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.

FP: When?

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

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“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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Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process

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

by Fiona Dieffenbacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jie Li, “Knitting and Pleating”.


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

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

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

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

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

by Francesca Granata


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950

Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 19 May 2012-6 January 2013

Contemporary Ballgowns

by Jeffrey Horsley

‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950′ is the first temporary exhibition to be held in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s newly restored Octagon Court, a spacious gallery with a high, domed ceiling, long the home of the Museum’s Fashion Galleries. Curated by Oriole Cullen, Curator of Modern Textiles & Fashion, and Sonnet Stanfill, Curator of Twentieth Century & Contemporary Fashion, the exhibition comprises over 60 outfits by British-based fashion designers from the 1950s to the present day, combining items drawn from the Museum’s holdings alongside loans from designers. The exhibition is staged in two sections; ‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ on the ground floor, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ on the mezzanine level. The press release proposes that the sections evoke respectively ‘the excitement of preparing for a ball in a grand country house’ and ‘the glamour of the red carpet or a couture presentation.’

‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ is staged in a low-ceilinged space defined by large, fixed vitrines. Exhibits are organised chromatically, with cases themed to gowns in black and red, black and emerald, acid yellows, fawn and pinks, blues and ivories. This is a particularly effective strategy, exerting a visual harmony across garments from different periods designed for different occasions. Case interiors are painted a sympathetic pastel tone with either a matching carpet or black and white tile-effect flooring. Several vitrines have backgrounds of photographic reproductions of gilded panelling from the Music Room of Norfolk House, London. Many cases present two-dimensional, cut-out images of furniture and fittings evocative of eighteenth century English town house décor, with rear-mounted LEDs casting a glowing aura around each image.

On the mezzanine level, a floor-plan unencumbered by fixed display cases and circumscribed by an open railing creates a gallery that appears to float beneath the expansive dome of the Octagon Court. Here, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ is arranged on three runway-like podia, each set under skeletal metal-framed cupolas clad with white net that echo the architecture of the gallery and hint at the bell-like skirt of the traditional ballgown. Inside each construction hangs an illuminated stylised chandelier, composed of flat, fret-cut panels. The podia are surrounded by strings of giant pearls with slowly revolving mannequins poised on several of the pearls.

Ballgowns Since 1950

Retail-type mannequins, finished in a pale-grey colour, without indication of make-up or hair-style, are used throughout. The mannered poses of the mannequins, often incongruous in exhibitions of more humble attire, appear fitting in the presentation of these extravagant outfits – their affected gestures conveying a sense of artifice that reflects the theatricality of the situations for which the gowns are intended. Notably, a striding mannequin, head held high and arms spread wide spectacularly displays a kaftan-like dress by Yuki, in raspberry-pink silk chiffon from 1972. Two further tableaux (reminiscent of the fashion photography of Tim Walker, who shot the image for the exhibition poster) are particularly effective; a mannequin in strips of red and grey silk chiffon, by Amanda Wakeley straddles a chandelier which has seemingly crashed to the floor; a figure wearing a pink and dark fawn silk satin gown by Hardy Amies languishes over a sofa which is represented as a photographic cut-out, with a pair of similarly rendered greyhounds adding to the chic elegance of the scene.

Ballgowns - Yuki

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

by Ingrid Mida

Balenciaga Cape du soir, 1963 and Collier c.1895

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

Balenciaga Installation Shot by Ingrid Mida

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

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Sustainability is Sexy: Design Intelligence; Fashion

by Ingrid Mida

Design Intelligence; Fashion New York

Fashion acts as a mirror of society, which is what art used to be.  It seems that fashion has supplanted art in reflecting cultural values, but has largely lacked critical reflection on its practices. At the Design Intelligence; Fashion event which took place September 18 and 19 at Parsons New School of Design in New York, questions of how intelligent design could impact the issue of sustainability were considered by  a group of 100 “influential players in fashion”, including fashion designers, academics, manufacturers, trade council reps,  and media. On the first day, participants were divided into small groups of five to six people to talk through some of the issues.  On the second day, a series of lectures featuring such notable speakers such as Joel Towers, Hazel Clark, Otto  von Busch, Sarah Scaturro, Gudrun Sjoden, Rebecca Earley offered their perspectives on the issue.  This post summarizes my thoughts after the event.

At my table, the question posed to the group was: Emotions make us buy, whilst feelings make us keep. How do we create fashion that has a chance not only to connect emotionally, and create attachment, but also to retain it?

This question made me think of my work as Collection Co-ordinator of  the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. Each garment is imbued with the memory of its wearer, in the imprints of their body, in the stains and signs of wear in the textile and in the stories sometimes noted in the records and more often untold but still embedded in the folds. Garments offered for donation to a collection typically are ones that hold a special memory to the owner. They might have hung at the back of a closet for years before they are offered for donation.

You only need to ever handle an item of couture once to know that such items demonstrate enduring quality. Think of the Hermes Kelly bag or a Chanel jacket. These are not items that get tossed in the bin after a season, because they are classics, and made to endure. Buying such a thing represents an investment and involves a ceremony of purchase. In the past, there was also a deeper level of involvement in the making of a garment. Whether it was a visit to a couture house or a local tailor, acquiring a garment was a thoughtful process that had an element of ceremony, imbuing the piece with emotion and memory.
In contemporary society, consumers are divorced from the production process. Clothes have become commodities and the purchase of a garment can be an impulsive act.  Getting something new for a single event is not uncommon, and that piece might only be worn once, after which it might be discarded and end up in a landfill. Fast fashion and the media fuel desire for the latest item and the result is long-term environmental damage from toxic production processes and post-consumer textile waste. It is estimated that over 21 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste gets dumped into US landfills each year (Eric Stubin, Chariman Council for Textile Recycling). If some of that could be diverted for reuse and up-cycling, this could have an enormous impact.
The idea of attachment and emotional connection to a garment encourages the wearer to retain that garment and to wear it beyond a fashion cycle. Engaging in thoughtful design is part of the solution, but is only part of the story. People need to make more thoughtful purchases and consider such options such as resale or swaps and the remaking or recycling of the garment. Some companies have already implemented such practices, with labels offering recycling information and facilitating sharing among communities of wearers. Hazel Clark referenced the slow food movement which equates closer ties to the producer and sensorial engagement with the product as a possible model for sustainable fashion.
But, there is no single prescription to the problem, because our economic model is driven by consumption. Fashion has become linked to entertainment, and people want to buy more than they need in order to fit in, to create an emotional lift, and/or to satisfy aspirational motives. The fashionable image, hyped by the media, has created an insatiable cycle of desire for change.
To date, sustainability has largely been presented in the media as a fringe issue when it actually is an issue that affects us all. The question is: can we really afford cheap things? The cost of an item at the register actually represents a very small piece of the “real” cost if the costs of disposal as well as the costs of human rights violations and environmental damage were factored into the price tag.
What is needed is a fundamental shift of values so that sustainability becomes a shared paradigm. This might seem like an unattainable goal, but there is a precedent. Smoking used to be cool, but over time, government policy, education and social censure have redefined smoking behavior. For a similar thing to happen with sustainability, there must be a fundamental shift in values. Our purchases must be considered in terms of their true costs to the community and to society as a whole. Such a paradigm shift requires collaboration between designers, producers, consumers, media, educators, and government. If I drew a visual map, this would take the form of a spider web with the values of sustainability at the core, and webs linking all the players in a shared goal to encourage thoughtful participation in the acts of producing and consuming fashion.

Sustainable fashion can embrace a cool and sexy vibe, but requires thoughtful and intelligent choices on the part of both the designer and the consumer.  Sweden seems to be on the forefront of this issue by sponsoring this Design Boost event and the rest of the world should take note. Government policy can encourage and support our actions and education can help change value systems, but in the end, we each make choices and by making small steps towards better choices, we are all better off.
Some of the choices we can each make include:
1. Making more thoughtful purchases, looking for lasting quality and when possible, embracing designers who use sustainable practices. Some designers to consider include: Gudrun Sjoden www.gudrunsjoden.com, Preloved www.preloved.ca, and bodkinbrooklyn www.bodkinbrooklyn.com.
2. Washing clothes less often, using less detergent and hanging to dry when possible.
3. Repairing and remaking clothes. Sarah Scaturro of the Costume Institute of the Met, suggested  fashion hacking as a way to “recreate” a designer piece.
4. Recycling all clothing, footwear and textiles, either through resale or donation to charities that support recycling initiatives (such as Goodwill). Do not throw clothing items into the garbage, even if they are torn or stained. Visit www.weardonaterecycle.org for more information on recycling your clothing.
During the course of the event,  it was clear that fashion cares. One look around the room told me that embracing sustainability as a cause does not equate to frumpy and unfashionable. I think it is time to declare that sustainability is sexy.

Posted in Lectures, Sustainable Fashion

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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

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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

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Interview with Hazel Clark: Fashion + Sustainability—Lines of Research Series

by Mae Colburn

Hazel Clark derives her perspective on fashion education and sustainability from years of experience as an art and design scholar, educator, and administrator.  Her work is informed by a sustained belief in collaborative inquiry and an enduring curiosity about the changing role of fashion through time and space.  Old Clothes, New Looks (2005) combines the work of anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and art and fashion historians, and The Fabric of Cultures (2009) features an equally diverse roster of scholars (Clark co-edited both titles).  It is this bringing-together of disciplines that also defines Parsons’ M.A. Fashion Studies program, which launched on Clark’s initiative in 2010 and now serves as a vital meeting point for thinkers, and re-thinkers, across the expanding field of fashion.

Mae Colburn: What does sustainability mean to you, especially within the context of slow fashion, which you describe in “Slow + Fashion – an Oxymoron or a Promise for the Future…?” (2008)?

Hazel Clark: To me, sustainability is about trying to establish new parameters of thinking about dressing without excessive waste.  We’ve still got to have clothes, and I feel they are a very interesting part of our identity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve got to have the excessive waste surrounding them that we’ve become so used to.

When I wrote [the article you referred to] in Fashion Theory, it was very much instigated by a one-day symposium that I’d attended in Milan organized by Ezio Manzini, who was then at the Politecnico in Milan.  It was a bringing together of people from the slow food movement and design, which I felt provided a very useful way of thinking about clothing.  It’s very obvious to think about how we can make changes within old models, but it’s the models themselves that need examining, and using parameters or concepts from one area and bringing them to another can be very helpful. It was just a good way of rethinking longevity, and systems, and communities, and the local.  Agency as well – thinking about how individuals have agency over the way they dress.

MC: In the introduction to Old Clothes New Looks, you and Alexandra Palmer write that “consumer agency and taste are the final determinations of sales, costs and, ultimately, the fashionability of dress,” which is interesting because we often think of designers are the ones fashioning a more sustainable system.  Could you describe that tension?

HC: I think that consumers should have agency because they’re putting out the dollars to buy things and I think there is a tension for designers now, certainly with what one might call the do-it-yourself movement (if, indeed, it is a movement), and this recognition that began a number of decades ago that fashion is not just a one-line dictatorial process where the designer is the auteur and has the agency.  It’s a myth that designers have total agency; it’s a seductive myth, but it’s a myth nevertheless.  Very few designers have complete agency because they work as part of a team.  The production of clothing is teamwork, even though in many cases members of the team (pattern cutters, seamstresses, etc.) remain anonymous. The problem often is that the user doesn’t have the sense of agency, or that sense of confidence to dress themselves.  It would be wonderful to think of fashion more as self-styling, more about giving people the means to be comfortable in what they wear, to be confident in what they wear, to know their bodies.  I don’t think people are completely dictated to by fashion; fashion is so diverse and so multifaceted that one doesn’t have to be, but I think that building a sense of confidence to create an interesting personality with clothes should be considered a part of fashion.

There are interesting examples.  One company I really like is Junky Styling, in London.  They have a service called ‘Wardrobe Surgery,’ where people actually take clothes [from their own wardrobes] and work with the two women who run the company to restyle them.   I actually mentioned [Junky Style] once at a conference and I remember somebody saying, ‘oh, but it’s terribly expensive’ – but it’s all relative, and I think that’s the other point about how much one is actually paying for clothes and where the profits are being divided.  We’ve got to think about the value factor here.  […]  It’s only been in the last hundred and fifty years that people have had more than three or four things in their wardrobes.  That’s why I particularly like the work of British scholar Kate Fletcher, because she’s talking about these different modes or models one might have for different types of clothing so that you can think strategically about your wardrobe.

MC: I wanted to ask you about scholarship in particular.  Do you see this moment as an opportunity for a new methodology surrounding dress, one that represents perhaps a more holistic perspective and includes history and theory but also, for example, subjective narratives like oral histories?

HC: I think oral histories are important.  There’s been some recent scholarship looking at wardrobes, particularly in the U.K., and scholars like Daniel Miller and his student Sophie Woodward, who are coming from a more material culture or anthropological background, are thinking more carefully about relationships when it comes to clothing.  I think one of the issues [with fashion] is that it’s so predicated on the visual, on the image (in fashion magazines and now the internet), and I think we’ve got to consider more the sensorial relationships, the materiality of clothing, and also the capacity that clothes have to sustain us, make us feel as well as look good.  […] I just co-taught a two-week course, ‘Fashion and Everyday Life,’ a couple of weeks ago with my colleague from the U.K, Cheryl Buckley, a design historian at Northumbria University.  It was a graduate class where we had M.A. Fashion Studies students and M.A. History of Decorative Arts and Design students working collaboratively and we encouraged them to, for example, look at their family histories and bring in personal photographs – to talk about their experience of fashion and clothing within the context of the everyday.

Thinking about the sorts of qualities and relationships we have with our clothing goes hand in hand with acknowledging continuities and sustainability.  It really brings us down to a more involved, intimate level and the recognition of the individual experience, and this is being recognized in scholarship.  Sophie Woodward, for example, is not just talking with women about their wardrobes; she’s talking with women in their wardrobes (that is, in the presence of their clothes).  One of the first books that Daniel Miller produced about consumption, Material Culture and Mass Consumption (1987) – there were a couple of articles in that book where he talked about the problem of dealing with the artifact, and in this country, fashion historian Valerie Steele has used the work of Jules Prown, a leading scholar of material culture [along those same lines].  We still need ways of thinking about and dealing with the artifact, but I do think it demands scholarly discourses that are more collaborative.  This is what we’re trying to do in Parsons’ M.A. in Fashion Studies.  We called it Fashion Studies because we’re drawing from a variety of disciplines.  Fashion exists outside of fashion design and I think teaching this will lead to more collaborative work by faculty, and also by students.  It’s a bit of an open space at the moment, but I think there’s a lot of potential there.

Hazel Clark is Research Chair of Fashion, and former Dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory, Parsons the New School for Design.

Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.

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

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About Fashion Projects

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

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

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