Fashion reclaims relevance, with leading role for innovation

She has a clear vision. José Teunissen seeks to make the School of Design and Technology at London College of Fashion, where she serves as dean, the world’s most innovative fashion school. Quite a tall order, but it wouldn’t be the first time that she made heads turn. As Professor of Fashion at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts, she was the first to develop the theory of fashion in the Netherlands. She’s the curator behind the Future of Fashion is Now exhibition, which toured the world. Besides her demanding job as a dean, she still teaches as Professor of Fashion Theory at London College of Arts. It’s in this capacity that she has come to curate the State of Fashion, an exhibition about ‘searching for the new luxury’, which goes in search of possible solutions to the challenges faced by the fashion industry – but also society – today. It’s the first time that major brands, budding designers and highly promising innovations have been brought together in one place to address this subject. Fashion is finally reclaiming its relevance, with a leading role for innovation.

Interview José Teunissen

Dean School of Design and Technology, London College of Fashion
Professor of Fashion Theory, London College of Arts

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José Teunissen in De Melkfabriek (The Milk Factory), where the exhibiton State of Fashion is on display from 1 June- 22 July. Photo by Rosa van Ederen 

Whether it’s climate impact or the lack of model diversity, the fashion industry has been under fire for several years now. A growing group of consumers – and even people within the industry itself – have been increasingly pressing for change. The big question is: how? And in the meantime, the industry hurtles on. This four-part series #changemakers gives innovative thinkers room to share their vision of the role that education could play in finding a solution. This part features José Teunissen, Dean of the School of Design and Technology at London College of Fashion, Professor of Fashion Theory at London College of Arts and curator of the exhibition ‘State of Fashion’, now on display in Arnhem.

“Fashion is more than aesthetics, but the pretty ‘picture’ is mainly what it was about in recent years. We lost a lot of quality as a result – literally, if we’re talking about materials, outsourcing to low-wage countries and how it’s made. Not to mention knowledge and understanding the things around you: we no longer know where our clothes are made, under what conditions or by whom. All we have is the final product. We’ve turned fashion into something quite narrow, while fashion and our attitude towards clothes reflect our culture.

We know from history that the way we dress changes along with major shifts in culture. Such as when women started wearing trousers. There’s this great expression: ‘Fashion and design define the here and now’. But it only makes you wonder whether today’s fashion industry still represents today’s values. We still see the man with the chunky watch who drives a nice car and stays in a posh hotel. We still talk about collections, catwalk shows and the pictures. Or as British journalist Sarah Mower recently put it in Vogue: ‘In the past twenty years, fashion has spent too much time hanging about cocktail parties and has lost all touch with reality.’ I agree. Fashion needs to become relevant again.

“Fashion is more than aesthetics, but the pretty ‘picture’ is mainly what it was about in recent years”

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José Teunissen outside De Melkfabriek. Photo by Rosa van Ederen

We’ve reached a watershed

I want to take fashion out of that pigeon-hole where it’s mainly about aesthetics. We must understand what we are making it for and what we need to make it. And we need to know the product’s evolution. This allows us to put a product, or article of clothing, in its social and ecological context and ensure that it is and remains relevant. It’s no easy task, especially now that the world is changing so quickly. I think this is because we are on the verge of a watershed, where major shifts in culture will take place, which simply happens every now and then. Where a theoretician can provide some context in words, the strength of the designer is that he or she more or less intuits what we need in a particular period of time and is able to convert that into a product that people can identify with or which is pleasing to the eye, so that they are eager to have and wear it. That’s down to more than aesthetics.

Inspired by these developments, there is a group of designers who have been rebooting fashion. Designer duo vin + omi, for instance, say they are no longer a brand – they’re an ideology. Paramount in their work is the process: by now they have twelve patents on fabrics, at the same time their work is just absolutely stunning. State of Fashion shows all these different and innovative approaches to fashion and provides room for dialogue. But the same thing is also happening in fashion education, where we see schools reshaping their curriculum. Such as at ArtEZ, where the likes of Pascale Gatzen are taking the master’s programme in Fashion Design in a new direction. We are also working on a new curriculum at the School of Design and Technology, where I serve as dean and which has a total of twenty courses with about two thousand students. The integration of technology, sustainability and critical thinking: that’s our aim.

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State of Fashion with on this ‘catwalk’ designers like Iris van Herpen, vin + omi and Yuima Nakazato

“A designer intuits what we need and is able to convert that into a product that people are eager to have”

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Building up State of Fashion. Behind José the ‘catwalk’ that will show from 1 June-22 July the work of designers like Iris van Herpen, vin + omiYuima Nakazato and more. Photo by Rosa van Ederen

A critical curriculum

We want students to be critical of the fashion system and ask questions like: ‘Does the system still work?’. And we push the envelope. For instance, Kristine Walsh, one of our alumni from the MA Footwear – and showing at State of Fashion – is occupied with the question of whether a prosthesis really has to be an artificial leg. Or can it just as easily be a piece of technology or, on the contrary, a pretty ceramic object that matches your personality? I’m interested in the borders where technology, aesthetics and social issues intersect in a product. The School of Design and Technology is strong in concept development. As part of that, we seek to integrate technology even further and connect it with the craft of fashion. Take for instance our MA Fashion Artefact, where students work extensively with leather and wood, and which was traditionally an accessories course. The students ultimately make an item or objet d’art that’s related to the body; technology can be used to connect that to wearables, health and well-being. One of the aims of this new course is the further integration of sustainability, drawing on the expertise at our Centre of Sustainability. They have more than ten years of experience in this area and guidelines for how to embed sustainability into education.

Fashion is also increasingly teamwork, which is changing the role of the designer, from creative director to perhaps more of a producer or process supervisor. Another development is that students are playing increasingly advisory roles. What skills does that require? This is something that you should respond to in education, which we do as a big school. For instance, we’ve begun to offer more and more entrepreneurial workshops, because lots of students want to go into business. The network that we have as a school enables us to build an infrastructure within which start-ups can operate locally. That’s what we’ve done with Future Makers in Arnhem, for instance, in partnership with the University of Wageningen. We connected everyone in the fashion chain together at the local level, but then branching off internationally through contact with other cities and what’s going on there.

“I’m interested in the borders where technology, aesthetics and social issues intersect in a product”

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Fashion.4.Freedom is a conscious label from Asia. One of the things they make are jewellery from e-waste, like this bracelet and necklace that are on display at State of Fashion. Photo by Nanette Hogervorst

Uncertainty

The industry is also in motion. As far as the approach to education is concerned, the major brands in the 1980s and 1990s went to the catwalk shows in Antwerp and London to see the final graduation collections. That’s where you went to find talent. Things are completely different today. Brands want a closer connection to talent – and at an early stage in the game. We run projects with them for this purpose, which for some students lead to a work placement, assignment and sometimes even a job. This kind of tells us that catwalk shows are becoming less and less relevant. But for the industry and magazines, things haven’t reached that stage yet. Catwalk shows were once held for buyers and journalists. They provided a look behind the scenes; and there was an embargo on photographs. You’d have to wait three or four months to see the pictures in the magazines. In the meantime, the orders would have been placed by the buyers and put into production. Now everything’s on the internet in an instant. It makes you wonder whether we should keep sticking to this system.

Letting go of these aspects of the current fashion system, like the shows, can spell uncertainty. Coping with uncertainty, whether as students or teachers: now that’s what we really what to teach people how to do. We are on the verge of a watershed where we will need to redefine and reboot fashion in a broader social context. That can lead to new and more sustainable materials, new business models and new ways of working. This means that we don’t have all the answers – not even as a school. We need to be able to say to students that we ourselves sometimes don’t know; and then we can start looking for answers. There’s no point in filling a young generation with old knowledge. On the contrary, we must learn from experimentation and the suggestions made by students. Maybe that’s the power of art education. That’s always been a kind of haven, where you can experiment without having to worry about whether it will sell or not. I believe in that.

“There’s no point in filling a young generation with old knowledge, we must learn from experimentation”

About José

Work experience

2016-present: Professor of Fashion Theory, University of the Arts London
2018-present: Curator, State of Fashion, Arnhem (The Netherlands)
2016-present: Dean of School of Design and Technology, London College of Fashion
2009-present: Free lance curator Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
2012-January 2018: Lead Next Fashion, ClickNL Innovation Network
2002-2016: Professor Fashion Artez in Arnhem

Full CV José

Education

1978-1986: Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands)

Interesting links

State of Fashion 

State of Fashion is the first international fashion event to focus completely on a more sustainable and fairer fashion system. The exhibition Searching for the New Luxury runs from 1 June until 22 July 2018, in De Melkfabriek in Arnhem. Curator of State of Fashion is José Teunissen, Dean of the School of Design and Technology at London College of Fashion. She was also Professor of Fashion at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts.

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