Fashion Data: Calculating the Cost of the Fashion Machine

A sister exhibition to Fashion Hacked at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, Fashion Data is a stark reality check about the consumption of clothing and its societal meaning both in the West and East, along with the environmental implications for the planet. 

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Fashion Data incorporates Fashion Machine: an installation by Conny Groenewegen in which she slashes and re-works a typical leftover product of the fast fashion/clothing industry, the fleece sweater.  Conny and her team of students cut up and ‘re-spun’ the fleeces onto giant spools and looped them onto huge looms’ to demonstrate the scale of waste and the banality of the fleece jumper, which is largely undesired as a second-hand product and regularly finds its way into mattresses at the end of its lifecycle, or worse still, landfill.  Conny makes thought-provoking statements about the role of designers in mass manufacturing for fast fashion, summed up in the set of stills below, followed by a film documenting the creation of the Fashion Machine installation. 

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To view Conny Groenewegen’s fashion and knitwear design process in depth, watch this video.

In the film, note the polyethylene (PET) water bottles in the background, from which fleece jumpers have historically been made.  The recycling of PET bottles into polyester fabric to create fleeces is fascinating.  See the full process here.

Balancing Conny’s visual representation of physical waste is Fashion Data – a series of black and white (visually and metaphorically) statistics that give a context to the current European habits of purchasing, wearing and disposing of clothing.  I’ll let the numbers do the talking.

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The exhibition was curated by fashion historian José Teunissen.  Her publication Fashion Data is available to read online and fleshes out the numbers stated above.  It’s essential reading and explains the historic foundation of Fast Fashion, its environmental impact and the emerging slow fashion movement.  It is also a useful visual summary of the Fashion Data exhibition that’s as good as viewing it first hand.  To paraphrase Teunissen, 30% of today’s clothing is sold at the recommended retail price, another 30% disappears in the sales and 40% remains unsold or doesn’t even reach the shops.  This is the deadstock I spoke of in my previous post Fashion Hacked.   Today’s overproduction of Fast Fashion produces an enormous amount of waste with negative social and environmental impacts.  There are solutions being developed to make materials production cleaner and more sustainable, but the business of, and appetite for, Fast Fashion remain strong.

Fashion Data also alerted me to the work of Dutch fashion brand Youasme (womens) Measyou (mens), which launched in 2010 as the world’s first crowdfunded fashion brand creating slow fashion collections of high quality made-to-last knitwear and accessories.

youasme_measyou_pilgrimage_photo_j.w._kaldenbachImage: J.W. Kaldenbach

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.00.23 Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.00.44 Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.01.04An understated androgynous collage – Youasme Measyou AW14 collection.  Images: Blommers/Schumm.  Styling: Maarten Spruyt

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On a stylistic level I was also struck by the natural ease of Youasme/Measyou’s androgyny – it feels tangible and forever.  This is in stark contrast with the overt androgyny expressed by some current fashion designers, including JW Anderson, whose work feels firmly ‘of the moment’ and deliberately provocative – more a scream of gender bending than a quiet dissolving of the aesthetic gender divide.  No doubt both have merit and power for different reasons but it strikes me that Youasme’s expression feels more real; more authentic.  Herein lies the ever fascinating aspect of fashion’s aesthetic debate – its subjectivity.

In addition to Youasme, a host of Dutch designers are utilising sustainable materials and practices, highlighted in conjunction with Fashion Data at Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Temporary Fashion Exhibition.  Here’s a roundup.

paulin1Pauline Van Dongen‘s washable, wearable solar panel knitted shirt.  Image: Liselotte Fleur

The parting insight delivered by Fashion Data comes in the form of award winning film Unravel by Meghna Gupta.  Shot in India, the film illustrates the end point of clothing from the West that is sent for recycling and reveals the gaping divide between East and West and the perceived value of clothing.

The film runs deep into value judgements about society as a whole.  It is shocking and revelatory.  Some Indian factory workers assume that clothes being bought from stores like Primark are very expensive, meaning that Western consumers are very wealthy and can afford to simply give away their clothes for recycling and buy new ones. They also draw the conclusion that Western women are more worthy and beautiful compared to Eastern women because of this excessive consumption.  One female factory worker ponders, while removing decorative crystals from underwear, what the wearer must have done to deserve such a fate – stones on her underwear?!  She concluded the woman must have been forced to wear it as some form of punishment for bad behaviour.  Her comment is a stark reminder of a practical and functional attitude towards clothing, and of patriarchal dominance. 

The full length film can be viewed here. It is a profound and perspective-inducing film that is equally compelling and educational.  Further clothing recycling information is available here.  For information about the sustainable fashion effort in the UK, click here

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Fashion Hacked – The Designers Giving Zara a Lesson in ‘Derivative Design’

There are constant rumblings throughout the fashion industry about copyright, Fast Fashion and IP ownership.  Add to this debates about the impact of Fast Fashion outlets copying designer fashion and you have to wonder; how will small independent designer brands survive in an industry that is getting faster and cheaper by the day?  Independent designers can’t compete with the likes of Zara, the mega-brand owned by Inditex fashion magnate Amancio Ortega who was for a time last year the richest man in the world ahead of Bill Gates and is currently the second richest.  

Zara can copy a design developed and crafted by an independent designer or more established fashion house – check out this example of Zara copying Celine – that may have taken months to create and have a cheaper version for sale in their stores within weeks of that design being presented (and snatched). How should independent designers confront this?  If they claim infringement of their design rights can they afford to pursue legal action against the likes of Zara?  Doubtful.

tmm_hacked_1_foto_johannes_schwartz tmm_hacked_3_foto_johannes_schwartzImages: Johannes Schwartz

Dutch designers Alexander van Slobbe and Francisco van Benthum took the bold and unexpected approach of hacking Zara and other retailers guilty of copying theirs and their contemporaries designs – they’re playing them at their own game. They’ve added another phase to the clothing lifecycle by purchasing a huge quantity of dead-stock (unsold and out of season clothing that often goes to landfill) from clothing retailers selling garments ‘inspired by’ or derived directly from the work of other designers and re-engineered it to make it new.  Some garments had pockets added.  Others were slashed and had sections of fabric inserted into them to create new silhouettes.  In summary, the duo have created a new collection from a number of unsold ones – hacking the hackers.

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It’s ingenious and inspiring.  It’s green and creative.  The exhibition staff were on hand to explain the designers’ motivation and inspiration, and what was initially a statement about industry ethics and environmental awareness has now grown into a brand.  Pieces from the collection are currently exhibited and for sale at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam and the statement has been so popular and garnered such demand that the designers are setting up an online store too. Their stockists include Margreet Holsthoorn, an expansive gallery-like boutique I visited en route to the ‘Hacked exhibition’. 

DSC01279Margreet Holsthoorn Boutique, Rotterdam

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The exhibition ‘Hacked’ features their ‘re-made’ collection and the work of fashion students from the Willem De Kooning Academie invited to re-engineer clothing and consider the lifespan of a garment following a week long masterclass with van Slobbe and van Benthum.  The thinking here is that if a garment is altered it becomes new and therefore at least equally, if not more, valuable. 

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Workshops are also being held at the Instituut for school children to learn how to customise clothing to renew its appeal – even taking it as far as turning stains on t-shirts into decorative embroidered sections to make them wearable again.

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This exhibition compliments the Instituut’s third floor gallery presentation ‘Fashion Data’, a stark reality check about the Western consumption of clothing and its societal meaning, along with the implications for the planet.  I’ll be expanding on this in an upcoming post.

Right now, fashion is ripe for disruption – hackers welcome!

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‘Prêt-a-Toucher’ – Inside A Very Special Fashion Archive

Fashion exhibitions are generally curated and presented is such a way as to distance the clothing from the viewer – a ‘do not touch’ rule applies.  It’s not hard to understand why, considering the need to preserve and protect the fabrics and construction.  However, it significantly limits our ability to understand the garments and to a degree forces us to see them only as aesthetic objects in static form.  So much about clothes is in the construction, underpinnings, drape, weight, linings and stitching – the heart, the soul – especially in couture, which is made entirely by hand.  You need to look inside to see it through the eyes of the craftsmen and women who made it.

The Temporary Fashion Museum at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam allows just that.  With an exhibition presenting the archive of Eva Maria Hatschek, a Swiss woman who had an extraordinary collection of clothes designed, but (oddly in today’s terms) not made, by designers including Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel and other couture masters of the 1940’s and beyond.

tmm_collected_by_1_foto_johannes_schwartzCollected by Eva Maria Hatschek – Image: Johannes Schwartz

Eva Maria Hatschek was a great appreciator of fabrics, colour and texture and from the 1960’s to 1980’s kept a diary of swatches, photographs and notes about outfits she would have designed by the great designers mentioned above then created by her own seamstresses, usually from Swiss textiles.  Incredibly, at that time (from the late 1940’s)  she would buy the paper patterns for the garments from the great designers and her staff would amend and cut them out and construct them in the fabric of her choosing.  She never threw anything away and the collection is comprised of 1700 pieces in total. 

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While discussing Mrs Hatschek’s collection with the museum staff they explained that it was unclear as to whether there were any limitations on the fabric selection imposed by the designers.  Given our current age of intense copyright and IP protection the selling of fashion house-created patterns to individuals to use at their will seems strangely open and relaxed, although it was very typical of that time.  Some of the fashion houses even provided labels for Mrs Hatschek to have sewn into the garments. 

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Eva Maria Hatschek not only wore custom made pieces by her seamstresses, but she had a vast collection of couture created by Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel.   Incredibly, Mrs Hatchek wore most pieces once only or not at all.  She was a true collector and appreciator of clothing for the sake of the beauty of the textiles, the techniques and craft, not ‘fashion’ as a notion of perpetual newness.  There were no fashion magazines found at her residence, only hundreds of archive boxes and her sketchbooks full of notes on the pieces she had bought and had made.

The fascinating exhibition is displayed as an industrial shelved archive and was made possible by the Swiss Textile Collection, which took custody of the immense collection (of which only one third is available to view in this exhibition) from Mrs Hatschek’s family after she died.  The Swiss Textile Collection wished for viewers to be able to interact with the textiles and understand the nature of the garments through close inspection and touch.  It’s a great privilege to be able to inspect in detail the work of such skilled crafts-people and understand the techniques of stitching and finishing they employed.

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There is a beautiful ceremony around the process of viewing the pieces.  You are first presented with a catalogue, from which you can select garments/outfits to view.  The exhibition staff then locate the appropriate box in the open-shelved archive and once gloved, lay the garments out on tissue paper for the viewer to unfold and inspect.  I see a Chanel three-piece boucle suit which is archived as an ensemble with a silk shirt and matching scarf and boucle shawl.  The textiles are incredible and it is evident that the boucle’ yarn has been woven for the three piece suit, knitted for the shawl and crocheted for the shawl trim.  It shows a great understanding and exploration of textile techniques and creation of complimentary pieces – the same way a fashion designer might explore textiles within a collection and extend their use in different ways across different garments.  It is also a reminder of a historic way of dressing where an outfit was designed and created to be worn as a whole, without styling variation, in stark contrast to the contemporary way of dressing. 

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The Chanel suit reveals inner markings on the waistband which are believed to be the signature of one of Mrs Hatschek’s seamstresses – a star-like motif that can be found on a number of garments.  It’s a hallmark of pride and craft and is a wonderful secret that would have been contained had these garments been exhibited in a traditional way on mannequins. 

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Exclusive fashion made inclusive.  The way it should be and poignantly in line with fashion’s current digital evolution.

The exhibition entitled Collected by Eva Maria Hatschek runs until May 8th.  For further insight into the great fashion collector read the Instituut’s interview with Rosmarie Amacher of the Swiss Textile Collection.  

Header image by Johannes Schwartz

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