Sustainability Talks: Interview with Sass Brown



Sometimes life gives you the opportunity to personally meet someone you admire. We met Sass Brown in Australia, where we spent seven days among runways, sunny days and nice dinners. Seven days of inspirational talks about the future of fashion.


Sass Brown was until the end of 2018, Founding Dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation. Prior to joining DIDI, 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 publications include the books Eco Fashion and ReFashioned, which we highly recommend. 

This passionate advocate for ethical fashion signs her mails with the sentence "Be the change you wish to see in the world", by Mahatma Gandhi. Personally, she is a wild river of wisdom. Honest, transparent and direct, Sass Brown thinks "we support each other best by being honest and critical". Always reading and doing research, she gets serious when we talk about sustainable fashion, what is going on, what should be changed, how should it be communicated, who is doing what... We wanted to absorb all her knowledge and she offered us the chance. Best Universities to study, best catwalks and fairs to grow up your sustainable business, inspirational designers to watch... Come and enjoy our sustainable talk with Sass Brown. It is a must-read interview for everyone interested in enlarging the sustainable knowledge.


What is your relation with sustainable fashion?

It is a long one. I think it was always there, although in the early days there was no vocabulary with which to describe it and it was born out of the very English idea of make, do and mend and the need to be creative and frugal as an emerging designer without deep pockets. I started my love affair with artisanship however through a trip to Brazil and the opportunity to meet with the founder of a women's cooperative there. She was working with major name Brazilian and international designers and partnering with local crafts women in the favela to produce fantastic fashions interior products and installation art.

I fell in love with the work they were doing empowering local women through the valorization of their craftwork, and I ended up writing grants and volunteering with them for many years. That exposure helped me understand the value in working respectfully with artisans, and led me on a continuous journey of discovery and ethical considerations through fashion. It led to my website, two books, countless articles and many conferences, talks and panels around the world. I have had difficulty however integrating my personal research and writing with my academic role in the past, and that is how I ended up at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, where I sought an opportunity to affect greater change in how fashion is taught in higher education and the integration of design futuring and sustainable design thinking into every aspect of fashion curriculum.


It is a long time since you started writing about sustainable fashion ... How has the fashion industry changed since then? 

There has been enormous change in the industry since I first started writing about ethical fashion. I started specifically because no one was writing about ethics and fashion at the time. There was an outpouring of books, websites, blogs and eZines on ethics and sustainable living but most of it came from a lifestyle perspective with fashion sharing editorial space with vegan recipes and energy saving devices. As a die hard fashionista, I wanted to talk about fashion and only fashion, just fashion with a conscience, not boring beige T-shirts. Through my website and the research for my first book, I knew of countess labels around the world making incredible clothing and accessories with a conscience, but outside of their local markets, nobody seemed to be writing about them. So I sought to join the dots of a disparate global rising of emerging designers with a conscience. I retired my website (although it is still live for reference: Eco Fashion Talk) almost two years ago now, because I felt there were enough others talking about fashion and ethics, and my voice was no longer needed (...) In the timeline since I first started writing, ethical fashion has gone from being considered crunchy and granola to elitist. Fashion Revolution was founded and proliferated around the world, growing into a force to be reckoned with. The Common Objective has developed from a grass roots digital connector at that time called the Ethical Fashion Initiative to a sophisticated resource on sourcing. The MISTRA Future Fashion and Textile Toolbox began life, superseeded by Trash to Cash. Fashion Positive was founded on Cradle 2 Cradle principles.  The Ellen McArthur Foundation added fashion and textiles to its remit on circular economy. The annual Hong Kong upcylcing design challenge has grown into a global communication vehicle now called Redress, and the Copenhagen Fashion Summit has become the place to watch Livia Firth and H&M face off on an annual basis. Thats a lot in a few scant years.

Never the less the push towards greater transparency has yet to become the norm in the mainstream, and we are a long way off conscious consumerism constituting business as usual. We have to manage a culture shift to ween consumers off their addiction to fast fashion and disposable trends, and it is still an uphill battle to convince people to spend more and buy better when it comes to clothing. Rana Plaza, sweatshop and child labor, slavery in the supply chain, cotton farmer suicides, and chemicals in textiles that we wear next to our skin are far from most peoples minds when buying a new top. We have to raise the level of awareness to something akin to smoking where no one can say they do not understand the health implications of becoming addicted to nicotine, or in this case fast fashion.


"There has been enormous change in the industry since I first started writing about ethical fashion (...) Ethical fashion has gone from being considered crunchy and granola to elitist".



What are the main problems you see in the fashion sector today?

Transparency is huge. The big brands have for far too long divested themselves of the responsibility of their supply chains, considering it beyond their remit to care about the standards of their contractors and sub-contractors but that has to change. We have to get to a place where every brand is aware and tracks their human and environmental footprint, which is currently still very difficult. Small designers often have no idea of the provenance of the materials they purchase, and big brands fear affecting their bottom line or admitting what they have been responsible for, for decades.


"Total transparency and tracking will reveal a lot, and no longer allow designers or consumers to hide from the affects of the supply chain they finance. Other major area is the effects that chemical used in textile production has on our health".


Other than Greenpeace there have been no major studies on the long term effects of exposure to chemical dyes, finishes and process on textiles when worn against the single largest organ on our body (our skin) from the minute we are born until the minute we die. I'd like to see a lot more funded research on that topic!


As Dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, how did you implement sustainability in the education program? How do you think sustainability is being implemented in design education programs in general?

I believe, as educators we have the responsibility to integrate sustainable design thinking into everything we do. We are far beyond single projects or programs, it must be fully integrated into everything we teach. And that means material impacts, expanding use of textiles from a purely aesthetic perspective to understanding the impacts of those fabrics on people and planet, right back to the beginning of the supply chain with seeds and farmers. It means teaching alternative pattern making techniques like zero waste, of designing in end of life or cyclability considerations. It means considering the ethics of inspirational choices and cultural appropriation. It means inclusive design, not the continuation of an exclusive system that devalues those that do not conform to a very narrow standard of beauty. It means changing everything we do through education and empowering the next generation to make informed choices.


Can you recommend us a good University, MBA o educational programs to learn about this subject ?

There are some great non degree options such as the Common Objective Webinar series, and Future Learn from the London College of Fashion is also terrific. From a more conventional degree, I think LCF has to be a great option with the Center for Sustainable Fashion being located within their walls, and the important role they have played in shaping curriculum at the University. They offer an MA in Fashion and the Environment. CSM and Parsons the New School have both traditionally encouraged individuality and a social conscience through design. Parsons in particular counts with Timo Rissanen, one of the worlds leading experts on zero waste amongst its faculty.  I have heard really good things about the California College of Arts in San Francisco who offer an MBA in Design Strategy, and who listed renowned designer Linda Grose as one of their faculty members.  I think however it is up to the individual to ensure that they implement their own learning, and mold each of their projects to give them the opportunity to explore and understand the implications of their choices. The single most important thing we can do is question. Question why we do things a certain way and if there is a better way of doing it.


"There are some great non degree options such as the Common Objectives Webinar series, and Future Learn from the London College of Fashion is also terrific. From a more conventional degree, I think LCF has to be a great option with the Center for Sustainable Fashion being located within their walls".




Sustainable designers are looking for the best catwalks. Where should they participate? How is the panorama of sustainable fashion weeks currently?

I am not a huge fan of the runway. I got tired of the whole fashion scene a long time ago which is more about getting your photo taken, who's in the front row and who else is in attendance than it is about the fashion. I love fashion, but I'd rather see it up close and personal at the designers showroom. For a designer, a fashion show is also a massive expense and ultimately a PR opportunity, not a sales one, so its often a huge money suck for a young designer who rarely sees return on their sales. I think its something you can not cut corners on however if you do choose to do it. If you do not do a good job it doesn't work as good publicity; there is little worse than a badly produced fashion show with terrible accessories, models that can not walk and bad lighting. Truthfully, I think they are part of the old system of fashion and not a very modern or current way of showcasing your work.


What about commercial fairs. Do you think they help? 

I like fairs, you get to see the clothing up close and personal, the quality of the fabric and the manufacture and often get to talk to the designer. The Green Shows in Berlin (now called Neonyt) has long been a favorite, although I have not been now for some years given that I no longer live in Europe. I used to love Estethica, and still mourn the loss of that as part of London Fashion Week. I think that was a real loss and incredibly short sighted of LFW to allow its demise. Sadly it is not the only loss in recent years. There is the Sustainable Angle in the UK, but that is textiles not fashion. Thankfully more and more mainstream trade shows include either an identifier or a sustainable section, including Premium, Pure, Innatex and others.


"I am not a huge fan of the runway. I got tired of the whole fashion scene a long time ago which is more about getting your photo taken, who's in the front row and who else is in attendance than it is about the fashion. I love fashion, but I'd rather see it up close and personal at the designers showroom".



Where can we find the best inspiration about sustainable fashion? 

I think as a designer it is important to find inspiration all around you. You have to find beauty in the unexpected. That said, its important to be connected and aware of the greater culture you are surrounded by. If you are out of sinc with it, your designs will not relate to those around you. I am a prolific reader, of websites, newsletters, podcasts, books etc. Some I find ongoing interest in are: My Modern Met, Upworthy, Selvedge Magazine, Common Objective, National Geographic, Wired, Fast Co and anything the ITC is up to! I l also love watching old Pathe mini videos on creativity. I am an endless consumer of books, litterary and non, and can not visit a city without going to its museums favorites of which are the Victoria and Albert in London and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.


Let's talk about new designers who, in your opinion, are setting the perfect standards for ecological / ethical fashion.

I do not think anyone sets a perfect standard, we still have a long way to go before we can fully satisfy all ethical and sustainable criteria in the fashion supply chain. That said, I have an abiding love of Stella Jean and admire her work with the ITC in Burkino Faso. I am completely in love with the outpouring of creativity from Africa of late, and a big supporter of fashion made in the developing world, and include in that Dent de Man, Lisa Folawiyo, Kisua and Catrina Occhio's SeeMe heart shaped jewelry made by women who have suffered domestic violence in Tunisia. I love Indian brands Pero, Swati Kalsi and Injiri all of whom work with Indian artisanship. I love Chromat NY's inclusivity. The work of Christine Mayer with her upcycled collection, Blackyoto with their black over-dyed vintage and Universal Utility in the UK's focus on heritage clothing and longevity. Greg Lauren has been doing great things with upcycled post consumer waste, and ditto with By Walid.


Which luxury labels are setting the standards for ecological / ethical fashion… Do you think they are doing it right?

Stella McCartney has to be included in that list. Also, Vivienne Westwood with her Made in Africa bag collection; Edun now with 100% of their collection made in Africa; and Maiyet with their artisan designs.

+ info: Sass Brown