Teaching Sustainable Fashion: A Theoretical Perspective

Martin Margiela, Spring/Summer 1990

This past spring I taught a Senior Seminar at Parsons on the topic of sustainable fashion. The seminar was based largely on the exhibition that Sarah Scaturro and I co-curated at the Pratt Institute, as well as on my work on experimental fashion and the intersection between fashion, memory and materiality, which was explored in both Fashion Projects and in my doctoral studies. The class was meant to give a theoretical as well as a cross-cultural and historical perspective on the relation between fashion and sustainability.

It was interesting to notice the challenges and the rewards of the process. One of the main challenges consisted in the fact that incorporating sustainability in fashion demands a radical re-thinking of systems of consumption, distribution and production, so much so that the very topic of sustainable fashion can be in and of itself rather controversial and, in some sense oppositional to traditional fashion education.

What was perhaps most rewarding was to notice students’ imaginative incorporation of sustainable practices in their own work. (This was a theoretical/historical class, so the work was produced within the context of their studio classes.) For instance, the work of Seung Yeon Jee, which was based on her research in Kurt Schwitters’s collage techniques incorporated notions of modularity within her work, and as she herself noted promoted a level of participation from the consumer in the design process. Through complex pattern-making techniques Jee created garments which could be worn in a number of different ways—all of which were at the same time experimental, functional and visually engaging.

Below you can find a description of the class. I would love to hear any feedback by fashion educators and anyone interested in the topic of incorporating sustainability in fashion and design education

Seung Yeon Jee, Thesis Collection, 2010


This seminar provides a theoretical framework to think about issues of sustainability in fashion as they are articulated in our changing relations to materiality and the physical objects that surround us. Reconnecting with the materiality of clothes, as both producers and consumers, points towards a slowing down of the accelerated cycles of consumption and discard promoted by current fashion models.

The seminar addresses the historically shifting meanings and values of clothes. It focuses on the way contemporary artists and designers have recuperated lost relations with the physicality of clothes through their exploration of our emotional connection to them and their ability to retain memories and histories that bind people in complex networks. The seminar provides readings that explore this counter-tendency and places it in historical and cross-cultural contexts, as well as investigating the work of specific practioners, such as fashion designers Martin Margiela and Susan Cianciolo and artist Andrea Zittel.

Francesca Granata