If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that change seldom moves at the pace of our own expectations. When it comes to the fashion industry, long-standing industry codes, systems and values that were once deemed sacred are now recognized as deeply flawed. But challenging these formerly absolute codes and introducing change has proven difficult, if not outright impossible.
The aim to move fashion forward hasn’t merely entailed ushering in new leadership and promoting ethical production, there is also a strong craving for compassion, a vision to put people and planet first. How could it not be? Fashion has and always will be an immediate representation of culture, a mirror of our values. After all, the world has become a different place and although the systems haven’t changed, the people behind the industry have. But beyond what it means for our closets, what, if anything, have we learned about ourselves, our creative futures and communities?
It’s not groundbreaking for fashion industry professionals to engage in an internal debate on whether or not the work meets their values. In fact, we’ve asked our Miilkiina community if they had considered abandoning their respective creative jobs and on every occasion, the majority had responded yes. When we asked if our community is conflicted with the current state of the industry, 91% responded yes. The consensus from our webinar conversations as part of our seasonal Fashion Week Programming is that such frustration exists across the board, but how can we ensure our creative futures are preserved?
Over three weeks of conversations with our community and beyond, we discussed the power of resistance against any unjust system, the strength in practicing rest and compassion, and that despite the grim reality that lingers, preserving creativity and craft is imperative even in the worst of times.
“The fashion industry is such a big beast. If it isn’t a pandemic for people to adopt new skills and new modes of translating fashion, what will it take?” asks co-founder of the Institute of Digital Fashion, Leanne Elliott-Young in our conversation on The Future of Artistic Visions. “We birthed the IODF to reframe a broken system. As we step into the metaverse there’s so many responsibilities for us as makers, curators and thinkers that we need to progress to build a more diverse and sustainable future. We’re using technology to build that system,” explains Leanne.
Early on in the pandemic there was not only a seismic shift to the digital world, but a genuine appreciation of its possibilities. “It was wonderful to see some of the conversations of IRL x URL working in unison, and people really jump onto that bandwagon. We thought that was a real moment where the semantics of fashion would change, and we were evaluating the amount of energy and time that we put into a fashion show. It felt like a really juicy moment, and now everything’s back IRL again and you see all these explosive shows, both physical, massive set-builds, and the use of digital has just gone back to a streaming of the show.”
It feels like we’re missing the opportunistic capabilities of the digital world, with designers using it as a chance to flex their creativity rather than recognize it as a new mode of communication. Leanne believes the future will be as much about the physical as it is the digital, which oftentimes is seen as a shortcut, but there is as much craft to creating exploratory work through software as there is in real life.
It’s a reflection of the industry’s values, which are so fluctuating it tends to miss the point. “I’m a little frustrated. We curate a lot of people to become designers and creatives and we don’t equip a lot of students with the actual skills to know how to sew, pattern make, to do what it takes for the industry to run,” explains Jonathan Lee, a multidisciplinary artist and lecturer at Parsons The New School for Design. The former design student also manages a studio in Midtown, and is conflicted when it comes to the priorities of the new generation. “It becomes a little worrisome as the generations get older, who the seamstress is, who’s pressing the clothes, who’s making the patterns,” he reflects in our The Future of Artistic Visions webinar. “The backbone of the industry is the people who are making the clothes. You can have thousands of designers but if you have only one seamstress in the industry, it isn’t going to run.”
But shifting agendas and values in the industry also relies on the consumer, and luckily aesthetics and craft is no longer enough, consumers want to shop brands whose values align with theirs. In another one of our Miilkiina Community surveys, we asked our audience if they are aware of their consumption, impact, and if they will go out of their way to understand how their garments were made. More than 80% responded yes, which is a positive step into making fashion a more conscious business.
“It’s about understanding that folks are incredibly smart and people care to know and educate themselves to make a difference,” says Rami Helali, co-founder and CEO of Kotn, an elevated and ethical essentials brand made in Egypt. “We all have a cognitive dissidence when it comes to what we believe the world should look like and some of these micro-decisions that we make in consumption day to day. Having said that, most people today want to see the change in the world, and they do have that intention to buy things better. It’s about respecting folks and their intellect by providing them with information transparently, and telling that story can be a powerful way to resonate with customers.”
“We have to find the silver lining in this horrific worldwide depression and loss of life. There’s factual evidence that people care more about where their things come from,” explains Dillea Himbara, the designer behind Toronto-based sustainable fashion label Sapodillas. “We can only do so much, and if you made someone think about their impact, and have that connection between a product and whose hands have made it, if you can say you did that once a month let alone every day with your life then what more can you ask of any maker?” she says in our webinar, The Planet Keeps the Score.
Beyond increased transparency, the last few years have also welcomed introspection. “Something that we all have probably been experiencing is really delving into our own mental health, and what is that intersection of creativity, community care and mental health,” asks multidisciplinary artist Stephanie Sleiman in our Resistance and Revolution in the Arts panel. “There’s a lot that needs to be explored and taking the time to go inward and ask ourselves how are we doing? How do we see ourselves?”
The creative industry is notorious for pushing its professionals to the brink of mental and emotional stability. It thrives on genius culture, exclusivity and is obsessed with visibility as a form of success, particularly through social media. Our self-perception and self-worth is often weighed against the success of others. One of the greatest flaws of our modern world is how we’ve been pushed into normalizing such pressures and conditions across industries, and how it’s a direct reflection of how we view productivity. In fact we’ve also asked our community, many of whom identify as creative professionals, if they had experienced job burnout in their career and 90% responded yes.
When it comes to design you’re trained to race against time, which can greatly impact the creative process. “As creatives we love to work. But we have to be mindful of when to stop, change your perspective, and how you see yourself and how your work impacts the people around you,” explains Ahmad Alwohaibi, the Saudi designer behind cult streetwear label Too Dark to See Tomorrow. In 2018, the designer rejected social media and took a hiatus from his work before it became an industry objective to intentionally slow down. Disconnecting through travel and retreating from social media allowed Ahmad to not only find grounding, but affirmed his love for design by showing him the value in taking a break to fuel creative practices. “Most of the decisions that I used to take were coming from a place of fear, that’s what I figured out. Now I listen more to different parts of myself,” he explains. “It starts with us as individuals and it’s a tough realization when we know that we are responsible agents, and that we have to do the work first. We are responsible and collectively things are going to change but without our individual work, nothing is going to change.”
The pressure to “make it” is quite representative of our times, where our identities are attached to our career more than ever. It’s hard to disconnect what we do with who we are. “We connect and mesh our lives so intensely with work, we get lost if we don’t have work, we get lost if we don’t know how to work,” explains Georgina Johnson, an artist, designer, curator, and editor of The Slow Grind: Finding Our Way Back to Creative Balance. “We obviously need to survive and pay bills, but the society that we live in isn’t made up in a way where we can each feel secure. I don’t know if balance is attainable if there’s no security,” she explains in our Reflections on Mental Health in Fashion webinar.
Writer and mental health advocate Sara Radin continues, “Capitalism drives this scarcity mentality that becomes ingrained in us, particularly creatives who are trying to make it on their own. That’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time- will there be enough, is there enough, am I enough? All these questions are so intertwined with how to feel secure. That’s really challenging for creatives to move past because it’s so ingrained in the industry, and becomes ingrained in us. If opportunities are given to us we’re made to feel like we’re lucky.”
Perhaps achieving creative balance is through a willingness to unlearn what we’ve come to accept as normal, and create a real framework for support.
Increased global injustice and instability can make it even harder to find the will to create again. But creativity is an essential part of coping with the world around us. Throughout several of our conversations, it’s been identified that even in the worst times and crises, creativity has a role, and is imperative. For founder of Creative Space World– a social enterprise with a tuition-free design school, Sarah Hermez, holding onto creativity has meant everything in Lebanon where the country is witnessing a complete economic and social collapse. “The last 2 years in Lebanon have been life-shattering,” she explains. “We launched Creative Space in 2011 and over the years would see exponential growth. To have that be shattered from the explosion, the economic crisis- it was one thing after another. Most of the talent is trying to figure out how to leave the country because there’s no government, no electricity, access to bank accounts, it’s a failed country that we’re trying to survive in,” she explains in The Future of Artistic Visions. “At the end of the day, continuing to support the creative industries is important because we need to be able to dream. If you take away the ability to dream, then you take away dignity. You’re just living life, surviving. To be able to be creative in the midst of collapse, or in the midst of a failed state, it allows your mental state to have hope.”
Perhaps the biggest, most inspiring shift has been the realization that our voice can be just as impactful as our work. We’re no longer comfortable turning a blind eye to any form of injustice, and are encouraged to speak out and align ourselves with those that are doing the same. “There are so many instances in my life where I look back now and I just think I should have said something, and I had just stayed quiet. We’re in a very special time in the fashion industry where we are slowly seeing these spaces open for us, and it’s important to not stay quiet and to push our narrative forward,” explains Marwa Atik, founder of Vela Scarves in our The Controversy of Clothing webinar.
While several movements and acts of solidarity we’re witnessing today are expressed online, the digital sphere lacks the key tools for authentic engagement in comparison to on-the-ground work. “It’s so easy for us in the Western world to get obsessed with individuality, and I’ve started to realize that it’s all about community,” explains cultural worker, community intellectual and organizer Rhamier Shaka-Balagoon in our Resistance and Revolution in the Arts webinar. “It’s very important to be on the ground and be in your community and include people in that process because at the end of the day in terms of nature that’s not how we operate. As humans we all need each other. I’ve started to rethink my approach to all of those things and now my organizing has informed so much of it.”
As conflicting as these times may be, we are not alone. “If we look into history, there is always resistance,” explains visual artist, researcher and curator Moshtari Hilal in our Resistance and Revolution in the Arts webinar. “I don’t know if that’s helpful or hopeful, but sometimes there’s no alternative than to resist and that’s something that keeps us going. We wouldn’t be who we are, resistance is everyday practice and it shapes personalities, art, character.” The way forward is not only truth-seeking, it’s together- everything else is secondary.