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Sass Brown talks Kingston’s new sustainable master aiming to dismantle the system

By Rachel Douglass

29 Mar 2022

Fashion |Interview

Image: Pexels

In line with the increasing interest in sustainable fashion education, London’s Kingston University is set to introduce a new Master’s degree focused on creating systemic change and transformational systems to education and the fashion industry, as a whole.

As the latest addition to the Fashion Department of Kingston School of Art, the MA Sustainable Fashion: Business and Practices intends to present a fresh approach, addressing the need to develop solutions to an industry that is heavily dependent on overproduction and simplifying complex issues.

“It’s not about theory, philosophy or a concept. It’s about the application of those theories and concepts and making a tangible difference within the system of fashion,” said Sass Brown, the Master’s programme lead, in conversation with FashionUnited.

Brown, who will be adding the title to her many other established roles, such as author and researcher, will be bringing to the course her extensive life experiences, working in various communities, advising on sustainable solutions and publishing papers on the topic of responsible design.

With FashionUnited, Brown unravelled the obstacles of today’s fashion system and how the course hopes to break down the barriers for students to make an impact on the future of the fashion industry.

Image: Kingston University, Sass Brown

Where did the idea for the concept of this course come from?

So, I come from a fashion design background myself, and I’ve been working in sustainable fashion for over 20 years, a lot of which was in the commercial space. I returned to the UK just a couple of years ago to complete my PhD, which was focused on sustainable fashion, and, when I finished, I was invited by Kingston University to write a new Masters for them.

The intent really is to straddle the business and the design world. There are many degrees out there that focus on sustainable fashion design and interventions in the system, whether it’s working with upcycled materials or zero-waste methodology, however, the challenge is the fashion design curriculum is already so loaded.

What obstacles can this create?

I’ve been in academia for a long time so I have seen the constant addition of new requirements, whether it’s digital media or the knowledge of different softwares. They all get added to the basis of an already full curriculum. As I regularly get ‘pulled into’ universities to do lectures or a small module, I also often see them treat the subject almost like a ‘tick-box’ exercise. It’s one of the many things that they have to communicate, and the reality is, consumption and overproduction are at the absolute core of our problem.

Fashion is a very defined and self-sustaining system, and so, while all these interventions are fantastic, they’re not changing the system of fashion. They are not radically impacting the way we produce, consume and discard our clothing. They are intervening in one aspect of it alone, when the reality is that this entire system needs reevaluating. It’s a system that really isn’t fit for purpose.

So, what does this course tackle to aid in this reevaluation?

We need to think of all the things that are part and parcel of the fashion industry. Take inspiration, for example. In academia, we are told the world is your oyster and full of incredible people and places, so go ahead and mine it out without any responsibility or research on what you’re using, which inevitably results in culture appropriation and lack of research skills. For designers, this has become the norm. However, in other areas of academia, sourcing and accrediting is an important part of teaching and showing respect towards where you get your knowledge.

It can also be seen in the illustration stage, where, traditionally, drawn models are graphic representations of a catwalk model - size zero and five foot eight. When in reality, in the Western world or anywhere else, we are looking at an average size of 14 or 16, and five foot four. So, who are we designing for?

Production, too. Designers aren’t traditionally taught to understand the entirety of their supply chain, right down to raw materials. The entire system suffers from discarding, overproduction and supply chain issues based on cheap and quick.

So, individual interventions, while important in their own right, don’t change that system. The intention was to not develop a programme that was based on producing more but to encompass and build around the ethos of studio development, collaboration and product solving.

Who is this course targeted at?

The hope is that those that apply and are accepted will come from very diverse backgrounds, whether in business, multimedia or design. In many cases, I think it can build effectively on a design-based bachelor, putting an emphasis on sustainability which other universities often only use as a brief insert as opposed to an entire programme.

Do you think education will have an impact on the sustainable future of fashion?

I think there’s a myriad of responses to the sustainability of our future industries and we have to explore them all. I don’t think it’s the only means of sharing values and communicating, but it does have a role within that. And I think it plays an important role.

Image: Sass Brown at FIT for Fashion Revolution Event

One of the pleasures of academia is that it’s a free space for creative exploration. You’re not in the commercial world, as yet, where you’ve got money or people riding on your response. It’s a safe space to explore and experiment, and, if you fail, well that’s ok because sometimes there are valuable lessons in failure. I think education allows for elements that can often be very difficult in a commercial space.

Is cultural exploration and research something that will be touched upon in the course?

Absolutely. It’s actually a focus within it. We can’t talk about sustainability and only focus on the environmental component. Humans and animals are equally vital and we can’t have a full conversation without them. That means respecting people, history, cultures and ownership.

We’re at a time when there are fantastic initiatives out there in terms of protecting particularly indigeous material cultures, including legal protection too. This is a radically shifting element within our industry, where the mining of other people’s traditions without recompense and acknowledgement is no longer ok. The conversation around diversity, representation and respect is absolutely embedded in the course and it must be.

What do you envision graduates of the course to do?

I hope lots of things, whether it be more traditional roles or experimental, ideation roles or developing their own businesses. I think if you do search on job platforms for sustainability, the number of related opportunities is endless. We’re in a different space in the last couple years, particularly since covid. We’re not in the traditional space of people focusing on a single outcome and working towards an individual career, because our world of work has changed so enormously. The concept of having chief diversity officer, for example, was completely unknown three years ago, or sustainability being embedded in c-suites. These roles have developed rapidly and so I think the degree needs to be open to allow students to define their own values. I don’t think we know what the future is at this stage.

Do you have any big plans for the course you can already tell us about?

There are two particular modules that will work with an external stakeholder, for what I class as live projects, which essentially means interacting directly with an external organisation. One is focused on communication vehicles, such as developing a website, blog or podcast, and can be expressed however you wish. It could be focused on storytelling or knowledge sharing, any number of things.

The over live project covers interventions within that system, so it’s more open and would involve working with a local community of crafts people, such as women’s cooperatives in the developing world or a particular refugee community. The students would define whatever way they felt would be necessary to support them and work towards an open outcome that doesn’t revolve around producing a product. The modules are about giving the opportunity to understand and learn about the challenges of a community they perhaps do not come from, and create tangible outcomes.

Fashion Education
Kingston University
SUSTAINABLE FASHION