Time for definitions with Susana Saulquin

Susana Saulquin sheds light on some confusing terms and the future
“It is not that I am a reference; it’s that I have an enormous experience at it. I’ve seen it all and tried to analyse it all”, said Susana Saulquin. Courtesy of Susana Saulquin

Susana Saulquin is a renowned Argentinean sociologist who specializes in fashion. She has a master's degree in Social and Political Anthropology from the Latinamerican Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO). Saulquin is currently the director of a specialization degree of Design Sociology at the Architecture, Design and Urban planning Faculty (FADU) of Buenos Aires University (UBA), which is actually being transformed into a master’s degree for 2017. “Apart from that, I’m preparing my thesis for a doctorate in design. I’ll focus on the sustainability arrival as an ideology: how the sudden change impacts on the accelerated production and consumption system in Buenos Aires City.”

It all began when Saulquin was studying sociology in the sixties. She was sitting in a classroom, stating her opinion when a classmate interrupted her and said that she couldn’t give her viewpoint because “she was too well dressed”. “So, I told myself: ‘If someone stops me from talking because of the way I dress, this is huge.’” She started to investigate several ways of dressing in Argentina and that led to her first book, Historia de la moda en Argentina, which was finished in 1987 and was published in 1990. In fact, this was the first time fashion was studied from the sociological perspective in the country.

Fashion is dead, long live fashions

In her latest works, the sociologist analysed how the Industrial Society, with its fashion trends and their accelerated cycles, has led to a production system based on massive volumes of products; and how this has been translated into exploitation, exorbitant consumerism and predation on the planet and its natural resources.

Nevertheless, Saulquin strongly believes that an enormous change is growing in society, which will result in the origin of Digital Society. Fashion trends will multiply and people will choose consciously and freely what to wear, expressing their true identity. She states that the new production structure of design will be based in short series of products, fair trade, sustainability and working in interdisciplinary cooperatives. In consequence, ethical fashion will be the protagonist in her opinion, and a “clean” garment will be considered the new luxury item.

“I affirm this because the possibility for big companies to meet the sustainability criteria does not exist yet. The labels still design and work on a massive level. Obviously, to be alert and pay attention to every detail of the entire process is easier when the series are smaller. Maybe in the future this can be adapted to larger production structures, but I can’t see a mix between two categories such as massive series and sustainability,” declared Saulquin.

As previously stated, she believes that one key of the new production system lies in groups of young people joining together to create. This means a form of collaboration defined as cooperativism within the collectives. “The Science and Technology Ministry have created La fábrica (The factory), which is a fantastic project that I think leads to the future,” Saulquin suggested. The project started in association with UBA. Creative design collectives were set up between students of three degrees (Clothing and Textile, Industrial and Graphic Design) working in an enclosed space. In conclusion, the experience involves both interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary work.

Her reaction was clear: “When I saw this team working at the same time in this place, I felt really excited. It is not about clothing collectives, but about making synergies between different fields of knowledge and know-how. It is a slow process and I am going to work hard supporting this system: to join forces between disciplines to come up with revolutionary products. This is the green sprout of clothing design. And it is the end of the star designer. The importance lies in the team work composed by several specialists, to create a piece as a whole, new processes and products which are not tied to any old concept.”

“(The future of fashion) it is not about clothing collectives, but about making synergies between different fields of knowledge and know-how” Susana Saulquin

According to Saulquin, art, the ludic and humour will be the basis of the new reconfiguration of the system. “People need art, to play and a sense of humour to unwind and be creative.” She recently served as a  judge in the Buenos Aires Fashion International Film Festival. “I was astonished with all the works that had been done. Many designers set up a diverse team to create their films. For instance, Kostüme made a great fashion film. And they have been presenting their collections as art installations and performances. Everything was interactive. Camila and Emiliano (the label’s designers) are brilliant. That is the future: concepts must be emphasised in fashion.”

The sociologist remembered that fashion films brought another main issue: virtual reality. “Watching fashion shows from the rows around the runway is old-fashioned. Sooner we will be watching and exploring the new collections through virtual reality devices. And this technology could be applied also to fashion and design education. Virtual reality is definitely another green sprout”, Saulquin said.

Regarding the future projection of the birth and complete transformation of society, Saulquin said that it will take a lot of time. “Maybe we’ll see it in 2050 or 2080. Think about this: the industrial structure must be disassembled and its system has been alive since 1800. (…) We can see few changes now: fashion trends don’t exist anymore. Moreover, fashion does not exist: there are fashions instead. Nevertheless, I honestly believed that the transformation was going to happen at a much more accelerated pace. Industrial Society is still strong. There are lots of obstacles that come from greed and the industry. So, I have to push the deadline ahead.”

It is all about sustainability

Eco-fashion, sustainability, luxury and clean garments. These terms can be quite confusing for general audiences. It is really important for Susana Saulquin to make a clear distinction and have a firm grasp on them. “Nowadays, big companies are joining the eco-fashion trend (a word I can’t stand because of this reason) as part of a marketing move. We must be on the lookout: this is clearly not ethical.”

The core of the new system is sustainability, according to the sociologist’s theory. “Sustainable fashion is linked directly to ethics and respect. It can be summarised as being thoughtful about others. It means to always design while thinking about the planet and the people that live in it.”

Moreover, she takes it further: “I have been critical about the word ‘Fashion’. I believe that we should talk about ‘sustainable clothes’ instead, because fashion has a production methodology based on massive series. So, we should actually define it as sustainable, ethical garments, produced in an artisanal manner. The durability is also important: these articles must show a high quality and a perfect manufacture, alongside a creative design. Sustainable clothing must meet all these requirements. And, in the end, I believe that this represents the new luxury: to have a sustainable item of clothing.”

Another important and related concept is “clean clothes”. “Fundamentally, a clean garment comprehends an ethical practise and it has a clear traceability all the way back to its origin. It must give you the possibility to know the piece’s complete history. And this can’t include sweatshops or non-sustainable elements in its production,” stated Saulquin.

“Sustainable fashion is linked directly to ethics and respect. It can be summarised as being thoughtful about others. It means to always design while thinking about the planet and the people that live in it”. Susana Saulquin

If it has so many advantages, it is “politically correct” and truly positive for people and the planet, why is it hard for sustainable fashion to become widespread? “Basically, because the other path is a lot easier in economic terms. Sustainability is expensive and it also implies a deep change in our culture. Industrial Society is stapled, defending itself tooth and nail”. The sociologist detailed that a digital society will come with a generational replacement, rising with the present-day young children. She added: “You notice that five or six-years-olds have brilliant minds and new values. It is most difficult to reconfigure old people or even young adults’ minds.”

Finally, Saulquin concluded, “The concept of sustainability can also come down to being alert: to be on the lookout not to branch off the right track, which tends to be the easier way. We must be on the watch to assure that the process gets improved. That is to say, we must be alert in order to be ethical.”

  • Susana Saulquin

    Susana Saulquin is the author of books such as Historia de la moda en Argentina (History of Fashion in Argentina); La muerte de la moda, el día después (The death of fashion, the day after); and Políticas de las apariencias (Politics of Appearances). Credit: Editorial Paidós

  • Susana Saulquin

    Saulquin has given lecturers and conferences in institutes from all around the globe. In addition to this, she has completed a great number of research papers and written columns for many publications. Credit: Editorial Paidós