Saturday, 9 January 2016

REVIEW: "Fast Fashion: The Dark Side of Fashion" in Dresden

Back in May I posted about a ground-breaking exhibition in Hamburg which aimed to shine some light on the darker side of fast fashion by exploring the impact on its employees, the environment and the global economy. Over 80,000 people visited the exhibition, which has now moved to the Hygiene Museum in Dresden until 3rd July 2016, and as I missed the original format I was very happy to finally get to see it!

Part of the exhibition focusing on the environmental impact of fast fashion
Map showing the concentration of "Made In" labels across the world

The exhibition is the first to really explore the impact of our changing consumption habits on the planet and its people, with particular attention paid to developing countries such as India and Bangladesh, which produce the vast majority of Western fast fashion garments. Unlike most other fashion exhibits, which tend to focus on style rather than substance, "Fast Fashion: The Dark Side of Fashion" provides an enormous amount of information on what happens behind the scenes, from statistics about the finite lifecycle of clothing, to interviews with garment workers and shocking photographs portraying the impact of toxic dyes and chemicals on local communities.

As part of a generation that has grown up with clothing readily and cheaply available, a personal highlight from the exhibition for me was watching a video following the long journey of unwanted clothes from Europe to India, as they are cut up, processed and made into rugs for resale. The female garment workers help narrate the story, and their simple but confused explanations for the huge mountains of clothing that arrive every day in the factories to be cut up into rags really put into perspective how warped our perception of value has become:

"There must be a water shortage in the West - clothes are as expensive as water. For the people there, it must be cheaper to buy new clothes than to wash the ones they have"

Photographs depicting the journey of unwanted clothing being made into rugs

In addition to the exhibition itself, there is also the "Slow Fashion Lab", where a new breed of designers from universities across Europe are exploring what it means to be truly sustainable in a fashion context. Some have produced designs that are completely biodegradable, whilst others focus on keeping production local, in order to preserve traditional tailoring skills, or use new and innovative eco-friendly fibres. Germany really is leading the field in this area, with sustainable materials currently being brought to market that originate from nettle fibres, algae and even milk. Another positive development is Rhabarberleder (Rhubarb leather), a non-toxic tanning process using sustainably-farmed rhubarb extract, which leaves the leather beautifully soft. You can find bags, belts and other accessories made from Rhabarberleder here.

The Slow Fashion Lab: an opportunity to explore new designers and innovative fibre technologies
Sustainable designs by Philomena Zanetti and Boxx Fashion
Overall, I thought the exhibition was well-researched and did a fantastic job of showing that slow fashion is both beautiful and necessary. For me, however, there could have been a stronger 'story' throughout the exhibition exploring the relationship between fast fashion and fashion as art, in order to emphasise the speed at which we are losing the sense of fun and creativity that comes from true style and design, rather than slavishly following fashion trends.

The big challenge for any exhibition covering this topic, and for sustainable fashion in general, is how to place the frippery, fun and quirkiness that make fashion interesting in a social and environmental context, whilst avoiding an information overload and subsequent disconnect between the garment and its wearer. I'm not sure the exhibition completely achieved this, but it's a great first step towards raising awareness and creating a public platform for discussion about these important issues. If it continues its successful tour to more cities and countries, it could achieve visitor numbers in the hundreds of thousands, which would really help further sustainable fashion's cause.

Have you seen the exhibition yet? What did you think?

Read an extract from the accompanying book, available in the Museum shop for €6.50.
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