Shaping the fashion of the future & the future of fashion
At the international symposium Can Fashion Save the World, hosted by Antwerp University and taking place between October 20th and 22nd 2021 in context of the Responsible Fashion Series, Johan Pas held a fiery plea for an engaged fashion practice, and the role that fashion and art education can play in this practice.
Op het internationale symposium Can Fashion Save the World, georganiseerd door de Universiteit van Antwerpen van 20 tot 22 oktober 2021 in het kader van de Responsible Fashion Series, hield Johan Pas een vurig pleidooi voor een geëngageerde modepraktijk en de rol die mode- en kunstonderwijs daarin kunnen spelen.
A call for critical elegance (not a manifesto)
Fashion is both a playground fizzling with beauty, experiment, and creativity and a battleground where economics, ecologies, and ethics clash. Its impact on our lives and our environment is enormous.
Can fashion therefore change our world? It already does daily, from the moment we decide in the morning to put some energy into dressing up (or down). As creative, conscious, and liberal people we tend to consider fashion a tool for communication, expression, emancipation, and creation, adding to our experience and perception of society and its actors.
Read this way, fashion today more or less echoes the optimistic idea radiated by abstract art and functionalist architecture in the postwar 1950s: the designed utopia of individual freedom and the politics of tolerance and pluralism in a liberal, democratic, and capitalist society. This is the light, external (some might call it superficial) side of fashion. But, not unlike postwar modernism, it also has a dark side.
By putting continuous and heavy stress on people’s lives and on natural resources fashion also affects the world in a dark and deeper way. We are aware of the speedy and greedy fashion industries, their Eurocentric ideologies and their exhausting processes of labour, production, promotion, propaganda, and distribution. Fast and cheap fashion has a destructive impact on our well-being and our ecosystem in the long term. We all know that the price we pay for affordable fashion is intolerably high and that this system is about to cannibalize itself. We somehow also seem to take this for granted.
Here, sustainable goals and respect for human beings and their natural habitat seem to conflict with the utopia of the democratization and liberalization of design through total and continuous availability and affordability.
As an individual involved in fashion as a creator, a designer, an educator, a marketeer, a producer, a retailer, or a user, we all share a double status. On the one hand we feel like privileged participators in an exclusive world of beauty and creativity. By our concrete behaviour as producers, distributors, or consumers on the other hand, we put stress on the environment and on human beings, and sometimes even find the time to feel guilty about it.
This leads us to the central question of this symposium: Can fashion save the world? No of course it can’t as it is now. Its light side will only make the world a nice and elegant decor (‘I love that dress you’re wearing!’), while its dark side continues to plunder resources, damage ecologies, pollute air and water, and exhaust and exclude people.
Pedagogical freedom is priceless and, by combining creativity with criticality, contains the promise of change. But are we using this potential to the full?
This ambiguous status of both the fashion world and its actors challenges current thinking about contemporary and future fashion education. We might address the situation with another question: Can fashion education contribute to a better world? – Hell yeah!
The light side of fashion can develop, stimulate, and multiply creative attitudes towards a omnipresent and wearable, ephemeral, public, portable, performative art. When considering fashion as an art form, it becomes the perfect tool to bridge the gap between Art and Life, the Holy Grail of the artistic avant-gardes since the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike the fine arts that even today still seem to stay locked in their art world system, and like massively distributed art forms like music, literature, poetry, games, design, and film, fashion penetrates our public lives and our private homes. And it will continue to do so.
Education is key to the fashion of the future, both its lighter and its darker sides. At the core of the fashion system and having the tools to operate both before and beyond it, fashion education holds a huge creative and critical potential. Belgian fashion education is part of art education, funded by the government and not by industries or the market. That provides a great opportunity to educate artists and designers in a non-consumer-driven context, allowing to frame the fashion industries from a critical point of view and preparing students for a transformative role. This pedagogical freedom is priceless and, by combining creativity with criticality, contains the promise of change. But are we using this potential to the full?
Radically enhancing the artistic and creative part of fashion, fashion education can allow critical elegance to provide our lives with an extra dimension. I say critical, because I believe that fashion, to fulfil this function, will have to become more self-reflective about its dark sides and willing to transform its excluding, capitalist, and cannibalizing forces into sharing, healing, and regenerating ones. But to do so, fashion education will have to look the global fashion industry in the face, and take position against its most destructive habits. This process is already taking place, but how can education make it more inclusive, sustainable, and ambitious?
To me this implies that fashion education will have to become (or stay) art education. Art education still benefits from the critical thinking and innovative practices of radical artists and avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 1960s. Think about the pedagogical experiments of the Bauhaus and Joseph Beuys or the institutional critique of Conceptual Art. By facing and undermining the establishment of art education (the Academy) and art presentation (the Museum) and by inserting these structures with alternatives, they managed to transform them, disruption leading to transition.
It is much harder to think of such radical positions in the world of fashion, which has been connected closely with the industry and the market. Fashion nevertheless reaches a far more diverse audience than the radical concepts and output of the historical (neo-) avant-gardes and always has had at least one eye on the market and the industries. When young designers are set free from the direct needs and pressures of the market in order to see it from a different angle, they will become makers of the new system instead of followers of the old one. That is exactly what avant-garde artists did.
Positioning oneself against the fashion industry's most destructive habits is already taking place, but how can education make this process more inclusive, sustainable, and ambitious?
After the transformative avant-garde waves of the 1910s-1920s and the 1950s-1960s, a third and more inclusive and sustainable avant-garde is needed. Having the potential to bridge the gap between art and life, fashion education could take the lead in that wave of transition. Fashion designers in the making should be seen and treated as artists and receive their programme within the context of art education and in close interaction with other art students, which happens to be the cradle of the so-called Antwerp avant-garde. Just like fashion, the art world today struggles with its own Eurocentric frame of reference and the gallery system with its stardom, but since artists attack or question conventions in a more liberated way than most designers tend to do, the potential of change lies there.
Contemporary art practices also embrace institutional critique, interdisciplinarity, social interaction, collaboration, commons- and community-oriented DIY and DIT processes, and this is starting to affect fine art curricula. Reconnecting and mixing fine art and fashion programmes might create zones in which both worlds – the art world and the fashion world – can meet, interact, and merge. Emerging designers might learn from the radical freedom of visual artists, whereas fine art students can learn a lot from the entrepreneurial skills and the self-discipline of designers. This way the factor of free expression, innovative creation, and an inclusive attitude can become central to fashion and therefore add extra value to both our personal lives and to social processes.
To make the difference, fashion education will also have to be research-based education. By questioning its own Euro- and anthropocentric frameworks, by investigating its blind spots, by pushing and pulling the borders, exploring new conceptual, aesthetic and technological territories, and developing long-term perspectives, the creative practice of fashion will be empowered by its critical potential. Together, the creative and the critical forces that are joined in fashion education, will give shape to both the fashion of the future and the future of fashion. Fashion will have to become less fashionable to be more sustainable. Not superficially decorating, but consciously designing a new and a better world.
Last but not least, this mission should ideally be accomplished in a light, playful, and elegant manner. Towards a radical critical elegance: it sounds like a new avant-garde. Let’s make it work!
is an art historian and dean of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, School of Arts of the AP University College.