The Fashion Professorship aims to rethink the cracks in the fashion system and the role that fashion plays – and could potentially play – in relation to urgent social, cultural, environmental and political developments in contemporary society. We envision an alternative and more engaged future of fashion in which we do more justice to fashion’s human dimension. Through research, design and critical thinking, we analyse and develop alternative approaches, systems, vocabularies and strategies. In doing so, we aim to activate the power of fashion to reimagine future bodies, future materials and future makers to contribute to resilient futures and inclusive societies.
Fashion in times of the coronacrisis, and post-crisis
by Femke de Vries
Daniëlle Bruggeman and Hanka van der Voet started an ongoing conversation about fashion in times of the coronacrisis (and post-crisis). What is the impact of the coronacrisis on the fashion system? What is the relevance of fashion today? What is at stake? How could - or should - fashion play a role in re-imagining our post-crisis society? And how does this all relate to Dissolving the Ego of Fashion?
Amsterdam, June 14, 2020
Thank you for your letter and invitation to join. I see that this correspondence started early in the Covid-19 crisis, and we’re now in it for 3 months. I’m in the privileged position of being healthy and safe, and as I am used to working from home, my lifestyle didn’t change that much. I haven’t baked any cakes or bread, but I did start running, not with the goal to become good at it (I never will), but out of the pure desperation to feel physical exhaustion.
I recognize the pressure you’re experiencing in relation to being productive, but during the last weeks I had to tell myself often that it was o.k. if I was being a bit less productive sometimes. The reality is that this crisis situation takes energy, and with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests I notice I have more difficulty to focus on work, which is good, it is necessary even. But yes, in today’s society we are forced to be productive and mostly in the form of work. Via Hanka’s Instagram I saw this message explaining that one of the reasons the BLM protests are this big is because no one has to go to work (due to Covid-19), pointing out that the way labor dominates our lives is an essential problem in the creation of systematic change, or the lack thereof; we are always busy working and have no time to contemplate, rethink and protest.
What I find interesting is that many aspects of fashion can be mirrored to aspects of our capitalist society, of which productiveness is an essential element. The fast fashion industry, as we know it today, is just one of the utterances of capitalism, revolving around productivity, acceleration and ‘the new’. In regards to this you mention the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa. I just recently wrote a piece for Elisa van Joolen’s Portal 005 Reader in which I refer to him. Herewith a fragment from my text: “As we know, in fast fashion garments move fast. Fastness, movement and restlessness is part of their relevance as it motivates an ongoing apparatus of change and thus creates ‘the new’, which is essential to fashion. (…). In an interview in this book, Hartmut Rosa says: ‘Indeed speed is not per definition bad, but it is bad when it leads to alienation.’ The book’s editor, Thijs Lijster, pinpoints that ‘Today, a dominant strand of social and cultural critique considers modernity’s “social acceleration” (Rosa) and “short-termism” (Stiegler) as the main source of alienation and discontent.’ In the book 24/7 Jonathan Crary, in turn, explains this link between fastness and alienation by saying that the acceleration of novelty production disables collective memory, and that ‘the conditions of communication and information access on an everyday level ensure the systematic erasure of the past as part of the phantasmatic construction of the present.’ In the realm of fashion, I think we could say that the phantasmatic construction of the present or better, the future (which is done through a constant and often accelerative focus on the new and change), strongly leads to a systematic erasure of the past and disablement of collective and private memory. The fastness of fashion, which is aimed at only looking forward and renouncing the past, is one of the reasons that we are alienated from (the biography of) the garment, the origin of fashions and thus the interconnectedness between things and people, times and cultures.
If acceleration alienates us from the past in general, like Jonathan Crary writes, it also makes us oblivious to the systems and networks behind the fast fashion industry, or the past of a garment. In the Portal workshops of Elisa van Joolen, where the garment is laid down to rest while the wearer answers a set of questions about it, time is taken to really think about what the garment means, it’s history and value. I wrote this piece for the Portal 005 Reader in the beginning of the Corona crisis, and it was quite fitting for the moment. For one because we could apply this idea to our lives in times of Corona: If fastness is a tool for alienation, the abrupt changes in regards to our daily life, health and politics due to Covid-19, might have broken through this constant and steady acceleration and productiveness, giving some of us the opportunity to pause and think about the past and present.
In regards to fashion I think we could agree that keeping up the fast pace of fashion and being oblivious to for example the history of a garment’s production, is comfortable, because we know that the real stories are shocking. And I believe this relates to your question about how the fashion(industry) should/could be more transparent and honest about its problems like overstock, pollution and human rights. However, personally I’m very skeptical about positive change coming from the fashion industry, because in essence the only way to make profit is through fastness and alienation; by hiding its reality. I also wrote about this in the same piece for the Portal 005 Reader: Alienation in fashion is not just a result of acceleration, it also works the other way around; alienation facilitates fashion’s fast circulation. The industry, for example, creates alienation by hiding production processes or presenting a masquerade through brand stories. By not knowing the story behind a garment — the true production process, including its waste, labour exploitation, etcetera — it becomes easier and more attractive to purchase the item. Knowing the true story behind the garment might make us more hesitant to consume.Fastness is also a way to create alienation, as it is hard to keep up and there’s no time to contemplate. Therefore, fastness and alienation are inherently connected; alienation is a result of fastness, but alienation is also necessary to drive the circulation of products and keep up the fast alienating pace of fashion.
Working in fashion, and having a bit of an idea about the backend of the fashion industry, the exploitation and pollution, I recognize this feeling of guilt you have, and of finding it hard to experience pleasure through fashion. For me it works to realize that fashion has many shapes and forms. I personally try to make a distinction between the fashion industry and other forms of fashion; the fashion industry is just one of the many forms of fashion. Unfortunately, it is the predominant form and probably the one form we think of when we use or hear the word ‘fashion’. This is why we now see fashion in general as an exploitative system, which is understandable and probably, if we really want to change the industry, even necessary.
As Hanka mentions in her letter, we are all working on creating an alternative discourse (and I am happy to actively work on that in my work for ArtEZ, within my own practice and within Warehouse) and she justly poses the question ‘what the use is of an alternative discourse when the system (FdV: I would say industry) can’t or won’t change’. In general, I believe fashion can take place outside of the fashion industry and without consuming new garments (without fastness). Personally, I have found another way of fashion that I can enjoy without feeling guilty; I go to second hand shops, local un-curated ones. In these shops the import is irregular, clothes come from various times and prices are often determined by the physical state of the garment. There are no pre-determined style decisions or trends, no in-store fashion branding, and besides that, as a consumer you are forced to look at the quality of the garment, the construction, the material. More importantly; by buying it you are not directly financing the industry and because the garments are affordable and non-polluting (no new production) it creates the possibility to more freely play with garments. As soon as I’m done with a garment I remake/adjust it, give it to friends or family or bring it back to the second-hand shop.
The problem is that, as we are stuck in the contemporary system determined by the industry, we find it hard to picture alternatives. (I’m aware that my personal example is just a small private alternative). In general, I would like to see garments as tools for cultural expression instead of style and trend. An example of this is the facemask: as a newly inserted garment in our daily reality, this small piece of fabric brings up a lot of discussion; It’s seen as a symbol of morality, danger, solidarity and besides that it’s also functional. During BLM protests the same facemask is used as a banner and garments become signs of solidarity.
So, to me the fashion industry is not relevant, but fashion in the sense of garments as tools for cultural expression, that support alternative scenarios and networks, definitely is.
Although I’m not very positive about the industry, the good thing is that we are noticing a more radical and activist attitude from students, they are concerned, more aware and politically outspoken. Education is essential, like Hanka states, and this is something I truly believe in. We just have to make sure that fashion isn’t educated through the industry and its media outlets.
I’m inviting you, Aurélie van der Peer to join in and I’m curious what your thoughts are about fastness in relation to alienation, and education in relation to alternatives scenarios. I’m looking forward to your response.
With the rise of the BLM movement we are also becoming aware of another dimension of the fashion industry; exploitation based on colonialist and racist constructs of labor. The documentary ‘The 13th’ shows how in the USA forced labor takes place in a prison system of mass incarceration which is built upon racist concepts of criminality. DuVernay, A. (2016) The 13th[Online video]. 30-09-2016. Available from: Netflix. [Accessed: 20-06-2020]
Lijster, T. (ed.) (2018). ‘Beyond The Echo Chamber, An Interview with Hartmut Rosa on Resonance and Alienation’. In: The Future of the New. Artistic Innovation in Times of Social Acceleration. Amsterdam: Valiz.
Bernard Stiegler is a French philosopher.
Lijster, T (ed.) (2018) The future of the New. Artistic Innovation in Times of Social Acceleration. Amsterdam: Valiz. p.11
Crary, J. (2013) 24/7, Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso
In Vestoj number 5 Anja Aronowsky Cronberg writes: ‘Fashion depends on the perpetual movement — onwards, forwards — and in so doing, it must renounce its own history’. From:Aronowsky Cronberg, A (2014) Editor’s Letter. Vestoj. No. 5. On Slowness. p.10
I’m aware that this only applies to some people, and not to people that work in healthcare, hospitals etcetera.
In the documentary Rebellen Tegen Reclame (Rebels Against Advertising) the French city of Grenoble is used as an example. In this city public advertising is forbidden by the local government. In the same documentary lawyer Ramsi Woodcock explains: “Our lived environment is an education in itself; when you go out on the streets, billboards that you see, the commercials that we see on tv, everything that comes into us on a daily basis, is part of that education. Education doesn’t stop in de classroom. And so, we have to understand that if we allow advertising, we’re making an educational choice. A choice of what kind of human being to have in society”.
Brouwer, K (2020) Rebellen Tegen Reclame. [Online video] 22-03-2020 Available from: https://www.vpro.nl/programmas/tegenlicht/kijk/afleveringen/2019-2020/reclame-rebellen.html. [Accessed 02-06-2020]