November 8, 2019 | Feature
talking politics, creativity, and joy with fashion@brown
At 11:00 p.m. on a Monday night early this semester, Fashion@Brown (F@B) President Sasha Pinto ’21 posted an event on Facebook and went to bed. She expected that the event, a Thursday evening talk with renowned shoe designer and entrepreneur Stuart Weitzman, would draw a sizeable crowd of fashion- and business-minded students, but Sasha wasn’t anticipating anything dramatic to happen overnight. By the next morning, however, 100 people had already registered for the event, and just three days later, that number jumped to 350. “I’ve worked on dozens of major events over my three years at Brown and I’ve never seen anything sell so swiftly,” Sasha told me of the tickets, which were free of cost. “Mr. Weitzman’s message must have resonated with the Brown community.”
If anything is resonating on Brown’s campus, Fashion@Brown certainly is. Founded in 2011, F@B currently has over 100 students working across ten different teams that represent each aspect of the fashion industry. Fashion designers, writers, makeup artists, and photographers collaborate on creative endeavors, while event planners, marketers, and the finance team manage the business side. F@B maintains a robust social media and web presence as well, thanks to a cohort of graphic designers and Instagram aficionados. “One way to think about Fashion@Brown is that we’re a microcosm of the fashion industry in general,” Sasha said. She emphasized that F@B offers a valuable space for Brown students to explore different spaces within the industry that might spark future career interests; unlike other institutions, Brown does not offer a formal degree in fashion.
Each winter, F@B hosts a “Fashion Week,” the centerpiece of which is their annual Runway Show. The impressive event celebrates the work of student designers and models from a wide range of concentrations, including computer science, applied math, and psychology. According to Sasha, the designers throw themselves into their collections “out of sheer love and dedication to fashion,” demonstrating their dedication to their craft outside of their coursework.
No need to be a design whiz to join a F@B team, though. When I asked Design Executive Lynn Hlaing ’21 about his previous experience with fashion design, he laughed. “I had never used a sewing machine—I’d hand-sewn maybe a tote bag back in middle school for a Home Ec class—but other than that, I had almost zero experience.” Last year, he debuted a six-piece outerwear collection based around the theme of “unbalance” at the Runway Show.
In addition to the Fashion Week events, a glossy photoshoot graces F@B’s website each spring, with a diverse cohort of students modelling apparel that speaks to a theme chosen by the executive board. Some recent themes have included renewable fashion and gender neutrality. Editorial features are published online throughout the year, covering topics like the history of perfume and the return of ’90s fashion á la Rachel Green. One quality unites these activities: They’re all labors of love.
No matter how much F@B members care about fashion, however, love isn’t the only thing keeping them there. According to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), understanding dress is “vital to the practice and study of not only art history, but also archaeology, classics, history, literature, and visual culture.” FIT has created an online, open-access timeline of fashion history through the ages, with the first entry beginning with Sumerian civilization (the prehistoric period is awaiting research) and running all the way up to the 21st century. A casual scroll through the timeline reveals how the vast swath of human experience can be contained in a wisp of lace or a string of pearls.
Editorial Executive Moe Sattar ’21 elaborated on this concept through the lens of the YSL Le Smoking—the first tuxedo for women—which debuted in 1966, coinciding with the beginning of the women’s liberation movement in the United States and Europe. It was “wildly popular and incredibly controversial,” according to Moe. The suit represented “power for women,” and after some initial backlash, it was highly praised by the fashion industry. “It was ironic, however,” Moe said, “that many of the very magazines praising the Le Smoking wouldn’t allow their female employees to wear suits to work.”
The interplay between the forces that shape our lives can be read in the clothes we choose to wear. In many ways, fashion is the ultimate expression of the second-wave feminist maxim: The personal is political. “National dress is what traditionally distinguished different cultures and gave people a sense of pride,” Sasha explained, “and of course, ornamentation and embellishment are ancient concepts. I think it’s safe to say that fashion in one way or another is human predisposition.”
Lynn offered a similar response: “Fashion is always there whether you think of it or not because you’re always wearing clothes…for the most part!”
Fashion is a powerful force beyond the individual garments we wear—valued at $3 trillion and employing over three trillion people globally, the industry accounts for two percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Such economic clout is not without its costs, however. Using 2016 as a baseline year, a report by the environmental consulting group Quantis found that, combined, the apparel and footwear industries contribute to 8.1 percent of global climate impacts, releasing 3,990 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Textile production alone accounts for 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, surpassing all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Clothing made from synthetic fabrics releases plastic microfibers when washed, half a million tons of which seep into the world’s oceans every year—an effect 16 times higher than that of the plastic microbeads found in cosmetics that have been widely derided and even banned in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.
These are dismal statistics, but there is hope on the horizon. According to the 2019 State of Fashion Report, nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe that brands have a responsibility to address environmental and social concerns, a sentiment shared by many millenials. Together, these two groups represent $350 billion in spending power in the United States alone, and by 2040, Generation Z is expected to comprise 40 percent of consumers worldwide.
The State of Fashion Report also shows that cross-generationally, two-thirds of U.S. consumers now say they would switch, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stance on controversial issues. Brands “need to take an active stance on social issues, satisfy consumer demands for ultra-transparency and sustainability, and, most importantly, have the courage to ‘self-disrupt’ their own identity and the sources of their old success in order to realise these changes and win new generations of customers,” the report says. The fashion industry is starting to catch up to the fact that we live in dire times; California is burning as I write this, the climate crisis extending the length of the fire season. Even though we are living in what feels like the precursor to the apocalypse, there are still those who have hope for the fashion industry, and who are pushing it to be better every day.
The Fashion@Brown team is the perfect example of fashion’s future. Speaking about their renewable fashion photoshoot, Sasha emphasized “the beauty of purchasing clothing from vintage and thrift stores as a counterpoint to fast fashion… We’re all about encouraging the Brown community to reuse, renew, and repurpose clothing to make fashion more sustainable.”
Lynn foregrounded recent strides in diversity and inclusion as well, stressing that F@B is committed to welcoming people of all identities into its community: “If the opinion set isn’t diverse, it doesn’t really reflect the Brown community, and we’re an organization that’s supposed to reflect the Brown community.”
F@B is trying to create a vibrant space for students to enjoy and explore the multidimensional nature of fashion as it exists for them, right here, right now. “Our intention isn’t to be a ‘college copycat’ of Vogue magazine,” Moe said, “but rather an organization and publication that is reflective of the immensely diverse community we have here.”
This is a personal issue for many on F@B’s executive board. “When I was growing up, I did not see anyone who looked like me in any magazines I read, when I would be looking at fashion on the internet, or even on YouTube in the beginning,” Editorial Executive Nikita Shah ’21 told me. “It was one type of person, and I didn’t see myself. It’s very important that everyone is recognized.”
A self-described “queer woman of color,” and therefore “not someone that fashion is ‘for’” Social Media Executive Nara Benoit-Kornhauser ’22 echoed Nikita’s statement. “My intention with F@B is to always harbor a community of loving and accepting people… The industry is plagued with all sorts of institutionalized issues, and I would never want anyone to feel as though we allow those to exist in F@B.”
F@B is, after all, a group of students who love getting dressed in the morning, who relish the opportunity to experiment with their outfits, and who want to share that passion with others. Most, if not all, of them view fashion as a form of self-expression, a form of art, and a way to articulate to the world who they are and who they want to be. “An outfit I’m piecing together often gives me such a nice little boost of self-confidence,” Moe said. “As people, we are always growing and evolving, and the way I dress often parallels different stages of my life.”
Growing up as one of the only people of color in her community, Nikita found fashion to be liberating: “I started getting into clothes, and I realized that I liked exploring and trying new outfits, and that became a way for me to take control of how I was seen…just getting out of the box and showing people who I am, besides the fact of my skin color.” Nikita has also found F@B to be a welcome refuge in college; it gives her the chance to exercise her creativity and to write (“which I love”) amid the intensity of STEM classes and pre-med requirements.
Nara “has always viewed fashion as a form of armor… I was always the person who went to school dressed up a little, just because it made me feel more prepared and on top of things.” I know that when I take the time to put on dangly earrings, a vintage jacket, and a slick of lipstick, I feel most like myself. This may not happen every day, or even most days, but taking the extra step to pull myself together has a profound psychological effect—suddenly I feel like I can make it through Monday. Fashion might seem intimidating, elitist, or exclusive, but at its core, it’s just another way to explore what it means to live in the world today. Fashion, like visual art and like music, is a mode of creative communication as well as individual expression, and it can serve as a great unifier. We all wear clothes (for the most part), and clothes carry meanings about our personal and collective histories, about our place in culture, in politics, and on this planet. We may as well share those stories.