With summer in its last gasps, back to school season is upon us. In honor of the scholarly season, we spoke with Joshua Katcher, a designer of vegan menswear brand Brave Gentleman who also moonlights as an adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design in New York. He is an outspoken advocate of ethical fashion and ridding the design and production system of animals altogether and hopes to pass that passion on to his students--or at least get them to think critically about the "fashion industrial complex." With the fall semester kicking off, Katcher chatted with PAPER about making sustainable fashion sexy, the future of lab-grown fabrics and materials, and the dark side of wool.
Tell us a little about what you teach at Parsons.
I teach senior thesis, along with another professor, which is getting to work with a few students really focused in the area of fashion systems. We want the students to consider everything about what they design: How it's made, whose hands are going to touch it, how is the ecosystem affected. It isn't just about the cut of the dress or the size of the lapel--just as important are these invisible, hidden things you don't see on the rack.
The way we package it is as a holistic approach to the "fashion industrial complex," and a focus on the animals and animal industry as the main environmental impact of our time. It's not just fur. Between leather and wool, you're talking about huge environmental impact. And they are two every day materials, taught as a necessity to work with. When I tell people that wool is not a sustainable product, they don't believe it almost. If you look at just the hair from the sheep, it's biodegradable and natural and fine. But to get that hair you have to raise the animals; there are a billion sheep on the planet and they are mostly all used for the wool industry. They impact everything from greenhouse gasses to soil erosion. So why aren't we thinking about making these materials without animals? We're entering a very exciting phase where we're growing materials in the lab, leather in the lab, etc. There is a company here in New York called Modern Meadow that is biofabricating leather. We'll be able to get in a lab what we get from an animal within the next few years.
How did you get into teaching, and into the eco-conscious side of fashion specifically?
I didn't study fashion. I approached it from an activism standpoint. I started blogging a few years ago [at thediscerningbrute.com] about ethical and cruelty-free fashion, and at the same time started my label, Brave GentleMan. After a while, I was invited to speak on panels at FIT, Parsons, and other schools. People in the environmentalist and animal advocacy world would find me through my blog. I spoke at the American University in Paris, Brown, U Penn. And I started getting comfortable with that, and with students. Eventually Parsons offered me a job. I always identified as anti-fashion until I started writing about it and learned from very specific research on my own.
What do you want your students to come out of your classroom with?
I think that students should be empowered to know how things are made, and who is interacting with them along the value chain, and taking responsibility for making those things desirable. I say to them, you can use whatever you want, but you need to be able to stand proudly behind it. It can't just be about the final object but also about how that object came to be. We have to start forcing the fashion industry to pay attention to these things and it can't just be a gimmick. There is a huge void in the market and that is a great opportunity, to be at the forefront of these new innovations in materials, in marketing. We know that fashion week is sort of collapsing and having problems, and bigger brands are having real issues. There is an opportunity to reformat the industry and make it what we hope it could be. Where it isn't a compromise between desire and responsibility. Ethical fashion is not an aesthetic, it's a methodology and it can look any way. I think that also helps the students: If I'm making eco fashion I don't have to make it look "eco."
Another way I encourage them is, I give them a lot of resources for finding these innovative materials. I take my R&D and give it to them, [introduce] these wonderful new materials you probably won't hear of outside of the university. We're training these students to see sustainability and ethics not as a specialty, but as business as usual. It shouldn't be an extra thing. I want them to think about how fashion is made. That it's not just about cutting into the fabric differently, but cutting into the system differently.
How do you balance desirability of design with responsible fabrication?
Fashion is about identity, and you identify with either the honest true story of how something is made or with the marketing of mythology. It's rarely just about the garment. With brand name things it's about the lifestyle surrounding it. With my brand, Brave Gentleman, I want it to be about the honest integrity of how our things are made, what they're made of and how that ties into the aspiration to invest in these systems we want to see flourish. To be part of making things better.
Often, I think there is this problem where we are taught that in order for something to be desirable, it has to be sort of naughty or sinful, where we have equated beauty and goodness with just this final object and not the process. That something aspirational is transgressive and indulgent. And there's no reason why we can't also aspire towards things that are responsible--and it doesn't have to be about being virtuous or a do-gooder. It can still be sexy and cool and edgy.
The language around sustainable fashion can feel clinical and even off-putting--not necessarily sexy and cool.
The dialect is in development. The goal is for all of these things to just be "fashion." You learn as you talk to people which words are kind of trigger words. How much of that curtain do you lift behind the scenes before you scare someone off? And how do you maintain the mythology and this glamorous appeal that fashion has while still being transparent?
Will there be an end to leather and animals in fashion in our lifetime ?
I really do think it will be minimized to an extent that these materials will be insignificant. We are approaching a really exciting time where there's opportunity to make these materials in a much more efficient and ethical way--and maximize creativity because they are infinitely customizable. In a lab, you have an opportunity to grow something to your exact requirements. It's beyond what creative people have been able to consider until very recently. Parsons is at the forefront of introducing these innovations to students and designers, and bringing the industry together with these new concepts. Later this year, the BIOFABRICATE conference (founded in 2014 by Suzanne Lee) will be held at Parsons. The university setting should be a place of experimentation and visionary thinking. Where else can you do it? While the students are here they are not limited by the factors that limit people with careers, so why not push them to really think in a visionary way, to think big. What is the furthest possible extreme that I can take these concepts to? Thinking safely from a creative standpoint is not something I advocate.
Photo by James Koroni.