Reflections on Decolonising Fashion in the Face of Climate Change

by Erica de Greef

Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster was the first critical, discursive event convened by the Research Collective for Decolonising Fashion (RCDF) and hosted by the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht[i] on the 4th of November 2019 in response to how art and design can respond to climate change in the Academy’s inaugural Climate Intensive: 2019.[ii]

Let me begin with our provocation: a fashion disaster. Did we mean a terrible fashion mistake, a fashion faux pas? Or, was this a more serious disaster, such as recent building collapses and factory fires – where the demand for cheap fast fashion has resulted in unethical fashion manufacturing throughout areas like Vietnam, India, China and Bangladesh? Or, is the fashion disaster an environmental issue – whether we look at extreme water usage or deforestation for fashion purposes, or the micro-plastics filling our oceans? Or is the global proliferation of a singular, homogenized, western aesthetic – of sneakers and blue jeans – representing a real threat to global diversity, difference and indigenous identities, and therefore the greatest fashion disaster? It’s clear that these many fashion disasters are multi-layered and range from the micro to the macro, from the personal to the public, and from the cultural to the political. The task of our day-long event was therefore challenging, and necessarily, expansive.

There was a moment about halfway through the day that encapsulated the inter-related complexity of the issues of coloniality, capitalism, taste, consumption and production in the name of fashion at a time of climate urgency. Eva Posas, a Mexican artist describes how,

“…through falsification, everyone in Mexico has these Louis Vuitton handbags. In a way it is a part of commerce; it is reproduction; it is inside a capitalist system. But, maybe while it is inside this reproduction and falsification system, it is actually disrupting the system, as a way to decolonize and destroy the idea of luxury. In the end, some of these items are going to be more special than the original Louis Vuitton bag, because they are so transformed, so touched. They become the most unique” (live-stream: 4.31.00).

The first fashion disaster here is the notion of fake Louis Vuitton handbags and how the status associated with the ownership of high-end luxury fashion is troubled, even tarnished by the rise of fakes where almost everyone can now own one of these esteemed handbags. The second fashion disaster is both cultural and economic, stimulating the need to ‘falsify’ and produce specific commodities to belong in the world in specific ways through the purchase of specific products. The western capitalist system has constructed or built the notion of such expanded attributes or values endowed onto certain products over others, to the economic benefit of a few corporates and the detriment of many makers. A third fashion disaster is the very real possibility of the loss of value of the original Louis Vuitton handbag. With a shift towards a decolonial aesthesis, the ‘touched’ and therefore, hybrid handbag from the ‘margins’ will be deemed more desirable by collectors and eventually by consumers, for its extreme uniqueness, while the original Louis Vuitton handbag will lose its status in the handbag hierarchy.

Collectively this story of fake handbags however speaks to a fourth fashion disaster, which is not identified in the quote above – the silenced, disavowed and rejected Mexican craftsmanship and cultural identities and diversities in the bizarre obsession for a global – even if locally produced – product that has no relation to the history or heritage of Mexico or Mexicans at all. The possibility of other handbags (or other aesthetics) to compete for the attention of shoppers is not specific to Mexico. The Louis Vuitton handbag, at the apex of colonial taste is a global, yet clearly western fashion object, that in its imposed supremacy has aimed to rule out all other aesthetic (and economic) competition, whether in Mexico, Moscow, Maputo, Maryland or Moldova.

The task of the Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster was to engage in discussions that brought together the three concepts of fashion (in all its guises and definitions), sustainability (as praxis and ideology) and decoloniality (as method and conceptual framework), using the day to forge new perspectives on and find alternatives for addressing climate urgency. I arrived about two weeks before the event was scheduled, and together with RCDF steering committee members Angela Jansen, Toby Slade and Sandra Niessen, met with Jan van Eyck Academy artists and residents, various curators and academics from Maastricht, and students engaging in related projects, in the final preparations for the day’s proceedings. The RCDF works as a collective[iii]  to address the hegemony of fashion as Eurocentric, whereby ‘other’ clothing systems and fashion histories are systematically denied and destroyed. The capacity for the fashion to act as a lens though which to explore the deep impacts of coloniality and modernity, and the potential for multi-cultural and interdisciplinary dialogues centred around these issues, led the Jan van Eyck Academy to host the RCDF as part of their Climate Intensive 2019.

Structured around a series of themed dialogues, the day started with the overarching question of “Why decolonize fashion?” as an introduction to various definitions and positions centred around fashion, decolonization and climate change presented by members of the RCDF in conversation with Jan van Eyck Academy director, Hicham Khalidi. Here Sandra Niessen shared her fears for the deep crisis we are in with the total eradication of so many crafts, traditions and cultures. In a short excerpt from Niessen’s film project, The Last Weaver, the disappeared yarns, the absent looms, the un-made textiles momentarily filled the auditorium as a group of weavers in a village called SiAnjur Mulamula in North Sumatra in Indonesia, mimed their embodied memories of carding, spinning and weaving through shared gestures and stories[iv]. These practices of Indonesian Batak weaving will be forgotten by the next generation, despite UNESCO’s convention[v] for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage, not as a cultural manifestation in and of itself but rather for “the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next”(2003).

Niessen’s argument centers around the loss of entire life cycles of cultural practices and the extreme erasure of traditions, which brutally impacts communities, environments and cultures. Guest participant, fashion and sustainability pioneer Kate Fletcher added to these concerns (and other provocations throughout the day), maintaining that in order for fashion to achieve ‘sustainability’, a radical new approach is required that does not follow a growth logic, as outlined in her recently published Earth Logic Action Research Plan[vi] developed together with Mathilda Tham (2019). Fletcher urged that we ‘stay with the trouble’ by envisioning and re-imagining the clothes that we wear, as connected to nature and people (and, if possible, long-term healthy futures), by placing earth first, before profit and before everything.

This re-imagining entails that we also rethink (and reform) the ways in which fashion is taught. Critical, break-away/break-out sessions followed the morning’s introductions, engaging with how fashion education perpetuates particular notions of coloniality and silencing via curricula[vii]. For a more sustainable and broad perception and practice of fashion, fashion education needs revision and decolonisation[viii]. New approaches to fashion education are being pioneered with courses such as the recently launched ArtEz MA in Fashion held in common[ix] which embraces fashion as a mode of human togetherness, with fashion being the common ground through which we share and aim to position ourselves in mutual relationships with others and the earth.

iArts second year students participated in the discussions and presented a series of artistic interventions with provocations around notions and definitions of fashion as an act, fashion as a force or tool, and fashion as culture or ideology. Led by their instructor Nina Willems, the students troubled and disrupted the singular destructive concept of fashion, presenting instead a multiplicity of meanings, contemporary uptakes and future applications. The iArts students were joined by other students and lecturers from AMFI, ArtEz and more, as well as resident artists from the Jan van Eyck Academy.

The loss of stable, fixed or enduring meanings for fashion was also addressed by students Bella de Angelis and Isobel Dyson tackling the gentrification of sustainability, drawing on their previous project Distressed that looked at the disposability of fashion items ending up in the river Maas. Bobbine Berden’s performative installation Scary Sales engaged participants in dialogues with garments lamenting ‘how much am I worth?’, while Elisa van Joolen’s discussion unpacked her participatory project and installation Portal in which participants traced the emotional, material and physical impulses of a garment in a shared act of mapping out alternative mechanisms of fashion meanings.

Looking at the rise of slow fashion in Japan, Toby Slade pointed to the beginnings of a ‘de-centering of western fashion luxury brands’ – as quintessential, global luxury obsessions – with new, slower, Japanese appreciations of luxury taking shape that value Japanese notions of simplicity, tradition and history over imported Eurocentric objects. The call to own less for longer, and to purchase consciously and locally as new value systems emerge that relate to earth, nature and each other, aligns these Japanese consumer shifts (and contemporary re-definitions of luxury) with Fletcher’s Earth Logic.

These new approaches to fashion are also evident in the work of young, emerging designers who are using fashion to voice a plurality of aesthetics and alternative forms of community. For the International Fashion Showcase’s 2019 Brave New Worlds exhibition, held at London’s Somerset House in February 2019, seventeen fashion designers were selected from around the world, including three emerging African designers, South African Thebe Magugu, Kenyan jewellery designer Ami Doshi Shah, and Rwandan fashion-artist Cedric Mizero. [x] As an African fashion curator, I shared the digital capacities of creating the virtual exhibition project of this exhibition, that firstly made the exhibition more widely accessible and shareable (distributing the creative excellence beyond the fashion capital of London), and secondly by layering the physical exhibition with original, locally-produced digital content, the project allows new (and diverse) voices to be heard. [xi]  

The capacity of digital platforms to host new narratives, engage new audiences and commission new voices simultaneously fills in gaps in fashion histories (as well as in contemporary fashion media), and counters or disrupts the stereotypes and misconceptions of other fashion systems. The underpinning hierarchies of fashion, tradition and modernity that continue to oppress and disavow diversity, must be addressed and interrupted, and the notion of fashion must bedecolonized if new understandings of, and spaces for fashion in the 21st century are to be made possible. These challenges form the focus of Angela Jansen’s ongoing research work in the field of dress and fashion in Morocco, and underpin the RCDF’s urgent mission to promote diversity and inclusivity by redressing notions of power, aesthetics and agency expressed through fashion. The final focus of the day asked participants to contribute towards the complex journey of ‘where to next?’ as we envisage future Conversations to Redress this Fashion Disaster in a new decade where the climate catastrophe is more urgent, more radical and more evident. Naomi Klein’s film This Changes Everything (2015) ended the day with the powerful, collective voices of those in the sacrifice zones standing up for nature, for community, and for a different kind of humanity that places earth above everything. As Fletcher urged too, “this is both simple, and changes everything” (2019: 6).

As collective members of the Research Collective for Decolonising Fashion (both in dialogues such as these, but also in our independent ongoing projects) we have found support in the writings of decolonial thinker Roland Vazquez in his call to decolonize, proposing that there is a need for decoloniality that,

… is about enabling other worlds to become world. What modernity has done is to suppress the possibility of other worlds to become world (worldlessness). Decoloniality means to reclaim the possibility of naming and inhabiting the world; it is to be able to embody and experience those other worlds. Decoloniality has to do with the question of the vernacular and of verbality; not with having or taking; not with the object but with the verb, being with others and being able to make worlds, recovering the autonomy of naming and worlding our worlds (2018: 191).

[i] Thank you to the team at Jan van Eyck Academy for facilitating the logistics and planning of the event. Plans are underway to continue with these dialogues in 2020.

[ii] Approximately 100 participants took part in the event with individuals from the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, the UK and elsewhere contributing to the conversations. English was the chosen language of the event. In addition, the day was live-streamed and several online dialogues were facilitated. Plans for more international engagement (as digitally-supported) are underway with the intention to continue the work of the project annually.

[iii] The RCDF was initially founded in 2012 by Angela Jansen to end the stubbornly persistent euro- and ethno-centric underpinnings of dominant fashion discourse and to construct alternative narratives, and contribute to the construction of a new fashion paradigm. The collective addresses the urgent need for alternative terminologies and alternative ways of theorizing fashion so that the European experience is no longer privileged as the standard model. It also presents a forum for case studies that fall outside conservative frameworks.

[iv] Captured in her book Back to the Villages, theproject took place in the heart of North Sumatra, the homelands of the Batak. Niessen went there in June 2010 to give her newly- published book, Legacy in Cloth: Batak Textilesof Indonesia (2009) to Batak villagers who otherwise would never have the opportunity to see it and never have the means to purchase it. Back to the Villages was also a journey about loss and hope, about a culture in crisis and the possibilities of revival and maintenance. Despite the efforts of generations of weavers, the tradition is now in decline and crisis. Heirloom textiles have disappeared into the hands of tourists, collectors, museums, dealers and others. Poverty limits the capacities of the weavers and globalization has shifted the focus of the youth away from their culture.

[v] Convention of the 17th of October 2003, considering the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development, and an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization

[vi] The starting point of the Earth Logic Plan for fashion was the uncompromising deadline of a decade to avert catastrophic climate change and recognition that the necessary shift in knowledge and behaviour is dramatic.

[vii] Decolonial educational activist G. T. Reyes argues that to ‘actively work through discomfort in critical and humanizing ways opens up transformative possibilities. Without doing so, people remain unaware or complicit in the colonial project and therefore reproduce it’.

[viii] Dr Ben Barry of Ryerson University reflects on How Fashion Education Prevents Inclusivity describing how “fashion’s future creators and decision-makers are taught a narrow worldview in school, helping to perpetuate racism, fatphobia and other damaging tropes that plague the industry”, calling for urgent decolonalisation of fashion curricula

[ix] The core values of the Fashion held in common are care, trust, learning, growing, participation, autonomy, communication and community.

[x] The designers used fashion to raise awareness around issues of climate change, colonialism, waste, new materials, nostalgia, remembering, diversity, cultural revival, the loss of artisanal memory, animal and environmental activism, landfills and dead-stock, and rising sea-levels.

[xi] The digital exhibition, interviews and content creation was curated by co-founders Erica de Greef and Lesiba Mabitsela of the African Fashion Research Institute [AFRI] and is hosted on Matterport.


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