Representing the creative future

What is the future of fashion education?

A conversation with curator, artist and writer Georgina Johnson about her new book “The Slow Grind” and how the fashion industry can do better

“A majority of the time we can do better when we know better and here’s how” is the beginning of a manifesto created by Georgina Johnson, the curator and artist behind The Laundry Arts. How can we do better? How can we be better than using diversity for our benefit? Than using black bodies to serve the image of a brand? How can we do better than praising an education that does not include Black or Brown stories and narratives as part of its curriculum at any level? “Let’s lean on each other a little more and ensure those at the back are pushed all the way to the front” the manifesto explains. Within a context of a world where the voices of Black people and People of Colour are continuously silenced, counter culture and independent projects like The Slow Grind become a mode of resistance to the inaccessibility of the  mainstream. 

Publishing her first book Georgina Johnson challenges the system as we know it, exploring how we can each push against the prevailing (fashion) system in order to cause change. What is intersectional environmentalism and why does the industry need it? Are the creative industries even engaging with the notion of social justice? How can we unlearn what we know and redefine the system? These are all questions that the project presents and investigates.

Along with hosting an extract from The Slow Grind: Finding Our Way Back to Creative Balance, we had a conversation with the fashion trained creator of the book about the failures of fashion education and how we can work towards a future where addressing racism is an integral part of education.

The Slow Grind by Georgina Johnson. Images by Josh Woolford

Can you take us through your educational and professional journey? Did your education in fashion push you, in any way, towards the vital work you are doing – questioning the system? 

I had a layered early education because my parents saw the huge chasm in state education, there was simply no Black or Brown History. They understood the weight of it’s absence and put me in a Black-Owned/Run Saturday school from the age of 5. They did what the state didn’t; they ensured I received a plethora of knowledge and were very intentional in ensuring I could be affirmed in who I am. This school was the first place I felt completely myself; unafraid, celebrated, beautiful, smart and as though I had a foundation. My parents knew the power of education in shaping narratives that individuals draw on to conceive of themselves, they knew that I needed a grounding away from the main vein of education.

This grounding has stuck with me until now, it’s the cup I pour from and try to fill. This isn’t to say that it has been easy and I have always been able to stand straight in the face of adversity and stare it down. Along the way, when your cup isn’t filled, when you aren’t nourishing yourself in the way’s you know you need to because you get swept up  in the wave of life, your resolve can be slowly worn down by those same waves. You grow tired of the persistence, the intensity and the obscurity of those waves, and quite slowly see your boundaries retreat. I think, no, I know that happened when I went to uni.

The make-up of my fashion education was one dimensional, it wasn’t much different to composition of state education in my early life. This pervaded through to the educators, syllabus, language, student intake, it was isolating to be frank.  When you are Black or POC and you enter institutions, you prepare yourself. You reckon you will either find your people and carve out a space, or brave it alone, because oftentimes, and certainly when I was studying and even now in my career, you are one of very few Black or POC individuals and this trend is mirrored in the industry. It starts with who has access to education, who is included in the syllabus, who believes and is affirmed to know they can want and attain – quite simply. The parameters this sets out are so critical.

“Doing it alone is a privilege. What people fail to understand is when communities and collaborator groups form, it is out of necessity. We create the spaces we want to see in the world and collectivise our voices to amplify them because we know as Black folk and POC we won’t be heard as loudly as individuals. ” – Georgina Johnson

Usually, after fashion school, young creatives tend to want to go into the industry on their own, in most cases driven by vanity and individual credit, rather than the notion of community and ideas. How come you decided to reject the conventional professional routes and go after a more multidisciplinary, community-creating practice?

Doing it alone is a privilege. What people fail to understand is when communities and collaborator groups form, it is out of necessity. We create the spaces we want to see in the world and collectivise our voices to amplify them because we know as Black folk and POC we won’t be heard as loudly as individuals. We don’t even begin with the same level of support to enable an individualistic lifestyle. I left uni and broke my flipping back for a first class degree and couldn’t get a job. You tell me why. It isn’t because I didn’t have skill – my degree evidenced that. The push back towards Black people taking up space is painted all over the industry. Racism is rife in the fashion industry. I know, because what I experienced explicitly and persistently whilst studying and interning and still up until today isn’t isolated, my experiences bear too many similarities to those of friends and friends of friends. It’s omnipresent. After years of being demeaned and talked down to and ostracised I could in no way commit to working within a model that was quite clearly set-up against people like me. I sought out community – a kid coming out of uni with no contacts and no money sought to build something for others and carve out the space I needed for so long. By no means did I know what I was doing, and there are a lot of things I would have done differently, but at its core it was my way of ensuring others had a place to be seen, I envisioned this globalised network of kin, just feeding each other and supporting each other. Giving each other what we all continually missed from the industries, media, education we were in. Gathering thought, strategising, raising our voices and collectivising our future. Seeing one and other.

How did you choose the voices that are part of the book? What gap in the industry do you want the project to fill? 

I work with people I like. I have a relationship with every person in the book. That’s because I make sure I do. I have conversations before I jump into bed. I want to know that we align. That what matters to me also matters to you. That is the only way anything will have any longevity. Longevity is so crucial. We miss it’s power in our culture because we deal with issues and people in the same way we deal with products – in a rush. But you can’t rush this, I need it to soak in.

It isn’t about a gap. It’s about radical change. It’s about us finally lifting the veil of racism, talking transparently about the mental health crisis, work culture, open-source education, connecting the dots finally between these issues including the necessity to safeguard our future and that includes our planet, whilst moving towards a holistic education that should go hand in hand with action in our industry and beyond. It’s about providing the intersectional education that was amiss in my studies and many of my peers’. So that when kids now, or whomever, aspire to contribute to the creative industries and go looking for a holistic, education that has been necessary for an age, they are equipped with the tools to dismantle systems that do not place people at the centre. It’s about equipping people so they can challenge beliefs (even their own), practises and models – including those rooted in racism, imbalance and apathy. That is the sole aim.

“You cannot discuss critical race theory without human stories, in the same way you cannot combat racism without looking at economic and social (including Industry) structures and the disparities between them. It’s time for this industry to wake up and stop thinking they are uniquely innocent.” -Georgina Johnson

The project is touching several major topics of the industry, from sustainability and mental health, to social injustice and climate change. What do you think is the most uncovered topic in the industry and why do you think people are not that comfortable talking about it?

What do I think is the most uncovered topic or most underserved experience? All these groupings pertain to life, human or biodiverse, so essentially our language needs to be updated and expanded for us to understand what is missing. Language isn’t solely what we read, it’s what we see, it’s how we posture and gesture, it’s what we consume that shapes us. I am a Black woman, but I’m not a monolith. I can talk about all of these things because I see and have experienced the very real implications of not doing so, of ultimately being another cog in a monstrous machine and the danger of apathy.  It isn’t about pulling one thing out and dissecting it in isolation, it is about having an active and loud conversation about how layered our lives are. You cannot discuss critical race theory without human stories, in the same way you cannot combat racism without looking at economic and social (including Industry) structures and the disparities between them. It’s time for this industry to wake up and stop thinking they are uniquely innocent. When something is systemic, it means it is far reaching. It infiltrates all parts of life.

We see the recent move towards environmentalism in recent years, and this has gathered brilliant momentum. It’s necessary and incredibly important, but marches need to be followed up with action. The difficult conversations around the environment are beginning to take place, in the same way that the really hard conversations are starting to take place in relation to mental health. But when industries and policy makers continue to view these things as single pillars they absolve themselves of accountability, because they think “Ok, we spoke about this this week, let’s move on”. It goes back to longevity. There is no longevity, so how can you begin to serve any experience without commitment to the long game. None of these issues suddenly existed over night, it’s years of oppression, ignorance and passivity that have contributed to weaving societal consciousness. So stop thinking it’ll dissolve with a few posts and the sprinkle of an influencer.

 

What do you think that the fashion industry is lacking right now, and how do you think that fashion education carries a responsibility on this?

Fashion education has a huge huge huge impact on the industry. It is a mirror of the future. Who is in your classrooms and who isn’t. What is being spoken about and what isn’t. You look at this and you will see the shape of the industry in the next 4-5 years; Simple.

The fashion industry is missing accountability and action. We use blank statements and 30 seconds of our time with a post and think that will solve any real issue. That to me is more a reflection of the apathy at the heart of capitalism which is internalised and quite frankly a manifesto for many brands and individuals. If you do not put in the time to do the work, it will not get done. If you are not having the uncomfortable conversation with yourself, the people around you (not black folk) and then go back and talk to the people you work with then you are complicit in the continuance of oppression. We are in a moment where our lives are for the most part, halted, but we still see the sacrifice on display; of lives that are deemed more worthy than others, of lives that have to serve the economy and endanger their health and likely that of those connected to them because governments are more concerned about the health of capital. Have we seen enough to want to change every strand of our society yet? Does this matter to you yet? The fashion industry is in no way innocent. It lacks a follow through, because it thinks it’s solved it’s issue with race with the placement of a few editors here and a model here and there. Again, that only reveals ignorance and apathy. If this industry does not commit to: supporting the issues that are affecting our world – penetrating the systems we all exist within, and more to the point actively support the communities of individuals that are pushed to the back; Black + POC, differently abled people people; and begin consciously examining themselves, setting intentions, looking at the structure of their business and its culture, calling in bad practise, putting people before profit, paying black people properly, empowering black business and organisations (grassroots/Informal) run by black people to decentralise wealth, pushing their careers forward with the same aggression and intensity fashion co-opts with, and not thinking that our bodies are endless energy sources for voyeuristic pleasure and endless wells of ‘cool’. If this industry does not stop the performance and drop the attitude and instead embrace radical empathy met with action, then it will self-combust.

 

If you want to commit to unlearning, pre-order The Slow Grind here

More on Georgina Johsnon‘s work at The Laundry Arts

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

Buy Now