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Denier: Fashion's relationships with people, the planet and profit

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tent in a field
tent in a field
tent in a field
Written by
Shonagh Marshall
Published date
04 November 2020

By Shonagh Marshall, Curator and MA Fashion Curation Alumna.

In May 2019, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment. In it, they refined the wording they would use to talk about the climate. The editor-in-chief Katharine Viner explained, ‘The phrase “climate change”... sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.’

landfill

Landfill sites in Accra, Ghana. Courtesy of Liz Ricketts and The Or Foundation

In the lead up to this piece in The Guardian, several events occurred. In October 2017, Sir David Attenborough released The Blue Planet II, exploring the world's vast oceans and the flora and fauna that occupy it. The programme was the UK's most watched of 2017; the first episode attracted fourteen million viewers. There was a strong message at the centre - our oceans were in grave danger, resulting from human behaviour. In the wake, many consumers and businesses reframed their consumption and waste of plastics.

In the following year, there was a swell of insurgency in young people. In August 2018, fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Greta Thunberg spent her Fridays outside Swedish Parliament holding a placard that read ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ (School strike for climate). As her protest gained media attention, more young people joined her. She called for global leaders to act on climate issues in a plain-spoken manner. In December of the same year, Thunberg was invited to make a speech at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

To care about the issue of sustainability and the environment became fashionable. Thunberg appeared on the cover of the Summer 2019 issue of i-D magazine. Vogue, a marker of mainstream fashionable thinking, produced sustainability issues in different territories - Vogue Australia in March 2018, Vogue Paris November 2019, and Vogue Italia January 2020. The former creative director of British Vogue, Jaime Perlman started a magazine in 2018 called More or Less, focusing specifically on overconsumption issues. It claims to be the ‘first magazine to prioritise sustainability in the fashion industry.’ Many emerging designers came to the fore claiming that they were embedding sustainable principles into their practice.

Upon reading the Guardian article, I began to think about semiotics, both written and visual, that we use within the space of fashion. The language within press releases and the media, monograph and thematic publications, and critical theoretic texts. I also thought about the images and the visual cues embedded in advertising and editorial fashion photography. I wondered how these signs and symbols could be subverted. Instead of selling products, could they be edited to sell a sustainable lifestyle? Fashion is well versed in mythologising, touting unobtainable ideas of glamour, luxury, and beauty. What if this marketing might was put behind promoting reuse instead of driving sales of new things?

In the hope of beginning to explore this idea and to unpick the contemporary relationship fashion had with "sustainability," I started Denier, a bi-monthly newsletter featuring a new conversation every two weeks about fashion's relationship to the three pillars of corporate sustainability: people, the planet, and profit. Choosing the word denier for its double meaning from the outset, it asks the subscriber to consider the language we use. The conversations featured are not about the aesthetic principles of fashion, but about how fashion might be a space to shift ideology. They are about the behavioural issues that drive overconsumption and overproduction, the systemic problems, the inequity, and the role of growth and profit.

crochet outfit from the rear

Xuly.Bet, mid-1990s

catwalk view of coat from the rear

XULY BET Fall_Winter 20

It is a live research project, and my hope, over time, is that it will begin to act as a resource, as themes start to appear from the conversations. The project is not funded, so it doesn't need to meet any objectives. It aims to give an overview of the work that is already being done to protect people, animals, and the planet within the fashion space, and the work that needs to be undertaken moving forward. Each person interviewed is an expert within their field and has specific knowledge to share on the current fashion landscape or their work to change the current system.

male model in street

Kristin-Lee Moolman, 2026

For example, the practitioner might be practice-based, such as Ibrahim Kamara, a stylist whose work explores identity, and who often uses second-hand or repurposed clothing. Or Lamine Kouyaté, whose label Xuly.Bët has featured repurposed clothing since the 1990s (he was celebrated for this by the fashion press 27 years ago when he started his company). Other conversations have focused on the research that is being carried out. I have spoken to Liz Rickets, who founded The Or Foundation , and who has undertaken ten years of research in Accra, Ghana, where most of the global North's unwanted clothing goes. Another conversation focusing on the role of research to make change was with Josie Warden, an Associate Director at the social change organisation, the Royal Society of the Arts. Other interviews aim to answer questions I have about the current systems in place, such as the role of marketing within the fashion industry. I spoke with Priya Raghubir, a marketing professor at NYU Stern School of Business, about why fashion marketing is so potent and the behavioral and addiction issues that can be associated with it.

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Image by Kenyon Anderson

I ask each interviewee a final question: what is your vision for a fashion utopia? I don't do this to necessarily find a solution; I am prodding for a concept not particularly based on reality; instead, it gathers opinions. As we are in the grip of a global pandemic, social unrest has rippled through the West, and wildfires and floods plague the earth. I will continue to gather these thoughts together. I will document and arrange them to be called upon when everyone is ready to make some real change.

Shonagh Marshall is a curator, writer and arts consultant with a specialism in fashion and contemporary culture based in New York City.

For more information and if you wish to subscribe to Denier.