March 1st, 2014
Fashion Projects # 4 on Fashion Criticism — Out Now!
We are thrilled to announce the publication of Fashion Projects #4, available for purchase here and in specialized newsstands and bookstores.
This issue is devoted entirely to the subject of fashion criticism—the first such study devoted to the cultural field. It features extended interviews with leading practitioners of fashion criticism including W editor Stefano Tonchi, International Herald Tribune critic Suzy Menkes, The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman, New York Times writer Guy Trebay, and Robin Givhan, the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
Table of Contents
Transdisciplinary Practices: An Interview with Stefano Tonchi
by Francesca Granata
Fashion Criticism—A Critical View: An Interview with Robin Givhan
by Michelle Labrague
This Is Not a Fashion Critic: An Interview with Guy Trebay
by Jay Ruttenberg
“Women’s Work”: An Interview with Judith Thurman
by Francesca Granata
Bill Cunningham Multimedia Man
by Jay Ruttenberg
Fashion Criticism as Political Critique: An Interview with Lynn Yaeger
by Sarah Scaturro
The Critic as Artist: An Interview with Mariuccia Casadio
by Marco Pecorari
On Fashion Futures: An Interview with Suzy Menkes
by Lucy Collins
Posted in Issue #4, Publications
February 24th, 2014
The young and inspiring fashion scholar Monica Sklar recently completed her first book. Titled Punk Style, it takes a wide look at the punk movement, following the 40-year subculture through its various manifestations beyond its 1970s origins. Fashion Projects discussed the book with Dr. Sklar.
What inspired you to write on this topic?
I started high school in the fall of 1991, a year often referred to as “the year punk broke.” Although punk predated this by over 15 years and had seen crossover success before it reached a new level in this era. The underground and mainstream were blurring in music, fashion, and ideas. This grabbed me and impacted how I would shape my adolescence and adulthood. My career paths always related to this intersection and as I went on to become an academic I wanted to explore it in depth, particularly the fashion and its meanings.
The music and fashion of punk have always developed simultaneously and in conjunction as part of an overall lifestyle developed by communities of individuals who think along the same lines. However the body of literature mostly covers the music and its personalities with fashion as an afterthought, or sometimes, the fashion as trend and not “important.” Also much of the literature isn’t thorough or is out of date. I wanted to fill some of those voids.
It turned out to be complicated to study because punk style has simultaneously maintained some of its relevance and original subcultural intent, it has also developed mainstream appeal and cache. This begs the question whether dressing punk means a person is punk, and/or, whether a person can be punk without dressing punk. Further muddying the waters is that punk is an esoteric and amorphous concept that is not easy to define and not all of those who self-identify as punk share the same perspectives. Through its 40 year history and various incarnations, as well as through personal experiences of the participants there are many ideas about what punk is and that made it fascinating to dive into.
Another reason I wanted to study it was to give the research the energy and perspective I felt it deserved. As someone who self-identifies with the punk subculture, I felt my voice positively affected how the interviewees for this research addressed me and it was reflected in my ability to understand the language and symbolism as well as know the background to add context. I wanted to then pass this hopefully thorough approach to readers who are not familiar with the subject and also to have accesses to the scene in ways an outsider academic might not have. I worked hard to step back and holistically unite ideas to answer the research questions as a scholar of dress, design, and social theory.
How your view of it changed from when you first approached it to the end of your research?
Since it is something I feel personally connected to and have my own experiences with I wouldn’t say I had great changes of mind over the years of research, however I did learn things in more depth and explored some ideas that were new to me.
It was interesting to learn about the differing perspectives of the UK (and some other global regions)and the US. The UK has the idea that commitment to punk means fully dressing the part and highlighting one’s efforts. The US has the idea that commitment means it is no ingrained it’s natural and should appear effortless and more subtle or coded. Also since the UK apparel was (mostly) initiated by artists and fashion designers it is more flamboyant than the US which was initiated by musicians and street kids.
The most important thing I learned is about how punk style is embedded in the wearer’s perspective. The wearer dictates that something is punk, less so than the viewer defines them. This relates to another thing I really took away from the research about how individuals grow with the style and transform it with age. Since it’s a 40 year subculture I was able to research people at different points of life and I could see how it is not only a passion of youth. Punk style morphs with age and lifestyle changes and many people have developed ways to incorporate it into their maturation. However for some that means the visuals become less relevant as they enact the ideas they were trying to get across visually in other aspects of their lives such as jobs and manner in which they maintain a household and family. This validated that the style is symbolic of a larger lifestyle choice, and not a passing fancy. Some I researched felt the cliché notion that punk died whenever their version of it moved on (or they got older), however often those same people will explain how the lifestyle they now lead is related to the way they dressed in the past. Also something about punk is so flexible and accessible that new generations keep picking it up and making it their own and feel valid in their interpretation.
Monica Sklar has a Ph.D. in Design-Apparel Studies from the University of Minnesota, focused on Socio-cultural and behavioral aspects of dress; 20th/21st century design history, theory, and criticism; aesthetics, innovation & creativity; retailing and consumers,
with Supporting Areas of Study including: Social movements, subculture, popular music, deviance, and visual culture.
She has taught numerous college level courses in dress and retailing, worked in art and design museums/galleries in multiple capacities, done many projects in fashion and art journalism and wardrobe styling, and worked on endless retail floors
Posted in Publications, Research/University Programmes
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
February 5th, 2013
Fashion Projects #4 Editorial Letter
by Francesca Granata
This issue explores fashion criticism through a series of interviews with leading contemporary fashion critics. It was conceived as the result of a genuine curiosity to delve into such a rich yet understudied area of culture—a curiosity which is in part personal. The other member of my household—Fashion Projects contributor Jay Ruttenberg—worked as a music critic for the best part of his 20s and 30s and, thus, discussions about the way in which certain areas of culture are so extensively covered vis-à-vis others (as well as more general discussions of the changing face of journalism) made for f requent dinner conversation. It seemed to me that, in the last decade, fashion criticism has been going through a phase of legitimization that other realms of popular culture criticism, such as rock and film criticism, had undergone decades earlier,when critics such as Greil Marcus,Robert Christgau, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris emerged.What also made this issue particularly timely is that with the establishment of fashion as an academic field of study, one runs the risk of forgetting the important work done by critics, who often represent the first line of scholarship on a subject.
This issue does not aim to provide an exhaustive look at contemporary fashion criticism, and is clearly New York–biased, however, common threads do arise. One of the recurrent themes that transpires is fashion criticism’s struggle for legitimization. As Robin Givhan, previously of the Washington Post and currently at the Daily Beast, points out, “The fashion industry is a victim of terrible sexism,” which comes “from both men and women.” Significantly, Givhan was the first fashion critic to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize—something which only happened in 2006. Perhaps more problematic was the statement that the Puli tzer released in conjunction with her award, claiming that Givhan’s writings, “Transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism”—thus implying, unwittingly, that fashion resides outside the realm of culture.
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Posted in Issue #4, Publications
January 16th, 2013
This is Not A Fashion Critic: An Interview with Guy Trebay
by Jay Ruttenberg
Illustration by Nathan Gelgud
Guy Trebay, of the New York Times, defines himself as a cultural critic and even when working the traditional fashion beat, allows his attention to wander into that broader realm. Although he operates without a column, Trebay’s articles are easy to spot. Like some debonair newsman of Hollywood lore, he reports from exotic corners of the globe. He is cynical without being closed-minded or small, and writes about glamour with neither aspirational veneration nor wanton bloodlust. His writing on style betrays a love for the fashion world, yet he does not hesitate to shiv those who have it coming. Most conspicuously, his every sentence is spun with a panache that seems perhaps too opulent for newsprint, even that of the Times. “The lush mane was ratted and back-combed into a frowsy beehive, the kind in which hoodlums of legend used to conceal their razor blades,” he wrote about Amy Winehouse shortly after her death. “Her basic eyeliner became an ornate volute, a swath of clown makeup, a cat mask.”
Prior to landing at the Times’ Sunday Styles section, in 2000, Trebay spent two decades at the Village Voice. Where his current post finds him traipsing between Miami art parties and Milan menswear shows, his Voice column—anthologized in the 1994 book In the Place To Be: Guy Trebay’s New York (Temple University Press)—sent the writer to more humble quarters, often up in the Bronx. If his change of landscape follows the New York zeitgeist, Trebay’s history also lends his fashion writing an unavoidable socioeconomic undertone. “Once it starts to be just about clothes,” he says, “I’m out.”
Trebay met Fashion Projects in a small conference room at the New York Times building, sandwiching the interview between reporting trips to Europe and Los Angeles.
Fashion Projects: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a fashion critic, but a cultural critic.
Guy Trebay: That’s right. First of all, what is a fashion critic? What is that? I mean, it’s not a very developed critical discipline. It seems to me that for decades, it was a kind of business reporting. But somewhere along the line, in a very wholesome way, it evolved into getting some critical discipline. I guess it’s like movies. In the beginning, there were no movie critics. At a certain point in our period, fashion developed something of the valence, culturally, that movies had.
GT: I’d guess the ’80s, but I really don’t know. When I first started writing about this, it was in a much broader context. I was writing about the city for the Village Voice—I wasn’t writing about fashion, per say. But fashion shows would come to town like the circus, and it would change the atmosphere of the streets. You were aware that there was this population of people coming in from who knew where, and models like gazelles were leaping over sidewalks. And you were like, “Well, this is interesting.” But in those days, it was a small and very contained world. The knowledge wasn’t widely dispersed. That has changed so radically. I came to the Times in 2000 and by then, IMG had gotten into the business. IMG was a sports promotion company, as everybody knows. But Mark McCormack, the founder, looked at the landscape and said, “Where am I gonna find another thing that is as translatable across cultures and—without the necessity for language comprehension—can sell as an image language. That’s when they got heavily into fashion and started these fashion weeks. They bought into New York Fashion Week and it became this global plague of fashion weeks.
FP: Before that was it simply an industry event?
GT: It was a trade week. For all that I’ve poked fun at the proliferation of fashion week—the Bulgarian Fashion Week and whatnot—it’s very useful. There’s a circuit that people routinely follow in this business: New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Over time, people have talked about how it can all be done online, but that absolutely isn’t the case. The longer I’ve been around it, the more I’ve become aware of the way that information is transmitted through the tribes or the pack. It’s quite beautiful, actually.
FP: Why do you think it couldn’t work online?
GT: The same with everything else that has to do with person-to-person contact. It’s over mediated. For all that it’s so global, it’s pretty hermetic. Particularly with fashion, a lot of the cues, being visual, are too subtle.
FP: Do you mean not being able to see the texture of garments in fashion week slideshows?
GT: No, I think those are great. But I’ve always been interested in the sociology. And that’s a little more opaque online, which is more garment-based. Also, there’s another thing that happens online, which is the super narrativization around sites like the Sartorialist. That’s a very editorialized site. It’s one guy’s idea of what some kinds of people look like or should look like. It’s very successfully put across. But at the same time, when I look at the Sartorialist, I’m much less struck by the clothes—or whatever people think they are putting across with the clothes—than by the strings. The degree to which people want to create narrative around you based on a picture of you and your clothes is very compelling to me. People are telling themselves stories about other people based on the way they tie a scarf. Which we probably do in real life, but it has a little more practical utility in real-time encounters than it does online. There’s a little whistling in the dark happening, where everybody’s telling themselves a story that doesn’t really have to do with the other. And fashion is about the other—you require social interaction for it to get off the ground. [Pauses] God, I hate those.
FP: Tape recorders?
GT: Yeah. I never use them. When I was a kid, I wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview
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Posted in Interviews, Issue #4, Publications
January 16th, 2013
“Women’s Work”: An Interview with Judith Thurman
by Francesca Granata
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
It is an humbling experience to write about Judith Thurman—her beautiful and succinctly crafted sentences haunting one’s imaginary. I vividly remember reading “The Wolf at the Door,” her profile of Vanessa Beecroft linking the Italian performance artist’s work to her bulimia, which she published in 2003 and discussing it animatedly with art friends and colleagues. However, it was her profile of Rei Kawakubo and the unique lyricism she employed to cover a subject so elusive such as fashion, that imprinted her name in my consciousness. Thurman started writing about fashion for the New Yorker, relatively late in her career, as an extension of her interest in femininity and women’s subjects—or what she calls “women’s work.” Previously, she wrote primarily about literature and the arts for the New Yorker and other publications, in addition to two biographies: Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (a recipient of the National Book Award) and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. The latter book, on a controversial literary figure and sexual libertine—which Philip Roth described as an “essential biography by a stylish writer of great sympathetic understanding and intellectual authority”—clearly foreshadows Thurman’s interest in fashion and its relation to gender and sexuality. Similarly to other critics interviewed, she sees fashion’s and fashion criticism’s relation to femininity as the reason behind its dismissal as a serious pursuit—a reception that her beautifully crafted and rigorously researched articles stand to rectify.
On a pleasant summer day, I sat in her well-tended garden in Manhattan to discuss her thoughts on fashion criticism and her own fore` into it for the New Yorker. Many of her articles on fashion and other “women’s work” can be found in Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, published by Picador.
Fashion Projects: I was wondering how you came to your current post writing about fashion at the New Yorker?
JT: It was sort of happenstance. I followed fashion, but not professionally. I had worked at The New Yorker before I left to write the biography of Colette. David Remnick, who had just taken up the editorship of the magazine in 1999 said, “Why don’t you come back and work for us? I know you can write about books and art, but what else can you do? Is there something else you really want to do?” To which I replied “Actually I would love to write about fashion. I think I would always be an outsider; I am not going to write about it as an insider, like my great friend Holly Brubach a wonderful fashion critic who covered the collections. I said I don’t want to do that and you don’t want me to do it.” He said, “You are right.” So that’s how I started.
FP: So you started writing about fashion, somewhat recently, in the last decade or so. What drew you to the subject?
JT: I see it as an important element of culture and itself a culture. That really interests me. It is a form of expression, a kind of language dealing with identities. And the aesthetic of it also drew me to it. I love clothes and couture and its history is very interesting to me. For instance, I have always gone to museums and studied the clothing in the paintings. However, I don’t particularly like the fashion world and I try not to write about the business side of it.
FP: So you see yourself more as a cultural critic writing about fashion as opposed to a more traditional fashion critic covering the collections?
JT: Yes, although I have written about the collections. I used to go once a year to do one collection, whether it was menswear or couture or Paris or New York. I kind of stopped doing that. They were very hard pieces to write, since I wasn’t actually critiquing the clothes, I was trying to find some sort of zeitgeist that was coming out of the collections. Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t.
FP: It can be oddly tedious to read about the collections, simply because there are so many. In the introduction to your most recent book, Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, you wrote that what the various essays had in common, including the ones about fashion, was that they were about “women’s work.” You write a lot about fashion and gender. I was curious how you see the relation between fashion and femininity, considering that, for women of your generation, fashion was thought of as somewhat anti-feminist?
JT: That’s exaggerated. In the 1970s when I was young and starting my career, there was a kind of hard-core feminist view that fashion was frivolous. I never shared it, because I think the impulse to decorate your body and adorn yourself goes back in time: men do it; birds do it! I always thought it was legitimate and interesting. Having lived in Europe for a long time, I also think of this resistance towards fashion as an American rather puritanical thing that has to do with the Eros of fashion and the relation between fashion and sex. I think that those relations are interesting and legitimate, just as they are in writing.
FP: So did you ever find any resistance to the fact that you were writing about fashion?
JT: Yes there is resistance. Not really at the New Yorker. In a certain sense, it is a magazine that is often criticized for not having enough women’s voices. There is a tendency that I disapprove of and resent, not just at the New Yorker, that still thinks of fashion criticism and fashion writing as a woman’s page activity. Part of that is the fashion world—this bubble-headed non-sensical thing. But of course, it is very serious, when you think of the kind of resources, the oxygen that it takes in the culture, [fashion] is actually a really important pursuit and certainly as important as some of the idiotic political discourse. I am not saying all of it, but with something like Weinergate, are you following the story as a serious pursuit? More serious or less serious that a brilliant designer, like McQueen who is challenging a set of conventions? No. But there is a kind of feeling that fashion is a soft subject that is a woman’s subject, that is a frivolous subject, that is a lesser subject. I disagree with that.
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Posted in Issue #4, Publications
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
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
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.
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