What is fashion good for? Part 1

In this essay in two parts Timo Rissanen explores what fashion is good for. In the first part Timo examines how some of fashion’s inherent qualities may prove useful in the face of an uncertain future for humanity.

In this essay in two parts Timo Rissanen explores what fashion is good for. In the first part Timo examines how some of fashion’s inherent qualities may prove useful in the face of an uncertain future for humanity.

Timo Rissanen

Timo Rissanen

At 18, some 23 years ago, a chance encounter with a fashion designer in Finland changed my career goal from conservation scientist to fashion designer. The teenage idealist Me wanted to save birds and their homes as part of a larger quest to understand the world, a quest that still continues. In that encounter I saw a new possibility: I was passionate about fashion but had not considered it as a career. Now I went on to pursuing it relentlessly. I read every book on fashion that the Nummela library had; 1993 was before the Internet existed in any meaningful way. Alongside books, MTV was my window into a magical world made of dreamy Vivienne Westwood ballgowns and the trinity that was Linda, Christy and Naomi, as well as a slouchy sprite-with-a-snarl Kate.

Another chance encounter saw me fall in love and in 1996 I packed a bag and moved to Sydney, Australia. I studied fashion and textile design at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), graduated in 1999, had a menswear brand, showed at fashion week, got burned by a business associate, and then got burned out. In 2004 I decided to take a season off to regroup; here I am in 2016 regrouping. A chance conversation (our choices really are half-chance – it pays to pay attention) led to a PhD on fashion and sustainability, and while I spent eight years instead of the intended three on it, I have been a fashion doctor since 2013.

Alongside books, MTV was my window into a magical world made of dreamy Vivienne Westwood ballgowns and the trinity that was Linda, Christy and Naomi, as well as a slouchy sprite-with-a-snarl Kate.

The insanities of fashion
Fashion is a global industry that produces an estimated 80 billion garments annually. These are in no way equally distributed among the 7.4 billion people globally: the geopolitics of garment production and consumption are materialised theories of neocolonialism. By one recent estimate, a third of all clothing is sold at full price, one third at a discount and one third is never sold. It is incinerated or sent to landfill. While the accuracy of these numbers is still being debated, I am certain from my more than a decade of work in fashion and sustainability that each year hundreds of kilometres of new fabric burns before being made into garments. In addition, we bury or burn millions of new garments each year. To oversimplify: capitalist fashion requires these wastes that I call the insanities of fashion. Most worryingly, fashion’s wastes include the wasting of human lives, by taking Uzbek children out of schools to pick cotton for us, by plunging entire Indian families into toxic dye baths to colour our clothes for us, by forcing young Bangladeshi mothers into fatally unsafe buildings to sew bargain sweatpants for us.

So what is good about fashion, this seemingly grotesque, wasteful, deadly industry? It is an important question to ask, and one that I ask myself regularly. My students ask different versions of it constantly, which causes me to be optimistic for the future of our planet. There are no simple answers; interrogating the question nonetheless reveals useful paths for further inquiry.

By one recent estimate, a third of all clothing is sold at full price, one third at a discount and one third is never sold. It is incinerated or sent to landfill.

Fashion and change
For one, change is inherent to fashion. This does not make fashion business any more resilient to change than business in general. However, many people working in fashion do possess this innate resilience, and we ought to recognise and amplify it. Global politics to date have largely ignored the urgency of this resilience in the face of change. Functionally extinct bankrupt ideas from unlimited economic growth on a finite planet to white supremacy clumsily dressed as patriotism, are routinely used for political gain. Although economic growth in mainstream media is almost solely discussed as a positive force (as a source of employment creation, for example) in our pursuit of growth we have broken through several planetary boundaries, among them any safe pace of biodiversity loss. Despite the uncertainty it creates for our future, politics is dominated by a discourse of growth. Similarly, in recent years a political discourse of patriotism has intensified both in the US and several European countries. A little peeling reveals this as an old discourse of white supremacy. Despite us knowing that both ideas have lead to primarily negative outcomes in the past, we tend to hang onto them, partly due to a fear of change. Fashion is not the only place capable of embracing change and uncertainty, education is another. However it is one we ought to take a better look at for this reason.

Functionally extinct bankrupt ideas from unlimited economic growth on a finite planet to white supremacy clumsily dressed as patriotism, are routinely used for political gain.

Fashion as a resilient, diverse system
Resilient systems comprise different layers, speeds and scales: resilient systems are diverse systems. We must embrace and amplify diversity in all areas of fashion. This diversity must permeate the imagery of fashion to reflect the richness of humanity, in skin tone, in gender identity, in age, in body. I’m a realist about fashion imagery’s power to change the world; alone it will not. Two decades after the brilliant Benetton ads many of the issues they addressed still exist. Conversely, however, imagery that excludes, does so destructively. When we create imagined worlds that intentionally include, we may never know the difference we make. We simply need to trust that we are reaching someone we otherwise might not.

When we create imagined worlds that intentionally include, we may never know the difference we make. We simply need to trust that we are reaching someone we otherwise might not.

We must embrace fashion business at all scales. It is lazy to dismiss small business as not having impact, when much of sustainability innovation occurs in small business. Collectively small fashion businesses make up a powerful global force, and they are as essential to a resilient fashion system as larger businesses. While efficiency brought about by technological innovation ought to be always supported, we have millennia of history of extracting fibre from the world around us, spinning it into yarn and weaving it into cloth. We must embrace the artisan, from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn to rural Rajasthan. Humanity must maintain space for contemplative craft. I dare not imagine a future for humanity where we don’t know how to make with our hands. It may seem a contradiction, that to be resilient in the face of change we must honour the ancient, however, it is not. The point is to remain rich, to remain diverse, as an unknown future comes at us perhaps faster than we realise. Monoculture in agriculture and in fashion makes either system vulnerable. Diversity is one of our best bets.

Fashion and quality of life
Fashion can greatly improve an individual’s quality of life. (In saying that I acknowledge that much too often fashion does the opposite.) While there are important metrics to quality of life, from access to clean water and to education to having enough to eat, there are also qualitative and subjective facets to it, like happiness and satisfaction. For example, you might indicate your belonging to a particular group by wearing a certain jacket. Your innate sense of community may thus be reinforced. This ability to satisfy is not to be underestimated. I argue that the fundamental human needs as articulated by the economist Manfred Max-Neef need to always be present as a context for fashion design. So far, for the most part, they have not been. Therefore we don’t yet really understand the full potential of fashion design.

Fashion can greatly improve an individual’s quality of life

Between 2012 and 2014 I worked with the visionary professor Kate Fletcher on Local Wisdom, a project that investigated how individuals got satisfaction from clothing through inventive and intensive use, instead of shopping for new clothes, for example. For the past four years user-centred fashion design has been a key focus in my research and teaching, and I see a great opportunity for fashion to satisfy diverse human needs better than it currently does. When the satisfaction of fundamental human needs is created as a context for fashion design, the notion of consumer, a somewhat passive shopper, becomes insufficient for the discourse of fashion and sustainability; ‘user’ has agency that ‘consumer’ does not. On one hand satisfaction that is generated without ‘shopping for more’ has the potential to reduce the need to consume. On the other, new business opportunities arise when we begin thinking of fashion as a range of services as well as a range of products. As an example, the outerwear brand Patagonia now employs more than 40 people just doing repairs for customers, or users.

Compelling fashion stories
The final point I will draw out is fashion’s capacity to imagine new possibilities and to tell compelling stories about those possibilities. This capacity deserves deep investigation. Here I mean possibility in the way Werner Erhard has articulated it: possibility as a new domain, as a bringing forth of something, possibility as a manifestation of human creativity. Every inventor in human history dared to imagine something new. Every civil rights activist dared to imagine something new; Martin Luther King most famously in ‘I have a dream’. Let me be clear: I am not equating the work of a fashion designer with the profound work of Dr King, or with the work of Nikola Tesla, for example. It is nonetheless useful to notice that it is part of the expected role of a fashion designer to imagine something new on a regular basis, not entirely unlike the daring to imagine of the great inventors and human rights leaders. Currently, the underlying imperative to do so in fashion is to sell more product and create profit, rather than to imagine a new role for fashion to play in society. What if that imperative was problematised and diversified?

The urgency of our current condition demands more of us in fashion. We have to bring it.

In the second part of What is fashion good for? I will discuss some examples of this as they have emerged in fashion education. I don’t suggest every fashion designer needs a suite of superpowers to fix the world’s ills; rather, as a robust, global, diverse industry we will be able to – together – make a profound difference in the world. Finally, the daring to imagine new forms of beauty must continue in fashion: heroism lives in the daring. Telling compelling, poetic, diverse stories of beauty and challenging dominant notions of beauty must remain at fashion’s heart. Ugly by intention can be an act of courage; ugly by lackadaisicalness we can no longer afford. The urgency of our current condition demands more of us in fashion. We have to bring it.

All this to say that I am forever thankful for that one-night-stand in 1993. It led me to a purpose that might have otherwise eluded me.

In the upcoming second part Timo considers fashion education as a site for speculating on new futures for fashion and for humanity.

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