Sass Brown

I could not inaugurate the column ‘The monthly interview’ in a better way, since my first guest is Sass Brown, journalist, writer, researcher and ethical fashion activist, as well as the author of the book ‘Eco Fashion’ on which I am ‘studying’ the sustainable fashion. English, Interim Dean for the Fashion Institute of Technology’s School of Art and Design (FIT) in New York, one of the best fashion universities in the world, herself a designer as well as sustainable design advisor to women’s cooperatives, educational institutions, governmental agencies, NGOs and small and medium sized enterprises around the world, Sass Brown is today Founding Dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), which will open its doors this fall in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Parsons School of Design. And it is from her last occupation that our interview starts; I reach her via e-mail and she is not only very quick in reply but also very helpful, a really exquisite person.

Sass, your experience at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI) began just one year ago; what did you do during this time and what reality did you meet, inside the institute, about sustainable design?

I just reached my one year anniversary with DIDI, and it’s hard to believe so much time has passed already. My focus has been specifically on the initial accreditation process through the Ministry of Education, which we received just prior to the end of the year. The achievement of that represented an enormous milestone that allows us to move onto the next stage of our development and promotion. My other main focus has been to search for and identify our founding faculty. This is hugely important for us, as the founding faculty will be instrumental in setting a collaborative, cross disciplinary and supportive learning environment. I am enormously excited about who will be joining us to help make that a reality. We are currently in final contract signing stage with such a diverse range of faculty that I keep referring to as the ‘United Nations of Founding Faculty’. It is a priority for me to ensure that we set up an inspirational eco system of support for the faculty to ensures that research, industry and academic experience are integrated and supported.

DIDI’s entrance – Photo: courtesy of DIDI

When it comes to sustainability, it is vital that is interwoven throughout the entirety of the curriculum. I do not believe you can be a forward focused Institution without focusing on sustainability. I am a firm believer that it needs to be interwoven into all that we do, and not a separate area of focus. I think the next generation of designers when presented with clear and transparent information about the choices they make and the ramifications of those choices, will make the right ones. That information has not traditionally been shared in design classrooms of the past. The focus has been entirely on designing for aesthetics and function, not what impact the raw materials used have on people and planet, or on what happens to it after it no longer functions. Part of the philosophy of DIDI is an integrated education, not silos of information and disciplines, and that includes how we teach sustainability. We also focus on creative problem solving, not on simply producing more pretty stuff – we have enough of that already! As designer’s we must understand and plan for the entire lifecycle of the products we bring into the world, that is part of our responsibility. What choices we make are then up to us.

And what kind of mentality you find the Arab world has towards ethical fashion? Don’t you think it’s interesting that in an increasingly globalized world, the local realities of the various continents, from Asia to America to Africa, gain more value because of their textile traditions and weaving?

I think this is an exciting dynamic region of the world that is capable of making the kind of long-term sustainable change that the rest of the world only wishes they could achieve. I also believe that the next generation of designers are committed to sustainable change, and learning from our generations mistakes. That gives me great hope for the future, whether I am in New York, London or Dubai.

I am finding great interest here in sustainable fashion. It is not as embedded or integrated as it is in say Brooklyn or Spitafields, but there is an interest and hunger for it. There is also a connection to tradition, history and craft that is quite tangible here, and that makes for an easy spring board. The Silk Road circled this region, and as a result there is still an incredible breadth and depth of traditional techniques and crafts. That connection has been lost in so many other regions of the world, but they still exist here, and that is exciting. I think the future of luxury is in great part going to come out of ‘non-traditional’ fashion capitals, and I think that is because of the traditions they have maintained, and their unique sense of aesthetic. Luxury in its purest sense is handmade and crafted, connected to the traditions and culture of the regions of the world it comes from.

Sass Brown

Let’s go to Italy, Florence, where you lived for a long time and where you directed all operations for the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) at their Italian campus; there are many Italian handmade/self-produced and sustainable realities and brands, but don’t you think that the Italian mentality in this sense is still a bit restive compared to the rest of Europe?

I did have the good fortune to live and work in Florence Italy as the Resident Director of FIT’s campus there for 4 years. Not a bad place to reside for a while. Italy does indeed have a strong connection to its history and tradition of craftsmanship, but they struggle with maintaining it also. Every part of the world has a different connection to sustainability than the other, much of it a result of the culture itself. Because of Italy’s textile and yarn traditions particularly with wool and with silk, they maintain a pretty strong connection to natural materials. They also have a long history of recycling wool fiber, which has gained renewed prominence due to the focus on upcycling. There are quite a few Italian designers focusing on upcycling, and some others that focus on natural materials, and dyes, and of course those that work with local and natural materials. There are even some important brand names that have made it a focus such as Max Mara who produce a micro collection from Newlife™, luxury recycled polyester fiber, rewoven as only the Italians know how.

Well, thank you Sass! So we undertsand that the eco-fashion is no longer a niche phenomenon; you, who have dealt with it for a long time, what do you think it was that helped it to spread? Do you think that the various ecological movements, political or otherwise, have had a voice in this sense?

For real integration into the fashion industry it always needed the support of the big high-street chains and the luxury fashion industry, both of which have come a long way in recent years. It’s a particularly difficult conundrum of how you balance ongoing expansion and growth, the basic model for a big brand, with the human and ecological footprint that go along with that, and the implementation of sustainability. Too much of the high street chains progress thus far has been focused on capsule collections and special developments, instead of across the supply chain, encompassing all product. So, there is a long way to go yet, but it’s a start.

Sass Brown’s contribute to the ‘Fashion Revolution’‘Loved Clothes Last’ fanzine

I do think that the single-minded work of Greenpeace, and their focus on the textile supply chain, and the series of DETOX reports they wrote has had an enormous impact on the understanding of the impacts both across the industry and by individual producers. Their highly public campaigns have communicated to consumers and brands alike what needs to change and now. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for taking that role on. Others such as Fashion Revolution have taken on massive significance since their inception, as well as governmental bodies like the UN that have made a greater focus on the creative economy and the economic affects that supporting women and traditional craft has on developing nations. One of the things we know is that it takes a village of diverse, invested individuals and groups to move this forward, and we all have a role to in that.

I agree; I opened my blog also because I would like that one day we could talk about eco-à-porter, that is, more and more contamination between eco-fashion and ‘traditional’ fashion (prêt-à-porter). Do you think that day is coming soon?

I think we are finally at a tipping point where it is possible to see an end game of sustainable fashion no longer being a thing, because it is so integrated in the fashion system there is no real separation, simply the norm. We have a long way to go to achieve that, but we are moving in the right direction.

I think so too, Sass. We are at the end of this interview and since this column is conceived in a way in which the interviewee indicates the next person I have to interview, so Sass, who will be my next guest? And why?

Given the region of the world I currently live and work in, I thought it might be nice to suggest someone from here that perhaps your readers might now otherwise have the opportunity to know about. So with that sentiment in mind, I suggest the founders of Bokja. They are a Lebanese company that work across furniture design, interior products, accessories and a collaboration with fashion design. Their designs are a combination of upcycled and recycled materials and hand embroidery done by artisans from across the region.

Ok Sass, that’s a great idea! My best wishes for your experience at DIDI and thank you for being the first guest of ‘the monthly interview’. Wonderful baptism!

So the next ‘monthly interview’ will be to Bokja!

A closer look at the fine embroidery of Bokja’s floor cushion, taking inspiration from Latin American patterns and motifs, revisioned through regional techniques on reclaimed jute fabric (photo from Bokja IG account)

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