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Wearing Out the Status Quo: D&K's Exploration of Fashion's Past and Future
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Dive into this captivating interview with Ricarda Bigolin and Chantal Kirby, the innovative duo behind D&K, as they delve into their thought-provoking project "Wear Out." Exploring fashion, sustainability, and history, D&K reimagines colonial garments paired with AI-generated poetry, questioning the rapid pace of fashion consumption and rediscovering forgotten clothing practices. The pair discuss the evolving relationship between fast fashion, hyper-consumption, and the growing interest in archival fashion, while contemplating the future of fashion education and the industry's responsibility to address its environmental and ethical footprint.

Ricarda Bigolin, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Fashion and Textiles Design at RMIT University, is a practice-based researcher and educator. Her research delves into garments, wearables, and critical tactics of wearing to explore fashion, dress, value, and use.

Chantal Kirby, a designer and educator at RMIT University, is pursuing a PhD focused on materials and value in the luxury fashion industry. As a co-founder of Material by Product, Chantal questioned luxury fashion practices and explored zero waste cutting, usage models, and circularity in garment production.

Together, Ricarda and Chantal conduct practice research exploring the critical and political aspects of fashion under the moniker of D&K. D&K, including a wide array of collaborators, explores the potential of fashion practice as a site of critical questioning and ubiquitous revelations.

N: You recently hosted a fashion exhibition, performance and panel discussion titled "Wear Out," exploring how time and wear affects garments in their appearance and form. I find the subject especially interesting because in today's age, clothes are often replaced before they show signs of wear, and they may not even be designed for long-term use. What are your thoughts on the rapid pace of fashion consumption today?

D&K: One of the key questions, or provocations for ‘wear out’ is ‘what happens when something wears out?’ as a way to interrogate and critique the rapid pace of fashion consumption today. We define wearing out as a gradual process hindered by repair or amplified by hard use in a scenario nowadays where clothes are rarely worn to a state of being worn out.

The gradual process of wearing out that attempts to prolong life through repair, mending and patching doesn’t happen so much anymore. We ask ‘how did fashion wear us out, and wear out our understanding of clothes?’. To wear out, implies a point of no return, past the normal wear and tear phase where the damage is done and the item is resolute in its state of formlessness and altered silhouette.  

The language of fashion production has focused on market categories and product types, systems of making abstract and isolated, consumers alienated. Like repairing old clothes, we are patching together definitions of familiar words to fashion, from different periods of time. Adding another language of meaning or value to parts of clothes and ourselves that we also neglect as we wear out.

The project stems from a larger body of research that seeks to reconcile the complexities of our troubled colonial past, inherent relationships between globalisation, colonisation and fashion. It proposes 'wearing out', as an alternate and forgotten mode of dealing with the intimacy of clothes over time.

Invention sparked from precarity and necessity in historical Australian practice offers palpable modes of sustainable fashion.

N: I think that somehow fashion is moving at two different speeds simultaneously. On one hand, we have fast fashion and hyper-consumption, while on the other, #archivefashion has become a viral trend on TikTok, suggesting a potential shift in values. Do you believe we are moving towards a more "informed" and less superficial approach to fashion?

D&K: The move towards responsible consumerism in conjunction with the hunt for the ‘one of kind’ that archives offer amidst the masses of over production does evidence a positive shift in consumer behaviours.

Late 19th century fashion as a trade beyond domestic crafts and practices of dress making and tailoring evolved as serialised and branded product lines buoyed on by mechanical innovations of the industrial age. Prior and coexisting somewhat, clothing was individually made, traded, adapted and reused ad infinitum. Vast second-hand and alternate clothing economies prospered, clothing was traded across various social performances until failing or wearing out but worn by various people, bodies, uses, and social interactions.

In a literal sense, wearing out might strip luster of materials, vibrant colours browning and fading, soiling and spoiling of highly exposed areas rubbing against body parts, sweat; abrading under consistent use and later distress. This economy is drawn out and slowed down by desperation to use a far parallel to the take-make-dispose practices of todays compressed fashion models.

The project looks to these alternate economies of clothes and dress, wearing out analogies of fashion and clothes, finding things people do in and to clothes to reclaim a more viable and valued future past. Within the Australian context unique practices have existed before the practices of buying into fashion occurred in the 20th century.

N: In your exhibition, you reimagined and recontextualized old colonial garments, pairing them with AI-generated poems. Can you elaborate on the thought process behind merging elements of the past and future in this way?

D&K: The approach is typical of how we work in D&K, that looks at a complex layering of elements to extract further meaning, and also wider and accessible ways of relating to fashion. The use of garments, performance, exhibition and creative or ficto-critical writing has often been a part of all projects.

This approach consistently seeks to evoke various ways to critique fashion, the text often in the form of poems, adds a ficto-critical lens, in so far as realities of fashion, clothing, materials and bodies are embedded into other everyday worlds of living and dealing with work, love, careers, loss and so forth…

The project includes collaborating with Sovereign Hill Living Museum that depicts the 1850s Gold rush period in Ballarat, Victoria. They depict unique material practices of the time used today in their costume reproduction practices. An alternate clothing economy, they produce, care, amend and recirculate hundreds of 1850s costume reproductions as part of dressing their staff and public visitors to the museum. This economy has circularity out of necessity, reuse and recirculation of clothes as well as cultural and social relationships between clothes, bodies and use.

Our research has included so far fieldwork to the museum, dressing, wearing of costumes and also reproducing a series of studies of materials in reference to 1850s and costumes from there.  Other uses of clothes unique to Australia that we have looked at include the Wagga, a bush quilt where worn out clothing was used to bulk and insulate for warmth and the items passed on through generations.

The research translates these practices in a series of instructional design prototypes, showing tactics for design for longevity, reuse and repair, challenging waste and overconsumption in fashion practice. Through labels, prints, construction, openings, closures and types of interaction they translate clothing practices from settler and ‘make do and mend’ times by graphically, visually and spatially representing these as instructional prototypes.

This presents models for design to recontextualise relevant and forgotten historical practices. Material and clothing circularity and extended life use in settler Australia is identified by dress historians, but not understood as for contemporary design practice. The project explores evolving discourse around Australian design histories by critically acknowledging our colonial past. Colonisation and the industrial age championed economic growth, including the importation of clothing economies to Australia.

For this project, we worked with AI-generated poems to provide another lens for us to ask the question ‘What happens when something wears out?’ The text observes and analyses clothes from different periods, exploring their wear, use, essence and qualities that are lost in new clothes. These words are then put into a lexical database; each poem is a sum of the words used to plainly describe each garment constructing a narrative out of plain clothes. This set of poems is entirely constituted from the lexical database, WordNET 2012, Princeton University, and edited in collaboration with author Scott McCulloch who works with prose, essay and sound.

The poems tell the imagined story of the clothes, constructed into cliché or well-worn phrases of those who may have worn, seen or encountered them to draw on another meaning and use for fashion.

We have collaborated with graphic designer Ziga Testen to give these a digital life as text based gifs, and the poems have been printed in the form of a non-durable newsprint that will in its materiality also ‘wear out’. They have been applied to the corresponding prototypes from which the text was generated with a handheld portable printer, a completely manual process in contrast to the immediacies of AI-generation platforms.

N: What are your opinions on fashion education? Some argue that there is not enough practical instruction on the realities of the fashion industry, such as workforce preparation or addressing limited job opportunities. How can fashion schools better adapt to the needs of today's students?

D&K: As we both are educators, we have worked in the fashion education sector for several years. This question is something that always pops up, and a challenge in preparing students for industry but also making their learning experience transformative, vital and engaging. At RMIT University in Melbourne, where we both manage and lead courses in Fashion Design, we see that there has been a paradigm shift in what fashion education must now do.

Emblematic in some of the themes of research we have spoken of, fashion education needs to address in how it prepares students the systemic issues with the fashion system that industry has caused. This challenge means how to prepare students to enter an industry as advocates of change where it has placed a significant burden to the environment as well as social injustice, and labour exploitation. Practical skills need to include designing for a drastically altered world, limited resources, circular fashion products and exploring business opportunities that don’t simply rely on growth.

Fashion designers must now work beyond the design of the product, and must be caretakers of the products footprint, life cycle and what happens to it once it is no longer wanted or useful. This will fundamentally shift how fashion works, eventually, even if now it seems a little utopian. I think we all know the current industry won’t be able to sustain itself.

N: Thank you for this insightful conversation. As we conclude our interview, could you give us a glimpse into the next topic or subject you plan to explore?

D&K: At this stage we are developing work related to ‘wear out’ with a further focus on ‘the wagga’; a unique to Australia quilt typology, originally made by shearers and bushmen, sewing together chaff, wheat or flour bags named by used in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga emerging during periods of hard times and precarity. ‘Domestic Waggas’ were pioneered by women in the interwar period, making do and material scarcity spurred the evolution. The use of old clothes, scraps and rags are part of the various layers to consolidate warmth. We work with a selection of old clothes from different periods, exploring their wear, use, essence and qualities.

We are also in the early stages of developing a series of digital and printed artefacts collating the research. We see this as a series of elements from a small publication or catalogue, to digital guides and some hand printed elements, potentially limited edition posters...

All images courtesy of D&K.

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