Interview with José Teunissen about her Inaugural Lecture: "Let's get away from short-term gratification and take sustainability seriously."

April 10, 2024

José Teunissen, Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI) director and professor in Fashion Design and Identity at the Amsterdam University of Amsterdam, will deliver her inaugural lecture 'Grenzen en vergezichten, mode op een kantelpunt' (translated: Limits and vision, fashion at a tipping point) on Tuesday 16 April. Less than a year after her appointment as professor, Teunissen will discuss a topical issue: the current fashion system, which has well passed its sell-by date. In her speech, she discusses three central themes which are relevant in fashion as well as at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences - diversity and inclusion, sustainability and digitalisation - to outline the path that needs to be taken to reinvent the fashion system. A road that, says Teunissen, is already being prepared.

Jose teunissen door bibi veth verkleind 2

Picture by Bibi Veth

The fashion system in its current form is unsustainable: pollution, overproduction, lack of fair wages, an outdated production process and a Western colonial system that systematically excludes other cultures and traditions. It is almost inevitable that fashion as a system will have to reinvent itself. José Teunissen: "I don't think anyone doubts that this is a dead end. The fashion industry is the fourth most polluting industry, it takes up a lot of water capacity and - what many people forget - agriculture. We produce and buy too much - an average of seven to eight garments a year in Europe - and recycle only one per cent of it."

The production process, based on a barely digitised nineteenth-century model, is inefficient, says Teunissen: "A new trend is conceived, then a sample collection is made, products are physically sent back and forth, and the collection is made in very large quantities somewhere far away. In addition, we're still working with industrial sizes, which many people don't fit into, even though the technology has long since provided a solution, for example in the form of body scans or even apps on mobile phones". But there are also positive developments. Digitalisation creates new opportunities where there is much more dialogue between a designer or brand and a consumer. "Some platforms offer the possibility of ordering a product in a certain colour or size, after which it is made to order (made on demand), perhaps nearby, in 'microfactories'. The traditional fisherman's sweater from the Keeping it Local project is a good example."

Fast Fashion

"Fashion is the only industry with a business model where you only have to sell 30 per cent to make a profit; 35 per cent is sold and 30 per cent is written off. It's what we call a push market: you see what sells, whereas now, with the use of data analytics, you don't have to. New trends used to come with the seasons, but now anything that is presented as a trend immediately spreads around the world. Fast fashion has made it a sport to get fashion into stores as quickly as possible.

Textiles used to be very expensive, cheap fashion is relatively new. Clothes now have a different value, partly because of this. There is also a lack of knowledge about where clothes come from. We outsource the production process to other countries, so we no longer see the raw materials that grow on the land, like cotton or flax, which is used to make linen. There is a lot of focus on this in sustainability thinking. But also, for example, the lack of fair wages, inequality, is increasingly coming to the forefront as a problem," explains Teunissen.

In the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie emerged and fashion became a way of expressing that you belonged to modern life. Before that, clothes mainly showed your role in life, whether you were married or unmarried and what region you came from. Teunissen: "Fashion was separate from that, so everyone could 'belong': fashion was linked to the idea of progress and individuality. You can see the same thing in the 1960s (hippies) and 1970s (punk) of the 20th century: the emergence of a youth culture with its own music and clothing culture; movements that gave certain groups an identity. It fascinates me that fashion always focuses on the new. And in the last 20 years this has accelerated, but is this newness what we should be striving for, or should there also be another value in a product?”

Revaluing clothes

"Because fashion originated in the West, but has become globalised, it is often seen in other cultures as a Western (colonial) system that includes and excludes people. And that is another reason to move away from always wanting to be new and different and to think carefully about the value of what we make. In the last 20 years there has been a counter-movement that thinks much more in terms of sustainability: fashion and clothing are more than disposable products. You can see that the story behind a product is increasingly important. People want to know who made it and how it was made: from which breed of sheep or which plant. It's about revaluing a garment as something special, and that's what we're working on. We should also learn from other cultures with their own traditions, where the relationship between the product and nature or the environment has always been important. Let's get away from short-term gratification and take sustainability seriously.

Is there a role for AMFI and the other fashion colleges in this? "The new generation is coming up with very interesting ideas and examples of how they look at fashion and clothes and create collections based on that. Innovation will take us in the right direction, but good policy is also important. The EU has come up with very strict guidelines for a digital product passport, where you have to show in detail where and what your product is made of. You see smaller companies really trying to do things differently, like New Optimist, which focuses locally on circular production, or Mud Jeans, where you can rent a pair of jeans that are made into another product after the rental period. But you can see that even the big brands like C&A and H&M are looking at what is less harmful to the environment. Many things still go wrong, but quite a few things go right too. And we really need to get away from the fixation on the new and start appreciating fashion or clothing as a great product".

José Teunissens's inaugural lecture will take place on 16 April 2024 from 16:00 at Jakoba Mulderhuis in Amsterdam (Rhijnspoorplein 2, Amsterdam)

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