If you ever find yourself in Arnhem, the Dutch city an hour’s train journey south-east of Amsterdam, be sure to visit 2Switch, a second-hand emporium in an uninviting small industrial estate on the outskirts of town.

The building itself is an old warehouse, one side of it brutally hacked off as though a bulldozer started its work and then found something better to do and moved on halfway through. Inside, there is a warmth, a sense of quiet excitement. This is where old, unwanted, once-loved clothes, jewellery, furniture, kitchen crockery, shoes, records and books go to be refound, re-loved and rediscovered. There are rails of jeans, neatly organised. There are some quirkily-styled mannequins dotted about the place, suggesting ways to dress that are perhaps a little eccentric, away from the mainstream, but intriguing. Here, you sense, lies treasure.

I want to spend an entire afternoon browsing the rails, leafing through books, picking out odd bits of china and thinking about lost, orphaned items cleaned up and reimagined on a shelf at home, or hanging in my wardrobe. But I am being hurried along by my colleagues. I’m here to work, not shop. “Look over here!” One of my partners in crime, Fashion Revolution’s Niamh Tuft, is standing in front of an ornately decorated dark wooden wardrobe, the sort of thing your grandparents might once have got rid of because it was so old-fashioned. She can barely contain her excitement. The price sticker is €65. “It’s perfect,” she says.

We are here in Arnhem doing research for the upcoming State of Fashion Biennial 2022, which we have called Ways of Caring. As part of the event, three walk-in wardrobes hosted at venues across the city will offer a portal into the world of clothes swapping, repairs and regeneration, extending an invitation to rethink our relationship with our clothes. By building these themed wardrobes, we aim to pique people’s curiosity and create a system of swapping and non-monetary exchange which encourages the citizens of Arnhem and visitors to the State of Fashion to treat their own wardrobes more like libraries – a space for borrowing and exchange, a place for stories and narratives, a system of civic ownership rather than individual possession.

We will create highly accessible activities designed to challenge a system that ravages the environment. We will provide space for a different narrative that values the farmers, workers and Indigenous people whose ancient textile crafts we so covet and then steal. And we will look at ways to regenerate and repurpose the land we have polluted, and the waste we have churned out across the world in our relentless quest to grow more, make more, sell more and, ultimately, buy more. Here, in this cavernous temple to the unwanted stuff of people’s lives, we find some salvation, a sense of healing and perhaps even a tingle of redemption.

Just over a year ago, the Fashion Open Studio team – made up of myself, Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola de Castro, Fashion Open Studio partnerships and programme manager Filippo Ricci, and Niamh Tuft, she of the 65-euro wardrobe – answered an open call to curate the State of Fashion Biennial 2022. The State of Fashion is an international platform based in Arnhem which has the aim of connecting fashion to the social issues and challenges of our time: inclusivity and fair practice, the impact of globalisation, the climate crisis. The previous biennial in 2018, called Searching for the New Luxury, was curated by José Teunissen, professor in fashion theory and dean of the School of Design and Technology at the London College of Fashion. The open call for the 2022 biennial asked big questions about how fashion can contribute to a world that is more humane for all, how we can create true, just and sustainable equity, and how fashion can inspire a deeper connection between communities as well as between people and nature.

These are questions that resonate deeply for the Fashion Open Studio team. In 2021, we were selected to curate the biennial alongside the Not Enough Collective, a group comprising Netherlands-based South American designers and critical practitioners Andrea Chehade Barroux, Mari Cortez, and Marina Sasseron de Oliveira Cabral. The group’s members met at ArtEZ, the prestigious art and design school in Arnhem whose alumni include Viktor & Rolf and Iris van Herpen, and were motivated by their outsider status to research deep-rooted attitudes and inequalities born out of the west’s colonial history. Their experience will provide the basis for an exhibition spotlighting new narratives and coexisting knowledges, which will be a focal point for the biennial. As well as inviting designers and artists to show their work around these themes, the Not Enough Collective have invited other practitioners to submit their work, which will allow new voices to be given space. The programme will be as much about highlighting what is missing from the current fashion industry and conversations in academia as it will be about giving space to those emerging voices that need amplifying.

In all, it was quite a leap of faith by the State of Fashion’s organisers and its creative board. Seven individuals had responded to the open call with two very different, but not unconnected, curatorial visions. Anything could happen.

Over the first months of summer, meeting only on screens as talking heads in boxes, we set to work to write our joint curatorial statement. We wanted this to be unlike any other biennial, we said. We didn’t like the structures and hierarchies inevitably associated with ‘exhibiting’ work or giving artists and designers ‘a stage’. We didn’t want to tell people; we wanted to ask them what they thought and invite voices we don’t hear from in the mainstream – the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the Indigenous, the many people at the bottom of the structures that dominate our lives and give most of the power (and the money) to the privileged few.

We talked a lot, tried to get to know each other and create a unified vision that took in the perspectives of the many voices we wanted to represent and bring to the party (yes, there will be a party), side by socially distanced side. Eventually, we agreed that we would focus on acts of repair. We would set out to repair broken threads (both metaphorically and physically) and disrupted relationships. We wanted to find and show ways of caring for our clothes and, consequently, each other. To do this, it was important to all of us to use the international platform of the State of Fashion to listen, be open and make space.

In April 2021, at the outset of the process, the organisers asked us to choose a word to describe an aspect of the biennial that was important to us. Orsola chose ‘reparation’. Marina said ‘coexisting’. My chosen word was ‘healing’. This word, it seemed to me, was indicative of the ultimate aim of the biennial, the marker of success: that through our interventions in the city of Arnhem – and the ripple effect beyond this small but most outward-looking of cities – we would facilitate a sense of feeling better, as well as making things change for the better. We were a little over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic and the #PayUp campaign was pursuing its hard-fought battle to see factories and garment workers compensated by the western mega-brands that had failed to pay them for cancelled orders. The Black Lives Matter protests continued as the trial for the murder of George Floyd neared its conclusion, and the climate crisis loomed ever larger. There was – and is – much to heal. We have a long way to go.

But back to 2Switch and the wardrobe. During the biennial’s five-week run, beginning in June, you can expect to find three wardrobes in locations across the city, including the Rozet library and cultural centre, which is housed in the most beautifully constructed building, designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects. Each will have their own theme: Trash to Treasure, the Arnhem Wardrobe and the Magical Wardrobe. They will offer an opening into different worlds, where visitors will be able to swap clothes, borrow items, make repairs for others to wear, dress up and dream, or be transported to a creative space where trash is transformed into wearable art.

Other interventions will include an opportunity to help redesign the high street for a different way of living, with discussions, games and an interactive sculpture. There will be a Fashion Open Studio hub, where a cohort of international designers will take residence at strategic, surprising spaces around the city and create workshops, alongside a programme of book clubs, mending clinics and stitch-and-bitch sessions. Everyone will be welcome.

We will be growing a dye garden in the city’s Sonsbeek Park, where flowers will bloom and natural dyeing workshops and community dye pots will blossom. Key to this intervention is local fashion and natural dye brand Hul le Kes, founded by ArtEZ graduate Sjaak Hullekes in 2005. With core values around caring for the environment, the brand operates as a social enterprise in the community, employing graduates from the local technical college, who need to gain further training experience, and refugees making a new life for themselves in the Netherlands. At their HQ, there is a workshop which does manufacturing for other like-minded brands as well as for the label. There is also a courtyard where we’ll peer into a vat with the residues of madder root, bark, chestnuts and avocado skins from a recent dye bath.

Hullekes uses natural dyeing as a way of reviving old garments and textiles for his own lines of clothing. He also has a partnership with the charity-run ReShare Store in the city, overdying old shirts to be resold. These are the sorts of services and partnerships we would like to be commonplace in every community. The Ways of Caring’s Natural Dye Garden will offer a space for the residents of the Hul le Kes Recovery Studio, a project the designer recently set up to provide a safe space to give anyone suffering from burnout, mental health issues or depression to find therapy through stitching, mending and dyeing. It will also highlight the work of Fibershed Netherland, part of a global network of farmers, textile producers and dye-makers founded by Californian indigo farmer Rebecca Burgess in 2009. The garden will provide an oasis to plant seeds in and find hope and optimism through the green shoots of nature. During the biennial this will be a hive of activity, with harvesting, foraging, workshops, masterclasses and ways of caring, not just for our clothes and textiles, but for nature as well. We will bring perspectives and knowledge from natural dye experts around the world, including Meena Gurung, founder of the Nepalese nature-focused brand Bora Studio, who has developed a technique of eco-printing where leaves and plant-based ingredients are transferred on to fabric by steaming or stamping. She uses eucalyptus leaves, rose petals, flowers and berries to bring the colours and patterns of nature into her textiles and then works with local tailors to cut and sew the materials into clothes for men and women. This is how fashion and nature can work in harmony, create meaningful employment and result in clothes to treasure for generations.

As I write, this is all a work in progress. I feel optimistic, hopeful and excited to create a different fashion reality in Arnhem, a city with a population of 152,000, about 130,000 less than the London borough of Hackney where I live. While I am excited about the biennial itself – the exhibitions and interventions, the opening night’s DiscoMAKE party for guests to repair and reimagine old clothes into something new – what really excites me is the idea of a new reality in which, through fashion, we can nurture a culture of care that starts with the seeds we plant in the soil and sparks a quiet, gentle revolution in wardrobes around the world. We look forward to seeing (and healing) you there.

Photography by Juan Borgogmon. The State of Fashion Biennial will take place in Arnhem from June 3 to July 10. Find out more here. 

stateoffashion.org

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