10:30, Dishoom. This time we are two, Sara and I, who wait at one of the tables of Dishoom King’s Cross to interview Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, editor-in-chief and publisher of Vestoj, the critical, advertising-free, “journal of sartorial matters”. While we comment on how to bring the achievements and vicissitudes of the pair fashion-theory into the dialogue, Anja appears wearing a long skirt, layers of navy, something silky, denim, a pair of glasses, an angular earring in her right ear and a small ring at the top of it.
Although the college’s current location may be new to Anja, the curriculums are not. The words ‘interdisciplinary approach’ return throughout our conversation and that proves to be what she explored at CSM: First by studying Fashion Communication and Promotion, where she collaborated in a project with the then Fashion Design student Zac Posen and, after one year, jumping ship to join the Fine Art BA. Anja explains to us that she carried out this decision after being intrigued by her flatmate’s conceptual-art-book-filled library: “I started reading and then thought, if art is more about concepts than form, maybe someone like me can do it too. I might not know how to paint, but I know how to have good ideas.”
Vestoj came to life after she completed her experience editing Acne Paper and decided to move to Paris, eager to be in a new situation: “I spent the first year and a half living off my savings, sitting at Café Charlot in the Marais. Every fashion week, you can see the whole fashion world passing by. Each day I would have coffee with someone new from my address book, and eventually it’s how I got to know the city and its people, found contributors and made connections.”
In recent years, she has continued the interdisciplinary approach by introducing Vestoj Salons — an innovative way to open fashion’s doors to the public — and lecturing, which she’s to do right after our breakfast, and she is now a senior research fellow at London College of Fashion, who also patron Vestoj. But first things first: we order fruit and yogurt and an egg naan roll for practical reasons (you can thoughtfully prick your fork into it while listening, then chew a bit); Anja digs into a Keema Per Eedu with bread buns and chicken, confident that she’ll finish it, but leaving the etablissement with leftovers as it’s hard to take a bite when there is so much to talk about. We start with discussing the Vestoj Storytelling Salons.
Michèle Lamy tells her story during the Vestoj Storytelling Salon at Fondation Galeries Lafayette in Paris, illustration by Bénédicte Muller
“What do you want to bring into the industry or take from it? What kind of industry do you want to be a part of? Don’t expect others to make sacrifices that you aren’t also willing to make yourself.”
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg: I would like all Vestoj Salons to encourage people to think more deeply about the connections we have with our clothes. The Vestoj Storytelling Salon at the Fondation Galeries Lafayette in Paris, for instance, was often moving because our six storytellers all talked about garments that had been important to them at a pivotal moment in their lives. The storytellers were all fashion professionals – designers, models, editors, educators, entrepreneurs – which was important, because the stories we developed together were private and about emotional and intimate connections to clothes. I wanted the kind of personal narrative that you would never read about in an interview. I worked with my husband who made set designs based on each story, one for every storyteller. We seated each storyteller in a separate room, scattered across the building we occupied. We asked the audience to leave their phones behind and to come in small groups throughout the day, listening, learning: for a moment experiencing the world from the storytellers’ perspective.
Earlier this year we did the Vestoj Storytelling Salon again with the Fondation Galeries Lafayette, but this time in New York at MoMA PS1. The set-up was the same: six storytellers from the fashion world, each spending one day telling one story in connection to a garment they had known and loved. Interestingly though, the stories were very different from the stories we got in Paris. In Paris, the stories were intimate, emotional. We had stories that made the storyteller, and their audience, weep. In New York, the stories were rambunctious – the storytellers often played for laughs. They were showmen. Their stories became stories about the city throughout the past six decades, and about how the changes in each neighbourhood affected those living there.
One of my favourite New York stories was by an entrepreneur who once went by the name of Dapper Dan of Harlem. He had a store on 125th Street in Harlem from the mid 80s until the mid 90s. At that time in Harlem, there was a whole new class of people who had money. Most of them got their newfound fortunes through drug dealing. These were guys who had grown up very poor. Then they found this way of making a lot of money, but mostly illegally, so they couldn’t invest it. Instead, they spent it on consumable goods: clothing, cars, hi-fi equipment – things like that. Clothes were very important: these guys wanted the clothes that they saw the white upper classes wearing: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, MCM. They would go to the stores on Madison Avenue or 5th Avenue, and they’d feel completely unwelcome. They would often be treated really badly by the shop staff because of the way they looked. Dapper Dan saw this and realized that here was a business opportunity. He started buying garment bags – which were full of distinctive logos – from the big labels, only to pick them apart in order to make outfits from them. He did so well that he soon acquired a three-floor store that he kept open for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He had about 10 tailors working for him at any given moment. Every piece of clothing that was made was unique but he had to be very respectful of the hierarchy amongst his customers: he couldn’t let a right-hand man wear the same garment as his boss. Dapper Dan’s of Harlem stayed open for about a decade, and eventually Dap developed his own silk screening technique — he could make anything with any logo. A Gucci logoed car interior, Fendi logoed upholstery, LV baby shoes; anything his customer wanted. Eventually though, the brands started cottoning on to what he was doing and he was sued by one after the other. He had to go underground. That was the story he told.
Vestoj 1, On Material Memories
Vestoj 2, On Fashion and Magic
Vestoj 3, On Fashion and Shame
Vestoj 4, On Fashion and Power
Vestoj 5, On Slowness
“How do you judge success and failure in fashion today? Is it OK to drop out? What we understand success to be within the fashion industry today is rather limited: there is almost a blueprint for growth that designers should adhere to if they want to be considered successful.”
All this to say that whether I publish the Vestoj Journal or create a Vestoj Salon, I see my role as bringing a more considered approach to fashion. I want to bring scholars and practitioners closer together, and create a dialogue between different ways of understanding fashion. Sometimes it can be entertaining and emotional and sometimes it requires focus and intellectual work, but ultimately I’m hoping that my work will encourage academics to interact more with industry people, and for fashion practitioners to feel that fashion theory is a helpful way to understand this industry, rather than intimidating or irrelevant.
Mostly Sara, a bit of Jorinde: Why do you think we still tend to separate the figure of the scholar and the artisan or artist? Theory and practice? Of course the process of production implies that you use your hands, your body; you’re doing an intervention in the matter. But, during this process, one is constantly making decisions, privileging certain ideas over others, creating and mobilizing meaning.
I think that it is because fashion is always oscillating between creativity and commerce. The relation to commerce and the importance for designers to produce collections that can be readily sold, perhaps at times hinders them from putting their work in a more conceptual context. In a recent interview we did with Hussein Chalayan for example, he seemed to be very strongly rebelling against being labelled a ‘conceptual designer’. It was as if he felt that the label has worked against him in the industry, perhaps by making store buyers intimidated when engaging with his work.
It can be an act of reductionism, if you think about it. To say that there are designers, and then ‘conceptual designers’, might be a way of implying: well I’m not going to try and understand what he is doing because he’s conceptual. What does concept mean here? We need concepts to speak and think, we use them all the time. So, if we consider the conceptual designer to be the one who is aware of the fact that he uses concepts that potentially implies that the other designers are ‘innocent users of concepts’. This innocent creator is a bit problematic for me, more if we understand that he is proliferating certain images and not others, and that is a political decision. But then very often it is omitted that representations have a political charge. I think that is really dangerous.
There are designers that approach their work as a product, as if it was yogurt or toothpaste or any kind of consumable goods. But, as you point out, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a concept or an agenda behind it. Being a designer is to impress your vision of the world on the consumer after all, and as such of course it’s ideological, if not political. I don’t think it’s a problem that there are designers who are also businessmen, or even that fashion has been so susceptible to corporate business. The problem is when the other side of the spectrum gets pushed out, or is under threat (as seems to be the case right now), and the emphasis is only on commerce and work that is easily accessible and understandable.
We’ve just completed an issue of Vestoj that deals with failure. One of the many things that I had in mind from my interview with Chalayan, was that he feels let down by the system. Does that mean the system has failed him, or that he has failed to achieve success on his terms within the system? How do you judge success and failure in fashion today? Is it OK to drop out? What we understand success to be within the fashion industry today is rather limited: there is almost a blueprint for growth that designers should adhere to if they want to be considered successful. For example, starting to show collections with a support scheme like NEWGEN, winning a prize issued by a corporation, eventually having your label acquired by a conglomerate group and going on to design for one of their houses whilst retaining your eponymous brand – this appears to be what we expect from our successful designers today.
It’s a dream for a lot of people.
It’s a dream because that’s what ‘success’ today is. And with it come wealth, fame, status and access to other successful famous people.
At the same time there’s a sort of transtemporal sense of success, which is probably the success of this figure who is not totally inscribed in the active system of the moment in which s/he’s living. But then, there is a success because it survives, it gains or creates a space in the understanding of what fashion can be.
Though that is scant consolation if you’re struggling to pay the rent, or deliver your collection on time. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the kind of legacy you’re implying often comes because we tend to rewrite the past, and romanticize someone’s life and work according to attitudes that also shift and change with time. If today we, for instance, see booming business as a sign of success, we also think of the past as ‘better’ or ‘purer’ – a time when artist-designers were celebrated. It’s quite schizophrenic actually. We mourn and long for a lost, ‘authentic’ past and values that we at the same time don’t encourage in our contemporary designers. One of the articles in our upcoming issue is about queer designers and the ‘hero’ myth that often exists around them. This narrative always incorporates great adversity, followed by great success and usually ends in tragedy. Think of Charles James, or more recently Alexander McQueen. John Galliano too, to an extent. These designers were often a pain to work with at the time, inflexible and demanding – loose canons, as one industry insider I interviewed pointed out. My point is that the designers from the past that we celebrate today often symbolize something we feel that we’re currently lacking. That their work survives, or gets rediscovered, isn’t necessarily only a sign of how great it was or is. It’s also a sign of how we want to see ourselves today.
Little John Talks video by Alexandre Senequier
Connecting academia and fashion industry, Vestoj promotes and encourages creative freedom and critical thinking. In a way, you’re investing in a practice that’s not mainstream, so I suppose that you know what comes together with “working from the margins of power”.
Well, whatever part of whichever system you go into, you have to be aware of your choices and the sacrifices that they entail. If you choose to go into mainstream fashion, in order to be conventionally successful, you give up the ability to criticize that system because criticism usually equals being ostracized. It makes sense if you think about it. I mean, why would any existing power structure encourage those that undermine it? Working outside of the mainstream means you have the freedom to say what you like but, again, at the expense a certain status and the privileges that come with playing ball. At the same time, if you work too far out on the margins, your voice risks not being heard by those who can actually change the status quo. You can end up preaching to the already converted, which can be limiting. These are things I think of a lot when it comes to my own work. I want Vestoj to be a platform for a type of thinking about fashion that is probing and analytical and critical when necessary. At the same time I don’t want to completely alienate the people working in the business. I would rather stand on the inside shouting, than on the outside pointing fingers.
When people play the power game aspiring to be in the front, that means that in a moment they can find themselves displaced to another position: you’re playing to success, then you have failure. If you’re not playing the game of success, then failure is not necessary there, they both exist in opposition.
That’s true, but at the same time it’s virtually impossible to not in some way engage with notions of success and failure, especially when you work in an industry that is so defined by those values. I’d rather not be the person who cares about what show tickets I receive, where I sit or stand, or who says yes or no to me, but I do. Even though I constantly question those standards, and even though I’m very aware of the machinations that give rise to them, it doesn’t mean that I’m unaffected by them. I just have to remind myself that my work is important, and that those who feel the same way will eventually find it.
But at the same time, when writing about fashion, you’re positioning yourself always at a certain distance: what you’re doing is to analyze the rules of the game. In that sense you have got some advantage, you can predict what is going on in the industry and why.
I think the most important thing for me personally and professionally is precisely that: awareness. The unexamined life to me is not worth all that much. Something that I find really fascinating when I interview or just talk to people who work in fashion, is that there are some very intelligent people in our industry who have great ability to analyze what goes on around them, but who often have difficulty seeing their own role in a system that they find lacking. This, to me, can be immensely frustrating. I often meet critics who can talk at length about the dire state of criticism, somehow without realizing how their own work contributes the status quo. When I talk to students, I tell them to think deeply about what values are important to them, and to be as transparent as possible about this – both with themselves, and with others. Being attracted to glamour is quite alright, as is wanting to be financially successful or striving to acquire prestige, power and status. But you have to be honest about it. And you have to be aware of what you give up in the process. The same goes if you want a life that allows you to remain unfettered. Every choice you make has consequences, and it’s our responsibility to be aware of what those are so that when they come we don’t end up feeling bitter or hard done by. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but these are important issues to consider for everyone about to start their career: What do you want to bring into the industry or take from it? What kind of industry do you want to be a part of? Don’t expect others to make sacrifices that you aren’t also willing to make yourself.
I am interested in the idea of ‘failure’ and ‘slowness’ especially with young designers. How do you see things moving forward for young people who want to create outside of the system, but are afraid to be called a ‘failure’ because they don’t produce seasonal collections or apply to big initiatives?
As I mentioned before, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that if you actively do things that challenge the reigning system, it will embrace you. It doesn’t work like that. If you want the established critics to celebrate your work and the most important buyers to acquire it, it has to fit into their worldview. If you choose to do things differently, worldly success or recognition will take time, if it comes at all. But that’s ok. And maybe, if we work on expanding our notions of success and failure, perhaps we can also come to the realization that they are always fleeting. Ultimately, what should matter most is the satisfaction that you take in your work. And if a choice you make turns out being unproductive, you can always try a different route. All we have, really, in life, is time and experience.
Words by Sara Torres and Jorinde Croese / All images courtesy of Anja Aronowsky Cronberg and Vestoj
Featured image: Vestoj Salon on Slowness, photography by Vanni Bassetti
Vestoj On Failure will be released on 20 December