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Long Read: Fashion, Sustainability and Decoloniality

by | Dec 7, 2019

This week at the Future of Fashion symposium hosted by Rewoven, Dr Erica de Greef delivered a keynote. Titled Fashion, Sustainability and Decoloniality, she explores the concept of decoloniality and its relevance to thinking critically – from a perspective of the global South – about the Future of Fashion. To address the urgency of climate change, we need to reframe and reimagine the fashion system as we know it. Erica unpacks what it is to think about the future of fashion using a decolonial lens; what this may look like; and, why this move to delink and rethink fashion is so important for South African designers.

Here is Erica’s keynote. Make yourself a cup of tea / coffee, sit back and enjoy the read:


Let me begin with decolonial thinker Rolando Vazquez (1). The Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands, together with fellow decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo and others, has been coordinating the Middelburg Decolonial Summer School since 2008. Their collective, ongoing efforts to decolonize knowledge, aesthetics and subjectivities, have contributed to many projects for rethinking not only forms and spaces of knowledge production such as curricula and universities, but also contributing towards rethinking and reframing museums, media platforms and art events, such as the ground-breaking Sharjah Art Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, and the inaugural Toronto Biennial. For example, the Toronto Biennial 2019 specifically focussed on dismantling Eurocentric ideas while addressing climate and social justice. The most prominent issue at this Biennial was the concept of decolonization, in both a literal sense — of ceding land back to the indigenous people it was ripped away from — and in a metaphorical sense – through disrupting hierarchies that have undervalued the customs, aesthetics and knowledge of Canada’s indigenous people.

So what is being asked?

Indeed, art is being decolonised, universities are decolonising, and so, what about fashion? In this talk, I am going to introduce some thoughts on fashion’s future challenges, as we collectively seek new ways to think about, make and wear clothes. With the focus of this symposium aimed at the Future of Fashion, I am curious to explore how, from our position in the global south, we can contribute to the growing network of sustainable fashion future thinkers? Is there room for Afrocentric perspectives in these dialogues for a sustainable Fashion Future?

What do I mean by the term ‘fashion’? In today’s talk, I use the word to describe the sets of clothing that are identified as ‘universal’, perceived as constantly changing, and promoted in media and other public spaces as representing a global ‘contemporary’. So, in other words, I use the word quite broadly to reflect certain, even quite limiting, aesthetic rules that determine how the world is dressed. It is what we see worn in cities, such as London, Sao Paulo, Berlin, and also here in Johannesburg, as much as it is the fashion (that is similar but not always equal) that is seen in the malls of Kigali, Montreal, Mexico City, Singapore and so on. This singular global fashion phenomenon is however, very problematically, and quite predominantly, a Western identity – an issue I will return to later in some more detail.

All of us in this room can agree that the single most important issue of the day that already affects every person, plant and animal on the planet is climate change, and that it will continue to do so in devastating ways unless we, that is humanity, change. Transforming fashion is also widely considered to be one of the key areas in averting the worsening impacts of climate change. We can all also agree that fashion has a violent impact on the environment and on the lives of people involved in its production and distribution. Investigations into the effects of the fashion industry have included looking critically at the materials, manufacture, labour and distribution of fashion; its retail practices and the resulting ownership of too many clothes; and the various afterlives of fashion, whether destined as secondhand goods for ‘third-world’ countries, landfills or the very complicated processes of recycling.

We also all know that way more effort, if not activism is needed. Ahead of the worldwide climate strikes in September, the Financial Times and the Royal Court Theatre collaborated on a short drama exploring inaction on climate change, titled What do you want me to say? Actress Nicola Walker, transmitting the news from 2050, asks why “we never learnt to talk about this” and tells us that the “future has come to meet us”.

In recent years we, have been inundated by newspaper headlines, articles and podcasts that address the urgency of thinking about fashion ‘differently’ for a more sustainable future. The London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion recently launched it’s 5th MOOC with Future Learn and Kering: a six-week free online course aimed at promoting sustainable fashion through “Understanding Luxury Fashion in a Changing World”. In addition, they collaborated with the British Fashion Council and an NGO called Julie’s Bicycle, to contribute to the Fashion & Environment White Paper. Calling for the “End of Fashion” in her 2015 manifesto, world-renowned Dutch trend forecaster, Li Edelkoort asked that we rethink our relationship to clothes. Four years later, in 2019, punk fashion activist Vivienne Westwood said that in light of the climate crisis “we haven’t got time to talk about fashion”, but rather we need to redress land ownership. (This is with her One World Rent campaign). And more recently, Extinction Rebellion protestors staged a ‘shut down’ during London Fashion Week, and Stockholm Fashion Week was completely cancelled. Fashion indeed has vast and heavy footprints. And so far, global transformation efforts for fashion have focused on developing sustainable practices across three key areas in a fashion object’s life-cycle, namely its making, consumption, and disposal. (Marcus [Bergman] shared with us this morning, some of these great efforts). 

The World is on Fire 

However, I am going to propose that we look at sustainability in another way and with another lens today. Although attention has been given to fashion production, consumption and disposal (which is commendable), fashion’s reach goes much further than its physical life-cycle. It is where fashion reaches deeply into the social codes of belonging and beauty, and the emotive chords of memory and meaning, that the power of the industry (and its incredible capacity to control aesthetics and aspirations) is almost exclusively held by big brands and wealthy fashion conglomerates.

It was at the annual Business of Fashion’s VOICES event, held in the UK (VOICES is an event that brings together key global fashion thinkers, entrepreneurs and individuals re-shaping the world), that Brad Grossman and Dan Mitchell of Zeitguide last month pointed out that our world is on fire due to globalization, technology, the climate crisis and generational change. However, they argued, the antidote for this is “culture and the reimagining of human values”. It is when we look to artists, designers and creative projects from the global South, and from the margins, that we begin seeing some of these new voices and reimagined values.

Kenyan creatives from the Artists Xchange, Elizabeth Korikel, Margy Modo and Chebet Mutai’s year-long project was shot in and around Lake Turkana. Titled Floating, Flying, the photographic project celebrates heritage and pays homage to the Kenyan environment with its valuable minerals and resources. Each of the designers involved in this project draw on sustainable creative practices in their work, and as ‘custodians of heritage’, they privilege a uniquely African way of thinking about culture, land, time and the future, respecting equally, earth and community.

With these thoughts, I would like to return to the concept of the decolonial thinking introduced earlier. In an essay titled The Museum, Decoloniality and the End of the Contemporary, Rolando Vazquez provides us with a critique of museums, which as a complex, primarily colonial institution, offers us a useful and parallel method for thinking critically about the system of fashion. I have selected a fairly long quote from his essay, as it draws our attention to the mechanisms within cultural institutions that have constructed and perpetuated ways of thinking about modernity and its ‘other’, namely ‘tradition’. The resulting narrative is that tradition became the purview of the non-western world or global South, and modernity was scripted and co-opted by the West. This binary of tradition and modernity is critical to understanding so many current global injustices and inequalities. It is also at the heart of a deeper dialogue about contemporary global fashion.

I quote Rolando (2018:183) here:

“The museum, like the university, has been one of the core institutions of modernity. The museum has been enacting colonial difference, configuring the normative self, and negating alterity through both exclusion and exhibition of alterity. It has been instrumental in the affirmation, production, and dissemination of western knowledge, in the formation of ways of knowing and forms of perception that configure normative subjectivities. Its coloniality is enacted in appropriating, exhibiting, and relegating other people’s life-worlds, animals, and the Earth as ‘alterity’. The museum draws the alterity against which the normative self becomes human, modern, universal, and absent to the plurality of the world. The normative self is constituted in a separation from Earth, animals, and other peoples’ worlds. Aesthetic experience is thus an expression of the separation from other worlds of meaning and from other embodied realities.”

Fashion as an institution, has similarly over the last two centuries, progressively and consistently excluded, disavowed, eradicated, and denied the existence and growth of other fashion systems. Instead these alternative, so-called non-western or ‘other’ fashion systems have been relegated to the margins, often made redundant, and defined as traditional, non-fashion or even, anti-fashion. I am going to re-read Rolando’s quote, but this time I use the word ‘fashion’ to replace the word ‘museum’. In this exercise, I hope to think about the degree of coloniality inherent in the global, and primarily western, fashion system, as well as its impact on our ways of being, seeing and doing in relation to African fashion, textiles, concepts of beauty, aesthetics, and even, gender.

“[Fashion], like the museum, has been one of the core institutions of modernity. [Fashion] has been enacting colonial difference, configuring the normative self, and negating alterity through both exclusion and exhibition of alterity. [Fashion] has been instrumental in the affirmation, production, and dissemination of western knowledge (or western identities), in the formation of ways of knowing and forms of perception that configure normative subjectivities. [Fashion’s] coloniality is enacted in appropriating, exhibiting, and relegating other people’s life-worlds, animals, and the Earth as ‘alterity’. [Fashion] draws the alterity against which the normative self becomes human, modern, universal, and absent to the plurality of the world. The normative self is constituted in the separation from Earth, animals, and other peoples’ worlds. Aesthetic experience is thus an expression of the separation from other worlds of meaning and from other embodied realities.”

And what about our Future Worlds? 

The crimes of fashion, in other words, go way beyond low wages, overflowing landfills and detrimental chemicals. Fashion has and continues to decimate cultures and diverse cultural expressions that do not fit the normative and singular, western aesthetic. By disavowing plurality, other ways of being, knowing and doing in the world have and continue to be ignored, oppressed, dismissed, disavowed, destabilised, disrespected, and …. I can go on! This suppression of local and diverse cultural expressive practices has contributed to many collapsed craft industries and lost generational skills. Instead, communities divested of their own cultures, are seduced by global brands and the financial flow goes only one way – out of the community and into bank accounts of some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Fashion is primarily an economic tragedy. It is also an environmental disaster. However, here we are trying to imagine a future for fashion that is kinder, cleaner and more inclusive.

We need rethink this fashion system, not only in terms of ethical practices and environmental sustainability, but also in terms of recovering, repairing and reclaiming global cultural diversities that take care of each other and the land. We need to develop policies that consider cultural sustainability. And, we need to imagine and propose ‘differently’ dressed worlds.

In 1982 the cult sci-fi film Bladerunner was set almost forty years into the future. As of last month, the film is no longer set in a future. How accurate were the film’s speculative scenarios? How would we imagine a future world, now? In forty years, it will be 2060. Many of the climate predictions for 2050 are already, predicting an uninhabitable world. That is only thirty years from now. What will we be wearing? How will we make clothes? Will there be environments that can support cotton crops or roaming sheep? What future types of technology will we need to dress ourselves, and to address others?

Despite increasing climate catastrophes and the likelihood of far worse devastation to come, business continues as usual. And speculative ideas seem frustratingly and alarmingly inadequate. If we are serious about changing our future, we need to think drastically. I am proposing that this include a serious rethink of fashion in terms of who owns it, how it relates to the earth, and in what ways culture and community are included and integrated.

Designers Fashioning Brave New Worlds

To illustrate this necessary concept, I am going to share with you the work of a range of young, emerging designers who already use fashion to voice a plurality of aesthetics and community. Seventeen fashion designers were selected from around the world to participate in a group exhibition, the International Fashion Showcase, under the framing notion of Brave New Worlds that was held at London’s Somerset House in February 2019. The designers addressed a wide range of interrelated (and for this dialogue today – relevant) issues. These included climate change and colonialism, waste and new materials, nostalgia and reflection, diversity and empowerment, the loss of heritage and artisanal memory, animal and environmental activism, landfills and dead-stock, and, ice temperatures and rising sea-levels.

The virtual or digital exhibition provides you full access to of each of the designers’ curated spaces throughout Somerset House, where the International Fashion Showcase was held for two weeks only. The images that follow are screenshots from this exhibition. This digital rendering of the International Fashion Showcase 2019 exhibition was the first major project of the African Fashion Research Institute (AFRI).

Founded earlier this year by myself, and accomplished fashion maker and thinker, Lesiba Mabitsela, AFRI is an innovative platform for the collection, curation and circulation of contemporary African fashion, and its histories, politics and poetics. We chose to digitise and make available this exhibition, as it featured three emerging African designers: our very own Thebe Magugu, Kenyan jewellery designer Ami Doshi Shah, and Rwandan fashion-artist Cedric Mizero, together with designers from Lithuania, Brazil, Vietnam, Canada, Italy, Columbia and more. I would like to share some of the designers’ stories in their explorations of what it may mean to bravely ‘fashion’ new, decolonial and sustainable worlds.

Indian minimalist fashion designer Nuashad Ali draws on Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote, ‘The world has enough for everyone, but not enough for everyone’s greed”. Nuashad lives and works in Pondicherry in India. Starting always with textiles and working closely with local weavers, he uses traditional craft processes and indigo dye techniques to develop new cloth from waste fabrics, repurposing the offcuts to create patchworks for new designs. In his exhibition, everything he used was “destined for the rubbish heap”. His collection, titled Garbage, reminds us that “small, throwaway, everyday actions have a serious and accumulative impact over time”. Nuashad presents fashion that revives, rejuvenates and restores India’s cultural practices that are rapidly disappearing.

Canadian-born but London-based, Curtis Oland draws on his Lil’Wat heritage in a collaborative project that challenges the notion of a single homogenized indigenous voice across the whole of North America. His exhibition titled Delicate Tissue offers a musing on ancestral indigenous knowledge, where “our bodies are temporal. What we take from and give back to the land is a spiritual, sacred exchange. What we wear connects us to the spirit, to the land, and to each other”.

Kenyan jewelry designer Ami Doshi Shah also draws on a deep connection with land in her exhibition Salt of the Earth, where she presented a collection of sculptural semi-precious pieces as turquoise talismans. Ami explores the complex and damaging historical, political and material properties of salt, and its ongoing impact on Kenyan histories and landscapes in her exhibition in Somerset House’s West Wing, which was once home to the British Empire’s Salt Office.

And lastly, although the other designers all presented dynamic and important work, it was South African Thebe Magugu who won the International Fashion Showcase prize in 2019. His African Studies collection offers a celebratory illustration of the profound transformation in South Africa that is underpinned by an introspective look at contemporary African politics, new-found freedoms, and historical references. Central to this exhibition is the full South African Constitutional Bill of Rights. Thebe explains that South Africans have replaced a “largely auto-exotic gaze with critical and insightful dialogues about personal identities, cultural histories and authenticity”.

What is evident in this exhibition is the designers’ close and considered attention to questions of culture. Where some of the designers explored their cultural strengths, other designers focused on cultural vulnerability, for example the concept of throwaway culture, loss and dead-stock in the work of Dutch designer Duran Lantink (seen here), and Clara Aguayo’s collection made from deconstructed traditional, Uruguayan garments salvaged from derelict factories. However, the deep relationship between culture, the fashion industry and sustainability is largely ignored and remains mostly unaddressed.

Instead, recent examples of cultural appropriation, have featured regularly, and perhaps, not unsurprisingly. In a bid to draw in concepts of ‘authenticity’ and ‘diversity’, many fashion brands and their media platforms have been scrambling to be seen as inclusive, diverse, and even WOKE. However, First Nation communities, smaller designers (some of you may recall Laduma Ngxokolo’s recent lawsuit against Zara), and outspoken fashion activists (for example, Diet Prada) are challenging these inappropriate and unlawful ‘borrowings’. This call-out to cultural ownership is an important step in the shift towards decolonising the fashion landscape, redefining ownership, and expanding fashion’s potential for plurality. In this shift, cultural heritage, skills and knowledge, as well as cultural practices and expressions of alternative identities are finding ways to occupy the domains of modernity and fashion.

So, what would the impact be on the fashion industry, if collectively more brands, fashion houses and designers critically consider notions of culture in their work ethics, practices and design processes? Can reclaimed, rejuvenated, or perhaps reimagined cultural heritage begin to disrupt the skewed power of western fashion brands? We may all be familiar with Laduma’s creative re-imagination of traditional Xhosa beadwork into his highly successful knitwear brand, launched only seven years ago. Through his brand, he has created both awareness and respect for his cultural heritage; he has entered the global fashion market and supported new forms of knowledge production and exchange; and he has created ongoing employment and nurtured much new talent.

Cultural Sustainability 

So, let us explore the question of culture, the cultural domain and cultural sustainability a little. Culture is made up of diverse practices, discourses, and material expressions that, over time, convey both the continuities and discontinuities of social meaning. Culture is never static as it simultaneously responds to deeply personal values and broader, shared and shifting public ideologies. Its maintenance over time is therefore necessary for its continuation or survival for future generations. The domains of culture collectively encompass and inform a wide range of ways of being in the world (as you can see in the chart on the right). It includes notions of identity, creativity, memory, belief, gender, learning and wellbeing. Together with economy, politics and ecology, culture is the fourth pillar of sustainability, most recently added in the early 2000s.

The chart (2) here shows the city of Johannesburg’s sustainability profile in 2013.

The areas indicated in green are ‘vibrant’ or in good standing, which in this survey, shows Johannesburg to boast a vibrant political, and to some degree, economic domain. Only in the area of ecology (in terms of the built-form and transport), does the city require some attention, whilst cultural sustainability, in this survey, is considered largely satisfactory. Other cities in the same study showed, for example, Delhi showing almost no green ratings, (with economics and politics indicating highly unsatisfactory ‘red’ scores), and Melbourne with a lot of ‘green’ in terms of political, economic and cultural sustainability, and only some ‘red’ in the ecological arena.

So what is the relationship between fashion and cultural sustainability? In what ways does fashion engage with or determine our ways of being in the world? We all feel that fashion informs and gives shape to so many of the criteria listed in the chart. To many of us, fashion is all about identity, social engagement, creativity, memory, imagination, gender and even wellbeing. But we need to ask ourselves, in what way does this fashion that we wear today (and the fashion of those all around us), in what ways does it, or could it, contribute to our communities more sustainably? In what ways could the fashion we chose to buy and wear, contribute not only to economic, ecological and political sustainabilities, but towards cultural sustainabilities too?

We know that fashion is deeply vested in the political, cultural and creative crafting of identities in Africa. It is therefore critical that we give the right kind of attention to these diverse forms and practices. In this image (also by Artists Xchange), Elizabeth and Picha Marangi staged their fictional wedding in the second-hand market in Kibera, the biggest informal settlement in Nairobi. Their purposeful refashioning of thrifted items disrupts and reimagines the imported narratives vested in these cast-off garments.

Delinking & [Re]Institute

In closing, I offer a final exploration of what decolonising fashion may look like. Following Rolando’s call, that despite the lack of answers, decolonising is pushing us to dare to ‘move and think differently’. This is useful to explore how we can possibly ‘delink’ fashion from its colonial logic and western frameworks? In his MA thesis, titled Performing Methods of Undress, towards a Re-Imagined African Masculine Identity, my colleague Lesiba Mabitsela, interrogated in close detail, the politics and inherent colonial logics of the western suit and its powerful, if not problematic impact on the construction of African masculinities. Lesiba, in his research, interrogated and critiqued the design and cultural symbolism of the three-piece suit as a material display of power, an object imbued with divisive notions of race, gender and class. Lesiba shows how the suit is “intrinsically associated to performances of violence and rivalry, largely mitigated by (often) heroic patriotism and economic success … and influences how a man sits in public, how one feels in a suit, how one is treated whilst wearing a suit and so forth”. Lesiba’s performative interventions, such as his ongoing research project, titled [Re]Institute continue to interrogate the colonial and capitalist politics of the suit, whilst creating new, re-imagined identities, informed by readings from African literature, Gandhi’s use of khadi, the influence of Japanese drapery and pattern-cutting, and broader investigations into ideological, political and aesthetic modes of resistance to Western fashion values.

Fashion’s role, therefore in thinking about the future, carries the burden of thinking about not only inclusive worlds and a nurtured earth, but also about cultural pluralities and diversities. I will leave you with one last question by Rolando. He asks, “can we think of design [or can we think of fashion] that is capable of healing, of enabling relationality, of recovering the possibilities of listening to the communal, to the ancestral, of caring and nurturing earth, of enabling the formation and dignification of other worlds of meaning?” (2017: 13). (3)

I thank you for reading / listening.

References and Further Reading

[1] This quote is taken from Rolando Vazquez’s essay titled ‘The Museum, Decoloniality and the End of the Contemporary’ in The Future of the New: Artistic Innovation in Times of Social Acceleration, edited by Thijs Lijster. Published in Amsterdam by Valiz Publishers (2018), pp181-195.

[2] The case study of Johannesburg features in Urban Sustainability in Theory and Practice: Circles of Sustainability by Paul James with Liam Magee, Andy Scerri and Manfred Steger. Published in London by Routledge and Earthscan (2015), pp190-195.

 [3] This quote is from Rolando Vazquez’s paper titled ‘Precedence, Earth and the Anthropocene: Decolonizing Design’ featured in the journal Design Philosophy Papers, Volume 15: Issue 1: Design and the Global South, published by Routledge (2017), pp1-15.

  • The Future of Fashion was hosted by Rewoven in Johannesburg on 4 December 2019, and supported by Business Sweden, Embassy of Sweden, the Swedish Institute, Volvo SA, and Twyg 
  • Note from the Editor: This article has been corrected: Stockholm Fashion Week was cancelled this year, not Copenhagen Fashion Week. 9 December 2019 
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