As part of the “Making for Change: Waltham Forest” project that he is leading on in partnership with Waltham Forest Council for London Borough of Culture 2019, our Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Francesco Mazzarella has collaborated with the international artist collective Foreign Investment to design and deliver “I WANNA BE ME I WANNA BE (E)U”. This was an interactive live art performance, inspired by catwalks, focusing on self-expressing, making and performing, to express issues of fast-fashion, global trade, waste, and the social impacts of Brexit on fashion design and manufacturing businesses. The event took place in a disused supermarket, soon to be transformed into a fashion hub. In this blog post, John Wood, Emeritus Professor of Design at Goldsmiths College of London, expresses his views on the event to which he contributed, as both performer and panel speaker.
Words by: John Wood
Photography: Gisela Torres
It was a real pleasure to be a panellist in Foreign Investment’s art performance event ‘I WANNA BE ME I WANNA BE (E)U’ in Waltham Forest.
This was no ordinary catwalk show, given its combination of activism and open-minded inquiry. Not many fashion shows take place in a recently abandoned supermarket, complete with check-outs and empty shelves. As an experience, it was full of fun, yet it somehow managed to address two highly controversial and important issues, head-on. With hindsight, it was rather like watching a stunt person fearlessly opening a can of wriggling worms on live TV.
For many non-technical members of the general public, sustainable fashion is either a turn-off, or an embarrassing and inconvenient fact of life. Therefore, to spotlight fashion’s activist and environmentalist agenda within a Brexit context was doubly risky, as most UK citizens are either quietly seething about, or bored to death with the UK’s painful and long-running saga about its pending divorce from the EU. In short, it was remarkable that the performance and the lively discussion that followed were, on balance, quite good natured and constructive.
‘I WANNA BE ME I WANNA BE (E)U’ was conceived and put together by Foreign Investment’s Alma Tischlerwood, in collaboration with artist Rosemary Cronin and a small team of LCF’s finest MA Fashion Futures students. The event’s coordinator, Dr. Francesco Mazzarella ably hosted and opened the show, which started with the catwalk.
Visitors stood, crouched, or sat among the empty shelves, leaving a gangway for the models to parade around the space. Outfits were all designed by the students and made from fabrics that would otherwise have gone to waste, courtesy of the Forest Recycling Project (a Waltham Forest-based social enterprise). There were 10 styles, all in the colours of the European flag, blue and yellow. 5 styles were conceived to represent the workers of the fashion industry, who were wearing aprons with statements related to Brexit. The other 5 outfits were more eccentric, to represent the luxurious over-consumers of the fashion industry.
Only two of the models had professional experience and all of us had been instructed to set our own ambulatory pace and style. A warmly upbeat mood was set by DJ Lucifer and a suitably cheesy compere, Edward Hobson, taking a break from a more comedic pursuit in Peckham’s ‘Four Quarters’ bar.
Soon after the catwalk ended, the four guest speakers lined up for their five-minute pitches to kick off a discussion. The diversity of speakers was an inspiring way to get an all-too brief overview of what is a highly complex and broad-ranging set of issues.
Hannah Ford is co-founder of Invisible Numbers, Walthamstow-based art collective that is able to use the creative process to explore certain aspects of fashion design and production. She told the audience that around 400m square metres of fabrics per year routinely find their way to the cutting room floor, then end up as waste. Hannah’s perspective on the potential of fashion design within community enhancement is an important idea. I believe that it could become part of a more transformative vision of society. Presumably, many in the traditional, mainstream industries might find such ideas surprising, eccentric, or plain daft.
So, it was refreshing to hear positive exchanges between Hannah and Andrew Wagland, the managing director of the the oldest textile manufacturing company in London. Founded in 1919, Wagland Textiles has its HQ in Walthamstow and currently produces 11 million metres of fabric every year. As soon as he started speaking, Andrew spoke to one or two visitors he had noticed were wearing his products. One replied that she had bought the scarf in South Africa. Andrew used this to illustrate the highly international nature of his industry and the versatility this required, both at the creative design level and in terms of business.
Another speaker, Tamara Cincik, agreed that added costs and price-increases after Brexit could render the UK fashion industry virtually unviable, commercially speaking. Tamara is CEO and founder of Fashion Roundtable, a think-tank that acts on behalf of designers and SMEs. In 2010, she was angered by the cavalier attitude of politicians towards her industry. However, she turned down the offer of a job in parliament and, instead set up a mentoring scheme to get women into politics and founded her own organisation.
I guess I was brought in as the ‘outsider’, given that my views were formed mainly from my performative work as an artist and my passionate concern for ecological design issues. This began in 1973, when I saw the urgent need to invent some solar energy devices. This led me to ask why design was fragmenting into separate silos, such as ‘product design’, ‘UX design’ and ‘fashion design’. I believe that, until design can re-design itself into a comprehensive and joined-up system, we may fail to manage climate change and species extinctions. In my terms, issues of ‘shelter’ (i.e. personal/public) are related challenges that happen to be addressed differently across artificial boundary lines separating architecture, product design and fashion design.
Currently, fashion is under attack for its association with the exploitative, throw-away world of celebrity and glamour. But this is not altogether fair, as it is largely capitalism and finance, that is calling the shots. Unfortunately, the design industries have been shaped by some highly dubious theories of economics and banking. The ood news is that, because they can imagine better worlds, designers have a chance to change the status quo. However, this may happen only if our lifestyle visions, expectations and innovations are long-sighted and generous enough.
Arguably, the damage we cause is likely to continue until educators help their students to design new business models and financial innovations that make third-world sweatshops and cheap, throw-away fashions seem distasteful, old fashioned and irrelevant. The obsession with maximising profits at the point of sale is a strategy that is long past its sell-by date.
To some, the European Union stands for bureaucracy on an ungainly scale. As a kind of design anarchist, I have some sympathy with this view. However, Brexit only makes sense if we are determined to keep sending more and more ‘things’ to even more remote places, on a ‘business-as-usual’ basis.
Historically speaking, we may all take some pride in the European context of fashion. However, we might also remind ourselves that it evolved from a courtly tradition based on inequality. This occurred to me as I watched the catwalk models gliding past the empty shelves of the supermarket.
I hope ‘I WANNA BE ME I WANNA BE (E)U’ returns refreshed. Perhaps the next one will take place in one of Britain’s 2000 food banks. Until now, the Fashion world has seemed to be about what we wear and consume. More importantly, it is also about humans celebrating being alive in each present moment. For this idea to continue, we need to lift our heads upwards and to imagine worlds beyond the runway.