I still remember starting out on an undergraduate fashion design course as a first year student, full of hopes and dreams, as well as some serious misunderstandings about the ‘glamorous world of fashion’. During my undergraduate years I found it hard to find my own design style and identity. As design students, we were mostly left to our own devices to figure things out and we all fell into the fashion student trap of poring over the pages of Vogue and looking to luxury, high-end designer labels, past and present, for inspiration. No alternatives like Gary Harvey, Dr. Noki or Junky Styling were presented to us. Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood were as ‘out there’ as it got.
When sourcing fabrics for our collections we were advised to look at silks, suiting and wools from suppliers already working with the high-end labels we were aiming to emulate. To be sent off on a two day fabric buying round trip with an empty suitcase to fill and a fist full of debt was commonplace. Tears were shed and money was begged, borrowed and loaned from banks, parents, ‘hardship funds’ and each other. At no point was there even a hint of looking to what we could source more readily, cheaply, locally and sustainably. Perhaps some charity shop upcycling or finding out what the local garment factories did with their waste? Even a look at what we could make from our own discarded clothes? These actions would have been the very tip of the iceberg had we even had an inkling of what we were really getting into in the fashion industry.
Alongside the fashion design course, contextual studies focused mainly on design and cultural phenomena – from Epcot to psychedelia via wearable tech and semiotics. And while these studies were invaluable in situating our design thinking within a wider context, I can’t help but feel an opportunity was missed to educate us about the wider world of fashion and its greater truths. What happens in a fashion supply chain for the average white cotton t-shirt for example? Where is the cotton grown? Who picks it? Who spins it, knits it, cuts it, sews it? How fast do they have to work? What do they get paid? How does this relate to what I want to do when I leave university? Will I get to make any decisions as a designer that affect this?
These questions were just never asked to us or by us, or by our tutors and lecturers. So many of us were so keen to fit in and be liked that we just never thought to look outside the consensus of what we thought ‘fashion’ consisted of. Yet, in truth, we had been primed to absorb new ideas and shape them into our own world view. I realise now how ready I was then to receive the wisdom of ideas that would frame the world of fashion in the context of protecting and sustaining the wider world around it, linking all parts of each cycle and uncovering the implicit interconnectedness of all things.
If we had the chance to start all over again, maybe we could do things differently? Maybe this time I’d ask more questions; maybe you would too. Even if we didn’t have the answers, part of the creative inquiry you would be teaching us would be how to search for those answers ourselves, with just a gentle nudge in the right direction. It’s a journey we needed guiding on as students. Where to find the different options in sustainable fashion, what to read, what to watch, who to listen to. Maybe we could have gone to the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin instead of Première Vision? Maybe we could have visited a local garment factory or textile collecting plant – just to see what comes out the other end of the fashion industry? Perhaps next time you sit down to plan the content of a course or a unit you might think about this letter, and how you can direct your new students towards a path where change is possible and they are the ones making it happen.
Hasn’t fashion always been all about transformation?
A fellow traveller.
[Submitted by an anonymous group of fashion educators for the co-operative inquiry project, 2017]