You are an assistant professor, not just of fashion design but also of social justice. Could you explain how that second subject interacts with the first? How did the role come about?
As a design school, Parsons sits within the structure of the New School University (TNS), which was originally created as The New School for Social Research, exploring new models of education, “providing the intellectual and creative freedom to tackle the most pressing issues of the day”. Over the years, the curricular perspective began to emphasize conversations around social justice, incorporating these approaches into creative-practice disciplines. In 1970 Parsons merged with The New School and began to connect scholarship and social activism, further developing a curriculum across socially engaged art and design. Social justice, equity, inclusion, and diversity have slowly become incorporated into the structure of all schools at the university.
The School of Fashion (SOF) is part of Parsons, which has six different programs (at the undergraduate and graduate levels) that are now working towards incorporating the vision of the New School University and the new vision of the school (SOF), which, until 2022, didn’t exist. The aim is to make this vision part of all our curricular offers, incorporating it into the curriculum and infrastructure of our classes, in the systems of care we want to create and develop, and in all the experiences we want our students and our educational community to be part of.
In 2021 the School of Fashion welcomed a new Dean, Dr.Ben Barry, whose work and approach to fashion are strongly engaged with social justice. His perspective, in alignment with the mission of the university and the vision of the SoF, has advanced conversations about the importance of incorporating these processes in a more effective and direct way.
Moving towards these goals, TNS and the SoF launched a call for educators and practitioners within the field whose work focused on fashion design at the intersection of social justice. Although I had been working as a Full-Time Faculty at Parsons since 2015 and as a practitioner and researcher outside of academia approaching the field from an expanded and critical perspective, I applied to this external call, recognizing the opportunity to promote educational processes driven by social justice ideals. I participated in the selection process and was offered the role in August 2022. The intersection of Fashion Design and Social justice areas, provides an important framework for our fashion education and practice, one that explicitly reflects on the need to conceive fashion praxis within a system, recognizing its role and impact in society and its possibilities to affect positive change.
“We need to think about and work with diverse bodies, which should be foundational to our learning of fashion.” – Lucia Cuba
Thinking more practically, how do you bring these grand ideas into the classroom?
There are multiple possibilities, especially for understanding how our practice impacts people and society. One example is how we design and make decisions about the infrastructure we use in our own practice in the context of our classroom. This isn’t discussed enough in the field of fashion. When you enter a classroom designed to facilitate fashion education, you will generally find cutting tables and industrial machinery rather than floor looms, or crotchet hooks. Symbolically, we immediately suggest to students “where” the practice of making is located and “how” it should take place (cutting fabric, not making it, creating through specific machines, generally industrial, accelerating manufacturing processes). Many continue to teach students that fashion is centered on industrial production and at high speed, and we do little to expand the narrative of a creative space where we can also concentrate on processes of making – and making by hand- for example, connecting these directly with the systems in which fashion exists.
Another example relates to body stereotypes and beauty standards and how we approach this topic in the classroom and curricula. A lot of work is needed to deconstruct our “ideals of beauty”, manifested in the form of “beauty as thinness”. We need to think about and work with diverse bodies, which should be foundational to our learning of fashion. This is a process that needs to reconsider systems of representation, the selection of the mannequins and dress forms we have in the classroom — their sizes and shapes, the patternmaking or sizing standards we used — and the systems we decide to promote in this context. Generally, as educators, we don’t address enough how these stereotypes are perpetuated and promoted in our teaching of fashion. Fashion education still tends to address body diversity as part of “specialized projects”, and not within the overall context of fashion, where our students work and think from. The design of the space and infrastructure for fashion is political as are the techniques we share in the classroom. These affect several other processes. Of course, these are complex conversations, but there are very concrete ways to expand our perception of the practice of fashion and how it relates to us all as a society.
“Fashion education still tends to address body diversity as part of “specialized projects”, and not within the overall context of fashion, where our students work and think from.” – Lucia Cuba
That’s a fascinating way to rethink education!
There are so many possibilities to rethink our practice and understand both the harm we do, but also the opportunities we have to affect positive change through fashion education. Today we talk much more about systems and sustainability from a perspective of social justice. Our students’ projects are now exploring new materials, diverse techniques and mediums, thinking about time and labour, people, and the environment. We need and can expand the ways we approach fashion education and bring into the conversation local practices and practices from across the world, in order to decenter Western standards of fashion education. There isn’t a singular model for fashion practice. Understanding that might be scary for many, but it brings forth multiple opportunities to rethink the agency of designers and the possibilities of our practice.
“There isn’t a singular model for fashion practice. Understanding that might be scary for many, but it brings forth multiple opportunities to rethink the agency of designers and the possibilities of our practice. ” – Lucia Cuba
When you approach fashion from this perspective – taking responsibility for its social, environmental, and cultural impact – it can get very overwhelming. Is that something your students ever struggle with? How do you suggest getting out of that state of paralysis?
Yes, we encounter that all the time, myself included [laughs]. You immediately start questioning – why are we even making anything?! It’s absolutely overwhelming, but also absolutely necessary. It can be scary and frustrating, but the moment in which you start to identify the complexity of the practice, that overwhelming feeling can transform into an opportunity to reflect on how much potential for change there is and how fashion design, as both singular and universal as it is, can affect people, and society.
“Pattern-making is a concrete political form. It’s the structure of everything we are debating, yet we rarely talk about it.” – Lucia Cuba
We try to facilitate activities where students can identify their agency and the power they have. Take pattern-making, for example. Pattern-making is a concrete political form. It’s the structure of everything we are debating, yet we rarely talk about it. The hierarchy of practices is essentially driven by manufacturing, so students often don’t want to re-think pattern-making as much. This process has also been taught as “something you can outsource” from an industry perspective. But patternmaking is a foundational form, one that determines the way we understand of and perceive people, cloth and clothing, a framework that is related directly to the body and the systems that it relates to (systems of use and consumption, sustainability, enviromental justice, etc.).
When we encounter that overwhelming feeling, one that can paralyze us, it’s important to find focus and to think about which part of the whole you can personally address. You might not change the entire system in all of its complexity, but you can identify one small part of it that you genuinely care for, understand, and can be responsible for. When you start thinking about where your work comes from (the motivation behind it), those complexities become an opportunity to define your own practice.
“Designers have power over the design process and recognizing that, in every stage of their careers, is necessary. What type of world do we want to live in, and how do we approach our practice within that world?” – Lucia Cuba
We are definitely entering a new space for fashion education, students are becoming more aware of the impact of fashion labels on people and the environment, and making decisions about engaging with them or not. This ranges from the internship level experience, to the general use of a product. This can have massive impact. Designers have power over the design process and recognizing that, in every stage of their careers, is necessary. What type of world do we want to live in, and how do we approach our practice within that world? Fashion is not isolated: it’s hyper-connected to the everyday experience of each and all of us. So, it should not be approached as a formula of some sort. Instead, it’s a self-identifying process. It’s a practice intrinsically connected to living systems, to people, and society.
I want to link back to one aspect you mentioned, which is the agency or power of students. How can you help students find their own sense of agency within the classroom?
When we facilitate courses in fashion design, we often speak about techniques and tools, but we don’t necessarily consider these tools as ways to design for ourselves. When you start making links between what we design, how we use and consume designs, and what we think and feel about it, so much of the complexity we’ve discussed starts to prompt you because you might be suddenly faced with a very concrete need that wasn’t addressed before this. For example, you might start thinking about the measurement of your own body, the limited access to a particular design object because of its price, service or size, the perception of others and of how this might affect us, etc. In some ways, the exercise of thinking through our own needs and uses invites us to think about and articulate our own identity, not just as a designer, but also as a person in our practice. In doing so, you start paying closer attention to what you appreciate and value in every part of this process.
Dressing should be taught of as a political form: it comes from you and relates to you and others. There is usually a sort of magical moment of recognition when students realize they are part of that process, because often we teach the opposite. It’s an invitation to think about the complexity of people dressing and wearing and to allow yourself to think of your practice beyond one idea or a singular framework of design, or industry standard.
There is extreme complexity in the fashion system and its impact, but realizing that you are also a wearer of fashion can make everything more relatable. Another opportunity to think about the practice as one that is not “exclusive” to some, but that relates to all.
“Fashion education is a tremendously powerful space to affect change. The agency in the making and wearing is both individual and universal and brings forth multiple opportunities for change.” – Lucia Cuba
Could you tell us more about your personal career and experiences and which aspects of those you are bringing with you into the classroom?
I am a Peruvian designer. I studied social and educational psychology, as well as public health, before arriving at design. Design was something I had been practising since I was a teenager but never really thought about engaging with formally until later. In early 2000, I started not only thinking about but actually engaging in the practice of design in a more concrete way. At the time, Peru went from a dictatorship to a democracy, which affected multiple forms of cultural expression and movements within the art and design fields. Many opportunities appeared for individuals to express themselves, and multiple alternative forms and platforms came along. I started engaging with alternative and independent design practices, including design education, which helped me approach this in a very experimental way, with fewer constraints based on industry approaches and more expectations about creating alternative forms of practice. However, for many years I couldn’t combine both my practices in social science and my work in design. At that time, Peru didn’t have university-level design education. I was privileged and biased to have been trained in the social sciences first, so by the time I started practising in the field of fashion, I felt the need to approach the practice from a social science perspective. I struggled with trying to understand where this type of practice existed. So in 2005, I started moving away from the idea of working for my own brand or for other companies, and I began creating projects at the intersection of fashion design and social issues. I was genuinely curious and concerned about how people engaged with wearable forms and about what these forms could do. I started to search for educational spaces to support this interest, especially a platform that could offer me both a society framework with a strong focus on creative practice. This is when I found the MFA Fashion Design and Society at Parsons, which coincidently had been launched the same year my search started. In 2010, I joined the first cohort of students from the program I am now the Director of, 13 years later.
For the last 15 years, I have focused my practice on exploring these relationships through creative forms and education. This isn’t a process that comes to an end, but one that is challenged by everything that social systems have to offer. And fashion education is a tremendously powerful space to affect change. The agency in the making and wearing is both individual and universal and brings forth multiple opportunities for change.
How does your personal work and teaching intersect? Is it ever difficult to balance the two?
They intersect in every way! It’s challenging, of course, but, I believe it’s necessary to connect one’s own experiences in life with creative processes and forms of education. We live in a system, and as such everything we experience reflects and affects the systems we engage with. What I value and care for – in all dimensions of my life- is what allows me to be present and facilitate processes with others.
Becoming a parent also drastically affected my way of thinking about facilitating educational processes, and especially my perception of children, their multidimensional complexities, and the cruel systemic forms in which we, as individuals and society, relate to them. I also began to understand adult supremacy and the impact of design in the experience of childhood, enabled by caregivers’ politics of dressing and children’s acts of wearing, for example.
Going back to your own experience as a student, is there a teacher (or lesson) that particularly struck you and that influences your work today?
Yes, absolutely. From my studies in social and educational psychology, being trained by socio-constructivist psychologists made a significant impact on the ways I understand people, education, and also design. Later on, formally in design studies, I understood the practice from the perspective of politics, craft, time, labor, aesthetics, and alternative systems, processes that I continue to learn from and incorporate into my own practice.
“Fashion is still very much aligned with western ideals and stereotypes of creativity, production and, beauty, an approach that significantly impacts the possibilities of thinking about the practice in an expanded way.” – Lucia Cuba
You have also taught at the School of Arts and Design in Lima. Could you tell us a little bit about the curriculum and the fashion context there and how it differs from New York?
I began teaching at Lima fashion schools in 2004, where I had the opportunity to combine both of my backgrounds in social science and design. At that time, University degrees in Fashion Design weren’t available, not until 2015 when the first of two university-based bachelor degree programs in fashion design were launched. Later on, I also taught as part of the Art, Fashion and Textile design program in a private university in Lima, and also engaged in non-formal education, facilitating workshops and lectures in different cultural spaces.
Fashion design, as approached in local schools or Institutos (institutes) in Peru, has been traditionally focused on the technical aspects of fashion production, and taught under western-centred frameworks. When university-level degrees came along, so did the opportunities to bring interdisciplinary approaches, theoretical frameworks and other perspectives of the discipline into conversation, both in the local and national context.
Contrary to our vast textile heritage, engaging in textile-based practices was something difficult to access through both from non-formal and formal education for example, as a student in universities or institutos in Lima. This has changed a bit over time, as many designers engage in textile-based processes, and it is now possible to find learning opportunities in cities like Lima where traditional textile practices of textiles aren’t often located, in comparison to other regions of the country. Conversations about fashion design, the practice, the systems, its actors and places, have also emerged and impacted the local representations and performance of fashion design. Nonetheless, fashion is still very much aligned with western ideals and stereotypes of creativity, production and, beauty, an approach that significantly impacts the possibilities of thinking about the practice in an expanded way. Also, Peru is a very conservative country, one where social structures revolve around binaries, framing fashion and practices of dressing and wearing.
What makes a good student?
Many things! But also a genuine interest in caring for one’s own self and others, and caring for learning.
What career path (or life) do you prepare your students for?
Hopefully, one where they can recognize their agency and their ability to create alternative fashion futures that affect positive change!