In this essay, Marco Pecorari, Program Director of the MA in Fashion Studies at The New School Parsons Paris, discusses the role of critical theory within the fashion industry and fashion education. He sees a growing interest from fashion houses to contextualize their collections with quotes from Michel Foucault and other theorists and asks if critical theory has become “a docile marketing tool” or if we are witnessing a genuine shift in the relationship between fashion design and theory. Within fashion education there is a similar tendency to embrace theory, but in his experience, too often the role of theory in fashion design is cosmetic, “existing as a sort of periphery of fashion design”, and theories of fashion in a more academic sense remain detached from the design practice. How can we attempt to bridge the traditional gap between theory and practice without compromising the standards of both fields?
Critical theory has never been as fashionable in the fashion industry. While artistic director Alessandro Michele from Gucci quotes Michel Foucault in his creations, Dior is employing psychoanalysis theorists to contextualize their collections. What do these actions say about the scope of fashion design today? Are these forms of appropriation and cultural associations? And what are they saying about critical theory? Has theory become a docile marketing tool? Or are these examples stating a new relationship between fashion design and theory? For sure, what these actions provoke is a reflection on what fashion design represents today and they catapult fashion education and research into a new challenge. While these new attentions to critical theory in the fashion industry may be symptoms of a popularization and commercialization of ideas and values in neo-liberal economy, they are also springboards for explaining how fashion may represent a fertile territory to evidence and stage cultural concerns around political events, social struggles and identities formation.
“While artistic director Alessandro Michele from Gucci quotes Michel Foucault in his creations, Dior is employing psychoanalysis theorists to contextualize their collections.”
All this comes at a time when many art and design schools have introduced liberal arts classes into their curriculum, and employ more and more theory in the education of fashion designers. Theory has become fashionable even in fashion education where, in the last ten years, there has been an attempt, following art and design education, to overcome the separation between theory and practice. The new fashionability of theory seems to blow in this direction although the role and place of critical theory in fashion education is still in fieri. Too often theory-based classes remain detached from the making, the studio; existing as a sort of periphery of fashion design, as justification or even as mere adornment to a collection. On the other side, theories of fashion and more academic contexts remain detached from practice, even despite a new materialist wave.1 This situation unsettles the relevance and permanence of theory in fashion design while bringing into question the scope of critical theory in practice-based education.
In September 2009, Frieze Magazine dedicated its issue to the role of theory in art and design schools, provocatively asking the question: “What happened to theory?” to denounce a crisis of theory in contemporary art and design schools. In his editorial, Sam Thorne stressed the importance of not only initiating critical theory in practicebased education but also to denounce the “banal […] and aporias that unnecessarily populate press releases and catalogue essays”.2 These words resonate in today’s fashion scenario. While the expansion of fashion education may help to raise the cultural value of fashion, it may also dangerously concur in its simplification at a time when the fashion industry (from haute couture to mass-production) is employing the languages and codes of critical discourses and even critical theory. If the move from academia to popular culture may represent a landmark for the scope of cultural theory, we must remind ourselves, as Thorne stresses, about how it may be distorted or misunderstood. For example, Gucci Spring/Summer 2018 press releases employed the idea of “The Act of Creation as an Act of Resistance” proposed by Gilles Deleuze in his famous lecture, in which the philosopher himself battled against this commercial form of communication, stressing how an “act of resistance is never information or counter-information”.3 These contradictions or even misunderstandings continue with the constant adoption and exploitation of terms like in the case of “gender fluidity”, “national identity” or “cultural heritage”. While fashion (in its subversive forms) has been indeed a crucial vehicle to the problematization of identity, class and gender (in primis), today we see a variety of fashion brands, fashion designers, fashion editors, photographers and even fashion schools (mis)employing and vampiring discourses on minorities and diversity such as feminism, gender construction, the refugees crisis or even critical theories.
Fashion Education, Nationalism & The Self
This text is a reaction to this tendency and attempts to contextualize an increasing attention I – and my colleagues – detected amongst my fashion design and fashion studies students towards issues of individual and intimate memories, and their constant will to create collections inspired or dealing with their country and/or their family’s country of origin. Now we can say, of course, that this tendency may originate in both a sort of self-centered view of students, and in an understanding of fashion design as an artistic self-reflexive endeavor. This approach was not only led by the influences of art pedagogy into fashion design programs but also by the impact of specific discourses in fashion design, especially developed in the late eighties and nineties when the self and identity have become a main regard for – what has often been labelled as – conceptual fashion designers.4 Yet these influences frequently provoke a “going back to the self” that is often a concern for teachers who, including myself, demand a contextualization of these individual memories and demand to relate the individual to the collective and vice-versa. While this is, of course, an important point, it also made me wonder if these individual memories exist to remain individual and make us rethink the individual, its relation and uses of memories in contemporary culture?
What struck me about this recurrent “going back to the roots” of my students was a sort of displacement that they lived often being “nomadic” – a term which I will return to later – as being living at home abroad or abroad at home. In some extreme cases, students also decided to identify as “their” identity, countries that their family came from but where they have never been. Family pictures, intimate tales or even imaginative visions often become the basis for their creative practices which are inevitably assuming political and national stances without, however, being always recognized as such. To some extent, it became extremely interesting to notice a sort of voluntary – or involuntary – national discourse within their own practice which may indeed be influenced by their nomadism while also reflecting a return to fashion flirtations with national identity. Indeed, fashion discourse has been historically constructed around and nurtured by nationalism since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The nation has been here to serve the selling of fashion as much as fashion – in its forms of production, representation and consumption – has been serving nationalism and the construction of national identities. Nevertheless, today these tactics of “national” labelling often turn into more volatile and trivial concepts due to (a) the globalized forms of production and consumption, (b) the increasing mobility of individuals, (c) new social media and (d) even transnational dialogues between crafts and design. Still, the fashion discourse remains based on nationalist tropes as a sort of necessary consumption antidote and today as a discursive tool even in museums and fashion education – something often concealed or hidden behind the concept of “heritage”.
“Indeed, fashion discourse has been historically constructed around and nurtured by nationalism since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
In connection with this aspect, a very interesting case has been that of Belgian/Flemish/and/Antwerp fashion. The definition of these labels has, indeed, been a mixture of discourses created within the Belgian territory during a shifting political period and the international success of a group of fashion designers – from Dries Van Noten to Martin Margiela or Ann Demeulemeester – who all graduated at the fashion department of the Antwerp Academy of the Arts. As design historian Gimeno Martinez has shown, there has been an evolution of the label “Belgian Fashion” from the early eighties with the creation of the Textile Plan, which went under the name of “Mode die ist Belgisch”, and supported a re-innovation of textile industries in Belgium, a slow transition to a regional identification (The Flanders), and a final city-identification of fashion and fashion design (Antwerp). In this process, political and economic circumstances acted as catalysts for the identification of a creative practice with a concept of a place and – more specifically – with an educational program in fashion. Started in 1961, the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Antwerp was originally connected to the costume design program but immediately took its own shape developing a three year curriculum, where students move from the creation of historical pieces to the reproduction of an “ethnic costume” which is often related to their own country of origin and which then informs the research for their final collection. This method of teaching has been adopted since 1961 and had not changed up to the present even though the directors of the school have changed – from Mary Prijot to Linda Loppa and then Walter Van Beirendonck. Furthermore, it often became a reference in fashion schools aspiring to reach the same international success as the Antwerp school.
The educational project pushed designers to “look inwards” and strongly root their research and creative practice of their own country or even city of origin.5 This indeed became very evident with early designers who developed a strong relation with the city, which then became a central factor of identification in the international affirmation. Such an association has “transformed” Germans, Dutch, Italian or Japanese students into “Antwerp designers”6 but it has also channeled a peculiar mechanism for thinking about the individual and the personal on the one side, and the general and the collective on the other. With the internationalization of the school and the enrolment of non-Belgian students, we could say that Antwerp became a flux of identities under which to aggregate designers, not only from the Flemish city but also from other countries, who started to come to Antwerp on account of the success of its students in the fashion industry.
“Diversity and cultural heritage are not only appropriated by the industry, showing the neo-liberal capitalistic nature of this field, but this tendency is permeating the education system.”
However, this internationalization of the school did not coincide with a change in pedagogical activities and showed an interesting – and in some cases problematic – use of symbols and stereotypes of national heritage. As clearly indicated by the poster for the fashion show for the class of 2000, national affiliation became a way to institute a discourse on national identity within the school. In the visual image, students were asked to pose naked while being covered only by national flags, which did not always represent their native country. In fact, it is interesting to note how sisters – Olivera and Vera Capara – pose here with two different flags. The image evokes these difficult discourses and stands as both a contradiction and displacement of identities. Indeed, Antwerp’s fashion-education model integrated all of these complex identities and, voluntary or not, created a discourse about these trans-national clusters. An uncanny feature, titled “Hybrids”, seems to perform this tendency for the fifth issue of the school magazine where parts of the MA students’ facial features are mixed together in two portraits. This melting of identities is also visible in Demna Gvasalia’s work. He also graduated in Antwerp and clearly staged this association with Antwerp in his Balenciaga Autumn/Winter 16/17 haute couture collection where he arrived to feature a touristic T-shirt of Antwerp. Here we not only see an example of “nomadism” and “migration” of identities but rather a superimposition of national discourse – or in this case I should say city discourse – on avant-garde-ness and identity at a moment when current systems of production, consumption and communication media are eroding national boundaries and territorial foundations.
This sort of hybridization seems, however, paradoxical when we think how fashion education – more than in other fields – has historically been structured and financially supported around nationalism in an attempt to train professionals for specific and territorial needs. While historically this attention has mainly been directed towards the formation of practitioners and craftsmen related to the different disciplines and practices of the fashion system (from fashion design to textile design, embroidery, etc..), in the last thirty years this closeness to the industry and the territory has developed two models. One has exaggerated the distance between the centre and the margins in the fashion atlas attracting students to fashion capitals (Paris in primis). The other has been promoting education as a possible solution to a re-valorization of industrial landscapes which have suffered the re-localization of the production in non-Western countries. In both cases, discourses on identity and the national (or regional or municipal) become central and are developed in a time of spectacularization of fashion education where TV series like Project Runway and fashion media like Business of Fashion have begun to mediatize the value of education which often frames students and research into Instagram posts and stories.
Diversity and cultural heritage are not only appropriated by the industry, showing the neo-liberal capitalistic nature of this field, but this tendency is permeating the education system. Discussing the effect of what she defines as “advanced capitalism” and its effects in the subject definition and its creative practices, Braidotti explains this mechanism as an effect of a global multiculturalism promoting a “fashionable market for diversity” where especially ethnicity and race become commodify-able entities not only in the industry but in the construction of the subject, too.7 The main issue, suggests Braidotti, is a disparity between the “lived” and the “represented”. “The central concern for my nomadic subject is that there is a noticeable gap between how we live – in emancipated or postfeminist, multiethnic globalized societies, with advanced technologies and high-speed telecommunication, allegedly free borders, and increased border controls and security measures – and how we represent to ourselves this lived existence”.8 While it is historically and economically understandable how an industry may gain from such a distance, it becomes problematic when the discourses on alterity are then appropriated – rather than problematized – by fashion schools. The risk is not only that of perpetuating the industry’s discourses but rather of neutralizing them via the rhetoric of the professionalization of education.
So, how can fashion design (and even fashion studies) education rethink its practices in relation to these new neoliberal forms of nomadism, which are also redefining the idea of individuality and subjectivity? Once again, Braidotti seems to suggest a path through her theory of “nomadic remembering” which interestingly connects to Edward Said’s idea of nomadic thinking as a pre-requisite to destabilize the control exercised by Western epistemological canons and the need for a periodic evaluation and dismantling of such centers of control. Following this reasoning, Braidotti proposes to think nomadically and to stress the importance of remembering nomadically to rethink creative practice in the contemporary. “What matters ultimately about the job of remembering is the capacity to engender the kind of conditions and relations that can empower creative alternatives.”9 To rethink these ideas in fashion education practice means to understand how memory and the practice of remembering may still represent a useful source. However, they should not only remain a practice of retrospective imagination based on the celebration of private, familiar or intimate remains. Rather, the recognition of a nomadic memory may produce alternative material and immaterial landscapes rather than simply replicating the secular logics of memory and the archive. Here, the condition of nomadism may not only help to critically problematize what remains and what has not remained, but push towards more phenomenological paths which may open other – and less institutionalized – research practices.10 As Braidotti suggests, nomadic memories are “affirmative, destabilizing forces that propel subjects actively toward change. They are the kind of memories that are linked to ethical and political consciousness and concern events one simply forgot to forget”.11 In this sense, current anxieties towards memory and individuality in fashion design research may not necessarily be chained to institutional ways of a Past taking shape from family pictures or stereotypical images of a nation, but rather into a condition of existence of the contemporary maker and its methodology. In concrete terms, the possibility is to embrace the nomadism as a form of artistic research. This means observing how the practice of remembering in a collection can in itself become an act of nomadism and displacement rather than an action of a remote nostalgia of an unlived past or identity. If fashion design practices have been often related to an action of scavenging and evocation of the past,12 today there is also the possibility to expand this perspective and Braidotti’s idea of nomadism helps to unpack this.
“Nomadism may become a way of questioning research methods in fashion design and fashion education; a way of unsettling linear understanding of the research process […]”
In this sense, once again, theory may help to make sense of what I initially denounced as my students’ recurrent exploration of an individual identity. I wonder if all these tensions toward a personal – and sometimes constructed – memory may not be seen actually as symptoms of what Braidotti defined as nomadism in contemporary society. As the scholar suggests: “The type of remembrance is not identity bound or ego indexed, but rather impersonal and postidentitarian. It is linked to a radical process of de-familiarization or dis-identification from dominant representational and even self-representational practices. Remembering nomadically amounts to reinventing the self as other.”13 Indeed, remembering is consequentially not about being equal to yourself, but rather in differing as much as possible from all you had been before. This becoming something else “through and with” nomadic memory is, I believe, what may represent an alternative to current discourses on the national and subjective in fashion design education – especially at a time when these discourses are problematically re-emerging in contemporary society. Students’ search for identity may not simply – or at least not only – be an identity-bound or ego-indexed practice, but may be opportunities to understand displacement and paradoxically become tools for speaking about the impersonal and our contemporary post-identitarian condition. Thus, the nomadism is not only materialized in the physical life of the creator but also in the ways in which mnemonic artifacts and images move through the research process and become something else in fashion design. Nomadism may become a way of questioning research methods in fashion design and fashion education; a way of unsettling linear understanding of the research process in fashion; and even a way to understand the nomadic application of theory in fashion design and vice-versa. ⬤
Dr Marco Pecorari is Assistant Professor and Program Director of the MA in Fashion Studies at The New School Parsons Paris where he teaches and conducts research on Fashion History and Theory. He is the author of Fashion Remains: Rethinking Fashion Ephemera in the Archive and co-editor (with Andrea Kollnitz) of Fashion, Performance and Performativity: The Complex Spaces of Fashion (Bloomsbury, 2021). Marco Pecorari is the co-founder of the festival Printing Fashion and sits on the editorial board of Fashion Theory, ZoneModa Journal and Bloomsbury Fashion Central. He is also part of the Scientific Board of the European Fashion Heritage Association (EFHA).
- Smelik, Anneke. New Materialism: A theoretical framework for fashion in the age of technological innovation. International Journal of Fashion Studies 5.1., 2018, pp. 33–54. ▴
- Thorne, Sam. Back & Forward. The changing role of cultural theory, and its enduring importance for contemporary art. Frieze Issue 29, September 2009, p. 13. ▴
- Deleuze, Gilles. Qu’est-ce que l’acte de création, 1987. ▴
- See Evans, Caroline. Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. ▴
- Horyn, Cathy. Identity in Antwerp Fashion, in the catalogue of the exhibition Antwerp 6+, held at the Fashion Museum of the City of Antwerp (MoMu), 25th January 2007–23rd May 2007. Ghent: Ludion, 2007, pp. 112-123. ▴
- Probably the clearest example is Bernhard Willhelm who has indeed worked on stereotypes of his country of origin (Germany) and he has been publically recognized mainly by fashion media as an “Antwerp-designer”. ▴
- Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects. Embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 6. ▴
- Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects. Embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 4. ▴
- Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 33. ▴
- Nixon, Natalie W. and Blakley, Johanna. Fashion Thinking: Towards an Actionable Methodology, in Fashion Practice, 4:2, 2012, pp. 153-175. ▴
- Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 33. ▴
- See Evans, Caroline. Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.▴
- Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 33. ▴