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Otto von Busch on sustainability: “What is it we are so eager to sustain?”

By Jackie Mallon


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Opposing headlines on sustainability dominate our fashion news. There’s can-do optimism one day and apocalyptic gloom the next leaving the average consumer scratching their head in confusion. While brand after brand steps forward to boast of their latest sustainability credentials, The Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report by the Global Fashion Agenda in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group reveals that the pace of sustainability progress has slowed by a third since 2017. FashionUnited spoke to Otto von Busch, author, theorist, and fashion “hacktavist,” who is at the front end of academia’s embrace of alternative fashion strategies as Associate Professor of Integrated Design at Parsons, The New School for Design. While he cuts through the noise with machete-like precision and offers an authentic sustainability status update, he poses as many questions as answers. And that's just the strategy he advises for all.

Sustainability and circularity are words that occupy every forum where industry professionals gather but the process of change can seem to be one step forward, three steps back. Do you agree?

I always think we must start the conversation with asking what it is we really want to sustain in fashion. What is it we are so eager to sustain? Is it the celebrity culture? The cheap habitual weekend purchases? The over-hyped fashion weeks? The haul culture and over stuffed wardrobes? The sleepless midnight purchases on-line one hardly remembers in the morning? No, seriously, what is it with the current model of consumption we feel the need to so desperately preserve?

But what concerns me the most is that across the whole field of fashion, designers and theorists have been blinded by the current success and glitz of fashion, and it has left us lazy and visionless.

What do you think is the singular biggest hurdle to the fashion industry adopting circularity?

So, firstly, what do we mean by circularity? Taking clothes back into the store for brands to then, in secret, dump or burn them overseas is not circular. Remaking surplus garments into new clothes that then get dumped next season is not circular either. So far, the very concept of circularity is far from sustainable or in any way circular. There are some very honest attempts to make circularity work, and I think it is important these methods get tested and improved, but on the large scale we must also see that it it is used as a coverup for business-as-usual. But so far, as soon as you hear the word "circularity" the warning lights must go off.

So the biggest hurdle is; We must stop kidding ourselves. Just to draw parallels, we cannot even get our food system to be circular or sustainable. To get out of this mess, we need to rethink fashion as a whole.

So is the focus on circularity a distraction rather than a solution?

The whole current discussion on circularity aims to patch up the current model, keeping us over producing and over consuming and just keeping the wheels turning. The first step is to think beyond being ascetic, austere or to deny the pleasure of fashion; we must think more visionary. We love the sensual pleasures of dressing up for ourselves and each other - so how can we do this with more meaning? How can we do it so more can share in these pleasures without destroying the world? We must take a step back and dream harder; what can fashion be and become? Can fashion be more engaging? Can it be more participatory? Or perhaps more profoundly, can our engagement with garments help us heal? Can it help us become better people? Can it help us envision and get a taste of more bold projections of what it means to live a meaningful life?

All these questions may seem odd at first, but paradoxically fashion designers pride themselves in being "innovative" and "creative" yet the whole industry just keeps producing meaningless stuff to sell as ready-to-wear. Most other design fields have been discussing services, experiences, systems for decades now, yet for fashion this is still new.

This kind of radical rethink from the ground up leaves many of the powers-that-be wondering how capitalism and circularity can exist and thrive side by side. How do you respond?

Capitalism is a lot of things, and it continuously reinvents itself, so perhaps some parts of it can help us out of this mess. But as it is, it also preserves power structures that thrive on the status quo, capitalizing on extraction and destruction. Too often I see designers equalizing fashion and capitalism, restricting the perspective on what fashion can be. I think my former colleague Pascale Gatzen, who now runs the MA in fashion at ArtEZ in Arnhem, asks many of the right questions, such as, How can fashion be something held in common? How can a brand be run as a coop? We must start by escaping the conceptual fetters around existing models associated with capitalism. Money is not inherently bad, and power neither. Power, money and resources can be put to good use. We must be better at pushing for good outcomes, not just expecting good deeds to happen.

How do you respond to the argument that sustainability is a concern only for the privileged of society?

Well, so far most of the discussions around sustainability are based on blunt hypocrisy. We celebrate the walk-in-closets of the Hollywood elite, gossiping about their recent purchases and ever-changing outfits, and simultaneously we blame the poor for buying too much cheap fashion. The educated elite frown upon the poor rushing the Black Friday sales while upgrading to the newest Apple gadgets. We much start by checking our hypocrisy. If designers make the argument that people should buy less and buy quality, they better help make these garments affordable, and at least support their product lifetime - sell me spare parts, offer certified repair shops, pay in interest-free installments, etc. But most importantly, we must start with a class perspective on sustainability: it is easy to be sustainable if you only want to preserve your social position. It is harder if you support social mobility. Someone may want to inherit a Chanel bag, but less so a used plastic bag. So the question is, how do we make fashion available to those who may need it the most, the less-wealthy, or those on the move upward, while also making it sustainable?

As a professor at Parsons, could you identify one quality or characteristic you seek to nurture in your students?

Perhaps foremost the characteristic of stubborn unlearning. Most of my students come to Parsons damaged by that narrow vision of what they think is fashion. But, on the bright side, New York can be a good place to see people experiment with looks in bold ways.

On your LinkedIn profile you identify yourself as, among other titles, "Haute Couture heretic." How do you equate the necessity of runway-watching that has been integral to the traditional education system with what you think/promote? With DIY activism and social engagement firing up the "progressive" side of fashion, can we still love a Chanel or an Armani suit?

The title is of course a joke, but perhaps also a visionary position: what would a "Haute Couture heretic" be? To me, the interesting thing with heresy is that the heretics are still believers, yet unorthodox. The heretic position is not an anti-position, but seeks another praxis, and is often about upsetting the power structure of a particular belief system more than belief itself. And DIY is not anti, but constructive. Home cooking does not threaten good restaurants. Playing your own music, or in a band, does not reduce your love for professional music. Not only do these positions act as complements, but they often reinforce each other; the more I experiment in my kitchen, the more I may be inspired by a bold chef and pay more for good food. But like heresy rethinking one's beliefs requires a lot of work and also some guts, and most of us are lazy and scared. I think most of us need to be a bit more heretical now and then. And not least in the way we dress, think and feel.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Header photo Otto Von Busche, other images FashionUnited

Otto Von Busch