Ways to make fashion work for us

A keynote speaker to look forward to: Otto von Busch, associate professor at the renowned Parsons School of Design in New York. He recently delivered an inspiring, entertaining and, above all, insightful speech at the Fashion Colloquium, an event organised by ArtEZ University of the Arts in collaboration with State of Fashion on the eponymous theme of ‘searching for the new luxury’. This refers to the need to redefine fashion, motivated by the industry’s negative environmental and social impact. As an academic in this field, Otto takes a new approach to how fashion can be perceived and work for us instead of against us. In his latest book, Vital Vogue: A biosocial perspective on fashion, he describes how fashion often not only pleases and seduces but also generates the direct opposite emotions: anxiety and jealousy. Therefore, redefining fashion goes beyond environmentally friendly fabrics and new business models. Primarily, it’s about building an industry on the basis of its positive capabilities: generating positive thoughts and feelings.

Interview Otto von Busch

Associate Professor at Parsons School of Design – The New School, NYC

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Otto von Busch in Arnhem, where the Fashion Colloquium was held. 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 (the last in this series) features Otto von Busch, associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York – The New School and point person for the minor in Alternative Fashion Strategies.

“No sooner does the race begin, than students start to dream of becoming a fashion designer. So when they come to a fashion school like Parsons, they expect a competitive arena. And that’s exactly what they get. The fashion industry and fashion education are extremely competitive. We train our students within this system so that when they graduate, it will be easier for them to fight for their collection and ideas rather than being vulnerable and reflective. Parsons has tried to make things slightly less competitive, by broadening the competition categories and thus introducing more awards for students to win. But one of the most prestigious prizes is still the traditional one: to have your collection presented at the Parsons gala. Parsons is such a renowned school, which is also why I like being here. You’re really in the belly of the beast of fashion. That’s exciting! But it also shows me that it will be hard to change the fashion system as long as we cling to this competitive environment. Simply because students can’t imagine any other way of being with clothes: there is just so little room for sharing, collaboration and more open-ended exploration. We therefore need a different mindset in fashion and towards fashion. One that is more inclusive and at ease with people tapping into their real emotions.

Before, it really frustrated me that emotions and their influence on the body were never really addressed in fashion, neither in the industry nor in its academic research. That’s why I’ve explored with students how fashion is a biological and social phenomenon, based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, who was a psychoanalyst, political theorist, biologist and a pioneer of body therapies. We captured the results in ‘Vital Vogue: A biosocial perspective on fashion’, which was published in March this year.

“It will be hard to change the fashion system as long as we cling to its current competitive environment”

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Otto von Busch during the interview in Arnhem, after his keynote speech. Photo by Rosa van Ederen

“Who is really enforcing the rules here? It is not Karl Lagerfeld or Anna Wintour”

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Otto von Busch delivering his keynote speech at the Fashion Colloquium. Photo by Rosa van Ederen

Feelings of exclusion through fashion

The biosocial aspects of fashion have never been a real topic. Maybe that’s because of fashion’s dominant focus on aesthetics and the ready-to-wear market – even though we experience its biosocial aspects every day. Clothes can make our bodies shrink, as it were, if we don’t feel comfortable in them. They can keep eating away at us all day at work, as we chastise ourselves for our unfortunate choice of clothes that morning. But when we believe what we wear looks good on us, clothes can make us tall and feel confident. We flirt and dance in clothes when we go out to a club. In fact, the way we dress often determines whether they’ll let us in the club in the first place. If we get in, we feel good. We feel like winners! Like we’re part of something. If we get rejected at the doors, we feel excluded. We envy those who get in and can be part of that which we desire but cannot attain. Sadly, fashion has been making more and more people feel excluded in recent years, not least because of social media and the general accessibility of cheap fashion. Before, you were fine not wearing the latest fashion. Nowadays, with fashion available to everyone in all price ranges, there’s no longer any excuse not to look fashionable. The democratisation of fashion has in some way led to more pressure from society to fit in. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges I see for the industry is to ensure that people experience positive feelings through fashion and what they wear. But how?

To me as an educator, it’s about how you present it in the classroom. Rather than assigning a lot of heavy theory, I usually try to open up discussion by introducing several ideas at the same time. When talking about social pressure, for instance, I use metaphors like the ‘fashion police’. Who is really enforcing the rules here? It is not Karl Lagerfeld or Anna Wintour. Usually it is our peers who judge what we wear: friends or people who we look up to. In other workshops, we build cardboard ‘monuments’ as tombstones to all the garments we still own but never wear any more. I ask students to bring one of those garments to class and discuss what’s holding them back from wearing it. We can dress however we like, so why don’t we dress more daringly? What are we afraid of? At Parsons, students come from all around the world. As it so happens, these clothes reflect who they originally saw themselves being in New York and the crowd they would hang out with. Then they discover that’s not who they are. This psychological aspect of fashion must not be forgotten. Nowadays we talk a lot about how circular fashion can contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry. And that’s great. But what if circular fashion doesn’t fit in with who we are or support the processes behind becoming who we want to be? We need to make a greater connection between fashion’s environmental, social and psychological aspects, because none of them can stand alone.

“One of the biggest challenges for the industry is to ensure that people experience positive feelings through fashion”

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Exhibition State of Fashion, co-organiser of the Fashion Colloquium. Photo by Rosa van Ederen

The dreams we invest in garments

I use a lot of metaphors when I do these workshops because I want people to talk about the connection between the dreams they invest in garments and the way that they live – not to mention what relationships and social pressures influence the way they dress. People can feel totally different about what they are wearing as soon as they enter another environment. Like women who cover up their party outfit as soon as they step outside a fancy club and head to the subway. As long as we keep looking through magazines, scrolling through Instagram feeds and following influencers, we’ll never really understand our own psychological mechanisms that drive our consumption and emotional life with fashion – or how we live with fashion in our everyday lives. Therefore, as a professor in then Alternative Fashion Strategies minor, I believe that understanding the biosocial aspects of fashion can provide new opportunities for fashion designers to radically question the foundations of fashion experience. In the future – maybe even the near future – they could function much more as a ‘fashion pedagogue’ or ‘fashion therapist’. With the proper insights, maybe we can help people who have certain illnesses, such as body dysmorphia. That is, thinking of fashion not only as a seductive marking tool but also as a psychological arena of personal and public well-being. Perhaps fashion designers will one day be hired by healthcare companies instead of only within the apparel sector.

I expect we’ll see more variety in fashion courses preparing designers for different roles and sectors. No longer will everyone in this hyper competitive environment strive to become that one star designer. Ultimately, we will apply our knowledge about how fashion can affect people’s well-being to things that are positive. Or as we put it at the end of Vital Vogues, ‘Love, work and knowledge are the well-springs of fashion, as well as life. They should also govern it.

“Understanding the biosocial aspects of fashion can provide new opportunities for fashion designers”

About Otto

Work experience

2015-present: Associate Professor, Parsons School of Design – The New School, NYC
2013-2015: Full Professor in Textile Design, Konstfack, Stockholm
2011-2012: Assistant Professor, Parsons School of Design – The New School
2010-2011: Visiting Research Fellow, London College of Fashion
2009-2011: Research coordinator, School of Design and Crafts, Gothenburg

Education

2004-2008: Doctor of Philosophy, PhD, Design and Applied Arts
2001-2002: MA Art History at Lund University
1999-2002: BA Material and Virtual Design at Malmo University
1998-2000: BA Art History at Lund University 

Interesting links

About the Fashion Colloquium

The ‘Fashion Colloquium: Searching for the New Luxury’ was held 31 May and 1 June. During this two-day conference more than 30 international academics, creative practitioners and conference participants, explored new definitions of ‘luxury’ against the backdrop of urgent environmental and social issues. Research was a presented on themes such as new materials, design for closed loops, aesthetic sustainability, and so on. The Fashion Colloquium was organised by ArtEZ University of the Arts, in collaboration with State of Fashion. Academic partners were London College of Fashion, Wageningen University & Research, and Radboud University Nijmegen.

About State of Fashion (exhibition in Arnhem until 22 July)

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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