October 17, 2020 – October 25, 2020
October 30, 2020 – November 30, 2020
November 20, 2020 – November 20, 2020
November 28, 2020 – November 29, 2020
June 11, 2020 – June 13, 2020
March 24, 2020 – March 26, 2020
January 25, 2020 – January 29, 2020
January 10, 2020 – January 12, 2020

An ongoing conversation

Fashion in times of the coronacrisis, and post-crisis

By Hanka van der Voet

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, May 18, 2020

Dear Danielle,

So nice to hear from you! I am indeed healthy, as are my loved ones. I hope you are well too.

As this coronacrisis continues, I am becoming more and more aware of my privilege. My refrigerator is stocked, I have a job and thus a steady income, a comfortable apartment and am in good health. If something were to happen to me – if I would contract the virus for example – I know I will be able to get the care I need and not have to worry about hospital bills.

Being confined to my home for almost ten weeks now, I am experiencing a sort of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, my world has become very small and I am focusing on my practical day to day tasks, most of which concern getting my students from the MA Fashion Strategy towards graduating in June. Besides the occasional zoom fatigue[3], working from home has been quite comfortable. Then on the other hand, there is the unmistakable sense of impending doom. While there are quite a few people out there who are making the most of their quarantine – baking sourdough bread, developing new work-out routines and starting podcasts – I also have quite a few friends, a significant number of them working in the fashion industry, who are experiencing a less joyous quarantine. They’ve lost their income overnight because their styling or PR jobs got cancelled and collections couldn’t be delivered, and have no idea if and when and how they will be able to get back to work. But as depressing as this news is, nothing beats the news coming from countries such as Cambodia, China, Sri Lanka,  Vietnam and specifically Bangladesh, as you already mentioned. In “Bangladesh cannot afford to close its garment factories” The Economist shines a light on the dire situation in the country. It’s a matter of ‘lives versus livelihoods’[4] over there: garment factories are losing orders from big Western retailers and are choosing to stay open to fill out what little orders are left to stay ahead of the competition, despite the garment factories being the centres of Bangladesh’s coronavirus outbreak.

What has surprised me most during the coronacrisis so far is the number of people who feel the need to step forward as an expert to tell us how this coronavirus is the perfect moment to recalibrate our lives, and think about how to move towards a more sustainable future. Surely, a moment of contemplation can always be recommended, but after reading and hearing[5] trend forecaster and self-appointed saviour of the fashion system Lidewij Edelkoort – to whom you also referred – proclaim the coronavirus is ‘an amazing grace for the planet’[6] my response was similar to this ‘what the fuck’ meme[7]. I wonder if she would manage to make this statement straight-faced in front of a group of Bangladeshi garment workers? We must recognize that choosing to live life in a more sustainable manner – buying eco produce, shopping for clothes at small sustainable designers – doesn’t come cheap. To be able to live sustainably is thus a privilege, and an unavailable option for a large part of the world’s population who struggle to get by on a day to day basis. It is also important to acknowledge that this crisis within fashion is not a “fashion” problem: it is much bigger than that. It is ultimately about valuing profit above human lives, as Jeff Bezos’ accumulation of wealth has shown so aptly[8]. A Bangladeshi garment worker tells it like it is to The Economist after the gloves that were supposed to be given to the garment workers, were kept by the factory bosses: ‘Why aren’t we given gloves too? Our lives are worth less, it seems’[9].

As you may have observed: I don’t think I have answered any of the questions you posed in your letter. I simply do not know the answers. A redistribution of wealth would be helpful; Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Bernard Arnault could actually single-handedly resolve a lot of the issues we are currently facing. But that is wishful thinking. If they were inclined to do good, they wouldn’t have become billionaires in the first place.

One of the initiatives I applaud is Dries van Noten’s call to realign fashion deliveries with real-world seasons and stop early discounting[10]. Signatories to the letter include designers Marine Serre and Tory Burch and major retailers such as Selfridges, Nordstrom, Lane Crawford and Mytheresa. Absent are brands owned by luxury conglomerates LVMH or Kering, and the most destructive forces within the fashion industry: fast fashion giants. So while this could be a step in the right direction, we need way more radical action than this. And what our role can be in this, I’m not sure. We both have been dedicating a lot of time in creating an alternative discourse around fashion, to help move away from the idea that fashion as merely a commodity. But what is the use of an alternative discourse if the system can’t or won’t change?

I’d like to take your invitation to make this an ongoing conversation, and extend the invitation to one of my students in the MA Fashion Strategy programme, Emma Disbergen. While you and I are struggling with the what, why and how of the world around us and the fashion system in particular, imagine what it would be like to be a (fashion) student at this moment. Several of my graduating students have been saying over the past few weeks that they are lacking the motivation to finish their graduation projects, because what’s the use? The world is going to shit, and all they are worrying about is how to get food on the table after graduation. No time for thinking about dream jobs or dream projects. Reality doesn’t permit dreaming at this moment. However, I do believe the key to addressing these challenges lies within education. More than anywhere else it is a place for open discussions and experimentation. Emma has been researching rhizomatic, non-hierarchical structures and open networks, and I feel that that perspective could be a great relevance in moving forward in a post-corona world. Emma, would you like to join us in this conversation?

With love,