Earlier today London's Somerset House laid host to the annual Fashion Displacement talk hosted by the renowned Florence-based fashion institute Polimoda. Set within a historic centre of art and luxury fashion, Polimoda endeavours to empower the younger generation to challenge norms within the fashion industry through education. Fashion Displacement aims to bridge the gap between education and the fashion industry with an alternate theme each year.
Following stints in New York, Florence, and Berlin, this year's Fashion Displacement reached London for its fourth edition. Polimoda invited a panel to a bright new event space on the river in Somerset House to discuss this year's theme of 'Fashion must be'. Journalist Hilary Alexander OBE, fashion historian Amber Butchart, blogger Susie Lau, activist Baroness Lola Young, exhibition-maker Judith Clark, and activist and poet Wilson Oryema joined Polimoda's director Danilo Venturi to discuss sustainable initiatives and the future of the fashion industry more widely. Moderated by Linda Loppa- a fashion expert, consultant and Polimoda's advisor of strategy and vision- the talk opened with 53 Fashion must be's as listed by Loppa, ranging from 'economically viable', 'social' and 'global' to 'curated' and 'bad taste', all recurrent topics of discussion in the two hours which followed.
Notable points of discussion included fashion having a purpose, recognising how the majority see and experience the industry, and that it may be helpful to see fashion as a system separate to clothing which holds a cultural legacy. The idea that fashion is multi-layered was particularly pervasive, as was that fashion must be framed by discussion. Education is vital for giving us the instruments to conduct the conversations fashion must have, essential for an introverted generation Z. The morning reached a close as model, activist and poet Wilson Oryema read a poem which posed life as being a tin of biscuits up for grabs. Walking away from today it was clear that there is no definitive answer to what 'fashion must be' but that as we move into fashion's fashion, it is essential we take with us education and conversation to have pride in our industry.
I spoke with Judith Clark, Danilo Venturi and Linda Loppa about how we should be approaching the future of fashion, and the vital, enduring importance of the conversations which Fashion Displacement poses to the industry.
Hetty Mahlich: Danilo Venturi, how did the Fashion Displacement talks first come about?
Danilo Venturi: It all started four years ago. When talking with Linda (Loppa) we realised that we needed to open discussion about fashion, what fashion is, and what fashion must be all around the world. The discussion must be global, so we met some people in New York, then we went back to Florence, and then Berlin and now London, and who knows where else it will go.
HM: Why is it important to keep the Fashion Displacement talks going?
DV: They keep going because the reality is fashion is changing continuously, much faster than before. In the beginning, we thought of doing one every couple of years and then it became one every year, maybe next it will be one every six months! You turn your head and the reality is different, so you need to re-discuss.
HM: Fashion is a constantly changing system and Polimoda’s curriculum frequently changes to reflect this. The fashion industry is seeing a shift to prioritising more sustainable approaches. How is Polimoda preparing its students for this?
DV: Our methodology is very hands-on. We like to involve the industry in teaching directly. So executives and creatives from companies (including Gucci and Missoni) come and teach. The teaching of sustainability, such as how to be a more sustainable company, has already been in Polimoda's programs for years. We realised that a product can be sustainable only if the audience, the clientele, the world outside, is sustainable. Then it became about inclusivity because the world is sustainable if people respect each other and respect themselves. The basic requirement for having a sustainable fashion is that fashion is authentic.
HM: Polimoda defines itself as ‘future-based’. How important is the past when talking about the future of fashion?
DV: It is important, but it might also be a burden. For example, Florence is the place where Humanism and the Renaissance started and going to Polimoda in the morning you literally walk on art. This is wonderful but it's also a burden. We ask our students to consider that past but also to get rid of it sometimes. The future can be helped by the past, if you know what happened before you know what might happen after, but also the other way around. So if you think to the future, maybe that burden of the past can exist.
HM: What role does internationalism have to play in the future of fashion?
DV: Whether you like it or not, fashion is international because we live in a global era. It's not even international anymore because that word means that you go outside your nation. Today fashion is global, it's much more than international. Cities in my opinion matter more than nations today.
HM: You come from an interdisciplinary background across music, political studies and e-commerce. How important is an interdisciplinary approach when working towards sustainable initiatives within the fashion industry?
DV: I think that it’s very important but I also think that there's a place for everybody. It depends on the role you want to cover in the future- or maybe the future decides on your role because you don't really decide what you do, it happens. For me, it was very important because it gave me a wide perspective on fashion. But then I also respect those who are very specialised because maybe they do something I am not able to do. We need both approaches.
HM: What three things are you taking away from today’s Fashion Displacement to relay to your students in Florence?
DV: First of all, be open to discussion. Learning today is more about talking and understanding rather than acquiring tons of knowledge in the same way you buy fruit. Knowledge today is about conversation. Secondly, when you pick a topic and you have a take on it, try to also see it from another perspective. The discussion today taught us that you really can have different approaches around the same topic. Finally, the talk is never-ending. You have to question continuously and this has to do with criticism, which is the approach you need to have.
Hetty Mahlich: Linda Loppa, you’ve said in that past that you want to be remembered as a ‘builder of bridges’. What bridges are the Fashion Displacement talks building and what does 'fashion displacement' mean to you?
Linda Loppa: Firstly, being on the stage is very different than being together in a restaurant talking about fashion because the stage feels quite serious, it has another resonance and another meaning. It’s set in public, it’s filmed, it’s quite different than talking to friends. Today we had panellists who knew each other by name, but not in person. So that is also interesting, that people start to know each other, it creates a kind of little world. It’s networking but on a more intellectual basis. That’s what I think ‘fashion displacement’ should be: bringing people together.
HM: It was clever how you led with 53 must be words. How do you approach chairing these annual discussions, do you already have an idea of where the conversation may go?
LL: You never know. I had each word and so finally there were five topics the words related to: society, ethics, emotions, education, industry. But I mixed them up, as in the beginning indeed I had five sections and I could go very deeply into all five, but then we would have had a five hour talk. To discuss the topics in their divided sections would be interesting for another time.
HM: What did you hope would be achieved in this year’s discussion with the theme of ‘Fashion must be’?
LL: It was not really a theme because there were many words to discuss. It’s not ‘should be’ or ‘could be’. If you say ‘must be’ it’s quite certain yet it’s not easy because you jump from one subject to another, sometimes one person is more interested in one topic than another. I didn't only go for the topic of sustainability otherwise we would have known the topics already, I wanted to avoid that.
HM: You have an amazing career history spanning fashion design, commerce and curation. I wonder how important you think a multi-faceted approach to education is when thinking about the future of fashion?
LL: You know what I discovered last week? That I am a creative director. That’s what the title is today of what I do. For example I was directing a museum in creative ways, looking at it differently from another perspective. Education is not multi-faceted enough. It’s too divided into fashion, design, retail, business, communication etc. What I say to graduates is that 90 percent of the time you never do the job you studied for. You take from your course the best out of it, but it’s not set that you’re going to do that. The future of education should be more mixed. That is my dream- I would take out all the walls and make one classroom with teachers coming and going and talking to each other. It’s a utopia, but I think it’s the future.
HM: Can there be such a thing as a sustainable fashion industry?
LL: I’m not specialised in the topic of sustainability, but it’s one we can’t escape. There’s so many choices you have to make now, choices to reduce your wardrobe, to buy better, choices not to be too greedy. It’s complex, there’s a long way to go. We’re not there yet, but finally because everybody’s asking questions you start doing it as well, you recycle at home, you’re more conscious than maybe four or five years ago. And that of course is the beginning.
HM: You said in regards to this series of talks: ‘Fashion Displacement needs to be precise, to the point, giving answers and not answering questions.' What answers are you taking away from today?
LL: Fashion should still be a passion, we have to remain enthusiastic about it because it takes a lot of time and energy. Next, I think that fashion must be made by professionals. You have to know why you start, there must be a business plan- that consciousness about our industry. Thirdly fashion is really multi-layered and every layer is enormously important. We really felt this today even with only seven panellists. Many different approaches, different topics, and different ideas about the industry. That complexity is what we can say came out today.
Hetty Mahlich: Judith Clark, what does ‘Fashion Displacement’ mean to you?
JC: It means other things as well, but now it means these talks, it's concentrated into this series which is of course associated with Linda Loppa who invited me to participate. I think there's something that she's always communicated to me about fashion which was about restlessness. She's always embodied something restless and something urgent about fashion which is what I make of 'fashion displacement'.
HM: How does exhibition-making and curation assist in displacing fashion norms and challenging conventional ideas? Perhaps you could tell me a little about curating The Vulgar (2016, Barbican)?
JC: In terms of the first part of the question I think exhibition-making is very useful in terms of fashion displacement. Why? Because it's a temporary kind of staging and the fact that it's a recovery- what are we going to recover from our archives from the past, from the contemporary that is useful in terms of saying something? Exhibition-making conjures new groupings that can be given a different meaning. In terms of The Vulgar it's about the scapegoats of culture and what can we make of them in a cultural institution like the Barbican. Flying in all these objects under different definitions of the word 'vulgar' we hoped to open up the word and make it less divisive and more celebratory.
HM: If any, what role can exhibiting dress play in conversations surrounding sustainable initiatives within the fashion industry?
JC: It can play a huge role because you have to decide what to put on your caption. Even at the level of how we attribute merit to an object, everything has changed. For example in the past in exhibiting elitist dress we would have said this cuff was fashionable at this time. Now, we'd say this cuff is made with this material by this person at this time.
HM: What is the role of fashion history when it comes to discussing what ‘Fashion must be’?
JC: I think sometimes people find it easier to talk about issues at a distance. What becomes very uneasy is when we bring it into the present and say these practices persist. You conjure a scenario which is unacceptable but it's in the distance and we can talk about it. That's one thing that we can do with history.
HM: What does the future of fashion look like to you? Is there such a thing as sustainable fashion?
JC: I think there's something in small sustainable fashion. Will there be a perfect utopian world? Unlikely. Am I depressed? Not wholly because I have children who are on the case. There's an entirely different language around sustainability and around what is desirable. In that new version of desirability, there is sustainability. It's not as if it's your homework, you've got to work hard and have something sustainable. No, it's been embedded in things that are desirable. I think that's more promising in a way.
HM: What are three things curators and exhibition-makers should be incorporating into their approach moving forward?
JC: Ethics, imagination, politics, and a certain amount of innovation. I think we should harness the tools of fashion curation, we need to extend the language of it.
HM: What are you taking away from today’s Fashion Displacement panel, is there anything, in particular, that has stuck in your mind?
JC: Pleasure. To be in these people's company and remembering to stand with our work. The last question on the panel today was about pride. We want to be able to defend the work that we're doing. Linda Loppa commissioned my first-ever museum show and for me, it's also about continuing at a distance and not at a distance, a conversation with her. I like that over the space of many years people can find ways of speaking to each other in different medium, venues and circumstance because we have a common love of this subject and that gives me a huge amount of pleasure.