FASH­ION: Mean­ing in fash­ion.

Bring­ing dis­cus­sions of iden­tity, rep­re­sen­ta­tion and ap­pro­pri­a­tion into fash­ion stud­ies, Kim­berly Jenk­ins says de­sign­ers need to bet­ter un­der­stand cus­tomers’ in­ter­est in the mean­ing of their clothes, writes Alyx Gor­man.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Alyx Gor­man

Fash­ion is chang­ing. The in­dus­try’s cor­po­rate and cre­ative sides have al­ways worked hand in glove to in­no­vate, pro­voke de­sire and ul­ti­mately move prod­uct. At fash­ion school, stu­dents are taught to con­sider con­sumers’ aes­thetic con­cerns – from good fit to novel de­sign – and their spend­ing be­hav­iours. Less at­ten­tion has been paid to the mean­ing be­hind those choices – how con­sumers think and feel about the clothes they wear.

Now, thanks to so­cial me­dia, the fash­ion in­dus­try is able to gather vast amounts of qual­i­ta­tive data about their cus­tomers’ tastes, in­ter­ests and habits. Con­sumers have a voice. Whether they’re call­ing out cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, de­mand­ing more diver­sity on the run­way or boy­cotting brands that work with known sex­ual ha­rassers, their voice states one thing loudly: mean­ing mat­ters.

Kim­berly Jenk­ins is at the fore­front of a move­ment to ex­plore that mean­ing. The New York­based aca­demic is a vis­it­ing as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Pratt In­sti­tute and part-time lec­turer at Par­sons School of De­sign. In 2011, she joined a small co­hort of his­to­ri­ans, an­thro­pol­o­gists and so­ci­ol­o­gists who’ve grad­u­ated from Par­sons’ just-es­tab­lished fash­ion stud­ies mas­ter of arts pro­gram. Hers was only the sec­ond group to do so.

Par­sons, a col­lege of The New School in New

York, is one of the most in­flu­en­tial fash­ion schools in the world. Be­fore the fash­ion stud­ies mas­ter’s was es­tab­lished, its grad­u­ate pro­grams had been de­voted largely to the busi­ness or prac­tice of de­sign. “I liked the idea that it was just so open-ended and so nascent. It al­lowed a space to kind of help shape it, ad­vance it,” Jenk­ins ex­plains of the course. “They didn’t re­ally have an­swers for you in terms of ca­reer, what you could do with it. I ma­jored in an­thro­pol­ogy and art his­tory, and it was the per­fect de­gree be­cause I love fash­ion but I wanted this whole per­spec­tive. I wanted to know about cul­tures and iden­tity con­struc­tion.”

Jenk­ins started teach­ing shortly after grad­u­a­tion, first at Pratt and then at Par­sons. In 2016, she de­vel­oped a ground­break­ing un­der­grad­u­ate course, Fash­ion and Race, at Par­sons, which she is teach­ing for the third time this au­tumn. This year, the course earned her a com­mence­ment award from The New School, for out­stand­ing achieve­ments in diver­sity and so­cial jus­tice teach­ing.

The course draws on the work of a range of aca­demics, from foun­da­tional cul­tural the­o­rist Stuart Hall to English pro­fes­sor Anne Cheng, who wrote

The Melan­choly of Race. “I had to do all of this sort of col­lect­ing and or­gan­is­ing out of all of th­ese dif­fer­ent fields …” Jenk­ins says. “It’s not that there haven’t been writ­ers who have ad­dressed fash­ion and race.” But the work was scat­tered across women’s stud­ies, art his­tory,

African–Amer­i­can stud­ies and more. “I ask, where are they talk­ing about dress and fash­ion and black bod­ies, and white bod­ies, and all the bod­ies? And make sense of it, and put it to­gether into some sort of co­he­sive syl­labus for stu­dents ... Every se­mes­ter that I teach it, I learn more be­cause I’m see­ing how im­por­tant it is to the stu­dents, how they’re re­spond­ing to it and how they feel this has been miss­ing in the cur­ricu­lum. And also that this is some­thing that is ad­vanc­ing the field. It’s some­thing that we all need to know about.”

While th­ese con­cepts might be fa­mil­iar to hu­man­i­ties stu­dents, for vo­ca­tion-fo­cused fash­ion de­sign­ers the dis­cus­sions have been more eye-open­ing. “I teach a class at Pratt called Con­tex­tu­al­is­ing Fash­ion … Every se­mes­ter when the stu­dents learn they have to take this class, they are think­ing on the first day of class, ‘What is this go­ing to be about?’ [I’ll ask them], have you ever con­sid­ered that dress is a key com­po­nent to how we con­struct our gen­der iden­tity? Or how ... cloth­ing can in­crim­i­nate some­one? The ex­am­ple I use is the hoodie. I ask the stu­dents to re­flect upon the fact that de­pend­ing on the body within that hoodie, it could be a mat­ter of life or death. It could be Mark Zucker­berg or it could be Trayvon Martin.”

Fash­ion stu­dents aren’t the only ones who are ben­e­fit­ing from Jenk­ins’ re­search. She also works with Har­vard his­to­rian Jonathan Michael Square to run a pub­lic work­shop called Fash­ion and Jus­tice, which has been hosted in New York and Austin, Texas, with a Har­vard ver­sion to come. “It was some­thing where we didn’t re­ally ask for per­mis­sion ... It’s be­come this trav­el­ling show. It helped us re­alise what’s pos­si­ble. This is a nascent field where you can just cre­ate your own thing. You can’t wait for some­one to en­cour­age you to do some­thing or for them to cre­ate that space for you – you just do it.”

Jenk­ins and her fel­low fash­ion stud­ies grad­u­ates took a sim­i­lar ap­proach when found­ing the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary Fash­ion Stud­ies Jour­nal, which has been pub­lish­ing since 2012. “It’s sort of like a lit­tle bit of a mag­a­zine and an aca­demic jour­nal – we’re try­ing to make it more ac­ces­si­ble and help peo­ple in our com­mu­nity.” The FSJ is a space for schol­arly ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, out­side the rigid struc­tures of peer­re­viewed jour­nals such as the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Fash­ion Stud­ies or Fash­ion The­ory.

Th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties, along with the cu­ra­tion of pub­li­cand in­dus­try-fac­ing panel dis­cus­sions, have led Jenk­ins to call her­self “kind of a bad aca­demic. I al­ways knew I wanted to do more pub­lic-based work”.

Many of the fields Jenk­ins draws on in her cour­ses did not al­ways have a com­fort­able home in academia, ei­ther. Women’s stud­ies, for in­stance, evolved in­for­mally through work­shops, jour­nals and read­ing groups. It took protests, pe­ti­tions and other forms of col­lec­tive ac­tion by stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers to get th­ese cour­ses onto the cur­ricu­lum.

Jenk­ins sees ten­sion within her own school. “They’re like two dif­fer­ent si­los. We’re both in­vested in ed­u­cat­ing our fash­ion stu­dents, but there is a ... di­vide be­tween the the­ory de­part­ment and the his­tory de­part­ment pro­fes­sion, and the de­sign de­part­ment. We have tried to reach across the aisles ... but there’s still, many of the fac­ulty, who are just teach­ing de­sign ... not about his­tory, not about the­ory. And his­tory does have some im­por­tance. You see the in­dus­try giv­ing a nod to his­tory, but it’s a harder sell with the­ory be­cause it just seems so ab­stract.”

Jenk­ins is also keen to reach across the di­vide be­tween the­ory and in­dus­try. “I’ve been try­ing to kind of let th­ese in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als know … there is a value to think­ing crit­i­cally about fash­ion or do­ing that work in fash­ion stud­ies.”

Lately, they’ve started lis­ten­ing. She points to Teen Vogue as a pub­li­ca­tion that has tack­led the

“hot potato” of fash­ion and race. “It just takes this coura­geous per­son to do it, and then ev­ery­one starts talk­ing about it.” She also points to the In­sta­gram ac­count Diet Prada, which calls out copy­cat fash­ion de­sign, as an ex­am­ple of fash­ion stud­ies gone pop­ulist. “Aca­demics like my­self love it be­cause they’re do­ing their re­search. They’re do­ing their home­work, and I use it as a teach­ing tool.”

Jenk­ins is African Amer­i­can, but she notes most of her stu­dents are white. “And when we talk about maybe prob­lem­atic im­agery, or when we’re talk­ing about power and rep­re­sen­ta­tion in fash­ion, they im­me­di­ately pick up on th­ese con­cepts of in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity ... I think it’s com­plete BS when jour­nal­ists, or ed­i­tors … or peo­ple work­ing in the fash­ion in­dus­try feel they don’t want to lead th­ese con­ver­sa­tions be­cause they feel peo­ple aren’t ready for it – they’re ab­so­lutely ready for it. We have teenagers ready for it. My stu­dents are ready for it.

“I want to tell the fash­ion in­dus­try – just you wait. Th­ese stu­dents are com­ing for you. They get it. They’re not sat­is­fied with what they’re see­ing with labour con­di­tions. They’re not sat­is­fied with what they’re see­ing as rep­re­sen­ta­tion … They’re tired of the peo­ple who they’re see­ing in po­si­tions of lead­er­ship and their tired ideas, th­ese out­dated ideas.”

Cus­tomers are de­mand­ing changes in the way the fash­ion in­dus­try ad­dresses mean­ing in their prod­ucts and their prac­tices. In the fu­ture, if you no­tice those changes be­com­ing more preva­lent, it might be that grad­u­ates of classes such as Jenk­ins’ are start­ing to make

• their mark.

Kim­berly Jenk­ins.

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