Straying together – Intersectional feminist fashion design in the climate emergency
We are straying together from a normative fashion design practice. Woven into the fabrics, products, services – the basic structure of the dominant fashion system – are colonial legacies of exploitation and ecological destruction. Trained as a fashion designer, I have been searching for other ways to continue working with clothes in the context of the climate and ecological emergency. In this collaborative project, I find an auspicious starting point: aligning design practice with intersectional feminist politics.
Over the course of four months, I worked with design students Noemi Braun and Leonie Engisch to test out alternative fashion systems here in Växjö. How can we restructure fashion production and consumption according to a holistic view of sustainability? Can we intercept the streams of textiles waste that land in the Global South? What does it take to bring the fashion industry in line with planetary boundaries?
We began an action research process: ‘synergistic research and change-making’ (Fletcher and Tham, 2019). We worked in alliance with Fashion Revolution, curating a series of events for Fashion Revolution Week in April 2022. We collaborated with Röda Korset, organising a pop-up Re-Makerspace on two occasions; hosted an activist film screening; and held a clothes swap party at Oas Café.
These events were our contribution to a local conversation around fashion, equity and sustainability. To create the Re-Makerspace, we sifted through bags of clothing that have been donated to the Red Cross, but had not sold in its store and would be exported for sorting in Germany. We imagined that these clothes would be faulty or so wildly out of fashion that they wouldn’t sell; to our surprise, they were mostly in good condition. We discussed gendered labour and local textiles history with participants, learning about the narrow looms native to this part of Småland, and the resourceful textiles practices that are still in living memory. Meanwhile, we embroidered and mended the ‘unsellable’ clothing. This was a social sewing space to dream up ways of resisting disposable fashion culture.
We then hosted a free screening of Udita (2015) at Palladium, the local independent cinema. It’s a powerful film that follows the lives of women struggling against exploitation in garment factories in Bangladesh. One of the few that gives those engaged in the struggle centre stage to tell their own stories, unfiltered. It provided a moment of immersion in the realities of production that are outsourced far way from sites of consumption like Växjö. How would our fashion habits change, if we lived alongside the women who make our clothes, and had to walk past rows of concrete factories on the way to our local high-street?
The swap party, the following evening, was a small celebration of collective action and agency. In swapping our clothes, we can satisfy our desire to craft our identities differently, outside of the industrial fashion system. We asked participants to write on a clothes tag for each item they contributed to the swap, to share a story about their clothes with the next person. Part of the emphasis, for me, was on creating a convivial moment to share our ideas with potential allies and accomplices.
“We sought to stray together from the path most trodden, to carve out new routes completely by “cutting the bush with the machete,” as the Brazilian saying goes; to build a movement, to form an ocean, while simultaneously reflecting on our different and varying positions and becoming all the stronger for it.”
(Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim, 2021)
We got to know a small community of citizens who are hungry for change, hungry for richer, more meaningful fashion experiences than just being a consumer. I also found that a lot of my designed ‘solutions’ were based on assumptions that needed to be tested. Rather than jumping into a design project expecting to solve inequality, patriarchy, capitalism; the action research process became a way to understand complex systems with greater nuance, and to share these nuances with others.
What does it take to change fashion, as a designer in the climate and ecological emergency? There are a few auspicious starting points that stand out to me. First, understanding the impact of colonial legacies on contemporary supply chains; recognising patterns of dependence built upon centuries of uneven development (Brooks, 2015). Then, questioning the objectives behind our design practices. As Ibada Wadud puts it, ‘we are designing for oppression if we are not designing for equity’ (2022). If we want to achieve new, liberatory outcomes for the fashion system, then we need a radical overarching vision to move towards. What does that vision look like, to you?
Brooks, A. (2015) Clothing poverty: the hidden world of fast fashion and second-hand clothes. 1. ed. London: Zed Books.
Fletcher, K. and Tham, M. (2019) Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan. London: The JJ Charitable Trust.
Mareis, C. and Paim, N. (eds) (2021) Design struggles: intersecting histories, pedagogies, and perspectives. Amsterdam: Valiz (PLURAL, 3).
Wadud, I. (2020) ‘Equity-Centered Design & Design Justice’, 16 October. Viewed 27 May 2022. < https://slowfactory.earth/courses/equity-centered-design-design-justice>.