Fashion Activists Pushing The Boundaries



In today’s world, activism isn’t a mere symbol, but a consequence of a global ethos. If we look beyond the horizon of climate activist Greta Thunberg, there are lots of activists making efforts to intervene in social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society. Let's read what they want to change. 


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Yes! Acting fairly and ecologically is today’s imperative. In particular, this applies to the fashion industry, headwind comes from a growing number of design activists, ethical writers, social changemakers, influential teachers... fashion activists shaping the business of fashion.



Francesco Mazzarella, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Centre for Sustainable Fashion (London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London) started documenting activism in fashion design a long time ago. In 2018, he started to analyse a number of past and current projects undertaken by CSF members through the lens of fashion activism. To review and enrich the findings from his case study, he also conducted a series of co-creation workshops with the international fashion design community followed by semistructured interviews with key fashion activists across the World. The aim of his ongoing research is to map out the fashion activism landscape and contribute to filling a gap in knowledge relating to roles, values, skills, and methods that fashion activists can adopt, as well as further understanding the outcomes in which activism can manifest, and the challenges and opportunities for change within the fashion system. This is informing his on-going participatory action research project, “Making for Change: Waltham Forest”, which he is developing with members of LCF in partnership with Waltham Forest Council for London Borough of Culture 2019 and the Great Place scheme. The project comprises of a programme of community engagement, research and educational activities that use fashion and making to address locally experienced issues (such as deprived youth, skills shortage, fashion manufacturing decline, and unemployment) and activate a legacy of socio-economic change. His ambition is then to develop a framework that can inform research, education, and practice in the emergent field of fashion activism and to further knowledge of fashion design for sustainability and social innovation.

“One of the most fascinating fashion activism projects for me is ‘Dress for Our Time’ which Helen Storey (Professor of Fashion and Science at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion) is developing since 2015 and in which she is deeply embedded as she is currently working as UNHCR’s first ‘Artist in Residence’ at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. I had the amazing opportunity to work alongside Helen at CSF and investigate how her project contributes to empowering refugees to earn a living and become independent from non-governmental organisations. In this case, Helen is experiencing a radical process of transformation in herself as she placed herself at the epicentre of the system which she is an activist about. Furthermore, the work that Helen is developing in the refugee camp shifts the emphasis from the designer to displaced communities who – not having access to a means for livelihoods and financial security – become activists by necessity as their lives call for continuous change”– says Francesco Mazzarella. “Through my engagement with Helen, I have found out that the young girls involved in ‘Dress for Our Time’ are challenging cultural norms of what Syrian women have historically been allowed to engage in. They also participate in team-based learning, gaining an increased sense of agency and connection, and overcoming locally widespread risks relating to their schooling. Through this project Helen is challenging traditional notions of ‘otherness’; in fact, instead of designing solutions ‘for’ others, as a design activist she seeks to establish empathic and inclusive relationships ‘with’ communities in which she is embedded. This involves suspending the designer’s ‘ego’ and listening to people’s needs so that the most meaningful designs are co-created in situ. The ‘Dress for Our Time’ led to the development of a dress made by a repurposed refugee tent donated by the UNHCR, but its intangible value lies in the message that this artefact (being exhibited in diverse forms and locations) is conveying about the precarious nature of human existence and in its promotion of a more resilient way of living. Looking at the bigger picture, we can conclude that fashion activism projects like this often manifest themselves in outputs which we can define as micro-sites of activism, yet they contribute to fostering macro-changes in the fashion system, shaping counter-narratives towards mindfulness, engagement, resourcefulness, and leading to a wider thriving.” – ends Mazzarella.



There are different ways of desinging activism. Juana Diaz is a Chilean fashion designer who’s collections always revolve around protest. Lucia Cuba is a Peruvian fashion designer who’s work revolves around indigenous women’s human rights and the forced sterilization program in Peru.

Juana became activist because she was tired of belonging to a field that was permanently considered superficial. Bored of being despised by intellectuals and academics, her first quest was to reposition fashion as a language of expresión, a blank canvas to express ideas. “In Chile we live the most brutal and extreme experiment of the free market capitalist economic model devised by Friedman in Chicago and implemented without regulations during the military dictatorship. This has meant that all the textile and clothing industry in our country went bankrupt and now almost all the clothes our community has access to are fast fashion. In this context I have created my collections that, among other topics, speak of Capitalism: plenty for few and little for many. Migration: must humanize humanity. Arauco: Rise!.” – she explains.

To do so, her workshop has different lines of action. In the first place they use only discontinued fabrics from the former local textile industry. It is a kind of textile archeology. They also use fabrics from used clothing. Then, they make their “Telas del Futuro” (Fabrics of the Future, since 2008) using the remnants of their production and other small local producers. The pieces that they can’t use because they are too small are donated to another textile enterprise called @rocasatt that produces objects and textile illustrations. They work on a human scale, they know all their suppliers personally, they pay what they charge and sometimes more. They produce slowly and try to work in a warm and familiar environment where affection, consideration and respect are essencial. “We practice the philosophy of considering any waste a raw material. I always do at least one class per year where I consciously practice what has been called micropolitics in the classroom to create awareness in future designers.” – Juana says.

The next year 2020 will be 20 years since her first Deco collection. That first collection was made using exclusively used clothes as raw material. A methodology that at the time had its origin in the scarcity of resources but soon established itself as a brand identity. “To celebrate this process, I have a date for a retrospective exhibition of my work at the Museum of Modern Art of Chiloé. I hope to put in value how my work has turned out to be ahead of its time. Looking at it with the perspective of time: sustainability, upcycling, the need to generate reflections of social-political nature in consumers and respect for the rights of people have crossed my collections since its beginning 20 years ago and today are required concerns for new designers. The recognition of that sensitivity is one of the purposes of the exhibition in the MAM”.

Now, Juana is working on a collection that will be called INSULA, that part of the human brain where the neurons dedicated to empathy and compassion are connected. “It is an area of the brain that is hidden between the two hemispheres and whose neurons are the ones that die most as a result of overexposure to screens during childhood. We need to humanize humanity, we need healthy empathy and compassion, we need new connected generations ... but not connected to the network but between people”.

Her other most current project is Acción Sombra (Shade Action): a social project of textile upcycling. Its objective is to generate shade through awnings made with second-hand jeans used entirely. They are made in community for the community. They serve for the times of today when it is getting hotter. The shade that these awnings project is very fresh and invites to meet. Looked from below, they look like skies with clouds.



Lucia Cuba is other fashion designer working on activism. She concives fashion as a medium and platform that can also build and promote positive social change. “I am not sure I am doing enough to reduce the complexity of problems generated by the fashion industry, as these affect many different parts of the social systems. Nonetheless, I do try my best to share -both in the general public and inside formal educational platforms - that critical thinking should be a foundation for any design process, that self reflection is a key component of aware- ness, that being aware of others, and of how we affect on them (people and contexts) becomes crucial to understand how much we might end up impacting negatively through our practice. In this context I work strongly in facilitating different processes where agency and the ability to strengthen it or reclaim it, becomes essential to these ideas, and to the processes that might be built from these.” – she declares.

Lucia Cuba has been working on different projects that are centered on exploring dimensions of health and wellbeing. One of these projects is called “Articulo 6” and stands at the intersection of design and activism. It takes the unsolved case of forced sterilizations as a framework to generate dialogues on gender, strength and politics through conceptual and visual elements, advancing critical thought and connections with notions of body, gender, human and women’s rights, the politics of clothes, among other issues.

Another project she will continue working on is “Exercises on Health”, a multi-series long-term project that stands at the intersection of fashion/textiles/design and public health. Its objective is to explore notions of health and its absence by addressing the hardships and opportunities the experience of health can bring forth. The project aims to raise awareness on issues of health and politics at the individual and social level, foregrounding local and international dimensions of health outcomes. “EoH suggests that health becomes a more tangible and concrete horizon for personal and social intervention when people can relate to it through public conversation. This is accomplished by relocating the places where exchanges surrounding health often take place, promoting reflexivity and personal agency to advance human wellbeing.” – Lucia says.



Art has been widely used across times and locations as an activist tool to challenge the status quo. To Francesco Mazzarella, a good example is the work developed by Lucy Orta (Chair of Art in the Environment and member of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion). Her latest work, ‘Processions’, is a project aimed at celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave some women over the age of 30 the suffrage, i.e. the right to vote. For this project Lucy worked with the Social Responsibility team at London College of Fashion and has established ‘Making for Change’, a manufacturing unit at Downview in Sutton (UK) where women prisoners are trained in pattern cutting skills and are equipped with employability certifications before the end of their sentence.

“Over a six-month period, Lucy collaborated with the Making for Change unit inside the prison, and a number of students from across LCF and engaged around thirty women – through banner making workshops, creative writing, handicrafts, and simple questionnaires – to give voice to the women and develop a repertoire that constituted the iconography for a series of co-created banners. Over 30,000 women in London and 90,000 across the UK participated at a mass anniversary procession in June 2018” – explains Mazzarella. Through feedback collected, it became evident that the project – using fashion and making activities – has contributed to empower the women to gain a voice and collective agency. Since then, the project is touring to contemporary art venues, contributing to expanding the role that art and fashion – thanks to their powerful communicative nature – play in the construction of our individual and collective identities and catalyse positive change in our societies.



Far away from fashion Designers, there are other persons making true fashion statements, and not simply with what they are wearing, but literally by using their voice and their creativity to speak up about how fashion can save the World. Clare Press, the Sustainability Editor at Large of Vogue Australia, changed her professional life to focus on sustainable fashion after the Rana Plaza factory disaster. She joined the advisory board of Fashion Revolution, and decided to use her voice, and her platform as an established fashion journalist, to advocate for a more sustainable fashion industry. She also wrote a book, “Wardrobe Crisis, How we went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion”, examining the broken fast fashion system. But she does not think she would have called herself as fashion activist back then... “However, I happily do now! I believe we should all be activists in order to advocate for change in the areas that are important to us. I now throw all my energies into fashion activism. I desperately want this industry that has been my professional home for the past two decades to clean up its act” – she says.

Clare thinks fashion can be a powerful force for positive change, par- ticularly in terms of female economic empowerment. “There are more than 60 million garment workers worldwide and most are young women with children - alas most are not paid a living wage.” –she underlines – “The fashion industry also has terrible impacts on the environment. Our current linear system is based on take, make, discard. It results in overproduction and ridiculous amounts of fashion and textile waste. In Australia, where I live, the average person consumes 27 kilos of fashion and textile each year, and throws 23kilos in the bin. Crazy! The current system puts pressure on rivers and fresh water supplies, soil (thanks to cotton) and even the oceans (thanks to microfiber pollution). I’m an activist because I believe fashion can and should be regenerative and restorative and fair”.

When we interviewed her last June, Clare was about to start a 3-month shopping detox as part of the Slow Fashion Season campaign - which is a bit controversial for her, given that she works in magazines. “I am doing this in protest over the UK government’s failure to take the En- vironmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion Report seriously. MPs recently responded to the report with a complete failure to take up any of the recommendations, which is disappointing” – she says. Now, Clare is excited to keep growing Wardrobe Crisis. She has just been commissioned by the Ethical Fashion Initiative, which is part of the UN’s International Trade Centre, to produce new podcast series all about how the organisation is using ethical fashion to advance the Global Goals. These 17 goals - also known as the UN Sustainable Development Goals - are the best framework we have for a sustainable future. The podcast launches this September. Her big personal goal is to finish her fourth book, which is all about the future of fashion.


"We need to humanize humanity, we need healthy empathy and compassion, we need new connected generations... but not connected to the network but between people” – Juana Díaz, Chilean fashion designer who’s collections always revolve around protest.



Sass Brown also has a lot to say on fashion activism. We met her last November, 2018, in Australia. Founding Dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation until the end of 2018, Sass was the Interim Dean for the Fashion Institute of Technology’s School of Art and Design in New York. As a researcher, writer and educator, Brown’s area of expertise is ethical fashion in all its forms, from slow design and heritage craft skills to recycling, reuse and alternative business models. She publishes papers and speaks around the world on the topic of sustainable fashion. She has served as a sustainable design advisor to women’s cooperatives, educational institutions, governmental agencies, NGO’s and small and medium sized enterprises around the world. Her pu- blications include the books Eco Fashion and ReFashioned, which we highly recommend.

Becoming fashion activist was not her intention, but she did. “It deve- loped over time and was/is just an expression of the things I care about and the rather specialist knowledge I have built up over the years. As a writer I also find it important to share and document, and I’m particularly active on social media. Most of what I do is write, speak and share whether with my students, in my writing or when I give a talk.” Sass has taken a sabbatical from academic administration and full time teaching to complete her PhD. Her thesis is about evaluating the various models of sustainable development in the craft sector and identifying best practices to propose new models to help sustain global craft. She also writes for the National weekend supplement in the UAE on ethical fashion. “I have a chapter in an academic book coming out on sustainable fashion, and continue to talk, write and post on the topic. I haven’t yet made plans for post my PhD, but would love to return to working with artisans particularly in Africa.”


“I believe we should all be activists in order to advocate for change in the areas that are important to us. I now throw all my energies into fashion activism. I desperately want this industry that has been my professional home for the past two decades to clean up its act”. – Clare Press, founder of The Wardrobe Crisis Podcast.



Patrick Duffy, Founder of Global Fashion Exchange, is other of our favourite fashion activists nowadays. “I became a fashion activist when I discovered that there was a huge problem in the fashion industry and was called to change it. I am very fortunate to have access to incredible resources and tools and I personally feel that it’s my human obligation to try and do the best I can to transform the industry and to make the world a better place for all. From waste to transparency, human rights to circularity there is a dire need to transform a broken system and I am in for the long haul! I am driven by possibility and positivity and hope that what I do and what we do at GFX resonates with others now and for years to come.”

GFX focuses consumer on clothing swaps and innovative culture programing to educate and catalyze change. Since 2013 they have been producing clothing swaps and events that support this idea all over the world. They promote responsible consumption patterns and facilitate events that have an impact on people and planet. “We are working on many projects but are excited to launch our global swap program for the moth of September with Arts Thread where we aim to swap with over 200 institutions and organizations from around the World (...) We are also working in partnership with Fashion 4 Freedom, to create high end products that focuses on creation with artisans, economic empowerment and solving environmental challenges through circular design. Last but not least, we are very excited to announce our partnership with Source Map where will work with them on education programs and tool kits, transformation of fashion businesses and exciting creative and cultural sustainability focused projects.”


This article was published in Luxiders Magazine Issue 3. To buy the Magazine, click here.


+ Words:
Belvis Soler