Unravelling the Fabrics of Time - Research Master Thesis Karlijn Slegers
Unravelling the Fabrics of Time
A New Materialist Perspective
on Slow Fashion Becomings
Research Master Thesis
K.H.J.W. Slegers, BA
Unravelling the Fabrics of Time
A New Materialist Perspective on Slow Fashion Becomings
K.H.J.W. Slegers, BA
Radboud University Nijmegen
Research Master Thesis Art and Visual Culture
Supervised by Prof. dr. A.M. Smelik
Submitted on 23 February 2015
Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when
slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call
the tempo giusto------the right speed.
Honoré 2004: 15
9 Chapter One
On Matters of History and Theory:
Fashion, Time and ‘New’ Materialism
32 Chapter Two
On Picking Rags and Brewing Cellulose:
Slow Approaches to Fibre and Fabric
55 Chapter Three
On Craftsmanship and Technology:
Slow Approaches to Design and Wear
What Can Slow Fashion Do?
84 Illustration Acknowledgements
[W]ork done at the demand of fashion or caprice and that done inevitably, that is, for its own sake, are
as widely dissimilar as can be: the first being discarded in a month or so as ridiculous and out of date,
and the other remaining with us in all its dignity of beauty and fitness, to be guarded as long as may be
against the unavoidable wear and tear of time. (Morris 1893: dedicatory note)
This quote from Mary ‘May’ Morris may be over a century old, but it is every bit as relevant today.
According to the daughter of British designer William Morris, and the leading advocate of Arts and
Crafts embroidery, the hastiness of nineteenth-century life and the developments of industrialisation
had primarily led to ‘work that looks shabby in a month’ (idem: 3). Instead of urging people to follow
fleeting fashion trends and to dress in environmentally polluting clothes made under dismal working
conditions, she perpetually promoted the skilled crafting of durable, high-quality dress in pleasurable
working environments (Slegers 2014).
Morris, who was a talented embroiderer herself, would probably be spinning in her grave if
she could witness the current upsurge of mass fashion chains like Primark, H&M, Zara and Topshop.
Although fashion is ephemeral by nature (Lipovetsky 1994), we now live in an age of overabundance,
which is characterised by change for the sake of change (Welters 2008). The contemporary Western
fashion system is caught up in a rapid rat race that influences all who design, create and consume. In
fact, due to its constantly accelerating speed, the system has come to be known as predominantly ‘fast’
(Fletcher 2008). ‘Fast’ fashion is generally defined by the use of cheap materials, low-cost labour, high
turnover rates and a pervasive tendency to ‘take, make and waste’ (Fletcher and Grose 2012). Because
of the increasingly fast change-over of seasons and the immense waste of dress and cloth, the fashion
business has become one of the world’s most polluting industries (Welters 2008; Teunissen 2013).
While speed has an unmistakably strong hold over today’s fashion system, it is important to
bear in mind that acceleration does not equal innovation. After all, the act of innovating fashion --- or
anything else for that matter --- requires time for dreams and ideas to ripen and mature. As Thomas
Pynchon so beautifully put it in his essay on sloth, ‘[i]dle dreaming is often of the essence of what we
do’ (1999 : 82). Yet the maddening motion of the fashion system, with its constant push for
renewal, seems to prefer productive doing over creative dreaming. Today’s designers work to ever
tighter schedules and increasingly short deadlines in order to survive, let alone thrive. Rather than
experiencing a sense of artistic freedom, the immense time pressure they are under causes feelings of
anxiety, nervousness and insecurity (Aronowsky Cronberg 2014).
Taking all of this into account, it might not come as a shock that some designers have started
to resist their business’ unrelenting need for speed. Think, for example, of Viktor&Rolf, who rejected
the system’s hasty pace by literally incorporating the word ‘No’ in their AW 2008-09 ready-to-wear
For their AW 2013-14 couture collection, the famous Dutch designers made another stand
against speed by having their models walk down an artificial Japanese ‘Zen’ garden. In a similar move,
Dries Van Noten, one of the celebrated ‘Antwerp Six’, transformed the catwalk into a mossy meadow
for his SS 2015 ready-to-wear show. Rather than hurrying along the runway for the finale, the models
slowly sprawled out in the green ‘grass’ carpet. In September 2014, around the same time as the show
of Van Noten, fashion heavyweight Jean-Paul Gaultier announced that he would stop creating ready-
to-wear lines so as to have more time and freedom for creativity and contemplation --- a move that was
followed in February 2015 by, once again, Viktor&Rolf.
While I by no means want to imply that fashion designers are collectively slowing down, I do
want to argue that a slower pace is currently gaining ground ‘in the cracks of the system’ (Aronowsky
Cronberg 2014: 11). Quite paradoxically, slowness seems to be picking up speed. Generally speaking,
slowness is about emphasising the creation of meaningful relations or connections between people and
the environment that we are all embedded in (Osbaldiston 2013: 11). In terms of fashion, a slow pace
can be envisaged as a more sustainable and contemplative alternative to fast fashion; one that centres
on ideas of quality, innovation, connection and craftsmanship (Fletcher 2008). As Sandy Black states:
Slow fashion encompasses design for long term use and wear, intelligent and innovative choice of
materials for minimal impact and waste, aesthetic, functional and emotional value, and concern for the
entire life cycle of the product. (2008: 78)
Explored by designers and academics alike, the so-called slow fashion movement is about recognising
the inescapable and profoundly negative consequences of producing and consuming fast clothes --- and
about making different choices. The question remains, however, whether different, slower choices are
at all compatible with the inherently changing nature of fashion as we know it (cf. Black 2008; Clark
2008; Fletcher 2008; Hethorn and Ulasewicz 2008; Fletcher and Grose 2012; Kipöz 2013; Teunissen
In both fashion studies and the fashion industry, it is common to abbreviate Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter
as SS and AW respectively. In consideration of this practice, this thesis uses these particular abbreviations as well.
2013). Can fashion ever be slow? Similar to May Morris, some scholars and designers believe that
ephemerality and slowness are incongruous, but there are others who are more optimistic (e.g. Clark
2008; Fletcher 2008 and Fletcher and Grose 2012). In my view, it is apparent that a focus on fastness
is no longer tenable, let alone desirable. Though seemingly antithetical at first, slowing down the
fashion system may just be the thoughtful and sustainable solution that we are looking for.
To fully grasp slow fashion’s potential, I propose to explore it from an innovative, materialist
point of view that is based on the creative yet notoriously puzzling work of French philosopher Gilles
Deleuze (1925-1995). Developed in part with French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari (1930-1992), this
work has become part of a renewed interest in materialist theories that is known as ‘the material turn’
(Rocamora and Smelik forthcoming 2015). Following Deleuze and Guattari, the world should no
longer be gazed at with dualist eyes. For them, ‘[t]he world is not an object to be known, observed or
represented, so much as a plane of powers to unfold or express different potentials of life’ (Colebrook
2010b: 97). Rather than making a hierarchical distinction between material and immaterial powers,
Deleuze and Guattari regard them as indissolubly intertwined. And since semiotic, material and social
flows mingle without end, both human and non-human bodies are embedded in a world that moves,
changes, transforms, or --- as they put it --- ‘becomes’ at different speeds and slownesses (1987 ).
By arguing that matter ‘will not allow any representation to take root’ because it is involved in
a continuous process of becoming, Deleuzean philosophy pointedly stresses its significance (Dolphijn
and Van der Tuin 2012: 107). With regard to fashion, it may sound superfluous to emphasise that
matter is of the essence. After all, what is fashion if not material and embodied? Yet, as I will explain
in Chapter One, both fashion academia and fast fashion practices have primarily highlighted the
phenomenon’s representational, cultural, visual, semiotic and discursive qualities (Entwistle 2000;
Bruggeman 2014). While these qualities are indeed crucial to make, interpret and understand fashion,
a main focus on them resulted in a neglect of fashion’s immanent materiality and corporeality.
Over the last fifteen years, however, body and cloth have started to receive more attention ---
not only in fashion academia2
, but also in the fashion industry. Fashion scholars like Joanne Entwistle
(2000) have fruitfully advocated a more complex, inclusive, and interconnected view on fashion. This
view still acknowledges fashion’s social and symbolic significance, but in explicit intertwinement with
its material, physical or ‘fleshy’ facets (Entwistle and Wilson 2001). By increasingly drawing attention
to fashion as a corporeal and haptic experience, such scholars undermine its image as a mainly visual
Cf. Entwistle 2000; Entwistle and Wilson 2001; Sweetman 2001; Evans 2003; Miller 2005 and 2010; Bruno 2010;
Seely 2011 and 2013; Negrin 2013 and forthcoming 2015; Bruggeman 2014; Smelik 2014 and forthcoming 2015.
and representational phenomenon. Instead of downgrading material ‘stuff’ and idealising looks at the
expense of actual bodies --- which has been characteristic of fashion in Western culture --- they aim at
‘[b]ringing the material back into the equation’ (Barrett and Bolt 2013: 7).
In observing slow fashion studies and design, I have noticed similar aims. To be more precise,
I want to propose that slow fashion foregrounds dress as an inherently material, tactile and embodied
experience (Negrin forthcoming 2015). Rather than favouring the visual over the material, it appears
to focus on evoking a meaningful, dynamic and kinaesthetic relationship between cloth and the body
of the wearer (Clark 2008; Negrin 2013 and forthcoming 2015). As such, slow fashion designs do not
seem to prioritise form over matter, mind over body, or body over fabric. In my view, a sense of inter-
relatedness is precisely what distinguishes them from fast designs. This has made me wonder whether
the answer to the question mentioned above --- if the current, predominantly fast fashion system can
ever become slow --- may in fact lie in a respectful and contemplative approach to textiles, techniques
and the human body.
By using a materialist, Deleuzean framework informed by the concept of becoming, this thesis
aims to unravel and reconfigure the relationship between contemporary fashion, time and materiality.
Why is today’s Western fashion system constantly accelerating, and how can its speed be slowed down
to become more sustainable? What is the potential of infusing fashion with a sense of ‘slowness’, both
in terms of theory and practice? What role does materiality play in this potential --- and how can a new
materialist framework of becoming shed more light on the seemingly antithetical relationship between
fleeting fashion and sturdy slowness? Taking into account these various elements, the central research
question I seek to answer in this thesis is:
How can a Deleuzean, new materialist framework of becoming provide more insight
into the role of materiality in the paradoxical relation between fashion and slowness?
My research question is based on the idea that fashion design should not merely be explored in terms
of its cultural, linguistic and representational ‘meaning’. Rather, it should be studied as an inherently
cultural, material and embodied phenomenon; whether or not it is designed to actually be worn by a
body, fashionable clothing cannot help but enter into a dynamic relationship with it (Entwistle 2000;
Negrin 2013). To do justice to fashion’s materiality and immateriality, the methodological framework
of this thesis will embroider on a new and innovative line of research in fashion studies: the Deleuzean
philosophy mentioned above, and the ‘new’ materialist approaches that this philosophy inspired (e.g.
Bennett and Joyce 2010; Coole and Frost 2010; Seely 2011 and 2013; Dolphijn and Van der Tuin
2012; Barrett and Bolt 2013; Bruggeman 2014; Smelik 2014 and forthcoming 2015).
By using a Deleuzean, materialist framework, I hope to shed more light on theories on as well
as practices of slow fashion. Bringing together the notions of fashion, slowness and materiality enables
a focus on the dynamic process of embodiment, while also allowing attention for the materiality of
textiles, technologies and craftsmanship involved. To be more precise, combining slow fashion with
the concept of becoming will help to explore whether fashion can indeed transform at a slower, more
sustainable and contemplative pace.3
In relating this vitalist, materialist concept to four case studies, I
will discuss whether or not it empowers us to grasp the possibilities of slowness, and to move beyond
the disposable worldview of fast fashion --- thereby allowing for a reconfiguration of fashion in general.
The four case studies that I will analyse are the Paris-based Maison Margiela, Suzanne Lee’s
British BioCouture project, Japanese designer Issey Miyake and Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen. My
selection is based on a number of arguments. First of all, since the increasingly fast fashion system is a
Western construct that --- following Deleuze --- has to be ‘distorted, diverted and torn from its centre’
(1994 : 56), I decided to concentrate on high-profile examples that aim at undermining the
system while being a successful part of it (Bruggeman 2014). This is particularly true of Margiela,
Miyake and Van Herpen, who are famous for their experimental, avant-garde designs that ‘[probe]
the limit of what a body can do […] in the consumerist world of fast fashion’ (Smelik 2014: 2). By
including the equally probing but less prominent BioCouture project, I aim at showing that both
high-profile and up-and-coming initiatives can resist fashion’s accelerating speed.
Since all four case studies experiment with slow approaches to materials and techniques, they
have each been labelled sustainable or ‘slow’ (e.g. by Loker 2008, Quinn 2010 and 2012, Black 2012,
and Teunissen 2013). In addition, Margiela, Miyake and Van Herpen have been connected to a ‘new’
materialist focus on materiality and embodiment (e.g. by Springford 2008, Bruno 2010, Seely 2011
and 2013, Negrin 2013 and forthcoming 2015, and Smelik 2014 and forthcoming 2015). Up until
now, however, these facets have not yet been analysed in explicit relation to one another. By focusing
In the theoretical parts of this thesis I build on the work of scholars who have recently started using a Deleuzean
framework to provide new insights into the contemporary fashion system and specific fashion designs, most notably
Giuliana Bruno (2010), Stephen Seely (2011 and 2013) and Anneke Smelik (2014 and forthcoming 2015). My use
of the concept of becoming is inspired by their pioneering research on relating contemporary, avant-garde fashion to
Deleuzean thought. In the case of Anneke Smelik, I am also deeply indebted to our many fruitful discussions on the
potential of Deleuze and Guattari’s writings for fashion research.
on well-known examples, I hope to show that combining slow fashion with Deleuzean thought opens
up new ways of understanding this phenomenon.
Because Margiela, BioCouture, Miyake and Van Herpen create designs that carry innovative
and inspirational potential, they offer clear examples of how designers can defy --- and perhaps even
change --- the current speed of the fashion system. It is precisely because designers can do pioneering
work that reaches an international audience, that this thesis centres on design instead of, for example,
distribution or consumption. As Kate Fletcher and Linda Grose put it:
Design […] is an affirmative approach that can create positive feedback loops, and because of its
position at the front end of the manufacturing chain can dramatically influence subsequent processing
steps and even prevent impact from occurring in the first place. (2012: 33)
To explore slow fashion’s potential, I will --- as discussed above --- relate specific designs and collections
to the Deleuzean concept of becoming (devenir). Although Deleuze’s philosophy is by definition not
hierarchical but rhizomatic, becoming can be seen as the thread that runs through his entire thought,
in which everything is interconnected (Smelik forthcoming 2015). As Brian Massumi elucidates in his
foreword to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze considers philosophy as a pragmatic
‘tool box’ from which readers are invited to ‘steal’ (1987: xv). In specific relation to fashion, Anneke
Smelik argues that ‘it is up to students and scholars of fashion to open up the tool box and focus on
the many creative, intensive and affective aspects of dress and adornment’ (forthcoming 2015: 13).
Encouraged by these invitations, my analyses of slow fashion designs will not just draw on the
concept of becoming, but also on the tools of the assemblage, the Body without Organs and the fold.
While these are not by any means the only valuable concepts in terms of fashion, I have selected them
because they show particular promise for unravelling the relationship between contemporary fashion,
slowness and materiality. In line with the meaning of the word ‘tool’, then, this thesis uses Deleuzean
concepts as philosophical devices or instruments. Rather than giving an exhaustive overview of these
devices, I will apply them to better understand slow fashion (Bruno 2010; Smelik forthcoming 2015).
A better grasp of slow fashion is significant because it will help to unravel its potential as an alternative
to today’s destructive fast fashion system. Like other slow movements, slow fashion is developing into
a cultural and material force to be reckoned with, but it is still highly enigmatic. Although questions
such as ‘What does a slow approach to fashion design entail?’ and ‘Is slow fashion an oxymoron?’ have
already been taken into account by some fashion scholars (e.g. by Black 2008, Clark 2008, Fletcher
2008, Hethorn and Ulasewicz 2008, Fletcher and Grose 2012, and by Teunissen 2013), their answers
remain inconclusive and, in my view, unsatisfying.
By interconnecting Deleuzean, materialist tools with theories on fashion, time and speed, this
thesis creates an interdisciplinary framework that unlocks new and different ways of thinking. To be
more precise, this framework enables me to move beyond fashion studies’ dominant focus on what
fashion means, represents or signifies. For Deleuze, the issue is never ‘What does it mean?’, but always
‘What does it do?’ (O’Sullivan 2001). Or, to use Massumi’s words:
The question is not: is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts does it make it possible to think?
What new emotions does it make it possible to feel? What new sensations and perceptions does it open
in the body? (1987: xv)
When applied to the subject of this thesis, the question becomes ‘What can slow fashion actually do?’
(Seely 2013; Smelik forthcoming 2015). By mapping out different possible answers to this question, I
seek to open new lines of thought that hopefully encourage other scholars and designers to follow suit.
This thesis does not, then, attempt to provide an all-inclusive overview of either Deleuzean thought or
slow fashion; instead, it aims at unravelling whether slow fashion works --- and what it may become in
To provide more insight into the role of materiality in the relation between fashion and slowness, this
thesis follows a particular structure. Chapter One, to begin with, forms the historical and theoretical
basis that is needed to put the slow fashion phenomenon into perspective. More specifically, it deals
with the meaning of time in both fast and slow fashion, after which it discusses the current academic
and industrial focus on materiality and embodiment. In addition, this chapter outlines the Deleuzean
tools that will serve as foundations for my analyses of slow fashion designs.
These analyses are central to Chapter Two and Three, in which I will explore slow approaches
to, on the one hand, fibres and fabrics and, on the other hand, techniques to create actual garments.
In Chapter Two, I will use the Deleuzean concepts of the assemblage and the Body without Organs
to elaborate on designs of Maison Margiela and BioCouture. By zooming in on their ways of dealing
with materials, I will argue that slow ways of sourcing, creating and using fibres and fabrics are vital ---
not only to acknowledge matter as agential, but also to provoke sustainable bodily becomings.
I will continue this focus on materiality and embodiment in Chapter Three, which centres on
slow techniques of manufacturing that are used to transform fabric into actual dress. While slowness
also applies to processes of distribution, use and disposal (Hethorn and Ulasewicz 2008; Fletcher and
Grose 2012), it goes beyond the scope of this thesis to provide insight into fashion designs’ entire life
cycle. To partially overcome these research limitations, Chapter Three not only addresses slow ways of
producing fashion designs, but also sheds light on how such designs encourage slow ways of wearing
them. In relating Issey Miyake and Iris Van Herpen to the concept of the fold, I will argue that they
use slow techniques to create sustainable, strong and fluid interactions between body and cloth.4
Finally, in the conclusion of my thesis, I will critically reflect on my analyses in order to give a
carefully considered answer to my central research question. By contemplating the use of a materialist
framework of becoming, I will explain whether or not a focus on the role of materiality enabled me to
provide more insight into the relation between fashion and slowness. After all, if it is in pursuit of an
understanding of slow fashion that I embark on this thesis, it is also to open our understanding of a
Deleuzean ‘new’ materialism, that shows great potential for fashion academia.
Although I will make a distinction between sourcing, creating and using materials on the one hand, and producing
slow designs on the other hand, in practice these go hand in hand. For the sake of clarity, each chapter will highlight
the characteristics that best clarify my argument, but this does not mean that I will not mention slow techniques in
Chapter Two, or slow materials in Chapter Three.
On Matters of History and Theory:
Fashion, Time and ‘New’ Materialism
As presented in the introduction, the central aim of this thesis is to unravel and reconceive the
relationship between contemporary fashion, time and the material body. While exploring the
theoretical and practical potential of infusing fashion with a sense of ‘slowness’, I will also move
towards a ‘new’ materialist methodology that focuses on fashion as an embodied and material practice
of dressing. This chapter provides the historical and theoretical backgrounds which are necessary for
an understanding of the contemporary ‘slow’ fashion phenomenon. More specifically, it presents a
historical and theoretical trajectory of the scholarly work on the relation between fashion and time
that is of particular relevance for my research question. In addition, this chapter deals with a renewed
focus on materiality which, as I will demonstrate, can be discerned not only in cultural theory and the
field of fashion studies, but also in ‘slow’ fashion design.
In the first part of this chapter, I will discuss the relation between fashion and time, after
which I will elaborate on both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ fashion. Following these different ways of dealing with
time, I will examine the development of scholarly approaches to fashion that explicitly emphasise its
material and embodied qualities. To shed light on these qualities from a theoretical point of view, I
will then move on to discuss the material turn. As the fourth part of this chapter explains, a ‘new’
materialist perspective shows great potential for the study of fashion as a phenomenon that is socially
structured and material, discursive and embodied. After introducing the material turn as a whole, I
will embark on the materialist philosophy of Deleuze and, in part, Guattari. As already mentioned in
the introduction, scholars such as Giuliana Bruno (2010), Stephen Seely (2011 and 2013), Daniëlle
Bruggeman (2014) and Anneke Smelik (2014 and forthcoming 2015) have recently started using a
Deleuzean framework to shed new light on the contemporary fashion system and fashion designs. In
briefly exploring these scholars’ work, I will lay the theoretical and methodological foundations of my
own research on ‘slow’ fashion practices.
Fashion and Time
As Georg Simmel once argued, fashion never merely ‘is’, but always ‘becomes’ (1895).5
being static and frozen solid, the phenomenon is typified by transformation, motion, metamorphosis,
and an ephemeral sense of shape-shifting (Von Busch 2013). Or, as the fictional character of ‘Fashion’
so poignantly uttered in Giacomo Leopardi’s poem ‘Dialogue between Fashion and Death’: ‘Standing
still [...] is death to me’ (1882 : 21).6
Fashion’s continuously changing nature is, in other words, indissolubly intertwined with the
notion of time. As both trendsetters and ---followers experience over and over again, types of dress that
‘come into fashion’ one minute, inevitably go out of it the next. In 1937, James Laver even attempted
to pin-point this phenomenon by creating a fashion cycle timeline. According to what has come to be
known as ‘Laver’s Law’, it takes about ten years before a style that used to be all the rage is considered
‘hideous’, and about twenty before it is seen as absolutely ‘ridiculous’ (Laver 1937). Whether or not
trends can indeed be caught in such clear-cut stages of succession is not the issue I want to raise here.
Regardless of its potential for present-day applications, ‘Laver’s Law’ exemplifies that fashion is indeed
inseparable from time, and that it can go from ‘smart’ to ‘dowdy’ in but one year (idem).
As Aurélie van de Peer argues, this so-called ‘temporal anchorage of fashion’ is not based on
objective natural ebbs and flows, but rather produced by fashion’s powerful elite (2014). According to
her, whether a garment is deemed fashionable or not depends on social conventions dating all the way
back to seventeenth-century Paris. Then and there, the notion of different fashion seasons was already
introduced to advance the French economy (idem). After the First World War, change in fashion was
‘for the first time institutionalised and orchestrated’ by the introduction of biennial haute couture
fashion weeks (Lipovetsky 1994: 58). Enabling the great Parisian fashion houses to literally show their
views on what was fashionable, these weeks signalled that it was once again time for renewal --- at least
according to fashion’s leading ladies and gentlemen.
Fixed fashion weeks then, played a vital part in the development of contemporary fashion’s
‘temporal architecture’ (Van de Peer 2014). This architecture revolves around a continuous process of
renouncing the past in favour of the present. After all, attempting to be ‘of the moment’ is, as Anja
Aronowsky Cronberg puts it, ‘what keeps the wheels of the system turning’ --- and in order to do so,
Cf. the opening motto in Smelik 2014.
For the full poem and other interesting examples of the relationship between fashion and time, see Anja Aronowsky
Cronberg ed. (2014). Vestoj: The Journal of Sartorial Matters, Issue 5.
fashion has to constantly leave its own history behind (2014: 10). To borrow the words of Elizabeth
Wilson, ‘the ‘‘now’’ of fashion is nostalgia in the making’ (1985: vii). This is also what makes fashion
so telling in terms of time(s). As Michelle Bastian rightly points out, because of fashion’s inextricable
connection to time, clothes might even function as sartorial clocks that tell stories about the ‘context-
specific and deeply political nature’ of the times in which they were designed (2014: 15). In this view,
what we wear instantly reveals if we can be deemed in or out of step with the times we live in.
Interestingly, the terminology used to depreciate the past and idolise the present is filled with
concepts designating time (Van de Peer 2014). For instance, a garment can be ‘passé’, ‘so last season,
or ‘old-fashioned’, but it can also be ‘of the moment’, ‘modern’, and ‘contemporary’. Whereas the
first three terms symbolise a past that was until recently in vogue, the last three are used to evoke a
fashionable present that has once again abandoned its own history (Aronowsky Cronberg 2014).
Despite some designers’ aspiration to become ‘timeless’, and despite claims that certain pieces are
‘classics’, every design that comes into vogue will become outdated at one point or another (idem).
This is not to say that styles cannot become fashionable once more --- just think of the current
fascination with vintage clothing. If they do return to the ‘now’, however, the context of a completely
different time will cause them to do so in a renewed way.
To briefly sum it up, being, or rather ‘becoming’ in continuous movement is one of fashion’s
inherent features. As Gilles Lipovetsky (1994) has made clear, this incessant motion is not necessarily
always unstable and irregular. While fashions can indeed change in what appears to be but the blink
of an eye, there have also been examples of what he terms ‘astonishing centuries-long continuity that
[call] for a very long range history of fashion’ (idem: 16). Today’s fashion, however, fits better with
the first category. As explained in the introduction, ‘now’ is an age of acceleration and overabundance,
which is characterised by change for the sake of change (Lipovetsky 1994; Welters in Hethorn and
Ulasewicz 2008). As José Teunissen puts it, the contemporary fashion system ‘whips consumers into a
frenzy every six months to get them to buy something new’ (2013: 9).
This system of speed did not, of course, appear out of thin air. According to Hartmut Rosa
(2013), progress and speed are firmly grounded in the process of modernisation, which radically
changed our understanding of time. Instead of viewing the notion of time as subjective and
dependent on diverse social and cultural contexts, modernity constructed a notion of universal time
synchronised and regulated by ‘objective’ accurate clocks, time zones, and working schedules (Rosa
2013; Bastian 2014). Structured and controlled by modernist society, ‘time’ was reduced to
something that can, and should, be quantitatively measured (Bastian 2014).
As Rosa clarifies, technological developments and the increasing velocity of life’s pace had already led
to grumbles in modern times; yet in the wake of the more recent currents of digitalisation and
globalisation, the experience of acceleration as ominous and uncomfortable only appears to have
increased (2013). On the one hand technological innovations such as washing machines, laptops, and
mobile phones have enabled us to save massive amounts of time, but on the other hand there is hardly
any time to keep up with them --- let alone to contemplate and reflect on how they change our
experience of time. ‘Reflection’, Paul Cilliers wrote, ‘involves delay, and in a cult of speed, delay is
unacceptable’ (2007: 56).
In fact, non-stop development and revolutions have led us towards what Jonathan Crary calls
a ‘24/7 universe’ (2013). This idea is closely connected with contemporary capitalism, and can be
described as a time of efficiency, control, around-the-clock working, and perpetual on-demand access;
24 hours a day, 7 days a week (idem). As Crary argues, 24/7 is a state of sleeplessness ‘in which
producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause, hastening the exhaustion of life and the
depletion of resources’ (idem: 17). Although no person has ever been able to produce, consume, or
discard without rest (yet), the sheer option of continuous access has radically altered our experience of
time. As a result, we now live in an age profoundly marked by the feeling that ‘we don’t have any time
although we’ve gained far more than we’ve needed before’ (Rosa 2013: xxxv). We live, in other words,
in ‘a time without time’ (Crary 2013: 29).
In this age of 24/7 access and acceleration it seems more important than ever to be in touch
with what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ of vogue; not just to enhance our personal status, but also --- and
perhaps even more so --- to avoid the risk of being labelled passé (Bauman 2011; Crary 2013). In his
discussion of today’s liquid and increasingly fast society, Zygmunt Bauman remarks that fashion has
become a means to keep afloat (2011). According to him, time is indeed accelerating incessantly, and
the only way to not fall behind is to simply keep transforming:
Today’s tokens of ‘being ahead’ have to be acquired quickly, while those of yesterday must be just as
swiftly confined to the scrapheap. The injunction to keep an eye on ‘what has already gone out of
fashion’ must be observed as conscientiously as the obligation to keep on top of what is (at this moment)
new and up to date. (idem: 22)
From Bauman’s perspective, the practice of rapid renewal ‘fits perfectly with the logic of a consumer-
oriented economy […] whose vertebral column is rubbish disposal’ (idem: 25). In a society predicated
on fast consuming, producing, and discarding, fashion’s temporal architecture of denouncing the old
in favour of the new thus appears to have acquired new and even faster meaning.
‘We are’, Gundolf S. Freyermuth wrote, ‘contemporaries of a phase of acceleration that is
unique in the history of humankind --- and makes industrialization look cozy in hindsight.’ (Quoted
in Rosa 2013). Ours is not an age in which acceleration and deceleration take harmonious turns, but
rather one in which the former drowns out the latter. In fashion, this domination currently manifests
itself in a mushrooming of mass fashion designs produced by chains like Zara, H&M, Forever 21 and
Primark. Fuelled by speed and profit, these ‘fast’ designs are based on a general sense of wastefulness
that reduces homogeneous clothes to disposable tissues (Fletcher and Grose 2012). While allowing for
instant gratification, the constantly accelerating fashion system thus comes at a great cost. Not only
has it triggered consumers to have less knowledge of and respect for the items that they are wearing,
but it has also resulted in social inequities and severe environmental issues such as chemical pollution,
climate change, loss of natural biodiversity and depletion of resources (idem).
Yet, no matter how overpowering the speed of the current fashion system may feel, it is also
meeting with resistance. Indeed, at this very moment ‘a slower, more reflective pace is gaining traction
[in the cracks of the system]’ (Aronowsky Cronberg 2014: 11). Acknowledging that the negative,
pervasive impact of mass production and mass consumption is neither tenable nor desirable, both
fashion scholars and practitioners are now considering alternative, slower options for what has come
to be known as ‘fast fashion’. Explored by academics and designers alike, ‘slow fashion’ is in effect an
attempt to ‘re-time fashion’ (Bastian 2014: 18).
As I already pointed out in the introduction of this thesis, however, the inherently changing
nature of fashion appears to be incompatible with slowness (Black 2008; Clark 2008; Fletcher 2008;
Hethorn and Ulasewicz 2008; Fletcher and Grose 2012; Teunissen 2013). In the following section of
this chapter, I will build on the work of the scholars mentioned to unravel whether slowing down the
fashion system is indeed at odds with fashion’s continuous transformation --- and whether or not it has
the potential to become an actual game changer in the fashion industry.
Speeds and Slownesses
Before proceeding to closer examining slow fashion, it is vital to place the phenomenon as a whole in
its historical context. First of all, slow fashion is part of a louder call for ‘slowness’ dating back to the
birth of the slow food movement and its founder Carlo Petrini. In 1986, Petrini so strongly opposed
the rise of standardised, globalised and low-quality fast food, that he decided to break a lance for food
that is ‘good, clean and fair’; food, in other words, that does not harm itself, the environment or the
rights of producers and consumers (Petrini 2007). His plea for slow food resulted in a broader
appreciation of ‘slowness’, which has to date ignited slow movements in areas ranging from travel,
church, sex, art and education, to the fashion system that is central to this thesis.
Although the contemporary Western fashion system seems indissolubly intertwined with an
increasingly rapid pace, there is in effect no such thing as a fixed fashion tempo (Fletcher and Grose
2012). As I have briefly explained in the first part of this chapter, fashions have not always necessarily
changed at a frenetic speed (Lipovetsky 1994). In fact, until the second half of the eighteenth century,
before the Industrial Revolution paved the way for economic growth and technological progress,
‘slowness’ was not so much a choice as a habit or a given (Welters 2008). Taking into account that
the production of fabrics, which was then still done by hand, was time-consuming and thus costly,
the relationship to dress was rather different from now. People generally owned a mere few sets of
clothes, which were commonly patched, stitched, darned, altered and remodelled to extend their wear
and keep up with fashion.
Whereas people had perhaps been accustomed to ‘[practicing] sustainability without realising
it’, the Industrial Revolution heralded an era of mechanisation, mass communication, consumption
and abundance (idem: 28). As Lipovetsky argues, however, this was also the time when fashion was
democratised (1994). On the one hand, the industrial creation of dress made clothing infinitely less
expensive, while on the other hand the rise of mass communication enabled the spreading of fashion
information in affordable fashion periodicals (Lipovetsky 1994; Welters 2008). Paradoxically, this
democratisation was even further enhanced by the luxurious sector of haute couture. After the First
World War, designers such as Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel radically altered women’s clothing by making
it simpler and less ostentatious (Lipovetsky 1994). Because the world of haute couture --- which then
controlled renewal in fashion --- created simpler designs that were easier to mimic, and because these
designs were widely spread and cheaper to recreate, dressing ‘in vogue’ now came within the reach of
the middle and even the lower classes (idem).
While I consider it a feat of invaluable importance that more and more classes of people were
enabled to dress fashionably, the accelerating velocity of fashion also had negative side effects such as
dismal conditions for the working classes, loss of skilled craftsmanship, and standardised clothes made
of cheap, lower-quality materials (Sherburne 2009). Already in the late nineteenth century, influential
men and women such as May Morris and her father William Morris began campaigning for a better
quality of both life and goods (Slegers 2014). As leading figures in the prominent British Arts and
Crafts Movement, they actively rebelled against the negative consequences of hasty industrialisation,
while endlessly emphasising the importance of skilled craftsmanship, durable, high-quality dress and
pleasurable working conditions (Morris 1893).
Unsurprisingly, the fashion system’s increasingly rapid pace has not only effected the quality
of work environments and the clothes we wear on our bodies, but also of the world we are embedded
in (Fletcher 2008). The environmental impacts of our capitalist fashion system, which is characterised
by an apparently insatiable appetite for the ‘newest’, ‘fastest’ and the ‘cheapest’, are undeniable. In the
words of Crary:
24/7 is inseparable from environmental catastrophe in its declaration of permanent expenditure, of
endless wastefulness for its sustenance, in its terminal disruption of the cycles and seasons on which
ecological integrity depends. (2013: 10)
In the nineteenth century, the effects of environmental pollution were mostly not considered, but the
fashion industry has in fact become one of the most polluting industries in the world (Welters 2008;
Teunissen 2013). Concerns with these issues ignited multiple environmentalist waves in the latter half
of the twentieth century.7
As several authors point out, these tendencies for ‘ecofashion’ were inspired
by Rachel Carson’s controversial book Silent Spring, which drew attention to the harmful effects of
using pesticides (e.g. Beard 2008; Root 2008; Welters 2008).
Despite such concerned attempts to slow down production and consumption, however, the
speed of the fashion system never truly stopped accelerating. On the contrary, it has accelerated more.
Twentieth-century developments such as globalisation, large-scale marketing and the outsourcing of
manufacturing to developing countries have only resulted in even faster fashion cycles rooted in low
costs and little variety (Teunissen 2013). Over about a century and a half then, the acceleration of the
fashion system has radically altered the general attitude towards fabric and dress. With clothing prices
dropping and fashion trends changing more regularly, clothes became disposable instead of treasured.
‘Why mend clothes’, as Hazel Clark asks, ‘when new fast fashion can be had at prices that will suit
most pockets?’ (2008: 435)
Cf. Welters 2008. As Welters explains, pleas for the production and consumption of more environmentally friendly
fashion were made throughout the 1960s, -70s, -80s and -90s. However, as these were mostly limited to choosing
natural fibres over synthetic ones and to using earthly colours such as brown, tan and green, they did not result in
actual, long-term change.
Today, fashion has a faster, cheaper and more disposable character than ever. In fact, to maintain the
production rate of our contemporary ‘fast fashion’ system, we would need the resources of not one,
but two earth-planets (Sherburne 2009). As the earth’s resources are depleting rapidly, time is running
out --- just when time is what we need most:
[T]ime is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time. The rapidity of change and
the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather
than the deliberate pace of nature. (Carson 1962: 7)
Our age is dominated by processes of acceleration, causing us to experience life without pause and in a
continuous rush. Choosing the fast pace of man over the slower pace of nature is a preference that,
over fifty years after the publication of Carson’s controversial text, still rules over the fashion industry
--- if not in an even more forceful form. The conviction that this preference needs to be countered has
recently ignited the emergence of the ‘slow fashion’ movement.
In 2007, in the wake of the slow food movement mentioned above, Kate Fletcher first coined
the term slow fashion as a ‘new vision for the [fashion] sector that has the potential to reduce some of
the negative impacts of consumerist ‘‘fast’’ fashion’ (2008: 163). As she has pointed out ever since, the
quick tempo of today’s business is not a quintessential fashion trait, but a consequence of a particular
economic system (Fletcher and Grose 2012). Speed can, after all, be both fast and slow, but capitalist
goals of growing and gaining relentlessly have locked the fashion sector into a direction of fastness.
Although an economic model of growth offers more job opportunities, we have already seen that it
also causes worrying effects such as exploitation of labour, climate change, and pollution. As Fletcher
and Grose illuminate: ‘The better the fashion sector performs, the worse these effects will get. They
are a symptom not of its failure, but of its success.’ (idem: 126)
Put differently, increasing the sector’s speed goes hand in hand with decreasing the chances of
sustainable change (Black 2008). Acknowledging that a focus on instant access and linear acceleration
is unsustainable in the long run, Fletcher proposes that the time has come to infuse the fashion system
with a sense of slowness. A radical reinterpretation of fashion’s current business model, slow fashion is
an appeal for ‘designing, producing, consuming and living better’ (Fletcher 2008: 173). These actions
should not be viewed as segregated steps, but rather as phases in a cyclical process. While I focus on
slow approaches to design, it is important to note, then, that such approaches take into account dress’
entire life cycle (Root 2008; Teunissen 2013). Following this holistic line of reasoning, slow ways of
designing fashion are not just based on using slow materials and manufacturing techniques, but also
on incorporating material strategies that stimulate slower ways of consuming and discarding (Fletcher
and Grose 2012).
Slow design strategies include, among others, producing on a small scale; incorporating local
materials and traditional craftsmanship; recycling, reconditioning and reusing existing materials --- all
to create designs that engage in strong, meaningful relationships with the body of the wearer (Clark
2008; Fletcher and Grose 2012; Teunissen 2013). What binds cloth and wearer together, is the slow
preference for durability over transience, contemplation over haste, heterogeneity over homogeneity,
quality over quantity, and journeys over destinations. This does not mean, however, that slow fashion
can never be hasty or transient. On the contrary, slow design is also about using fast technological and
scientific innovations to develop more versatile, resilient, and even sustainably degradable garments. A
slow fashion system would therefore be flexible enough to adjust to speeds and slownesses, depending
on what the situation calls for (Cilliers 2007; Fletcher 2008).
Despite what is often assumed then, ‘slow fashion’ is not the exact opposite of ‘fast fashion’.
Instead, it is a combination of different speeds and rhythms --- fast, slow and everything in between ---
which have to be carefully balanced in order to attain quality (Fletcher 2008). While a slower rhythm
could, for instance, help turn high-quality materials into high-quality clothes, a fast layer is able to do
justice to fashion’s ephemeral qualities by adding a welcome touch of change. Such a harmonious and
balanced approach celebrates both the fast and the slow. In the words of Fletcher:
Fast actions innovate and can bring rapid feedback and speedy take-up of improved products. Slowness
provides stability and can promote holistic thinking and causal chains of responsibility. Combining the
two brings newness underpinned by resilience, revolution bolstered by remembrance, and fashion
supported by nature and culture. (2008: 162)
The combined emphasis on ‘short-term vitality and long-term stability’ is what makes slow fashion so
promising instead of the contradictio in terminis it seems to be at first sight (Fletcher and Grose 2012:
127). A slow fashion system would, after all, still embrace fashion’s ability to transform and innovate,
just not at the current system’s destructive pace. Far from being static or nostalgic, a slower tempo
enables shape-shifting as well as much-needed time for rest and contemplation (Aronowsky Cronberg
2014). Slowness thus offers a hopeful and sustainable new starting point for the contemporary fashion
phenomenon, which seems to have gone mad with motion.
As can be gathered from my reading of slow fashion, it is inextricably intertwined with exploring and
developing both old and new materials and techniques --- and with finding ways to create strong bonds
between garments and bodies. Indeed, I want to propose that an emphasis on matter and materiality
is precisely what makes slow designs ‘slow’. Contrary to prioritising the newest trendy ‘look’ or image,
they draw explicit attention to fashion’s material and embodied qualities (Clark 2008). It may sound
superfluous to state that fashion is material and embodied, but as will become clear in the next part of
this chapter, these qualities received little attention for the better part of fashion academia and fashion
history (Negrin 2013). Over the last three decades, however, this has started to change significantly.
Before elaborating on this change, it is important to note that fashion studies is a relatively new field
of research in academia. Within traditional Western scholarship, fashion has long been overlooked
and considered as a trivial, frivolous subject unworthy of any scholarly attention (Lipovetsky 1994).
Over the past thirty years, however, the academic study of fashion has gained ground, changing the
dominant view on fashion as a mere superficial endeavour (Entwistle and Wilson 2001). Something
similar can be said of the body, which, like fashion, resided on the margins of traditional scholarship
for quite some time before it started to receive academic interest. Despite the palpable inextricable
connection between these two areas of research --- ‘dress cannot be understood without reference to
the body and […] body has always and everywhere to be dressed’ --- they were generally not studied in
relation to each other at all (idem: 34). It took another fifteen years before fashion theorists such as
Joanne Entwistle, Paul Sweetman and Elizabeth Wilson began to express their discontent with the
nearly complete lack of cross fertilisation between research on fashion and research on the body.
According to Sweetman, up until then writing on fashion had largely disregarded the agency
of the body, treating it as ‘a mannequin or shop-window dummy’ (2001: 59). He states that scholars
generally regarded fashion as a process of social and symbolic importance; rather than focusing on the
agency of the dressed body, they tended to consider fashion as a ‘cultural text’ that can be deciphered
and read (idem: 74). A similar argument has been made by Entwistle and Wilson, who pointed out
that a vast majority of fashion theorists has neglected to see fashion for the ‘fleshy practice’ that it is
(2001: 4). What this majority failed to realise, is that fashion is actually a ‘situated bodily practice’: an
immanently fleshy phenomenon that is socially structured as well as embodied (Entwistle 2000: 11).
While this predominant disregard of the body in favour of fashion’s social and cultural qualities might
seem striking or even inconceivable, it makes more sense when taking into account that academia as a
whole has been heavily influenced by the twentieth-century linguistic and cultural turns. With these
turns came a very particular way of dealing with reality, namely in terms of language, discourse, and
representation (Rocamora and Smelik forthcoming 2015). To phrase it differently, everything was
understood to be culturally and socially constructed and --- following this line of reasoning --- nothing
supposedly existed outside of discourse and textual representations (Barrett and Bolt 2013). Although
these insights have undeniably proven to be indispensable, they have also led to a thorough neglect of
materiality (Bruggeman 2014). This is not to say that fashion studies completely overlooked fashion’s
materiality, but that ‘fashion in its presently codified state --- that is as a commodity, social signifier,
brand --- is very rarely discussed as a material fact; it is almost exclusively perceived in its representation
through the media’ (Lehmann quoted in Bruggeman 2014: 42).
As Daniel Miller (2005 and 2010) stresses, a main focus on fashion’s immaterial qualities did
not just result in a subordinate position of the body, but also in an inferior position of the materiality
of dress itself. He pleads for alternative ‘material culture approaches’ that attribute agency to both the
human body and the so-called ‘stuff’ that fashion designs consist of. Accordingly, he claims that we
should refrain from viewing garments as the second- or even third-rate cultural objects that they were
considered to be for such a long time:
[Clothes] are not merely the handmaidens to the study of society, or culture or identity. Rather we are
prepared now to see clothes themselves as having agency, as part of what constitutes and forms lives,
cosmologies, reasons, causes and effects. (2005: 2)
Summing up, while matter and materiality used to play but a minor role in the study of fashion, both
body and cloth are now increasingly acknowledged as significant and agential. Since the start of this
millennium, fashion has no longer been primarily understood as a ‘text’ to be deciphered, but rather
as a highly complex phenomenon that has both material and immaterial characteristics. It is no longer
predominantly considered as symbolic, discursive and representational, but also as inherently material,
experiential, haptic, affectual and corporeal. As Sweetman so accurately describes it:
When I wear a suit, I walk, feel and act differently, and not simply because of the garment’s cultural
connotations, […] but also because of the way the suit is cut, and the way its sheer materiality both
enables and constrains, encouraging or demanding a certain gait, posture and demeanour, whilst
simultaneously denying me the full range of bodily movement that would be available were I dressed in
jogging-pants and a loose-fitting t-shirt (2001: 66; original emphasis).
According to Llewellyn Negrin, however, the long-lasting lack of attention for fashion’s materiality
did not only stem from academia, but also from fashion itself (2013). She argues that the history of
Western dress is rooted in ‘a radical distinction between nature and culture’ and --- consequently --- on
‘a disavowal of the body’ (idem: 141-2). Negrin’s argument is underpinned by art and dress historian
Anne Hollander, who states that, ever since Christianity introduced Adam and Eve, the lion’s share of
dress has been designed to cover up, transcend and reshape our sinful, material bodies (1993 :
448). As such, Western dress has traditionally been understood as a primarily visual form of art that
resembles ‘a current pictorial ideal’ (idem: 314; my emphasis).
The emphasis on pictorial ideals became even more apparent in the first half of the twentieth
century. Just ‘as modernist art freed itself from the necessity to imitate reality and became increasingly
abstract’, fashion designs started to become even more detached from actual bodies (Negrin 2013:
145). Instead of following the many natural shapes of the human body, fashion designers increasingly
attempted to reshape it. When they began to create their own collections instead of custom-tailoring
pieces for a specific clientele, the need to look at actual body shapes decreased even more. The human
body, in other words, became inferior to ideally shaped clothes (Hollander 1993 ). The ever-
growing distance between fashion and the body resulted in the dominance of ideally formed bodies
over actual bodies, visuality over materiality, and creating a ‘look’ over a ‘way of being-in-the-world’
(Negrin forthcoming 2015: 10).
In addition to neglecting the materiality of bodies, historical developments have also led to a
perpetual disregard of the materiality of fashion itself. We have already seen that the technological
progress ignited by the Industrial Revolution changed the common attitude towards fabric and
clothes, and that it set in motion the fast fashion system as we know it today. In about a century and a
half, consumer practices like darning, patching and remodelling made way for buying, wasting and
discarding. At the same time, production practices evidently changed as well. Since the 1860s, for
example, most textiles have been created by the iron fingers of machines rather than by the hands of
artisans (Welters 2008). Although mechanically produced dress is not necessarily of inferior quality,
the rise and speed of mass manufacturing did divert attention from more traditional techniques and
forms of (local) craftsmanship. On top of that, the trend to move production to low-cost, developing
countries has made garments cheaper than ever (Fletcher 2008).
In the meantime, the fashion system puts so much pressure on designers to speed up the pace
of their collections that there is hardly any time to explore the possibilities and restrictions of certain
materials, textures or techniques --- let alone to reflect on their relation to the human body (Teunissen
2013; Aronowsky Cronberg 2014). As becomes clear from recent interviews with leading designers
like Christophe Lemaire, Dries Van Noten and Hussein Chalayan, the contemporary fashion industry
makes designers feel apprehensive, restless, and under constant (time) pressure (Aronowsky Cronberg
2014). To be creative, designers need time to think, research and develop, but today they are expected
to put together a new and innovative collection four times a year (idem).
A slow approach to fashion design, by contrast, sets great store by taking the time to become
familiar with the material aspects of fashion (Sherburne 2009). Allowing for less deadlines and more
time to let ideas simmer, it is in effect ‘an antidote to fast fashion’ (idem: 29). Slow design recognises
that both human bodies and the fashionable designs we wrap them in are immanently material, and
thus asks for a decidedly different way of dealing with materiality than a predominantly fast approach
to fashion. Embroidering on age-old techniques by taking the time to ‘slowly’ weave, spin and dye a
dress, for instance, does not only draw attention to this dress’ inherent materiality, but also opens up
the possibility to forge a strong, meaningful and experiential bond between producer, garment and
consumer (Clark 2008; Fletcher and Grose 2012; Teunissen 2013). As such, a slow approach disputes
the alleged dominance of the visual ‘look’ over the material ‘feel’. Or, as Hazel Clark puts it:
A slow or more sustainable approach focuses greater attention on valuing and knowing the object, and
demands design that generates significant experiences, which are not transformed into empty images for
rapid consumption. (2008: 440)
Slow fashion, then, focuses on creating an experiential and reciprocal relationship between dress and
the body of the wearer --- and so kindles more durable processes of transformation. It neither prefers a
‘look’ over a ‘feel’, nor attaches more value to the body than to the ‘stuff’ that designs are made of. To
fully comprehend the paramount role of materiality in slow fashion, it is vital to explore it within an
academic development that is leaving its mark on the field of fashion studies as a whole: the material
turn. In the following section I will expand on this theoretical turn, which will allow me to shed more
light on (slow) fashion as a phenomenon that is material as well as immaterial.
The Material Turn
The so-called material turn dates back to the second half of the 1990s, when philosophers Manuel
DeLanda and Rosi Braidotti --- independently of one another --- introduced it to describe a new and
distinctly monist direction in cultural theory (Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012). More specifically,
this ‘new’ materialist direction seeks to break through René Descartes’ notion of dualism, which can
be traced all the way back to Plato.8
Within the Cartesian line of thought, there are two fundamental
kinds of substances: res cogitans, that is to say the mental or thinking substance, and res extensa, that is
to say the corporeal or extended substance (Hatfield 2003). Arguing against the idea that everything is
matter, Descartes made a sharp ontological distinction between mind and body, subject and object,
culture and nature, meaning and matter, and so on, and so forth (Coole and Frost 2010).
This distinction does not involve equal positions, but razor-sharp binary oppositions in which
the superior mental substance prevails over the inferior corporeal one. As human subjects are deemed
immaterial, agentic and full of life, matter comes off badly:
The predominant sense of matter in modern Western culture has been that it is essentially passive stuff,
set in motion by human agents who use it as a means of survival, modify it as a vehicle of aesthetic
expression, and impose subjective meanings upon it. (idem: 92)
Minds and subjects have traditionally been seen as masters of bodies and objects --- lifeless matter with
which they can simply do as they please.9
Cartesian matter, then, is but a shell of what ‘really’ matters;
the mind as the puppeteer of the empty-headed body and the passive material ‘stuff’ that we surround
The opposition between mental and corporeal substance, and the preferential treatment of the
former over the latter, has had a remarkably strong influence on Western thought and academia. That
it left little room for alternative views does not mean, however, that no attempts have been made to
cast off the yoke of dualism. Baruch Spinoza already stated that mind and body are one and the same,
since the body is always the object of the mind, while the mind is nothing but an idea of the body
I kindly thank Quintijn Mauer for helping me translate Plato from ancient Greek. In his Gorgias dialogue (ca. 380
BC), the Greek philosopher famously wrote: ‘τὸ μὲν σῶμά ἐστιν ἡμῖν σῆμα’ --- ‘the body [soma] is a tomb [sema] to
us’ (Lamb 1925: 493a). In Plato’s view, the soul was imprisoned by the body; a distinction which points to a clearly
dualist vision on the two.
William Shakespeare beautifully illustrated this division in Othello, where he wrote that ‘our bodies are our gardens’,
and ‘our wills are [their] gardeners’ (ca. 1603-4: 1.3.320-1).
(1833 ). Throughout the centuries, a monistic take on the mind-body relation has continued
to ‘speckle’ the history of Western philosophy, but it never actually succeeded in competing against
dualism (Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2010: 153). Yet the tide appears to be turning. To borrow the
words of Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin: ‘Perhaps today the time is right to finally offer the
alternative take that was definitely out there for a long time, but that was overcoded by dualist forms
of thinking.’ (idem: 154)
The alternative take that these authors refer to goes by the name of the material turn, or ‘new’
materialism. As Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik argue, this turn is firmly founded on materialist
theories dating back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (forthcoming 2015). They range from,
among others, the historical materialism of Karl Marx and the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-
Ponty, to a feminist take on materialism and the vital philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
(idem). Together, these form the theoretical ribs of the umbrella term that is known as new, or rather
What draws all of these ribs together, is the intention to bring matter back
into the equation as well as the desire to ultimately break through dualism.
Although the material turn has its roots in earlier materialist theories, it is definitely ‘new’ in
the sense that it attempts to re-emphasise ‘matter and materiality after decades of a dominant focus on
text and textuality’ (idem: 12). According to the materialist scholars of today, matter has been ignored
for far too long, and should no longer be regarded as ‘the ‘‘dumb’’ ‘‘mute’’ ‘‘irrational’’ stuff on which
humans act’ (Barrett and Bolt 2013: 5). Rather than neglecting matter by viewing it as inanimate or
passive, they think of it as inherently agential; not lifeless, but with a life of its own. As Karen Barad
wrote spot-on: ‘Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers.’ (Quoted in Dolphijn
and Van der Tuin 2012: 59)
This also means that, rather than enforcing binary oppositions, ‘new’ (and old) materialists no
longer distinguish between nature and culture, body and mind, object and subject, or matter and
meaning. Instead, they seek to think in terms of ‘a relationality without ontological divisions’ (Frow
2010: 35). According to Barad, this relationality is not so much an interaction as it is an ‘intra-action’
(Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012).11
After all, so she argues, mental and corporeal substances are
Pointing to the historical basis for the material turn, Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik propose that it might be
more fitting to speak of a ‘renewed’ or ‘revived’ materialism instead of a ‘new’ materialism (forthcoming 2015).
While I agree with their line of reasoning, the latter term is currently most known and used in academia. In this
thesis I therefore use the term ‘new materialism’, but in an explicitly renewed or revived sense.
I mention Barad’s interpretation of intra-action here because it sheds more light on the dynamics of the relation
between material and immaterial substances. Yet, since ‘interaction’ is still the term most commonly used, I will use
it in this thesis as well.
always already inextricably linked, and therefore do not pre-exist their intra-action. Indeed, since they
are immanently enfolded, they continuously intra-act together (idem). Braidotti makes a similar point
when she discusses the Deleuzean subject and her own nomadic view on the body. By underscoring
that the body is ‘a threshold of transformations’, she claims that it is in fact an embodied ‘in-between’
which cannot help but interconnect with other bodies (Quoted in Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012:
19 and 34). Or, to use Deleuzean terms: the world consists of assemblages that in turn consist of both
material and immaterial relations (Bennett and Joyce 2010).
It is precisely the interaction of these relations that prevents a (re)lapse into dualism --- their
intertwinement shuts the door on making an ontological distinction between them. ‘New’ materialist
scholars favour a transversal, positive, and affirmative way of thinking that is able to push dualism to
an extreme (Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012). Take, for instance, the relation between mind and
body. For new materialists, the mind is not worth more than the body or vice versa. Instead, these
inherently related terms belong to each other and are involved in a process of infinite intermingling.
As Barrett and Bolt so aptly put it:
[W]e discern as an overriding characteristic of the new materialists their insistence on describing active
processes of materialisation of which embodied humans are an integral part, rather than the monotonous
repetitions of dead matter from which human subjects are apart. […] The prevailing ethos of new
materialist ontology is consequently more positive and constructive than critical or negative: it sees
its task as creating new concepts and images of nature that affirm matter's immanent vitality. (2013: 8)
Body and mind, matter and meaning, are, in sum, entangled --- and it is this active entanglement that
the material turn focuses on (Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012). As such, it can be understood as an
explicit commentary on the linguistic and cultural turns mentioned above. Although these provided
us with indispensable insights in terms of signification and representation, they have also resulted in a
disregard of matter and materiality. The material turn, by contrast, centres on making matter matter;
‘new’ materialist scholars do not deny that reality has a distinctive discursive dimension, but simply
seek to draw attention to the fact that this reality is also immanently material.
Addressing materiality in such a positive and constructive way appears to be infectious; it is
evident that the material turn is leaving its mark on Western academia (Van der Tuin 2011). Bennett
and Joyce even go so far as to say that ‘this might be the most important of all the recent intellectual
turns that have been taken’ (2010: 7). In the last couple of years, a large body of scholars has explored
this particular paradigm shift from a theoretical perspective (e.g. Bennett and Joyce 2010; Coole and
Frost 2010; Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012; Barrett and Bolt 2013). Moreover, a growing number
of scholars from diverse (inter)disciplinary fields is currently discovering and applying new materialist
tools that help to make more sense of the inherently material world that we are a part of.
In terms of the study of fashion, several materialist roads have already been taken12
, but there
is one that shows particular promise for an understanding of the slow fashion phenomenon that this
thesis focuses on: the materialist thought of Gilles Deleuze. As explained in my general introduction,
he developed part of his philosophy in close collaboration with Félix Guattari. In what follows, I will
first give a short introduction into Deleuze (and Guattari)’s work. I will then briefly explore the work
of academics who have recently started using a Deleuzean framework to provide new insights into the
present-day fashion system and specific fashion designs. Embroidering on the work of Bruno (2010),
Seely (2011 and 2013), Bruggeman (2014), and Smelik (2014 and forthcoming 2015), I will argue
that a Deleuzean toolbox offers a clearer understanding of slow fashion’s potential to rebel against the
acceleration of the contemporary fashion sector.
A Deleuzean Materialism of ‘Becoming’
The writings of Deleuze (and Guattari) are notoriously challenging, nebulous, ‘difficult and resistant’
(Colebrook 2010a: 2). The French thinkers’ notoriety can be attributed in part to the structuring or
rather ‘un-structuring’ of their many thoughts. Deliberately refraining from pushing their readers into
rigidly set directions, they write in a ‘rhizomatic’ fashion --- the rhizome being ‘a stream without
beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle’ (Deleuze and Guattari
1987: 25). Instead of filling people’s heads with hierarchical trees, Deleuze and Guattari create grass-
like networks of ‘conjunction’ that ‘[carry] enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘‘to be’’’ (idem).
Deracinating Western thought’s preoccupation with rational questions of representation and
being --- what does it mean, what does it represent, what does it signify? --- is essential for them because
this query ‘mobilises and moves nothing’ (Deleuze 1994: 55-6). As Elizabeth Grosz remarks, Deleuze
For examples of fruitful phenomenological and/or feminist materialist approaches to fashion, I recommend reading
Entwistle 2000, Entwistle and Wilson 2001, Sweetman 2001, Negrin 2013 and Negrin forthcoming 2015. For more
anthropological materialist approaches, see, for instance, Küchler and Miller 2005, Küchler 2008, and Miller 2010.
[…] free thought from that which captures or captivates it, to free thought from the image, indeed to
free thought from representation, from the ‘transcendental illusions of representation,’ to give it back its
capacity to effect transformation or metamorphosis, to make thinking itself a little bomb or scattergun.
Calling Deleuzean thinking a ‘bomb’ or ‘scattergun’ is not to say, however, that it is aimed at causing
random damage. Rather, Deleuze makes an appeal for ‘necessary destructions’, which, because of their
‘creative power [are] capable of overturning all orders and representations’ (1994: 53). After all, it is
only by escaping from established, hierarchical representations that ‘our sense of our ‘‘selves’’ and our
notion of our world’ can be ‘[transformed], if only for a moment’ (O’Sullivan 2001: 128).
This transformation, metamorphosis or movement in the world, while always temporary, is of
paramount importance to Deleuze and Guattari. As anti-essentialist, nomadic and ecological thinkers
(Braidotti 2002), they are not so much interested in what minds think and what things represent, but
rather in how bodies can move with the world (O’Sullivan 2001).13
Underlining the unison of mind
and body, they propose to move away from the dominant static and dualistic view on human identity.
Instead of having or being just one rigid identity that is separated from our environment, Deleuze and
Guattari suggest that we are all involved in a continuous process of becoming (1987). This process is
about the desire to connect and interact, and thus about moving, morphing, changing, transforming
--- not only with other human bodies, but also with non-human creatures and matter around us. As
Braidotti puts it, the entire world is filled with dynamic ‘[clusters] of complex and intensive forces ---
intensive assemblages which connect and inter-relate with others in a variety of ways’ (2006a).
As Deleuze and Guattari argue, these assemblages ‘necessarily [act] on semiotic flows, material
flows and social flows simultaneously’ (1987: 22-3). Flowing into each other without end, agential
forces intermingle and affect each other in fluid movements. Deleuzean matter and materiality are, in
other words, fully immersed in a world that flows, transforms and becomes. What is of the utmost
importance here, is that the body is not stuck in any specific territory (Braidotti 2010). Rather, it has
the capacity to de- and reterritorialise. Starting from the form or territory that it has, interaction with
other assemblages can lead to deterritorialisation and transformation, after which the body inevitably
reterritorialises to be temporarily grounded again (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). While the nomadic
Bodies, in a Deleuzean sense, are not necessarily human (Baugh 2010; Coleman 2011). For Deleuze and Guattari,
a ‘body’ is ‘any whole composed of parts, where these parts stand in some definite relation to one another, and has a
capacity for being affected by other bodies’ (Baugh 2010: 35). A body can thus also be an animal, a painting, a group
of people - even an idea. In terms of fashion, ‘body’ can refer to dress, its wearer, and combinations of these two.
Deleuzean body is not restricted or bound to any territory or form, it is utterly immersed in the fields
of its environment; being, or rather becoming, interconnected with the intensive forces of the earth,
there is no transcending it (Braidotti 2006a and 2010).
It is precisely the complex intermingling of intensive, agential forces --- be they material, social
or semiotic --- that makes Deleuze and Guattari’s work so materialist and so positive to work with. As
Rocamora and Smelik remark, their philosophy can be understood as ‘a vital materialism combining
critique with creativity’ (forthcoming 2015: 12). The creative and constructive critical nature of their
thought, which revolves around metamorphosis, is probably what has inspired fashion scholars to start
experimenting with it. As Deleuzean expert Claire Colebrook has observed, ‘[a Deleuzean] dictionary
comes into being only in its use, only when the thoughts that it enables open the system of thought to
the very outside and life that made it possible’ (2010a: 6). Scholars such as Bruno (2010), Seely (2011
and 2013), Bruggeman (2014) and Smelik (2014 and forthcoming 2015) show that this is indeed the
case. By using Deleuzean ‘tools’, they have opened up exciting new ways of understanding fashion. In
the next and final part of this chapter, I will give a short overview of their approaches. In so doing, I
will lay the foundations of my own exploration of the relation between fashion, time and materiality.
Fathoming Fashion with D&G14
Before discussing how these scholars used specific Deleuzean tools, however, I want to point out that
the capitalist, fast fashion system may very well be one of the most representational, hierarchical, and
normative systems in the world (Seely 2011 and 2013; Bruggeman 2014; Smelik forthcoming 2015).
Although ‘fashion is, or rather pretends to be, forever changing and innovating’, it expressly prescribes
‘rather rigid rules as to what (not) to wear this season’ (Smelik forthcoming 2015: 3-4). As the fashion
system or territory is firmly founded on centres of power, it always exerts influence on what garments
and bodies should look like.
From a Deleuzean perspective, this makes it all the more imperative to explore how designers
can break through their territory’s normative looks, rules and representations (Bruggeman 2014). As
Deleuze explains, processes of deterritorialisation must be put in motion from the centre; this is where
lines of flight can take off so as to momentarily escape from territorialising organisms (1994). While it
might seem impossible for ‘designers who are obviously working in the commercial, capitalist system
This is a reference to the tote bag that circulated a couple of years ago. Printed with ‘D&G: Deleuze and Guattari’,
the bag was a clear pun on the ‘other’ famous D&G: the prominent Italian fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana.
of fashion […] to find ways to escape from this context’, paradoxically, their central position provides
ways to resist the system from within (Bruggeman 2014: 163). This is what makes a Deleuzean point
of view so fruitful in terms of contemporary fashion research. By applying concepts from Deleuze and
Guattari’s box of tools, one can explore how fashion designs rebel against the system and, in so doing,
create lines of flight that open up ways of becoming (Smelik forthcoming 2015).
Inspired by Bruno (2010), Seely (2011 and 2013), Bruggeman (2014) and Smelik (2014 and
forthcoming 2015), I have taken the liberty to open up the tool box and select three specific concepts
for this thesis: the assemblage, the Body without Organs, and the fold.15
The assemblage, to start off
with, revolves around fleeting connections. As touched upon above, Deleuze and Guattari argue that
the world is full of immaterial and material forces that interconnect continuously (1987). This process
of intermingling leads to the production of bodies or assemblages, which are in fact ‘discontinuous,
nontotalisable series of processes, organs, flows, energies, corporeal substances, incorporeal events,
speeds, and durations’ (Grosz 1994: 164). As Deleuze and Guattari emphasise, assemblages hold all of
these ‘heterogeneous elements’ together, but only temporarily (1987: 323). After all, to borrow Seely’s
The matter, forces, and capacities that produce bodies constantly connect with other matter, forces, and
capacities in a perpetual process of becoming, as assemblages between bodies form and then deform to
produce further assemblages. (2013: 252)
With regard to fashion, applying this notion enables a focus on dress’ ‘potential to make creative new
connections’ with other bodies (Bruggeman 2014: 165). By using it to discuss designs of Alexander
McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Hussein Chalayan, Gareth Pugh and Viktor&Rolf, Seely (2011 and 2013)
and Bruggeman (2014) point out that the assemblage enables an agential, interrelated way of viewing
body, dress and the dressed body. While body and dress are already assemblages in and of themselves,
together they can connect to, albeit briefly, form new assemblages of fibres, colours, patterns, textures,
flesh, skin, hair, warmth, movements, meanings, thoughts, feelings, etcetera (idem). This perspective
allows for the exploration of semiotic, social and material flows, and so moves fashion research beyond
a predominant focus on questions of representation, signification and identity (idem).
As explained in the introduction, it is not my intention to give an exegetic account of these concepts or practices.
Rather, I am taking inspiration from them to unravel how they can shed more light on slow fashion as a process of
A tool that helps to do so as well is the ‘Body without Organs’, which is commonly abbreviated as the
Adopting the term from Antonin Artaud, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a
practice of ‘dismantling the organism’ of the body (idem: 160). By proposing that we make ourselves
a BwO, they do not suggest that we literally remove our organs, but rather that we should find ways
to free our bodies from the organisms that repress them (Message 2010). For Deleuze and Guattari,
this is about a process of deterritorialising the systems and territories that stratify us (1987). After all,
to deterritorialise is to become, and while ‘Body without Organs’ might sound destructive or negative
at first, it actually amounts to a ‘connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities’
(idem: 161; Smelik forthcoming 2015).
Taking into account that today’s fashion system is entangled with territorialisation, normative
images and standardised looks, the question becomes how fashion design can be used to free the body,
both in cloth and flesh, ‘from a territorialised understanding of its matter’ (Smelik forthcoming 2015:
7). According to Seely, a number of avant-garde designers --- like the ones mentioned above --- already
succeeded in creating fashion that ‘‘‘distorts’’ the body or reformulates its capacities and organization’
(2013: 264). As Smelik explains, using the BwO helps to unravel how such ‘fashion pushes the limits
of what a body can become’ --- how, in other words, such design ‘unsettles the familiar territory of the
striated world of fashion’ (forthcoming 2015: 11). In order to decipher this practice of unsettling and
deterritorialising, she has fruitfully connected the BwO to another Deleuzean tool: the concept of the
fold (2014 and forthcoming 2015).
Perhaps more than any other Deleuzean concept, the fold is inherently interwoven with dress,
fibres and fabric. Indeed, in defining the concept in his book The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (2006
), Deleuze describes it as follows:17
The fold can be recognized first of all in the textile model of the kind implied by garments: fabric or
clothing has to free its own folds from its usual subordination to the finite body it covers. […] In every
instance folds of clothing acquire an autonomy and a fullness that are not simply decorative effects. They
convey the intensity of a spiritual force exerted on the body, either to turn it upside down or to stand or
raise it up over and again, but in every event to turn it inside out and to mold its inner surfaces. (139-
40; original emphasis)
Deleuze first introduced the term in The Logic of Sense (1969), but further developed it with Guattari in Anti-
Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980) (Message 2010).
While Deleuze mentions the fold throughout his entire work, this book captures it in a particularly strong manner
This quote beautifully captures Deleuze’s materialist vision on matter in relation to immaterial forces.
Contrary to considering clothes as subordinated to the body, or bodies as subordinated to the mind,
Deleuze introduces the fold as ‘an interface between the inside and the outside’ (Smelik forthcoming
2015: 10). In so doing, he ‘demolishes binary oppositions’ (idem); the dualist divisions between mind
and matter, ‘interiority’ and ‘exteriority’, that have had such profound influence on Western thought
(Roffe 2010: 97). As Bruno aptly explains, ‘the fold is actually an elaborate mutual figuration of mind
and matter. It is the form of their transformation’ (2010: 217).
In terms of fashion, the fold helps to see how agential bodies of garments and wearers connect
with each other in potentially endless processes of becoming (Smelik 2014). More specifically, Smelik
argues that this Deleuzean notion enables us to see how designs deterritorialise the body, opening up
infinite lines of flight through their folds, pleats and drapes (idem). Such designs allow for change,
movement and transformation. As Deleuze writes, the fold ‘billows between the body and the soul’
(2006: 137). Both Bruno (2010) and Smelik (2014 and forthcoming 2015) show that it also billows
between body and dress, and so demonstrate a more creative, positive approach to fashion research.
What I want to propose in this thesis, is that the assemblage, the BwO and the fold, which all
point to processes of becoming, acquire even more meaning when explored in the context of today’s
‘consumerist world of fast fashion’ (Smelik 2014: 2). Following Deleuze and Guattari, moving toward
a nomadic sense of becoming stresses the inextricable relationship or symbiosis between human bodies
and earthly matter (Braidotti 2010). While fast fashion has more to do with being, interestingly, both
creative becomings and slow fashion revolve around the idea of global interconnectedness. As a result,
the earth is not some passive object that we can deplete as fast as we please, but rather an agential and
flowing field of forces in which we, embodied subjects, are immanently embedded (Braidotti 2006b;
Braidotti 2010; Coleman 2011). Or, as Deleuze and Guattari phrase it themselves: ‘We are not in the
world, be become with the world; we become by contemplating it’ (1994 : 169).
We are not, then, always becoming at a high speed. Like advocates of slowness, Deleuze and
Guattari think in term of speeds and slownesses. To them, the process of becoming is a ‘succession of
catatonic freezes and extreme velocities, fainting spells and shooting arrows’ (1987: 268). Building on
their vision, Simon O’Sullivan remarks that:
[T]he pause between action and reaction is what constitutes the human as a particularly complex brain-
body assemblage. This pause allows a certain amount of freedom and the possibility for a more creative
response to the world. Put differently, in today’s world it is important to change speed, to slow down
sometimes and even at times to remain still. (2010b: 277)
Transposing this to fashion, a system that is built on capitalism, profit and a general sense of fastness
has nothing to do with the process of becoming. By contrast, it is a slow approach to fashion that fans
the flames of interconnection and metamorphosis. In theory, using a Deleuzean materialist framework
of becoming enables me to argue that fashion and slowness are not at odds, but potentially powerful
and norm-changing when interconnected. To critically assess whether this framework indeed allows
me to move beyond the contemporary system’s focus on speed and normative images, I will project it
on four case studies in the following two chapters of this thesis: Maison Margiela, BioCouture, Issey
Miyake, and Iris Van Herpen. In using the three tools discussed above, I hope to unlock new ways of
understanding their designs.
Mapping out different views on fashion, time and materiality, this chapter has laid the theoretical and
methodological base of my exploration of the enigmatic slow fashion phenomenon. I have shown that
fashion is indissolubly intertwined with the notion of time. While historical developments have led to
an emphasis on fastness, fashion can also move to a combination of both faster and slower rhythms. A
focus on slowness goes hand in hand with a focus on materiality and embodiment, which have only
recently started to receive attention in both fashion academia and the fashion industry. Considering
that perhaps today the time is right to provide a monistic, ‘new’ materialist perspective on the world
(Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2010), I want to propose that the time might also be right to offer a new
and slower take on fashion.
In the following two chapters, I will embroider on the work that I have sewn together here to
show how designers emphasise materiality to resist fashion’s ever increasing speed. More precisely, I
will explore designers who, in my view, create slow lines of flight to escape from today’s fast business
of fashion. By using a Deleuzean framework of ‘becoming’, I will explore their approaches to, on the
one hand, fibres and fabrics, and, on the other hand, manufacturing techniques that invite slow ways
of wearing. Arguing that their designs can be better understood in terms of slow becomings, I aim at
grasping what slow fashion can actually do.
On Picking Rags and Brewing Cellulose:
Slow Approaches to Fibre and Fabric
Who knows what clothes will be? Maybe an aerosol used to spray the body; maybe women will be
dressed in coloured gases adherent to their body, or in halos of light, changing colour with the
movements of the sun or with their emotions… clothes will become transparent, and revert back into
being ornaments once again, reflecting women’s desires to free their body from all former restrictions to
let in new possibilities… free ones, really free. (Paco Rabanne 1969 quoted in Lee 2005: 13)
As I have shown in Chapter One, fashion is inextricably intertwined with change and innovation. In
its tendency to discard the past, this material and cultural phenomenon has traditionally been focused
more on the present and on the near future. What fashion can be, or rather become, is a question that
has driven designers such as the one quoted above to let their imaginations roam free. Very recently, a
number of creative possible answers was put on display during an exhibition at the Museum Boijmans
Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (2014). In ‘The Future of Fashion is Now’, works of designers such as
Viktor&Rolf, Iris Van Herpen, Helen Storey, Wang Lei and Carole Collet presented the visitor with
critical reflections on the contemporary fashion system --- including its accelerating speed. Many of
their designs, which included soluble dresses and costumes made from woven toilet paper, stressed the
importance of sourcing, creating and using innovative yet sustainable fibres and fabrics.
The importance of sustainable materials has also been emphasised by slow fashion advocates
(e.g. Fletcher 2008; Hethorn and Ulasewicz 2008; Fletcher and Grose 2012). Indeed, as Fletcher and
Grose point out, ‘exploration of materials has been the starting point for the lion’s share of
sustainability innovation in fashion’ (2012: 12). Since fibres and fabrics are pivotal in the process of
materialising fashion designers’ visions and dreams, this chapter will revolve around the question how
materials can be approached in a ‘slow’ manner. In the following sections, I will argue that slow ways
of dealing with materials are vital --- not only to create a sustainable fashion sector which acknowledges
‘stuff’ as agential, but also to free bodies from former restrictions and let in new possibilities, as Paco
Rabanne so eloquently put it in 1969 (Lee 2005: 13). Drawing on the Deleuzean concepts of the
assemblage and the Body without Organs, I will demonstrate how slow fashion materials help to
provoke sustainable bodily becomings, thereby enabling wearers to transform in relation to their
environment (Seely 2013 and Smelik 2015).
First, however, I will provide a general introduction into the paths that fashion designers have
cleared and followed in terms of material-led sustainability. After painting an overall picture of the
numerous possibilities, I will zoom in on the use of materials in the work of Paris-based fashion brand
and the British BioCouture research project.19
As I will argue, both exemplify the
significance of fibres and fabrics in relation to time and the body, yet in completely different ways. In
order to clarify and contextualise these differences, I will now embark on a main introduction of slow
approaches to materials.
As I have pointed out in Chapter One, a primary focus on immateriality in both fashion studies and
the fashion system has led to an inferior role for the material dimensions of this phenomenon. A ‘new’
materialist perspective however, unravels that fashion consists of semiotic, social and material forces
which inherently intermingle and transform without beginning or end (Deleuze and Guattari 1987).
As will become clear in the following sections, this cyclical perspective provides a promising way out
of the increasingly fast and linear fashion system as we know it today.
Within this system, sourcing and creating the materials that are needed to produce fabric and
clothing are seen as two of the first and clearly demarcated steps in the supply chain (Fletcher 2008).
Since this chain is built on acceleration and growth, the demand for material resources has increased
rapidly rather than sustainably (Fletcher and Grose 2012). In fact, as Fletcher and Grose make clear,
key issues such as ‘climate change, waste creation and water poverty can all be traced back somehow
to the use and processing of and demand for materials’ (idem: 12). Depending on the type of fibre,
the production of materials leads to a lesser or greater amount of, amongst others, chemical pollution,
human health problems, loss of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources. These issues continue
While I was writing this thesis, the label that was formerly known as Maison Martin Margiela altered its name to
Maison Margiela. It was founded in 1988 by Belgian designer Martin Margiela, but he decided to leave the company
in 2009. In October 2014, the controversial British designer John Galliano was announced as the label’s new creative
director, and it was right before the presentation of his debut collection on 12 January 2015 that the brand’s name
As I already explained in the introduction of this thesis, this chapter focuses on these two cases because of their
inspirational and innovative potential. However, they are by no means the only contemporary examples of slow
design approaches to materials. Throughout this chapter, I will therefore also mention a number of other examples.
to exert their strong negative impact once clothes are worn, washed and --- in line with a linear view ---
eventually discarded. To use the words of Bradley Quinn:
Yesterday’s textiles are tomorrow’s toxins; an estimated 1 million tonnes of fabric waste ends up in
landfills each year. […] Clothing can take decades to decompose, all the while leaching deadly chemicals
and harmful gases into the soil around it. (2010: 109)
Considering that forty percent of all clothing is disposed into a rubbish bin before it even reaches the
consumer, it is evident that a mere fast approach to materials is no longer tenable --- let alone desirable
(Teunissen 2013). Indeed, according to research done by The Factor 10 Institute, ‘we have to get ten
times more out of every product than we currently do, just to maintain the planet in its current
unsustainable state’ (Sherburne 2009: 11).
Rejecting the idea that all clothes inevitably turn into waste, both scholars and designers are
now exploring other, more sustainable ways to deal with materials. Central to these explorations is a
philosophy known as ‘cradle-to-cradle’ (McDonough and Braungart 2002). According to William
McDonough and Michael Braungart, literally using materials to create ‘cradle-to-grave’ products has
already reached its expiration date. Instead, so they argue, the time has come for a continuous reuse of
materials (idem). While a linear perspective on a garment’s life span leads to its ‘death’ by discarding,
a cradle-to-cradle approach revolves around cycles of constant rebirth (Fletcher 2008).
In such a cyclical system, waste of materials is not an option; instead of throwing clothing
away, it should be designed to become part of either a biological or an industrial cycle. Whereas the
former centres on transforming biodegradable garments into raw material through composting, the
latter perpetually recycles products consisting of non-degradable materials (idem). The cradle-to-
cradle philosophy of ‘[d]esigning clothes with future lives’ then, ‘requires a radical overhaul of the way
we currently deal with waste’ (Fletcher and Grose 2012: 63). If accomplished, such an overhaul may
even lead to a disposal of the concept of disposal itself. After all, in a system rotating around loops and
cycles, ‘what appears to be waste is actually exchange’ (Fletcher 2008: 108).
In keeping with this cyclical point of view, textile and fashion designers alike show an
increased interest in developing and using --- among others --- biodegradable, recyclable and renewable
materials (Fletcher and Grose 2012). Biodegradation, to begin with, is the relatively rapid process of
returning fibres to the earth by breaking them down and turning them into compost. This course of
life is, however, only an option for certain types of fibres. Whereas natural fibres degrade fairly easily,