Responsible Fashion Series investigates the question: ‘Can fashion save the world?’

Global fashion conference Responsible Fashion Series returned on Wednesday after a two-year hiatus, in a selection of live presentations, this time hosted in the fashion capital of Antwerp, Belgium.

For its first live event, attended by FashionUnited, an array of talks and panel discussions cover a diverse spectrum of subjects, ultimately aiming to tackle the challenging question: ‘Can fashion save the world?’.Answers and queries drastically differ when looking at such a broad and complex question, with topics including fashion education, cultural significance, sustainable development and consumerism.

An interview with Walter Van Beirendonck, a member of the Antwerp Six and head of the fashion department at Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, kicked off the event. In an interview with one of his own students, the Belgian designer offered his take on the subject, discussing how he views and operates in the complex industry. His perspective touched on mental health in fashion, as well as career paths that he took to get where he is.

“We all know that it can’t,” Van Beirendonck said, answering the underlying question of the day. “But on the other hand, I also think that it can provide a lot of joy, happiness and dreams so it is good and I think it is already a fair start. I’m sure everyone is thinking about that question, and also how we can improve working in the best way possible.”

It could start with fashion education…

A discussion panel following the interview agreed with the designer’s sentiment. A group of fashion educators from top universities responded to the question, with many responding ‘no’ when asked if the industry can change the world. Their takes focused on fashion education’s impact in the industry, and how it can aid students to think more critically about the way they manoeuvre in their future fashion careers.

Despite the collective view of the panellists, that fashion is unable to create a drastic change, they took the opportunity to highlight the ways in which fashion education is already taking steps towards the beginning of the positive reformation. Participants talked about new society conscious additions to curriculums at their respective institutes, as well as initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion, such as Parsons’ student and alumni-led board that puts the view of students at the forefront.

Johan Pas, from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, had a different perspective on the subject. When asked about his take on fashion’s influence on global change, he said: “Of course, it already does, for more than a century and on a daily basis. The moment we decide to put some energy into dressing up and down, it is influencing our world.” However, he does believe the education process is something that should be transformed for positive longevity.

Pas’ solution centred on drawing influence from avant-garde art movements, which made bolder criticism on society than that of its fashion counterpart. He suggested that, as a medium, fashion can be seen as a tool for communication, expression and creation, adding to the perspective of society.

Fashion as a critical art form or a culturally diverse statement

“When considering fashion as an art, it becomes a perfect tool to bridge a gap between art and life,” Pas noted, further stating that viewing fashion education in this way would mean it needs to be a research-based education. “By questioning its own eurocentric frameworks, by investigating its blindspots and pushing and pulling its borders, by exploring new conceptual and technological territories, the creative practices of fashion will be empowered by its critical perception.”

Pas’ perspective suggests that artists and designers need to come into a non-consumer driven market in order to make revolutionary commentary. While Fiona Dieffenbacher, of Parsons School of Design, agreed with Pas’ view that fashion education needs to step out of its eurocentric mindset and further spoke on decentralising the system, Barbara Trebitsch, from Accademia Costume e Moda, had another take.

Trebitsch emphasised the importance of educating students in a traditional sense, raising them with consideration of their own roots. The Italian lecturer addressed the pressure the industry puts on the new generation and said that instead, it should be giving them the tools to break the already established rules. She also noted that it is not just designers who hold the responsibility for reformation, but also management, media and other significant titles behind the industry. This, in turn, suggested Trebitsch, will help to change the way fashion is perceived.

A particularly notable contribution from a Central Saint Martins lecturer in the audience raised the issue of whether education was acknowledging those in cultures that are less equipped to reach that of the internationally renowned schools present. The exponential rise in education expenses was brought to light, and it was noted that many talented individuals from underrepresented cultures may not have the opportunities of those from wealthier countries and backgrounds.

“We are almost perpetuating this economic model and that could be the downfall of the fashion talent that could exist,” said Ian King, the moderator of the panel and founder of Responsible Fashion Series. “So what could we do to reverse this kind of trend? Because it is not going to stop.”

He continued: “‘These kinds of institutions, like Parsons and London College of Fashion, are creating the problem because they are charging higher and higher fees. They are looking at these people not in terms of their talent but really their ability to pay. That really doesn’t help the industry at all. What can we do to change the system to make sure that talent comes from the surface? It is in the best interest of this industry to find the most talented students.”

Educational reform

Bold criticism and innovative ideologies are the pillars of the forward-thinking conference, with the overall goal being to bring together diverse contributors as a way to offer differing takes on how the fashion system operates. The international spectrum of participants allows for a broader discussion, looking closely at the varying cultures and perspectives that could influence a response change in fashion.

Developed and founded in a collaboration of four top fashion institutions under the Fashion Colloquia umbrella, the Responsible Fashion Series is backed by London College of Fashion, Parsons School of Fashion and Design in New York, Paris-based Institut Français de la Mode and Domus from Milan. Past editions, hosted globally in the cities including Rome, Ho Chi Min and Sao Paulo, have additionally featured a variety of subject matters, including heritage, disruptive fashion and new luxury.

For the current edition, the series launched first online last week, through a dedicated digital platform, with presentations spanning two days. Livestreamed talks by a variety of researchers and professionals exhibited an array of subject matters, including co-creation, breaking stereotypes and cultural engagement.

On the second day of the event, viewers will be able to observe a live pitching contest during the conference, with individuals presenting their own concept revolving around responsible fashion. An expert jury consisting of investors and advisors will be present to oversee the pitches, with the occasion livestreamed over the event’s digital platform.

Alongside the presentations, the Series is additionally hosting an exposition featuring a variety of innovative projects based on sustainable fashion production, including some by presenters at the event itself. Leather manufacturing, aware craftsmanship and digital tool construction are features of the display, with researchers and presenters offering innovative takes on new fashion operations, sustainable development and dismantling traditional structures.


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