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Fashion Held in Common

The new curriculum of the M.A. Fashion Design at ArtEZ is called ‘Fashion Held in Common’. In this essay, Pascale Gatzen, head of the programme, shares her vision on fashion, language, and commoning based on her personal experiences, and she explains how this is integrated into the new curriculum.

Life-Alienating Communication

From an early age, most of us in Western countries have been educated to speak and think in judgements. We learned to use language to compare and classify people and their actions, including ourselves and our own. Our attention became focussed on analysing and determining levels of wrongness. The use of moralistic judgements is life-alienating communication. It traps us in a world of ideas about rightness and wrongness; it is a language that dichotomizes and creates separation.

This is the use of language that has been promoted in our society and that we have internalized; it frames the perspective through which we view the world, others, and ourselves.

I remember very well that I didn’t dare to come home when I had a bad grade in school—disappointing my mother was the thing that I dreaded most. A bad grade meant that I had not been studying hard enough. Her disappointment in me was insurmountable, and I was left feeling insufficient and unable. She would also praise me in front of her friends when I had done very well in school. I was praised for being in the top of my class. It made her feel accomplished as a mother; it affirmed her idea of being a good mother, and it negated her fear of not being one. I know that my mother wanted us to do well and the only way she knew how was to make sure we received a good education. Her needs were to care for and to contribute to our well-being, her strategy was that of domination and control. If we didn’t comply with how she thought we should or should not behave, she would love us a little less. From an early age on, I learned that love was conditional.

God evaluates everybody: if we are good, we get rewarded and we go to heaven; if we are bad, we get punished and we go to hell. In our Western culture, the people who were considered closer to God were regarded as superior to the people beneath them. They dictated what was thought of as good or bad behaviour. We have superiors who have the right to control the people beneath them at all levels of our society. We have parents who think they are superior in the realm of the family. In schools we have been educated that our whole life was dependent on how other people judged us. Blame, praise, criticism, punishment, and reward—this is how we have been systematically educated for thousands of years.

The use of language as a way to control and dominate is also the language through which neo-liberal thinking has been able to advance its agenda. As Foucault points out, with the rise of neo-liberal thought in the West, the concept of governmentality has transformed radically: the idea that society should be left to regulate itself naturally means that the freedom of the individual and the regulation of the population have become subtly intertwined. Separated and divided by competition, we are challenged to be the entrepreneurs of our own lives.

Neo-Liberal Fashion Education

Fashion education has become a tool to position ourselves favourably in a market that is emerging as increasingly homogeneous. Growing up in social and educational systems of oppression, we have learned to prioritize uniformity and discipline over curiosity, playfulness, and spontaneity.

Modelled after industry and Spectacle notions of success, most fashion educations still prepare students to become star designers. Being educated alienated from their own needs and true potential, students develop as dependent and fearful human beings. Reliant on external affirmation, they perpetuate the narcissistic dimension of the capitalist paradigm that governs our society.

Even though Fashion as appropriated by capitalism promotes and prides itself on the notion of the ‘new’, nothing ‘new’ can ever occur in a capitalist paradigm. In a capitalist paradigm, there is only one perspective; the ‘new’ is always already structured relative to and contingent upon one value—financial gain.

Up until this day, I am unable to collaborate with my best friend and fashion designer, Saskia van Drimmelen. In the late 80s early 90s, we were both educated in the B.A. Fashion Design programme at ArtEZ. At the time, there was only one value that was truly supported and communicated: we were all competing to become the next big fashion designer. Whenever Saskia and I collaborate, old habits of being in competition are triggered and we have to contend with them.

In the 90s when I was working as a fashion designer in the Fashion System, I believed that the only way to be seen and to be loved was when I was successful in that system. I did not know another reality; I didn’t recognize any other type of success. If I wasn’t successful and didn’t find recognition within the system, my life had no meaning and I would not be loved. This might sound dramatic and extreme, but this was the fear that was propelling me to alienate myself more and more from my life energy and my needs. I didn’t have a personal life; all my time was invested in meeting intangible expectations which I had internalized and solidified as a real but not true reality.

What if the way we have learned to use language is preventing us from creating a more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible? What if our use of language is structuring our thoughts in such a way that we inevitably perceive the world in dualities and categories? What if our dualistic mind continues to create stories of separation and opposition? What if it persists in grasping and solidifying an ever-changing reality into fixed concepts and ideas about ourselves, others, and the world?

Compassionate Communication

Can we imagine a consciousness, a language that is life-affirming? Can we imagine a use of language that emerges as a process always in connection with that which is alive in ourselves and others?

Compassionate communication is one of the core practices in the ‘Fashion Held in Common’ curriculum. Compassionate communication begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that we have an intrinsic need to give and contribute to the well-being of others. It assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that each of our actions forms a strategy to meet one or more of these needs. These basic human needs or values, such as our need for love, connection, companionship, being heard, and being seen are never in conflict. Rather, conflict arises when strategies for meeting these needs clash. We only resort to violent strategies that harm ourselves and others when we do not recognize more effective strategies for meeting our needs. Marshall Rosenberg calls judgements tragic expressions of unmet needs. Under every judgement we pass lies a beautiful need that wants to be expressed.

One of the main practices of compassionate communication is emphatic listening. By listening emphatically, we connect with what’s alive in the other person. It’s not an understanding of the head in which we only understand mentally what another person says. Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person and the life that’s alive in them. Empathy involves emptying the mind and listening with our whole being. When we listen to ourselves and to others with our whole being, we focus on listening for the underlying feelings, needs, and requests.

Once we understand and connect to the underlying needs in ourselves and in others, we can create strategies for meeting these needs in ways that create connection, joy, and well-being for everyone. If we intend to hold everyone’s needs equally, we will discover life-affirming strategies to meet them. Harmony and learning for future cooperation is developed when people identify shared needs and collaborate to form effective strategies to meet them.

The process of compassionate communication is a creative process. Once we become more familiar with the consciousness of compassionate communication, we discover that there are a thousand strategies for meeting each one of our needs. In answering the question ‘How can we make life more wonderful?’, we develop an inspired and generative approach towards all aspects of our life.

Although the principles of compassionate communication seem simple and logical, the practice of compassionate communication is counterhabitual. Our minds are wired to categorize and pass judgement. It takes substantial and repeated practice to come to clear, specific, and measurable observations about what is happening and to connect to the feelings and beautiful needs that are alive in ourselves and in others. Krishnamurti considers the ability to observe without evaluating the highest form of intelligence. When people first start practicing compassionate communication, the recognition of having needs often translates itself into the negative judgement of ‘being needy’. We hold many negative judgements about ourselves which obscure and block our capacity for self-empathy and, consequently, empathy for others.

Fashion Held in Common

At ‘Fashion Held in Common’, we seek to support participants in creating their practices from what is alive in them, instead of having them answer to internalized and external expectations. In the first semester, self-connection and an understanding of the values and needs that are very much alive in them connects them to their authentic and vital life energy. Once we learn to practice from what is alive in us, we can also more easily connect to what is alive in others. Most of our basic human needs—such as love, connection, community, and friendship—are relational. We support participants in organizing their practice in such a way that it makes life more wonderful, both for them and the people they choose to work and connect with.
To hold something or each other in common means that we are in a relationship of mutuality and interdependence, no longer in a relationship of domination and control. Silvia Federici points out that no common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed, if ‘commoning’ has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. Marshal Rosenberg underlines that our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are, in fact, one and the same.

Practicing from a framework of shared human needs and values helps us to move beyond a world in which the only reality is the logic of the market—a world in which our activities are always being valued as being economic or uneconomic and in which our strategies need to meet market and or Spectacle notions of success.
When we focus on needs, our creativity flourishes and solutions arise that were previously blocked from our awareness. Underlying all human actions are needs that people are seeking to meet. Understanding and connecting to these needs creates a common ground for connection, cooperation, and more harmonious relationships on both a personal and global level.

‘Never walk when you can dance’ – Marshall Rosenberg

That which is alive in us—our feelings and our needs—is in constant flux. Compassionate communication doesn’t assume a past or a future; it expresses and connects us to what is alive in us, right here and right now. Compassionate communication is an embodied practice, it is a language of life, a language that emerges from listening with our whole being. When we are intimately connected to what is alive in us and others, perspectives of rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness, that have kept us hostage for such a long time slowly dissolve in favour of a language and a consciousness that assists us in connecting to a life filled with creativity, connection, and joy—a life in which our natural giving thrives and contributes to the well-being of others and ourselves. Just like me, every person has a unique gift to give to the world and just like me they will not feel happy and fulfilled unless they are giving their gift.

We still live in a myth of separation, a myth in which everybody is in it for themselves and where we are always competing with each other; more for me means less for you. Can we transition to a new story, a story of interconnectedness in which more for me means more for you? A story in which we see the beauty in the other person and the life that’s alive in them. When people can see each other’s needs, we see our oneness; we then understand that we get more joy contributing to each other’s well-being than trying to dominate or compete. Every time we act from the new story we disrupt the psychic substructure of the old story and we offer an alternative.

‘I want to make, move, learn, teach, exchange, I want to dance and feel light, I want to share this feeling. I want to fall in love with the world again.’ – Alya Hessy, 2018, participant in the M.A. Fashion Design, ‘Fashion Held in Common’ at ArtEZ


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Pascale Gatzen

Prof. Pascale Gatzen  is the head of the Fashion Design Master’s programme at ArtEZ and also an artist, educator and fashion designer based in New York and Arnhem, The Netherlands. Within her art and design practice, Gatzen produces and facilitates large collaborative projects using clothing as her main medium. Embracing fashion as a mode of human togetherness, the focus of both her artistic practice and her teaching is on the relational and empowering aspects of fashion, advancing cooperative models of production and exchange. As an Associate Professor at Parsons of Design in New York she developed and implemented an alternative fashion curriculum with an emphasis on community, self-expression and love. She is a founding member of ‘friends of light’ a worker cooperative for textile production in the Hudson Valley, New York. She is the new Head of the MA Fashion Design program, at ArtEZ, University of the Arts, Arnhem, The Netherlands where she is creating and implementing a radically new curriculum named Fashion held in Common. Her work has been shown and published internationally.