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
April 18th, 2013
Fashion Criticism Panel: A Report and Recording of the Event
by Gisela Aguilar
From left Francesca Granata, Robin Givhan, Guy Trebay and Stefano Tonchi. Photograph by Susana Aguirre.
For more reports on the panel, also see “Fashion critics defend their craft” by Kira Goldenberg in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as “Fashion Criticism: No Respect!” in style.com
In celebration of the fourth issue of Fashion Projects, a panel discussing the current state of fashion criticism was held on March 12, 2013 at The New School. The panel, moderated by Francesca Granata, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design and editor of Fashion Projects featured three distinguished fashion critics, Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Guy Trebay (culture and style reporter for the New York Times), and Stefano Tonchi (the editor-in-chief of W magazine), all of whom were also interviewed for the concurrent issue of Fashion Projects.
The frank conversation took many directions by addressing a number of otherwise avoided topics within the fashion press, from the struggle for fashion writing to be considered a legitimate topic of discussion within established periodicals due to its prescribed association to the feminine realm, to the cultural valence of aesthetics in America versus Europe and how this difference manifests itself in each culture’s appreciation or understanding of fashion. Trebay reminisced on a pre-millennial era when the fashion scene belonged to a small, contained world and where the knowledge of this niche community was not widely dispersed as it is today. Stemming from observations he made in his Fashion Projects interview with Jay Ruttenberg, Trebay remarked that the cultural force of fashion catapulted quickly after 2000 through strategic moves by the few multinational corporations that monopolized the fashion industry. Fashion stars were churned out, runway shows become these theatrical spectacles, and with the aid of digital media, the fashion scene became a globalized attraction. Givhan added that the alliance between Hollywood and the fashion industry has intensified the public’s interest in all things concerning fashion, yet she lamented that this now symbiotic partnership has damaged the credibility of the industry. As such, much of the fashion content published is dominated by celebrity and consumer driven stories that bank off the entertainment value of fashion while doing little to enlighten readers about its intricacies and creative nature.
The discussion brought to the fore a highly debated phenomenon amongst contemporary fashion journalists – the emergence of fashion bloggers. Indeed, the public access and participatory nature of digital media has opened the floodgates to an exorbitant amount of fashion interpretations, criticisms, and narratives, but it is precisely this lack of moderation that concerns the panelists. Between the three fashion critics there was an overall less than sanguine opinion of the fashion conversations found online. Givhan and Tonchi implied that the overt marketing objectives of certain popular fashion blogs compromised the ethics of journalism in that fashion houses and brands utilized these online personalities as PR tools, often times flying them out to Fashion Week or gifting them merchandise to promote on their personal blogs. In regards to the writing found in these digital spaces, Trebay and Tonchi not so subtly stated that the majority of the fashion conversations on blogs lacked a “compelling” factor and were subpar in that frequently the references to fashion history were inaccurate or the observations contributed no original perspectives to fashion discourse. Pointing to the main difference between print and digital media, Givhan observed that online there was no such thing as a correction – mistakes were rectified as “updates.” She went on to explain that because the barrier to entry is so low with digital media, Internet culture has cultivated a value to be placed on timely delivered and easily digestible content rather than well-researched information.
The panel ended on a more personal note with a question from the audience asking the critics to reflect on peers whom they admired. Givhan praised the author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell as well as The Wall Street Journal’s fashion critic Teri Agins. Tonchi paid tribute to his fellow Italians, the late fashion writer and style icon Anna Piaggi and the author and Vogue Italia art and fashion critic Mariuccia Casadio. For Trebay, the work of author and fashion historian Anne Hollander was paramount in cultivating his perspectives on the intimate relationship between the body and clothing. Ultimately, the panelists’ critiques and observations advocated for fashion to be integrated and accepted as a part of a more informed cultural dialogue. Perhaps, the takeaway from this critical discussion could be best summarized by Tonchi’s obvious yet critical advice for the future generation of aspiring fashion writers in the audience – know your history!
Gisela Aguilar is completing her MA in Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design. Her thesis explores the evolving modes of consumption and production of fashion discourse specifically within print magazines and online fashion media.
Posted in Fashion & Technology, Issue #4, Lectures, Publications, Research/University Programmes
March 4th, 2013
A Panel on Fashion Criticism featuring Stefano Tonchi, Robin Givhan, and Guy Trebay to celebrate the new issue
by Francesca Granata
NB: Change of Room Update: Due to high demand, we changed the location to the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th on the second floor. Again to RSVP, please visit eventbrite (more seats have been added!).
Coming up this Tuesday March 12th from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th Street at Parsons the New School for Design is a panel on fashion criticism to celebrate the new issue of Fashion Projects on the same topic. The panel features Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Stefano Tonchi (editor-in-chief of W magazine) and Guy Trebay (New York Times culture and style reporter) and will be moderated by me.
If interested, please RSVP here as space is limited.
The issue, the journal’s fourth print edition, features interviews with Givhan, Tonchi, and Trebay as well as Judith Thurman (New Yorker), Suzy Menkes (International Herald Tribune), and other leading fashion critics. Praised by the Columbia Journalism Review for covering “the discipline, accessibly, from an academic perspective,” it includes contributions from alumni of Parsons MA Fashion Studies and MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. It was designed by Sarah Smith, a graduate of Parsons BFA in Communication Design.
The panel is made possible by the generosity of the School of Art and Design History and Theory and the MA Fashion Studies.
Posted in Issue #4, Lectures, Publications, Research/University Programmes
January 4th, 2013
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.”
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.”
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”.
“Roots of Style, Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion” by Isabel Toledo
 “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
November 26th, 2012
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.
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
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
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