What would she like to see? “The fashion business supporting the needs and desires of indigenous dress makers and not the other way around,” she says. “To place ‘them’ first would be a restitution, perhaps revival, of ‘their’ systems. It’s time to ask what fashion can do for them, not what they can do for fashion. They need the chance to be able to live their own cultural lives. They need their lands revitalised, their systems respected, self-determination. They need clean air and clean water. Our debt to their health and their way of life can’t even begin to be tallied up.”
The issues of respect and of concern for other cultures – of which Niessen’s paper is such a nuanced expression – has become more marked in a world still battling a global pandemic, jolted awake by Black Lives Matter, and damaged beyond recognition by global warming, itself directly caused by consumption. Within this context, many are questioning whether the extractive model of infinite growth, born from a history of colonial exploitation, is all it’s cut out to be; whether it may, in all that matters, actually be one of the worst ways of moving forward. Attention is turning, with a renewed humility, to indigenous practices, tried and tested for millennia, for stewarding the Earth.
And it is turning to what other practices – of organising communities, of exchanging skills and of making clothing – may have to offer as alternatives to the hyper-industrial, hegemonic Western fashion industry. “The Black Lives Matter [movement has led to a] mass realignment and re-education, and an understanding of how our colonial past and empire-building was built on the exploitation of people and theft of indigenous land and resources,” says Blanchard. “There’s a new awareness of cultural imbalances and the inequalities within the fashion industry, where a thousand-pound dress has been made by garment workers who are not paid a living wage, or where a motif has been taken from a community’s cultural textile heritage without permission.”
A shared vision
Increasingly, the industry is asking itself: what are the new systems that can take us into the future? And what are the ways of working across cultures that ensure that each party is adequately represented and recognised? “For cultural collaboration to exist, a shared vision needs to be established,” muses Kerry Bannigan, executive director of the Fashion Impact Fund. “Collaborative collective leadership is necessary along with assessment of all processes in the project. Designers and brands need to understand that they have a responsibility to value the skills that bring their collections to life, and that support is required across the full value chain and fashion community globally. Respect, inclusion, consent, and communication are key to ensure that brands are not diminishing something of intrinsic cultural value when adopting elements from another culture.”
Groups are working hard to address imbalances. The Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI), founded by Monica Moisin, connects designers with traditional textile artisans within a framework that ensures that the artisans’ cultural intellectual property is respected with what CIPRI describes as the “three Cs”: consent, credit, and compensation. Meanwhile, the British Council’s Crafting Futures Community Couture project brings together designers from different cultures to create collaborative garments that can be rented. Digital resources capture the garment’s evolution, making sure its full story, beyond the physical, is told. “This is the future of craft and community, where projects like this allow techniques to evolve and be relevant to new generations in a spirit of equal exchange,” says Blanchard.