For most consumers, the fashion world represents a democracy. For Otto von Busch it is a dictatorship. Fascinated by the political forces of fashion, Otto has spent the last 10 years researching its complex relationship with agency, civic engagement and participatory design practices. In this third instalment for Fashion Unlearned from Emily McGuire, Otto shares captivating insight into the corruption fuelling the fashion industry, and questions how we might transform our engagement with clothing to create a better world.
Emily McGuire: What frustrates you the most about the way in which the current fashion system operates?
Otto von Busch: I would say that the basic question is: if garment workers get rights, we make nicer fabrics and create less pollution, is that it? Are we living in fashion utopia right now? The tricky part is just the environmental and labour costs are a little high. Otherwise, we’re in utopia. Is that so? Can we imagine any better way that fashion works in the world that gives wearers and users something else other than what the current system offers?
What I’m concerned with is, if we’re changing the way the fashion system works, can we imagine other ways that fashion could do something more for human beings, society and the civic world? In order to survive as a fashion designer right now, I need to produce addiction. I need to make you dependent on my designs. I need to feed your anxiety, your bad conscience and bad self-esteem in order for you to come to me for the cure over and over again. And that’s really the issue I’m trying to address. Is this the best relationship we can imagine between consumer and designer? Are there other ways to be a fashion designer concerned with empowerment and building capacity?
There’s something deeply suspect about the way in which momentum toward sustainable fashion has relied on the dominant authorities in fashion like brands and the media to lead the way. As a result, sustainable fashion has been capitalised on to become another way to motivate consumption. How does this demonstrate that commodifying a movement is the best way to limit its power?
I think it’s even more fun to think about – and I’m not a conspiracy theorist – the idea that sustainable fashion might be a conspiracy. Right now there is a geopolitical war going on between the West and China. We have outsourced all our production to China and we are realising that we have been feeding this new superpower. Isn’t it interesting that growing interest in sustainability and repair services coincides very nicely with the West trying to bring home jobs from China? At the same time, this undermine their economic interests because we don’t want to support their industry to grow any further. Is that also why we are also talking so much about repair and system services? The sustainable economy – is this also becoming a cover for a geopolitical move to try and quench the emerging superpower that is China?
Anyway, look at H&M – it doesn’t change anything. Even if I make clothes that create more oxygen somehow, not even this is effective enough to change the whole mindset we have around consumption. Everything else around the act of consuming this clothing is unsustainable. To me, we need to highlight deeper questions like, what is fashion for? It offers individual empowerment and the possibility for social advancement. You can dress up as someone you are not; you’re not doomed by your class or your heritage. If this is the basic promise behind fashion, how can fashion designers support that in a way that also supports the wearer as an individual? How can fashion designers work more like therapists or educators? Not all fashion designers need to do this, but why are there so few that challenge the role they have? As a designer, consumers look up to you. You have the potential to change things but so few have the vision or use their agency and training to do something else.
The trouble is, fashion taps straight into our desires. We’re also living in neoliberal society where we are competing with each other every single moment. The whole culture the economy has produced today means we are constantly at the edge of being fired. We have produced a certain kind of aesthetic economy where we’re pushing each other to participate and conform in a particular way.
Consumers are de-skilled, wilfully submissive to the authorities of fashion, and largely apolitical. A kind of mistrust or rebellion is necessary toward the dominant powers in fashion to make progressive change. However, as mentioned in The Fashion Condition book, in fashion “everything is consumed, even resistance to consumption itself”. How can we reconcile this so that active, political disruptions to fashion have a systemic affect rather than being gobbled up by the system and resold to us?
First I would ask, what capabilities does your revolution against fashion produce? How does it offer people the position to ‘do’ and ‘be’ something different in the world? How does it impact people’s capacity to change their own conditions? Very little consumption actually does that. It buys you a temporary visa that grants access to another space. So, the question is, how can resistance build skills and agency in the world? I’m not saying every commodity or every transaction is inherently evil, but we need to acknowledge they are inherently corruptible. The punk movement was very quickly corrupted and became just another style. But there was an agitation for justice, an attitude of DIY and a reclaiming of agency. If your rebellion actually produces capabilities and agency, then it’s not necessarily bad. Skills feed into entrepreneurship and other kinds of competition but you can also use them to overturn power. Without the skills you don’t have that possibility. It gets tricky when things become ‘lifestyles’ or brand images.
The fashion industry continually celebrates itself for democratising fashion in all its forms. The way in which fashion misleads consumers about this is deeply problematic, considering there is nothing democratic about the way in which affordable and accessible clothing from first world fashion brands relies unethical conditions in the supply chain in less fortunate parts of the world. What conditions are necessary for fashion to become more like a democracy?
I’ve been playing with the idea of ‘deep freedom’ based on the research by political thinker Roberto Mangabeira Unger. He argues that deep freedom “combines a devotion to the empowerment of the ordinary person… with a disposition to reshape the institutional arrangements of society in the service of such empowerment.” Freedom as we know it is connected to the market and free speech. Is this the best kind of freedom we can imagine? The same question I am trying to ask of fashion. In resonance with these ideas, I would argue that in relation to fashion, deep freedom is something more than “voting with our dollars” on commodity fashion, to instead mean engaging on many more levels of dress. The user must be empowered both through individual capabilities as well as supported by the ‘system’ to become something much more socially fertile than a consumer. So, we need to reimagine different ways of being with fashion, which I try to sketch out in my Deep Fashion Bulletin.
Unger also believes that care is a principal part of a functional society. Caring for the young and the old and sick is the basis of why we even form societies. What if care was a central part of fashion? Currently, it feeds an ideology of superfluousness. Not only are my clothes and furniture ready to be thrown out, migrants and the poor are treated as commodities within this larger exchange. Mending my sock may be a very small start to repositioning my whole relationship to the world. To me, it also connects to a larger issue of democracy. What is my civic position in the world and how does fashion tie into that? The tricky part about the democracy of fashion is that it is only a democracy in the sense of access. We are not equal before the law and we don’t even have equal votes.
How do we get critical press coverage of fashion? The fashion press is a propaganda advertising body. What we expect from the wider media in a democracy we should expect from fashion, but we don’t. This whole idea of democracy in fashion is a total perversion. And this says something about the way in which we treat democracy today.
Fashion design courses are typically delivered with a focus on the glamorous autonomy of the fashion designer. The traditional divisions of labour and history of the fashion system are also deeply rooted in contemporary fashion education, which retells the story of its hierarchy and empirical divides. What else needs to be done in fashion education to encourage students to challenge the traditional pathways and romantic ideals that shape the industry?
I would say a de-learning is necessary. TV shows like Project Runway have popularised fashion and this has undermined what fashion can ‘do’. Since everybody knows what it is, nobody questions what it could be. I think we need to learn more from other professions. If we don’t buy cars without repair plans, why do we buy clothes without spare parts? These are the very foundations of trying to reimagine the world that the designer comes into. We are so conditioned by the way in which capitalism works that we struggle to imagine other types of economies.
Designers should ask themselves, could I be a public sector fashion designer? Can I be hired by health services to help address issues of anorexia, bulimia and other body image distortions as part of this therapy? We need to educate young designers about how they can work more widely than the market economy niche they’re focused on right now. Coming back to the issue of agency, I try to get my students to consider what is worth saving to them. I ask them, how might you find that little ember of hope within this whole corrupt and utterly hopeless system? And how might you work with that in a way that does not kill people, harm the environment or disempower others?
Although there is increased political momentum toward sustainable fashion practices, notably via Fashion Revolution, it seems like first world consumers are generally lethargic when it comes to actively protesting for brand transparency, environmental and ethical sustainability in a targeted and organised manner. Why do you think this is?
A tricky part about it is cheap fashion is so addictive. Garments costs as much as a coffee. Every time you want to go out, you can get yourself a cheap outfit and feel refreshed. There is a certain kick or thrill to this addiction. Consumers know their addiction is bad for them, but they just need it in the moment. On the one hand, we see that people are dying from the production of fast fashion but on the other hand, when others see us in a new outfit the feeling is so good. We’re just so extremely torn.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been trying to figure out what is underneath fashion to make it so powerful. After researching fashion hactivism for about 10 years I began wondering, am I just producing another subculture? Am I reproducing another kind of elitism by encouraging my participants to judge others based on this way of thinking?
At the moment I’m researching ideas about fashion and violence. I’m trying to figure out the question, if fashion is addictive, is it because it makes you feel better than others in a dominating way? If something is exclusive, is it also excluding? And does this tap into other types of superiority, like a kind of fashion supremacy tied to other forms of discrimination? The other side of my work is based on deep fashion, where I’m looking at other empowering ways of engaging with clothing.
Otto von Busch is an Associate Professor of Integrated Design at Parsons the New School (NY). He’s best known for his thinking on fashion hacktivism. Otto has co-published a series of books including The Fashion Condition and Just Fashion: Critical Cases on Social Justice in Fashion. You can find documentation of his research over the past 10 years at Self Passage.
 Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The Religion of the Future. Page 441. Harvard University Press: London, England