Deconstructing fashion with Ruby Hoette

Have you heard about our new MA in Fashion yet? Starting this September, the departments of Design and Media &Communications, together with the Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, are offering a new Goldsmiths course that aims to challenge the traditional boundaries of fashion.

So here we bring you an interview with Ruby Hoette, a newcomer to Goldsmiths and one of the academics teaching on the course, to tell us more about the new MA and about herself. Ruby was born in Australia and her previous work and studies found her in Amsterdam and New York (at the famous Parsons School of Design) before she arrived to teach at Goldsmiths : “I was attracted by the strong culture of research and critical thought, and that, in combination with design practice, is, I think, a very productive mode of study”, she says. Ruby is both a fashion designer and a fashion researcher, and she is committed to a more critical approach to fashion, considering environmental and ethical aspects.

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Q: Can fashion be ethical and environmentally aware? I remember a while ago, when a high street retailer was marketing a campaign of “sustainable fashion”, a lot of people were commenting that if they were truly devoted to sustainability, they wouldn’t encourage people to change their wardrobe so often.

A: It’s a question that we will be encouraging the students at Goldsmiths to delve into, because there’s no quick answer. On one hand, everyone wears clothing, it’s a basic need, and on the other end of the extreme there’s the extremely fast pace of fashion where new collections are filling the shop not only every season, but in some stores, every couple of weeks. I think that part of the problem is educating the consumer that this pace is not sustainable. Speed is a big issue on the consumer side but also on the production side, since the sheer demand of that volume of clothing is leading to the conditions that we’ve been seeing so much in the media recently…

Q: You mean, the sweatshop that collapsed in Bangladesh.

A: Exactly. And this is happening, obviously, far too often. I think people are starting to connect the idea of buying a t-shirt every two weeks with the effect that it’s having on the people producing it. So I think it’s about making people aware of that link, and also, from a designer’s point of view, about changing the product you’re bringing to the map, so that it stimulates a different kind of interaction, between the consumer and the object. But it’s by no means an easy task. It’s very complex, but I don’t think it’s impossible. There is potential for people to interact with clothing in a different way.

Q: How are we going to make the people and the companies selling the clothes collaborate in this change? Don’t they just want to sell more clothes?

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A: That’s really difficult, because the whole system is about profit only, and not about mutual gain or awareness. It has a lot to do with economics, you’re right, in our society everything is based on profit being the main goal, so there has to be a shift in that as well, and that goes for all sorts of designed products, not only fashion. I don’t have the perfect answers, and I don’t think everybody does. I think it’s also about making small changes, and not trying to overhaul the whole system in one go.

Q: What kind of changes?

A: I talked about awareness from the consumer’s point of view; I think a lot of people simply don’t know about the conditions people work in to make their clothes. People are starting to understand and they don’t want to be responsible for those kind of conditions. We talked about the role of the designer as someone who has the place in society to create new things- so the designer needs to question what they’re making, how it will be made, how it will be used, how it will be disposed of, consider the whole lifecycle of the garment, and when you do that you’re inevitably going to make something that the consumer is going to interact to in a different way. It’s also about working together with the media and presenting a different story around fashion. And also, it’s become a lot more common recently to see museums and galleries curating fashion, looking into the history of fashion, and I think that also help establishing the idea that fashion doesn’t need to be disposable to have value, or to be in-fashion, as they say.

Q: Fashion is a hard to define field, it can be art, performance, part of the beauty industry…how do you approach it?

A: I always make a distinction between clothing and fashion. Clothing is the object, a garment, the raw material, and fashion is the image, the lifestyle, the story around those garments, that’s created, manipulated by the media, by the brands, as a way of turning these objects- clothing- into something that encompasses far more. I see it in layers. I think fashion is interesting and complex, because on one hand, it’s part of our everyday life, and on the other hand it’s something that’s unattainable, or that’s how it’s presented. High fashion is not affordable for everybody, it’s an image that we are told we should aspire to, but it always stays unattainable. And fashion has a really interesting relationship with time and with the new. It’s very contradictory in many ways. It wants the new, but it‘s recycling all the time, and it’s a tool to show your individuality and yet it inevitably visualises you as part of a group or a certain …clan.

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Q: There is a bit of stigma attached to it: if you’re open about caring about fashion, you’re looked down upon.

A: Because it’s not considered serious or, connected with intelligence. That’s one of those things that you constantly have to come up against, if you’re working in the field of fashion, especially fashion research. As soon as you delve a bit deeper, you understand that it’s embedded in so many different levels of society and culture, it’s very complex and it’s very interesting to study. And I think that’s really what we are going to focus on in the new MA Fashion: integrating the research and the theory side with the practical, or the aesthetic, and letting one influence and inform the other. Very often these days fashion researchers, or people who study fashion in the academic field, are very separate from the designers, or the people who are interested in the materiality of it, and I think there’s a lot of potential in bringing those two fields closer together and letting them overlap.

Q: How would you describe your aesthetic as a designer?

A: I think my aesthetic is heavily influenced by the fact that research is an important part of my process, so, often, you can see the research process in the final outcome, and it tells a story. I think I have a certain affinity with clothing and memory, the stories behind clothing, and sometimes this can have a nostalgic element. Many times it’s clean, stripped back to the essence of what clothing is and how it’s constructed.

Q: One of the most widespread critiques against the fashion industry is that it conspires with the beauty industry to impose these very restrictive beauty standards on women, or to make them feel bad about themselves if they don’t look like the very young, very thin fashion models. Is this a problem that this course will address?

A: It will be, definitely, something that we’ll be talking about during the course, and it relates to this ethical paradigm: not only ethics as far as the production of clothing, but also ethics as far as the presentation and marketing of clothing. Since the beginning of magazines, people have been presented in a very particular way in relation to what they wear and how they wear it, and it’s always very linked to other things that are going on culturally. A good example would be Mary Quant and the miniskirt in the sixties. It was a time when women were starting to free themselves from their domestic roles, and Mary Quant was able to use her designs to present that in dress, and it was in turn used by women as a statement. It definitely has the power to be used as a way to uphold these notions of beauty, but also as a way to change them. Fashion can be used in activism, it just depends how it’s presented, and with what intention. In the end, it’s just a tool, or a language, or a way of communicating.

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Q: As a fashion designer and researcher, to you find yourself analyzing the way people around you dress?

A: I guess I do, I can’t help it, it’s my field of interest and I’m often fascinated by it. I will often photograph people on the street if they have a particular style, but it’s very rarely about things that are in-fashion. I get really inspired when I see people on the street using clothing in a way that I haven’t seen before. So I do look at what people are wearing, but more out of fascination than out of a need to pass judgement. But I am always very interested in people’s choice of shoes; it generally says something about who they are, not the costume or what they’re wearing otherwise, but somehow your shoes tend to show your real personality.

Q: What’s your favourite historical period, as a fashion researcher?

A: I’d probably go with the 1920’s, particularly with Chanel- what she did for women then, and the way women wore clothes, went out dancing, and were free in a way that I think is really inspiring; she created clothing that people could move in, at the time it must have been extremely groundbreaking. And also just the fact that people wore hats then- such a nice accessory!

Q: What career will the students of this new MA course get out of it?

A: We’re inviting students to apply from a really broad range of backgrounds, from fashion design, textiles, branding, marketing, journalism, and the idea is for all of these people to inspire and influence each other on the course. It might happen that students will change their area of focus or they may stay true to their backgrounds, but I think that what’s unique about the course is that it will create people who have a broad understanding of the different roles and the different practices within the broader fashion industry, and also within the cultural industry, and they’ll be able to position themselves as experts across that field. So you can think of fashion curators, fashion designers, textile designers, textile or fashion researchers. And this is in line with what’s happening in the fashion industry at the moment, it’s becoming much more broad, it’s not just a designer presenting a collection on the catwalk anymore, there’s fashion criticism, there’s people curating exhibitions on fashion ,there’s people looking at the historical and cultural relevance of different fashion trends and therefore being able to predict what’s going to happen in the future, so it’s hopefully we’ll be educating fashion practitioners who are able to function within a fashion system that’s changing and becoming much broader, less defined. And they’ll have the skills and the knowledge and the insight to be able to change that system, and to propose different ways of it functioning, so they’re really going be innovators in the industry.

Q: So why should someone choose this course and not one of the many other fashion courses that are in London at the moment?

A: Many of the other courses that are available are either specifically on fashion design- so the course leads to the final outcome of a collection which is presented on the catwalk- and other programmes ask you to choose between a practice-based or academic pathway. The unique thing about this course at Goldsmiths is that it’s combining practice and theory, not in two separate pathways, but all in one course. So these two things are very much going to be overlapping and informing each other, rather than be two separate areas of study.

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Q: What will be the final project?

A: It will be an independent research project that can culminate into a practical project with a 2d or 3d outcome, supported by a research report, or it can be a purely theoretical, academic project or an entrepreneurial project. Some of the outcomes are just as likely to be websites, blogs, business programmes, photographs, magazines, exhibitions, garments.

Q: A lot of work and choice packed into one course, then?

A: Every student is going to come with their area of expertise already, and that’s going to inform the choices they make. But yes, it’s going to be challenging, and I think that’s good. We’re going to ask a lot of the students.

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