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Authentic conversation lacking in fashion industry, says Vestoj editor

By Jackie Mallon

Nov 15, 2021

Fashion |Exclusive

Ph Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

“Fashion is full of intelligent people but the important conversations happen in snatched moments.” This comment by Anja Cronberg, Editor in-chief of Vestoj magazine, was made during a discussion between herself and Josh Williams, Assistant Professor of Fashion Management at Parsons School of Design at a recent Fashinnovation event. It’s an arresting statement for its plainness and truth yet I had never heard it said before. It resonated with me so much that I followed up some days later with Cronberg to ask her to elaborate on it.

“I should say there’s caveat to the statement,” she began. “How do you define an important conversation. For me, I’m talking about how we feel about what we do, conversations about the system, how we move through it, conversations where we are able to be vulnerable with each other, conversations where we’re not trying to flog anything including ourselves. Those to me are the important conversations.”

The practice of candidly taking stock is not common within the fashion industry despite how often we have centralized the importance of dialogue recently. The Business of Fashion’s “annual gathering for big thinkers” is called Voices, but the idea or image of talking often seems more alluring than the act. Sharing secrets or vulnerabilities with peers, never mind a competitor, an investor, or a superior, is still all too rare. In her work with Vestoj, Cronberg aims to create a space for this to happen so that industry professionals, scholars, students, and members of other industries can come together.

The fast pace of the fashion industry slows change

I also reached out to Williams for further thoughts on why conversation around priority issues like diversity, inclusivity and sustainability in fashion isn’t an everyday occurrence. “The fashion industry moves so fast and is so competitive, there isn’t a lot of time to have formal conversations that center around education, learning, sharing,” he said. “And there is a fear of sharing ‘too much.’” 

Collaboration has now become a buzzword, punched up to collab, to describe the process of two brands co-releasing a product for ultimate profitability and exposure. It doesn’t represent a meeting of minds so much as a marketing opportunity. The fear of oversharing that Williams mentioned has long been associated with our industry, with its foundations built on twin pillars of exclusivity and competition. But we’re in a new era, and we’ve added supports to our businesses of transparency and authenticity. So why can’t fashion insiders who recognize a need for change, of which are there are so many operating within both corporations and independent brands, truly collaborate in lock step on initiatives for the good of planet and people? Why can’t we seem to get our house in order?

Anja Cronberg, Founder and Editor in-chief Vestoj, photo Fashinnovation.nyc

Cronberg suggests, “Maybe it’s because the fashion industry has been ultimately so focused on image, on visuals, maybe we forget the importance of words, written, spoken, and thinking around fashion in terms of a wider philosophy.”

We have our own governing body in the CFDA but perhaps the industry could benefit from an external audit. When Coach was revealed to be destroying unsold merchandise last month, it was an outsider, a Tiktoker, who alerted us, thereby forcing the company to speak about it and vow to terminate the practice. However, prominent thinkers from the outside, even from other industries, cannot exert much influence on the fashion industry, says Cronberg, because we do not let them in or show willingness to engage. “You can’t invite a creative director to some conference if you have no relationship with the company because the industry is insular, and it’s excluding, and it’s a bit suspicious of outsiders in general, so you have to be an insider in order to have the access to engage with the industry.”

Cronberg, who was a research fellow at London College of Fashion during the years she was establishing Vestoj, has one foot in academia and one foot in the industry which gives her a unique point of view. She sees no system in place for having important ongoing conversations on how to meaningfully evolve the industry. “They are not going to happen onstage at some BoF conference because there you are performing. You are trying to sell an idea, you are trying to sell yourself, a product, your company. Then we make do with the stolen moment while we wait for some space that would allow us to talk to each other.”

Did the pandemic change our industry?

The pandemic seemed to offer us that space. We learned the value of introspection and there seemed to be important conversations happening as a result. In May 2020 when Dries Van Noten, Burberry, Thom Browne, Jil Sander and others co-signed a letter expressing a need to reevaluate the fashion show calendar, the seasonality and discounting of product, demanding an increased focus on sustainability, it seemed to indicate the desire for a broader sense of community among brands wishing to move towards common goals. It was a moment when the industry seemed to be laying its cards on the table, the designers almost behaving as colleagues working inside one large organization. But was it naive to think this signified a shift?

“We’re still in the pandemic and we need more hindsight to be able to tell,” says Cronberg.“Of course the pace of shows makes a difference to the individuals tasked with designing and selling collections, to their quality of life. Those things are not really about changing the system, just modifications.” Radical change is much harder to come by, and Cronberg believes it requires a generational shift in which some people have to die for others to take over. “There has to be a literal end of a certain era when people have to disappear, not be there anymore so that other people who have been educated at a different time, with different concerns, who currently are the lowliest, can take over.”

Systems don’t break easily, nor are they speedily dismantled, but Cronberg believes that “bending” the system is a more valuable aim. “When you’re trying to implement change, whether it’s small or big, you have to get some feedback that what you’re doing actually does make a difference. Otherwise you lose momentum and you might give up.”

So perhaps it’s how we frame the conversations whenever they happen that’s most important. We are many imperfect humans working inside a massive flawed system. Snatched conversations are part of our combined effort to make sense of our immediate surroundings and the world beyond, and over time, maybe they’ll become longer, deeper, involving more of us. After all, taking time for these stolen moments and building on them is how this article was conceived. Says Cronberg, “We don’t always realize that this conversation is special till it’s passed and the moment is gone.”

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