a “digest” version of which you can receive by signing up to our mailing list or via our RSS feed) and are currently working on exhibits based on past and future issues. To order any of our issues visit our ordering page.

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