Searching for the New Luxury?

Fashion Colloquium 2018 revisited

With contributions from APRIA, Pascale Gatzen, José Teunissen, Louise Fresco, Otto von Busch Orsola de Castro, Pauline van Dongen, Lianne Toussaint, Charlotte Bik Bandlien, Tina Gorjanc, Sanne Karssenberg, Kristine H. Harper, Alison Welsh, David Bollier, Timotheus Vermeulen, Nora Veerman, Luca Marchetti and Roya Aghighi

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The Fashion Colloquium: Searching for the New Luxury, organized by ArtEZ University of the Arts in collaboration with State of Fashion, took place on 31 May and 1 June, 2018 in Musis Sacrum in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

During the two-day Fashion Colloquium, a seamstress constructed several garments on the stage of the plenary sessions. As the audience, we could hear the rhythmic sounds of her sewing machine, and of her cutting, making, ironing, and finishing the garments. This durational performance piece by Kasia Gorniak in collaboration with Karolina Janulevičiūtė aimed to bring the process of making a garment to the fore. In doing so, they shifted the focus from designers creating fashion collections—which are usually presented on stage as a spectacle—to seamstresses constructing garments, making the audience aware of the actual time and labour that goes into making clothes. As Gorniak explained, one of their inspirations was Richard Sennett’s work on craftsmanship: “we can achieve a more humane material life, if only we better understand the making of things” (Sennett 8). This touched upon one of the central themes of the Fashion Colloquium and is in line with the main research themes of the Fashion Professorship at ArtEZ. As I argued in Dissolving the Ego of Fashion (2018), it is important to explore how to re-engage with fashion’s materials and materialities, and to develop a critical fashion discourse that does more justice to fashion’s human dimension and to the processes of making clothes.

Starting from the urgency to rethink the role fashion plays in relation to socio-cultural, environmental, and economic challenges in contemporary society, the Fashion Colloquium explored how fashion can serve as a tool for societal transformation. A diversity of creative practices, peer-reviewed papers, and keynote lectures provided the context as well as concrete examples to analyse and critically reflect on the cracks in the system. These contributions also suggested alternative approaches to revalue the practice of making fashion and to redefine the value systems from which we live and work. The Fashion Colloquium hosted more than 40 contributors who presented their academic research, visions, designs, concepts, future scenarios, and new materials. This offered a deeper insight into questions such as: how can we activate the power of fashion—highlighting the role of design, imagination, and aesthetics—to act differently and to move towards resilient futures and equitable societies? How can we envision and create an alternative and more engaged future of fashion that does more justice to fashion’s human dimension? And how can academic research, critical thinking, and creative interventions help to (re)imagine and build another kind of future where ‘fashioned’ human beings and materials have more agency?

This special first edition of the online journal APRIA offers a continuation of the conversations that we started during the Fashion Colloquium. In a variety of media—film, photography, live recordings, interviews, and a podcast of a radio show—this edition presents a selection of creative practices, academic articles, and keynote lectures that touch upon central themes that require further research to contribute to realizing our shared visions. This editorial note contains direct links to all the content of this issue.

The current state of fashion: searching for the new luxury?

In line with the first edition of the quadrennial event State of Fashion (2018) in Arnhem, the Fashion Colloquium focussed on the main theme ‘Searching for the New Luxury’. As curator José Teunissen explains in her introductory article, the classical luxurious dream of fashion is outdated. In light of the current societal and environmental challenges, Teunissen argues that fashion needs to become relevant again and use its strength, such as its seductive power to create new values and new imaginations, “to redefine what beauty, luxury and seduction entail in the twenty-first century”. In her manifesto for State of Fashion, Teunissen redefined the ‘New Luxury’ in terms of, for instance, care, fairness, no waste, reuse, imagination, and agency. This corresponds with the vision of keynote speaker Oskar Metsavaht, who presented his ideas on the ‘New Luxury’, which his Brazilian fashion brand Osklen promotes in the high-end fashion market. In Metsavaht’s view, ethics and aesthetics should stand side by side, and the new luxury is “the association of a design product with impeccable quality, where universal aesthetics is aligned with sustainable socio-environmental practices”. It is indeed a time in which designers, researchers, and, increasingly, representatives from the industry are searching for different ways to transform the fashion system. There is a shared sense of urgency to activate the (imaginative and aesthetic) power of fashion to move towards a more sustainable future society. Yet, in my view, the question is what the ‘new luxury’ actually means and implies, and whether that is indeed what we are searching for.

In his article, Luca Marchetti reflects on fashion and luxury in terms of its ‘relational aesthetics’ (Bourriaud 2002). He discusses fashion’s nature to establish (physical, spatial, or symbolic) relationships between the body and its living context. Analysing the fashion imaginary, luxury brands, and exhibitions, Marchetti contemplates the relational future of luxury and fashion, aiming to move beyond its ‘reign of visibility’. By referring to the notion of ‘aposematism’ (a visual signal by animals to warn predators) as used by artist and brand strategist Lucas Mascatello, he points out the importance of acknowledging the relationality between the culture of clothing and the biological nature of living organisms, while taking into account the strategy that living organisms possess to adapt to their surroundings. This relationality is indeed an interesting redefinition of fashion’s ‘new luxury’. Charlotte Bik Bandlien also aims to redefine the notion of luxury. She does so by analysing, reframing, and unpacking the normcore trend, which she views as an alternative way forward, moving beyond luxury. Speculating on the future of luxury, she states that searching for the new luxury by fetishizing local production and materials is, in fact, a historical reenactment of former forms of luxury. Instead, Bik Bandlien proposes an appropriated version of ‘post luxury’ or the term ‘new new luxury’ to find the new normal.

In addition to these reconsiderations and suggestions to reframe the discussion, Nora Veerman makes an important point in her article by explaining that the notion of the ‘new luxury’ is a controversial term. She refers to sociologist Maxine Berg (2005) who showed that the ‘new luxury’ was used as a term to refer to the new accessibility of luxury products in the time of the Industrial Revolution. As such, this term is necessarily related to increased consumerism and a “growing ethos of disposability”, which is, as Veerman shows, at the heart of the current crisis of fashion (Weinstein 2014). In addition, ‘newness’ in itself is central to the way in which the current established fashion system operates by continuously commodifying ‘the new’, which directly relates to overproduction and overconsumption. As Gilles Lipovetsky has argued, in today’s hypermodernity, fashion operates as a social mechanism characterized by its taste for novelty (1994; 2005). In my view, this leads to the question of whether the new luxury is indeed what we should be searching for, or if we should think in other terms—moving beyond luxury—and use another vocabulary in doing so. Perhaps we are searching for more wellbeing—psychologically, socially, culturally, environmentally? Perhaps we are searching for healthy ecosystems? Perhaps we are searching for a more conscious and human relationship to material objects? To what extent should that be a (new) luxury?

In his essay and thought experiment, Timotheus Vermeulen uses the metaphors of the deteriorating shopping mall—where the air conditioning has created an ‘asthma of the soul’ (De Toledo 2008)—and the Nike Air Pocket to develop a deeper understanding of our current state of being in contemporary society and consumer culture. This is a necessary prerequisite in order to have a better sense of how to move forward and where to go. Perhaps we are actually searching how to step outside of the shopping mall that sells ‘informed naivety’, as well as a sustainable future as the new luxury?

Will it ever be enough?

One of the key issues during the Fashion Colloquium was the discussion on growth vs. de-growth. Whereas the fashion system is largely focused on economic growth and thus continuously craves more and more, there is a desire in society for ‘de-growth’: a sustainable economy not driven by consumption but by other values based on altruism, craftsmanship, economic equality, and ecological responsibility (Ruyters 63). This debate tends to focus on two different perspectives: either (1) we need the big players in the industry if we really want to create systemic change on a large scale, and we thus need to start with optimizing the current system, or (2) the big players in the industry caused this problem in the first place and they are now claiming to invest their profit into new sustainable initiatives, but they are actually still sustaining an unhealthy and destructive system, so we need to embrace smaller, local initiatives that focus on creating alternative value systems. Consequently, the challenge is how to reconcile the values of de-growth with the desire to create impact on a larger societal scale.

During his keynote lecture ‘Re-imagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons’, the author and activist David Bollier—director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center—shared the principles of ‘commoning’ as well as eight strategies to help imagine and build an alternative system with “new structural vehicles for human creativity, ethics, and social engagement to flourish”. He explained how contemporary commoners are exploring creative, post-capitalist forms of provisioning, engaging with our ‘common wealth’ as a social practice, to develop alternative social, political, and economic systems—moving beyond the commodification of natural resources. In Bollier’s view, “the real challenge for socially minded fashion is to develop a parallel economy that can somehow separate and insulate itself from the hyper-capital-driven marketplace that now prevails”.1 Starting from a critique of the neoliberal market-driven economy and of the ever-expanding focus on economic growth and consumption, he proposed that “the next big thing will be a lot of small things”, suggesting that many small-scale initiatives can create the change we need. He also emphasized that we do need the ‘connective tissue’ and the language to connect these small things to a larger evolving story. Pascale Gatzen, Head of the M.A. programme Fashion Held in Common at ArtEZ, already puts into practice some of these principles of commoning in her creative practice and in her workers’ cooperative ‘friends of light’, which produces handmade woven jackets. In her keynote lecture, Gatzen discussed the role of language in her practice and educational vision. Criticizing neo-liberal fashion education, she explains how most fashion educations prepare students to become star designers, alienating them from their own needs and teaching them to rely on “the narcissistic dimension of the capitalist paradigm” that is based upon one value: financial gain. In her work and educational programme, she starts instead from creativity, connection, joy, and cooperation. She aims to develop alternative social and economic systems, starting from fundamental human values and compassionate communication, in order to contribute to our collective wellbeing. Also in line with the principles of the commons, Alison Welsh and Jasper Chadprajong-Smith presented a local, small-scale creative practice: their Tai Lue project. In their visual essay, they present their collaboration with Tai Lue weavers from Thailand to develop sustainable garments from hand-woven traditional cotton textiles and natural dyes.

Whereas these initiatives represent small-scale, local, creative, and social practices that privilege human agency, keynote speaker Louise Fresco, President of Wageningen University & Research, focussed on the life cycles of food and clothing on a global scale, in the context of the worldwide transition to the circular economy. In response to the rise of local, small-scale initiatives, she stated that it “is easy to say it all has to be human transactions, face to face, locally sourced” and also pointed out that “very often, the urban poor have no choice or chance not to pollute or not to buy things that are cheaply and poorly made”. In doing so, she draws our attention to the urgent global challenges that we are facing, again shifting the focus to the need for large quantities of clothing and the responsibility of the industry to reach people who live in poverty, while producing in the best possible way. While Louise Fresco argued for a culture and economy of ‘I have enough’, in the panel discussion David Bollier pointed out that “it will never be enough” in a market-driven economy, which is why he argues for the importance of a cultural shift of building long-term relationships instead of cash transactions. Taking into account most consumer behaviour, can it ever be enough?

Aesthetic pleasure, emotional wellbeing, and love songs

 In the report ‘Fashion at the Crossroads’ (2017), Greenpeace criticizes that major fashion brands “fail to recognize that the overconsumption of textiles is the larger problem that must be tackled. In addition, the promotion of the circularity myth that clothes could be ‘infinitely recycled’ may even be increasing guilt-free consumption” (2017: 6). Greenpeace also found that “design for longer life and promoting extended use of clothing are the most important interventions to slow down the material flow”, emphasizing the importance of the emotional durability of clothing (Ibid.). This demonstrates the importance of a design-driven approach to create more emotional value and connectivity between wearers and users.

In her keynote lecture, Kristine Harper presented her vision on emotional durability and aesthetic sustainability from a design perspective. In her research on “why people dispose of things before their use has expired, while other things are kept and repaired time and time again”, she highlights the human need for aesthetic nourishment. She presented design strategies to store aesthetic—tactile, sensorial—experiences in material objects in order to reduce consumption and prolong the time of being with a product, creating a durable and sustainable bond between subject and object. Fashion designer Sanne Karssenberg’s creative contribution can be viewed as an interesting example of an aesthetically sustainable design process as she explores personalization and actively engaging the wearer as a participant. In her artistic research project Res Materia, she presents an alternative strategy to upcycle worn clothes that have special meaning or affective value for the wearer.

While many sustainable design strategies are based on producing less new clothes as well as reducing and creating durable products, this is far removed from most consumer’s behaviour. In his keynote lecture, Otto von Busch added a refreshing perspective by starting from the question ‘what do we want to sustain and save in fashion?’ and by comparing our desire for fashion to love songs. Whereas we can fall in love with long-lasting classics and opera, he pointed out how love songs—representatives of the emotional Zeitgeist—trigger our inner desires and bodily passions as they accompany the most intimate moments in our lives. He highlights the embodied and emotional dimension of fashion and states that fashion is, not unlike love songs, “a passion, a sensibility of aesthetic desire, an ephemeral wave of pleasurable anticipation rushing through the body”. Instead of starting from an activist resistance against the system, this is an interesting example of engaging with the system in an affirmative and affective way. Perhaps, then, we should focus both on creating sustainable fashion as love songs (products that flow), while simultaneously letting people fall in love with garments that they want to cherish (products that last)? As keynote speaker Orsola de Castro argues, ‘Loved Clothes Last’. She demonstrates how we are addicted to buying and discarding too fast, stating that “waste is a design flaw”, and aims to inspire consumers to buy less and care more to make clothes last longer.2 And perhaps, additionally, we could buy more ‘pre-loved’ clothes, as Nora Veerman suggests in her article?

These contributions demonstrate the importance of taking into account the affective relationship between wearer and object, the aesthetic pleasure and emotional value in the current discussion on sustainable fashion. In this regard, it is interesting to explore how to design clothing that actively contributes to more emotional wellbeing. In their article ‘In Touch with the Now’, Lianne Toussaint and Pauline van Dongen explore how smart fashion can encourage a more mindful relation between the wearer, the garment, and their environment. Drawing upon the postphenomenological notion of ‘material aesthetics’ (Verbeek 2005), they explore the role of materiality to enable more ‘mindful’ experiences of the wearer through creating physical sensations. In doing so, they focus on designing intelligent fashion to create a state of ‘embodied awareness’. As Toussaint and van Dongen argue, this embodied design approach can “positively affect the wearers’ state of mind, causing them to feel more mindful, relaxed or comfortable”, as well as having an impact on how the wearer behaves and relates to the world around her. This highlights the importance of the embodied, sensorial, and affective dimension of fashion for our emotional wellbeing.

Radical imaginations, and the speculative agency of living matter

Whereas designers like Pauline van Dongen are developing intelligent fashion with new technologies, there is also a movement that focusses more and more on new biomaterials and biotechnology. This movement brings together art, design, technology, and science, often from a speculative design approach to develop radical future imaginations. Some of the creative practices—such as the Tai Lue project—featured in this issue go back to natural and common resources, highlighting the social and human dimension of creating hand-made textiles and working with natural dyes, often in collaboration with local craftsmen. Other contributions in this issue express a post-human approach by focussing on growing future materials in a lab by using biotechnology to develop radically alternative systems in collaboration with scientists.

In her project ‘Biogarmentry’, Roya Aghighi explores how living organisms can become an essential part of the design process. Through an experimental design research process, she developed the first non-woven, living, and photosynthesizing textile, which feels close to how linen does. In her research, she speculatively addresses questions such as: what if living organisms are the new materials of fashion? And how would these ‘living textiles’ affect our relationship to fashion’s materiality and our behaviour? In a similar vein, Tina Gorjanc’s speculative design project, ‘The New Bio-ethics of Luxury’ explores how synthetic biology techniques could help to sustain biodiverse ecosystems. In doing so, she developed a speculative scenario, which invites a radical reconsideration of what it would entail to bring back extinct matter: the phenomenon of ‘de-extinction’. Aiming to reflect critically on “what we categorize as a synthetic and therefore unnatural/unsustainable material”, she points out how distinctions between “natural and synthetic, alive and dead are becoming obsolete as new discoveries in the field of synthetic biology are being made”. In a time when the relations between the human and non-human are shifting, these speculative design research projects raise new questions about the future of living materials, ecosystems, biodiversity, and living systems—and help us to reflect on the importance of moving beyond anthropocentrism and human-centred design processes in order to revalue and give more agency to living matter. This offers a radically different, alternative, and potentially disruptive perspective on future fashion matters.

A diversity of contributions and conversations on dissolving fashion’s ego

In addition to the creative practice contributions, visual essays, peer-reviewed articles, and key note lectures mentioned above, this issue also includes interviews with the keynote speakers conducted by our students on the ArtEZ M.A. in Fashion Strategy, a live recording of the keynote lecture by Orsola de Castro, as well as a podcast of the online radio show ‘Jajajaneeneenee’ that was recorded during the Fashion Colloquium. This radio show, ‘Loose Fit’, focussed on inclusivity and diversity and a more embodied way of ‘doing’ fashion.

The contributions to this special issue of APRIA are closely related to the main research lines of the Fashion Professorship at ArtEZ. Starting from the observation that the fashion system continuously feeds its Ego—with, for example, an excess of consumer products, glamour, money, exclusive luxury, constructed desire, and spectacular fashion shows of star designers—I aim to move beyond fashion as an Ego-system and to contribute to an egoless critical fashion discourse. As some of the contributions to this issue—Veerman’s article, in particular—have shown, the ‘new luxury’ is a contested term due to its historical use and meaning. As Mikhail Bakhtin has famously argued, “each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life” (1981), which means that words always carry their historical connotations and traces. Speaking in terms of the ‘new luxury’—even when aiming to redefine it—could thus continue to feed fashion’s Ego. Therefore, I would suggest that we develop an alternative—egoless—vocabulary to express what we envision for the future of fashion.

In the research projects at ArtEZ, we aim to actively engage in creating alternative value systems, humanizing processes of making, and offering more love and care to fashion’s bodies and materials. Over the next couple of years, we will further explore the main themes discussed during the Fashion Colloquium and we are looking forward to continuing these conversations with all contributors and like-minded people to expand our practice of dissolving the ego of fashion together.

Daniëlle Bruggeman

Daniëlle Bruggeman is a cultural theorist and Professor of Fashion at ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem. She teaches on the M.A. Fashion Strategy at ArtEZ and leads the Centre of Expertise Future Makers. The Fashion Professorship aims to develop critical theories and practices in order to explore, better understand, and rethink the cracks in the fashion system and the role that fashion plays—and could potentially play—in relation to urgent socio-cultural, environmental and political developments in contemporary society. Bruggeman holds a PhD in Cultural Studies, which was part of the first large-scale interdisciplinary research project on fashion in the Netherlands, ‘Dutch Fashion Identity in a Globalised World’ (2010-2014) at Radboud University in Nijmegen, which was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. She has been a visiting scholar at Parsons New School for Design (NYC) and at the London College of Fashion. She has published on topics like the fluid, performative and embodied dimensions of identity, (Dutch) fashion photography, and fashion as a new materialist aesthetics. Her publication Dissolving the Ego of Fashion: Engaging with Human Matters (ArtEZ Press, 2018) presents the main research themes of the Fashion Professorship.  

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See the blogpost that Bollier published (13 June, 2018) about his contribution to the Fashion Colloquium: http://www.bollier.org/blog/re-imagining-fashion-ecosystem-commons?fbclid=IwAR347MxlI_L_zDSsOnUcQ2mjFGqUuwdLIVcTwgHUPNGE9vQadlrz2EJwVgs.

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Please also see the Fashion Revolution fanzine, #002, ‘Loved Clothes Last’ (2017): https://issuu.com/fashionrevolution/docs/fr_zine2_rgb.


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