This is the first in a series by Bree Bonzon-Liu about fashion and activism - where they connect, clash and change the world.
What do you think about when you get dressed in the morning? What do you think about when you buy a garment? What do you wear when you go to a protest? In this series, Bree will ask fashion industry professionals, activists, organisers and scholars about the complex relationship between clothing and change-making.
An outfit can come with a set of assumptions: she’s wearing brown wool trousers, a black turtleneck and a blazer? So dark academia. I bet she’s writing a journal entry about the copy of Frankenstein she found at Hard to Find Books as we speak.
When we get dressed, we make decisions about how we want to advertise our identities day to day. But mass produced clothing dominates: it’s designed to be trendy but generic, safe and mainstream. Naturally, that leaves a lot of people out.
Over the years, conversations have increasingly explored what values are sewn into our clothing. People in and around the fashion industry are working to change its practices and culture. In Aotearoa, these people are shaping what ‘fashion activism’ looks like in 2022.
Jeanine Clarkin (Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Raukawa) is one designer and fashion activist who has worked for decades to champion Māori fashion – with her work exploring how the colonisation of Aotearoa forced Māori culture aside, Māori clothing included.
In the 90s, Clarkin noticed that Māori didn’t have everyday cultural clothing. There were traditional garments like piupiu and korowai, but nobody was making contemporary Māori streetwear. She felt it wasn’t enough to put a taniko print on a Pakeha garment. Clarkin had to reimagine: What is a Māori garment? She set about evolving traditional garments like maro (apron) and loin cloths for contemporary Māori to wear downtown.
This year, the importance of Clarkin’s body of work has been spotlighted in the exhibition Te aho tapu hou: The new sacred thread, which recently travelled from the Waikato Museum to Auckland’s Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery (open until November 20).
“I managed to convince, inspire, trick an entire generation to wear this loincloth over their jeans,” says Clarkin.
Clarkin says her garments accessorised Te Reo Māori – Māori wore them to Te Reo classes, cultural events and protests. She sees clothing as a non-verbal way of identifying yourself. Her clothes allow Māori to wear their cultural heritage, loud and proud, in defiance of a long history of being prevented from doing so.
“It helped people feel secure in their culture. It’s a tool to help and heal,” she explains.
Her work also opens the door to conversations about Te Ao Māori and colonisation with non-indigenous people. Clarkin has an international presence, showing her work this year in Paris and London. Māori design is the heart of her brand, so conversations about indigenous issues can’t be separated from her garments.
“It opens discussions. Even when people are not intending on having those conversations, I can talk to them and educate them,” says Clarkin.
To Clarkin, her role as an activist is to be a bridge. In 1995, she dressed students from the University of Waikato occupying Pākaitore, and in 2022, she dressed women in the Protect Pūtiki movement for a calendar celebrating Wāhine on Waiheke.
She’s also part of the Waiheke Marine Project, which focuses on regeneration and action-based kaitiakitanga. She lends her work and her mana to movements she believes in, but she prefers to be diplomatic. “I’m not an in-your-face protester. I don’t want to get arrested,” she says, laughing.
In-your-face or not, Māori design pioneers like Clarkin have made an impact on the fashion industry in Aotearoa. Back when she attended fashion school, Clarkin was the only Māori student in her year. She says the number of designers doing Māori fashion has quadrupled, from about five designers back when she began her label in 1994, to about 20 today.
That term, ‘fashion activist’ – what does that mean? Clarkin demonstrates that it’s about using clothing to negotiate culture and history. It’s also about material.
Every year, the world produces millions of tonnes of synthetic fibres which are made from fossil fuels, particularly petroleum. Trends that change in the blink of an eye leave us with poor quality garments and more importantly, a culture where people frequently discard perfectly wearable items.
Slow fashion is a foundation of Clarkin’s brand: she was “upcycling before anyone was talking about sustainability.” Offering bespoke, short runs or one-offs, she makes garments that last because she has first-hand experience with the problem of waste; her ancestral maunga, Rae o te Papa, has a landfill on it.
Fashion activists like Clarkin lead by example within the industry, but you don’t have to be a designer to be a fashion activist. “That’s all I say to anyone who wants to get involved – you just have to care about the problem and you can figure the rest out,” says Amanda Butterworth, Aotearoa’s country coordinator for Fashion Revolution.
Launched in 2013, the international fashion activism movement works to campaign for garment workers’ rights and pressure clothing producers to change their practices. Since launch they have championed the ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ campaign, encouraging people to ask themselves - and brands - that question. Fashion Revolution New Zealand is volunteer run, and mainly focused on consumer behaviours. They run and support events like clothing swaps, and encourage young people to lead through empowering tertiary student ambassadors.
To Butterworth, anyone resisting consumerist culture is a fashion activist. We are encouraged to believe that we need something new, and we often adopt that attitude without realising it. Fashion activism starts with questioning everything, says Butterworth. Like, why can’t I wear the same dress to three weddings in a row? Eventually you come to the question: What do I do about this?
Too often, powerful people foist all responsibility on the consumer. On the other hand, many people feel that nothing they do could possibly make a difference compared to corporations.
The truth probably falls somewhere in the middle. Butterworth says that consumer behaviours can contribute to system change. Large scale reform and everyday adjustments go hand in hand.
Those large scale actions, like textile recycling programmes, can make a huge difference with our waste problem. But everyday actions can also make a huge difference; as consumers, we can make sure our clothes don’t have to be recycled in the first place. Buying secondhand is also great, although as vintage shopping becomes increasingly gentrified and fast fashion waste finds its way there, there is a danger of treating thrift shops like SheIn.
There’s a world of things to consider for the budding fashion activist: from the way we wash our clothes to which hangers to use, and how to repair, alter or transform garments.
“Repairing your clothes in our very consumer driven, trends driven society is a massive act of rebellion,” says Butterworth. “It’s something you can do to kind of stick it to the man.”
There are so many ways to define ‘fashion activism’: Céline Semaan, a leader in the space and founder of the Slow Factory, describes it as the use of fashion as a platform for social and environmental justice. That’s very broad, but maybe it has to be – fashion invites variation in our self expression.
There is another key feature of fashion activism that the Wikipedia definition doesn’t include: fashion activists love fashion, and that’s why they push it to be better.