Gillian Steel reflects on the virtual visit to ReMode by Design Activist Kate Fletcher – March 2021

Zipping across the vast electronic network currently holding us together, Kate Fletcher’s visit to ReMode in March was a blast of energising frisson emanating from those screens we are all getting heart weary of.

Over 2 full day practical sessions and a facebook live lecture, design activist and fashion sustainability pioneer Kate introduced participants to a whole new way of looking at our clothes. The culminating screening of ‘The Sequel – What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?’ connected inspiring projects including those of the ‘Transition Towns Movement’, and the work of David Fleming to Kate’s exploration of activating change in fashion, craft of use and the natural world.

Day 1 – Fashion Mapping, Counting, Loitering

Kate’s approach to reconnecting us to exactly where our clothing comes from is practical, hands on and creative. Via a zoom session, participants were asked to create a simple visual describing their relationship to fashion. Not an easy one to sum up in a single image but having to do so focussed our scattered thoughts. Soon we were talking about the intricacies of conflicting feelings in the space of the ‘fashion spectacle’ which many commonly associate with freedom of expression, identity exploration, feelings of being renewed and presentable.

The practical task of the ‘wardrobe audit’ that followed this was equally focussing as we pulled out the contents of wardrobes and drawers and started counting the resulting tangled mess of garments on our bedroom floors. I can’t begin to describe how much I wanted to run away from this task – suffice to say that scrubbing all the skirting boards in the house with a toothbrush seemed more appealing. It was ok though once I got started and accepted that the time had come to look my consumption habits in the face. Each garment, including knickers and socks, were logged on a sheet of paper and the totals investigated in the group discussion that followed. There was no shaming involved but I was a bit confused as to how I had managed to accrue 27 pairs of socks! Summing up this exercise involved reflecting on what the problems and frustrations were – for me a biting sense of incompleted-ness, failed aspirations to sufficiently utilise the creative skills I have, and the inability to let go of stuff including garments that are threadbare and beyond use.

There were other revelations most of which pointed to psychological issues, including a realisation that the act of ‘buying’ gives an adrenalin kick that we crave and cave into but rarely benefit from for much longer that it takes to get the item home. It reminded me of the first fag of the day thing that smokers talk about – the morning one being a good ‘hit’ but all the ones after that falling just short of something satisfying. Beyond this the broader reasons for over buying and underusing what we currently have, included issues around body image and that all elusive ‘feeling and looking good’ in what’s on offer. This coupled with the tantalising sense that buying something will solve how bad we feel about ourselves in an environment where we are bombarded with marketing that hones in on utilising every human sensory experience to ‘close the deal’ makes us pretty vulnerable to over buying. The reality of the ‘buy to feel better/consoled/fulfilled’ … fill in as per your personal neurosis … has been borne out by the massive increase of on-line purchasing of clothing during lockdown months. At any rate increased opportunities to go out clubbing and socialising – ie situations where you might want to look particularly dazzling – would not explain it.

Day 1 – Fashion & Sustainability – Stories of Change.

Via Facebook Live Kate delivered an evening lecture followed by Q&A, exploring activating change with reference to fashion, the craft of use and the natural world.

Day 2 – Unpicking to Take Action

On the second day of Kate’s ‘visit’ the ‘Unpicking to take Action’ zoom session pushed participants further to understand the human investment involved in making a garment. Forensically unpicking each seam, waistband and pockets – of for example a pair of supermarket jeans – to break the garment down to its original pattern pieces gave an insight to amount of fabric, other materials, production processes and labour expended. Despite the sense that many of us have that these garments are ‘thrown together’ as part of incredibly time efficient production lines the reality that emerged for us was enlightening. Namely that each garment requires significant material and human resources. That for each a percentage ‘falls off’ as waste, and each requires a lot of work – so a lot of people take part in the making process.

A creative exploration of how our deconstructed garments could be ‘jammed’ together as alternative garments or prototypes concluded the day. We got an hour to come up with the idea and realise these. There wasn’t much time for over thinking which (for someone who likes to overthink things) was as helpful as it was frustrating!

Day 2 – Evening Film Screenings & Panel Discussion

Via a zoom session the screening of two animation shorts made by ReMode participants ‘Stop/Think and Start Again’ and ‘Isolation’ was followed by feature length ‘The Sequel – What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation’ which shines a light on the work and legacy of historian, economist, and ecologist David Fleming – who dared to re-imagine a thriving civilisation after the collapse of our current mainstream economies, and inspired the Transition Towns movement. This on the Tuesday evening served to pull the proverbial threads together and bring Kate’s visit to a close with a Q&A session involving a panel and around twenty participants.

On the panel Kate was joined by activist, writer – and mentee of David Fleming – Shaun Chamberlin, and Sustainability Coordinator at Glasgow School of Art – John Thorne. Taking Shaun’s guiding principal of ‘dark optimism’ I wanted to direct a conversation that explored how the positive but realistic ways of thinking that the film demonstrated might find traction in our own lives, relationships, homes and communities. Also alongside this, how ‘dark optimism’ might shape the role of designers and education/training centres for designers to reconnect people to the material resources we have come to take for granted.

What emerged from the conversation was a need for sociable interactions that make sense within the context of common place lives – get togethers that are fun and motivating like street parties and sharing of food. Of course this sets in sharp relief the corrosive effect that being in isolation has had on many – if not all of us – over the last year particularly in terms of feeling increasingly disempowered and more likely to look for comfort in the magical world of new ‘stuff’. One of the more positive signals that was flagged up however during this time was that the act of ‘making’ – whether baking, cooking, gardening or stitching – may offer a potent route to experiencing that dark optimism. This makes the practical work of design activists like Kate Fletcher who contribute to the field of sustainable clothing and other areas of design, invaluable as a means of imaging possible ‘futures’.

It also sets a spotlight on the role of creative institutions and training centres to ensure that designers and creative practitioners understand the value of their role in the real world and avoid being overwhelmed by a sense of being individually and wholly responsible for the difficulties we are facing. This, in John Thorne’s words, necessitates developing ‘a sense of proportional responsibility’. I would add to that, moving forwards that notions of ‘value’ relating to designers and makers revolve more around the imaginative and innovative utilisation of existing resources of discards, a localised focus on these and specialist repair skills, rather than on developing an individual profile – as enshrined in contemporary imaginings – of the ‘Fashion Designer’. “

Kate will be visiting us in May or June (C-19 restrictions allowing) for a face to face practical workshop involving an interaction with the wild and wonderful outdoors here in Renfrewshire. Places will be limited and the opportunity to take part – a rare one! So keep your eyes on our social media channels for more information or sign up to our mailing list to hear about it first!

A great many thanks to Kate for a wonderful visit. Also to John Thorne and Shaun Chamberlin for taking part in our concluding film screening panel.”

Reams of Strong Thread Reclaimed

You can find out more about Kate Fletcher and her work on her website.