‘Alternative Fashion Strategies’

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

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

Laura Sansone

, first interviewed on Fashion Projects in 2013, curated the exhibition. Our conversation shuttled between the work she does with fiber farmers in the Hudson Valley and with designers in New York City, tracing what she envisions can become a tight-knit local supply chain.

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

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

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

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

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Eileen Fisher sweaters dyed with indigo and unraveled to be re-woven. Photo: Chris Hyun Choi

MC: So, there were prototypes on display and workshops. There was also a printed material on the walls. How did all of this come together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Interview with Christina Moon: Fashion + Sustainability—Lines of Research Series

by Mae Colburn

Image taken during fieldwork research: shoe factory assembly line, China, 2007

Christina Moon joined Parsons’ School of Art and Design History and Theory faculty this past September with a freshly minted doctoral degree from Yale’s Department of Anthropology and a markedly holistic perspective on the fashion industry.  Her practice involves going out, interviewing people, and thoughtfully translating these stories into broader global narratives.  Her PhD dissertation, Material Intimacies: The Labor of Creativity in the Global Fashion Industry, brought her everywhere from kitchen tables in Los Angeles, to shoe factories in China,  to what she calls the “fashion streetscapes” of New York City and beyond.

Mae Colburn: Could you describe how you arrived at the theme of Material Intimacies?

Christina Moon: I was interested in writing about this larger historical transformation, these larger cultural phenomena that were going on, and tying these to the personal narratives of the people I was meeting, interviewing, and working with in the fashion industry.  That, for me, was the greatest challenge of my dissertation, but also the most fulfilling one: how to bring out the stories of individuals and their experiences, but in a way that they would not simply be dismissed as ‘drop in the bucket’ personal, or anecdotal, stories.  I wanted to show how these individual stories were part of much larger ones about the history of fashion and clothing, but also the history of political, economic, cultural, social movements occurring around the world.

So, for instance, during my fieldwork, I spent time with families working in the informal clothing markets of the fast-fashion industry of Los Angeles, which are dominated by Korean Brazilian Americans (if you can imagine that!).   They’re Korean clothing traders who left Korea in the 1960s and, because they couldn’t get visas to the United States, ended up in South America (mostly in Brazil), where they imported textiles from Korea, set up cut-and-sew factories in Brazil, and sold their designs in markets they created. They raised their children in [South America] but, because of the uneasy economic and political climate of the 1990s, moved with their children to Los Angeles in the late 1990s.  Now, many of their children consider themselves Korean Brazilian Americans.  […] These families run the informal clothing markets of L.A., which have become, within the last decade, the main hub for the design and distribution of the majority of fast-fashion within the U.S. and across the Americas in general.

The matriarch of this one family, whom I spent quite a lot of time with (she was really in charge of the family business), spoke to me at length about her experience working in the fashion and garment trade over the last three decades [on these] three different continents.  Her stories revolved around lace because when [she and her family] first came to the United States, it was by selling her lace designs.  She was only able to make one connection to a vendor, and he was a lace vendor, and so for her first three years here, that was basically how she supported three children, a husband, and her mother-in-law.  It was so interesting because that story only came up after she had shown me photos of her daughter’s wedding, and explained how she had created her veil out of lace.  It all came out as her personal story, but it still illuminated this larger history of changing economic and production systems in the globalization of fashion.

I wrote some of this in a piece [titled] Intimate Materialities. I’d been told throughout graduate school that there wasn’t any room for narrative in anthropological writing, that those days of narrative ethnographic accounts were long gone with The Nuer and The Golden Bough, and that books were part of a capitalist market, which liked things delivered as neat, tidy, and under a certain number of pages.  But I felt like without narrative, this story and history wouldn’t be interesting at all.  I knew I could deliver this history through statistics, in huge broad strokes about the globalization of fashion through trade laws and political economy, but I felt like when I read those histories, I had a hard time finding my own personal way in.  Before I got my job at Parsons, I had put out a handful of job applications and got an initial interview with the University of Texas in Austin, Anthropology Department.  There’s a really incredible anthropologist there named Kathleen Stewart who interviewed me along with other members of the department. I had to give all these writing samples and chapters of my dissertation for the interview (which I didn’t think they’d read so thoroughly) but when it came time for the interview, it became apparent that Stewart had read every single word that I had written, including the narrative [described above].  When she asked me what kind of classes I would be able to teach, I said ‘I can teach this or that…’ and rattled off a list of traditional anthropology courses, but she said ‘No, no.  What about teaching a class called Intimate Materialities.  That’s the part of this dissertation that I really liked. That’s the kind of history we need to be writing.’  And that gave me fuel and a newfound sense of confidence.  From there, I developed this idea that ‘intimate materialities’ which means that the materials are ‘intimate,’ but if you switch it around to ‘material intimacies,’ the base of that phrase is the word intimacies, which is important because the dissertation I ended up writing was about relationships between people in an industry often described as impersonal, anonymous, and economic, [and] how clothing and fashion become the mediation or form in which all these relationships take place – across generations, across continents, across cultural divides.

MC: How would you position this practice, narrative writing, within the scope of fashion and sustainability?  Do you see your role as more practical or more theoretical?

CM: I think both are really important to my research and to understanding issues of fashion and sustainability.  Practice for me means going out, interviewing people who are part of the process, understanding why they make the decisions that they make, their values within these systems, and where they belong within this enormously complex global process that’s constantly changing, full of kinks and complications.  […] Interviewing people always keeps me hopeful. People are always trying to figure things out, no matter how challenging and trying their lives and situations are.  Theory for me is about the universal, the conceptual, the importance of the metaphor. It allows me to understand issues of fashion, globalization, and sustainability alongside other moments in time, history, in other industries. […] Regarding sustainability, I’m actually just beginning to learn more about this word.  I was just on a panel on fashion and sustainability recently and I said on the panel that [while] I was really interested in the history of this word, I was really more interested in other words.

MC: Which other words do you identify with?

CM: The words that I identify with are pretty old school, like quality of life, viable futures, self and collective preservation.  ‘Sustainability’ […] brings up more questions for me than answers.  Who’s deeming what more, or less, sustainable?  With the communities that I’ve spent time with, people have been looking for sustainable solutions forever, so there’s something very sinister and very patronizing about that word.  I feel quite ambivalent about it.  Also, what does sustainability mean if it’s not accessible to everyone?  I think communities have long tried to figure out how to provide for one another.  That said, I really hope for a more sustainable future.

Image of the New York Fashion Week Fashion Calendar taken during fieldwork research in New York City, Spring/Summer 2007

MC: That raises a good question about sustainability within the social sciences.  Often, the term is couched within the natural sciences, or like you mentioned, economics.

CM: Every discipline has its own catch phrases and perhaps within the social sciences [sustainability] has been called other things.  I don’t think it’s as popular [in the social sciences] as it is in a place like design, particularly at [Parsons] because here, we’re surrounded by practitioners who are designing and creating constructed environments; there’s a built, material, and designed element to it.  In anthropology, there’s more of a trend towards the social, towards human equality, justice, and rights.  We’re talking about different industries and disciplinary fields, and so the language changes.

MC: I wanted to turn now to your teaching.  You’ve been teaching at Parsons for a year now and I’m curious how your relationship to education has shifted, having started in anthropology and now teaching in fashion studies.

CM: I’ve always been interested in educational reform. When I was at school [at Yale], I really sought out professors, students, people who were actively creating alternative spaces within and outside the university.  I was in a meeting once with my main advisor at Yale (his name is David Graeber) and at one point he said, ‘I’m your teacher; you’re my student; now I’ve told you everything I know, so now you know everything that I know, so now we’re equals.’ And that sense of a mutual relationship – of mutual mentorship – was really inspiring to me. I try to mirror that in my classroom here at Parsons, making it more of a collaborative space.  I teach undergraduates and graduate students, people who will graduate and get jobs in these fields, so I’m very conscious and aware of that, constantly reevaluating the worth of what I’m introducing because I want to give students something critical, something that will allow them to see that this word ‘fashion’ as a lot larger, bigger, more political than they could ever imagine.  We’re talking about so many different complex systems: formal ones and ones outside of any formal system.  As graduate students in anthropology, we could say ‘we are activists, our role is to say no to corporate culture, no to industry,’ but this is something that gets thrown out the window when you’re at a place like [Parsons] because students have to get jobs within these industries, pay back their school loans and make a living.  So now, the challenge is, how to critique from where you are?  How to critique from the inside and to make it better? How to recognize the complexity of it all?  That’s been both a challenge and one of the most rewarding things about being here at Parsons, constantly asking myself what kind of impact students will have on the industry with this knowledge.

MC: Could you comment on the role of ethnographic field research within the fashion industry?

CM: I’m still grappling with what ethnographic field research is.  I say that I do it.  People tell me that I do it, but I’m not exactly sure because the things that I’m attracted to, and the things that I read, explode this idea that [field research] is the privilege of anthropologists and ‘trained experts’ only.  But I do think that it’s a little different than swooping in, getting your sound bite – your quote – and leaving.  I think today, ethnographic field research implies a sense of trust, the development of a mutual relationship, even if it is full of its own politics, and self-reflection on one’s own position of power and privilege. There is very much a sense of long-term community engagement.  I still find parts [of anthropology] to be problematic, sticky, political, but I do think it’s a way to get at perspectives, especially on contemporary phenomena, that you’re just never going to find in history, or in the archive, or in a secondary text.  You’re never going to find [this type of information] in a book, museum collection, library or historical archive, so your only choice is to seek people out, spend time with them and interview them, and learn from people who are working within the industry. […] We need ethnographers to go out there and collect these oral histories, engage with varying communities in fashion, be a part of and express these worlds that are constantly changing.