Talk: Clothing, Culture & Connections: what is sustainability?

Took place on 19th November, the talk was presented by RMIT Contemporary Art & Social Transformation (CAST) Research Group and RMIT Social Innovation Hub.

Rimi Khan, Lecturer at the School of Communication & Design, RMIT University Vietnam served as the talk moderator. The three guest speakers joining the event included Vu Thao, designer and director of Kilomet109, a leading Vietnamese sustainable fashion brand; Aleksandra Nedeljkovic, COO of The Social Studio (Australia) – a social impact executive who works at the crossroads of purpose-driven business, fashion, and the arts; and Dr. Léuli Eshrāghi, who currently serves on the board of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective.

With three different points of view – of a designer, a COO, and an academic – on the fashion industry, they brought fresh and diverse perspectives to this conversation discussing the development of sustainable fashion.

From the perspective of a researcher on aboriginal communities, Dr. Eshrāghi talked about how the problems of Australian indigenous communities came from their lingual and cultural diversity. According to him, this was why it was incredibly interesting to explore their culture and costumes, while made it more difficult to blend tradition with modernity. He also understood the problems concerning the cultural rift caused by the British colonisation of the country, which made the restoration and maintenance of thinking and traditions between indigenous communities became more urgent than ever. Nuance, hence, become an important philosophy in his research on their costumes and clothing.

The cultural difference and the trust between the communities and with “people living delta regions” also made it difficult to approach the ethnic minorities, shared Vu Thao. As a designer, in order to learn about traditional textiles and dyeing methods, she and many others in her business lived with these communities for an extensive period of time. This not only helped her master their techniques but also created trust among them. The other challenge was labor optimisation, as her business could not hire as many as possible like it always did and must respect and follow their rules and traditions of these communities. The need to involve neighboring communities became urgent and complicated, as each had its own customs. That was why in years, her work focused on building trust between these communities, with no outside influence. This approach was similar to that of Dr. Eshrāghi to Australian indigenous communities. However, as a fashion designer, instead of simply restoring and preserving cultural arts and heritage like Eshrāghi did, Vu Thao also put the effort in building a new platform and connecting tradition and modernity in her fashion products.

In contrast to this approach from tradition to sustainability, The Social Studio develops sustainable fashion horizontally, meaning in the same community, fashion businesses and organisations together build a sustainable future, with the Studio’s training courses. As an organisation providing education and training, many of The Social Studio students have gained considerable achievements in the fashion industry. As a non-profit supporting immigrants and promoting sustainable fashion practices, The Social Studio does not aim to compete but to consult, assist, and share their practices with other brands in Australia. This created a sustainable and ethical platform in the country.

Towards the end of the talk, each speaker shared about what their organisations had been working on during COVID-19, as well as their plans for the future. “COVID slows us down, but also provides us with more time for researches”, said Dr. Eshrāghi. Sharing the same opinion, Vu Thao spoke about how although her business could not run as smoothly as usual, she and her brands have new plans for exciting collaboration projects with the ethnic communities. “In the past, no matter how skilled they were, these artisans can only make products to export to China or other brands in the delta regions. I’m planning to design and create products that they can wear themselves and feel proud of their works”, she shared.

The Social Studio had also been very active during COVID. They teamed up with the Victoria State Government to produce high-quality, environment-friendly face masks. In terms of training, they brought their courses to online platforms while still maintaining their quality. Therefore despite months of social distancing in Australia, The Social Studio still “works very effectively and even busier than usual”, said Aleksandra.

Ending the discussion, the speakers and the audience all gained more insights on the sustainable development of the fashion industry, especially in the current COVID situation. It is about connecting to the past, as Dr. Eshrāghi does; the link between the past and the present and the spirit that brings to the products, like those of Kilomet109; or creating a sustainable, competitive, ethical market and providing education for the future of the fashion industry, like what The Social Studio has been doing. Regardless of the method, we clearly see that sustainability in fashion doesn’t just stop at material and technical approaches – it requires us dig deep, bring out, and maintain these activities in various life aspects.

Dinh Nguyen