Dr. Otto von Busch

Fashion can have more energy than just being an inanimate product.

That was one of the parting thoughts presented by Otto von Busch, associate professor of integrated design at Parsons School of Design.

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In his talk at the Fairchild Media Group Sustainability Forum, titled “Putting the Life and Freedom Back Into Fashion,” von Busch said instead of looking at fashion as objects or commodities, a more expansive view would be to consider how a fashion designer modulates social energies. “First of all, think of fashion as an energy. Think of fashion as a feeling that we curate and that people use to connect to others. We can think of fashion as existing in different vistas and in different domains. As an industry and as designers, we work within these domains,” he said.

From his standpoint, there are different vistas — the first being the material one with garments, supply chains, pattern construction, textiles and so on. “But fashion also exists between us. It’s a social phenomenon. It cannot exist in isolation. You cannot have fashion just by yourself. It happens socially,” von Busch said. “In a social realm, we use it to connect with others. We use it to feel that we are capturing people’s attention and holding it. They cannot take their eyes off it, if it really works.”

Thirdly, there is a mental realm that ties to the wearer’s self-esteem, moods and emotional life. There are many ways to keep goods circulating, by recycling, reselling, sharing services, rentals, clothing libraries and many other ideas to do that within the material economy, von Busch said.

Referring to circularity, he suggested that a healthy, sustaining economy can circulate within a donut shape. But there are “planetary boundaries and outer limits to how much a system can handle,” which can lead to pollution, extinction of animals, too much extraction, he said. That means that the circulation of materials must have limits. “If we think of continuous growth, even in a circular model, spirals out of control. It is not really circular then,” von Busch said.

Using zero-waste materials may be fine, but the risk is that everything around that — the logistics, the energy used, re-manufacturing and shipping tied to a garment’s production, as well as consumers driving to the stores offset the choice of zero-waste materials, he said. More thought needs to be paid to these processes, von Busch said.

Asked if there are any brands that are bringing energy into fashion, von Busch said there are some that are trying to work with very different models such as Friends of Light, which specializes in weaving and operates as a co-op. “It tries to really question the business model of the company itself and works very closely to the customer, bringing garments in that could be recycled into new garments,” he said.

Other brands are using their retail space in different ways, such as opening repair cafes or various pop-up things. “There is definitely much more experimentalism that is happening around how brands think,” said von Busch, adding they are considering more than “the very narrow interface of ready-to-wear, [in terms of] I buy my garment, and then say good-bye.”

Through Parsons and working with his students, von Busch noted there is more of an urgency about the hypocrisy that is happening. “We celebrate the closets of Hollywood stars, at the same time that we blame the poor for buying fast fashion. There is a discrepancy in these values and it is becoming more and more apparent. There are other questions like, ‘Is luxury automatically better?’ or ‘Is crafted artisanal?’ It can also be consumed in fast-fashion ways. That doesn’t necessarily solve an issue…a lot of students are trying to figure out, if I set up the packages, how will I serve people who need fashion the most? People, who want to, but don’t have the means to take control of their appearances…But at the same time, they don’t consume the resources of the planet.”

Many students want to live an environmentally and socially conscious life but there is a tension, according to von Busch. They want the companies they work for to practice transparency and the other values that are said to be part of their DNA or in their products. They are concerned about “how they can help the user to live these values. That is definitely a mind-set. These are students who have taken systems theory classes. They look at sustainable systems. They look at things in a wider sense rather than just picking materials that are eco-sourced or vegan leather,” he said. “They see a much wider social practice. At least what I hear is they are demanding a little bit more of that world. They want to do more in that realm.”

In addition, designers should consider the user’s life practices and how to best facilitate those rather than just try to sell them products.

More than anything, von Busch advised, “Think in systems. Think beyond the product. See your user as someone who has an aspiration to connect with you.”

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