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September 11, 2020

Disrupting capitalist patterns and hierarchies in fashion through co-learning

It’s 2017, we’re wrapping up the first event from a series titled Become a Fashion Brand.  I’m thanking our guest speaker, founderת and fashion designer of Mazinyi, when one of the attendees approaches us. “So how can I get famous?” he asks. “I like what you’ve said but you haven’t told us the formula, what the steps I need to take,” he continues with a hint of anger in his tone. His internal frustration began to show through his movements and the exhaustion in his eyes. It was as if he’d been to thousands of talks, seminars, and workshops prior, trying to crack a code that would unlock his fashion dreams and put him on the ‘ones to watch’ list. 

Colèchi, now a fashion co-learning and research space, started as an initiative to spread fashion and business education. My co-founder and I started the business when we felt like outsiders in an industry which is predominantly accessible to those from a higher social-economic background. During this time, open talks had become very popular as young professionals who saw a lack of information available wanted to help and bigger corporations quickly supported this, too. The idea being 'let’s open up our office spaces, share our staff’s knowledge and give people better chances to get where they want.' Now, using Eventbrite, it's possible to find an event that will break down almost every skill or profession. 

Opening up the creative industry and fashion, in particular, was a game-changer for an industry which thrives on elitism. However, to some extent, this was inevitable with the impact of technology and social media, which had enabled people to find their unique way to make things happen. 

Talks and seminars may have started as a good cause, but as the whole of the fashion and creative industry jumped on the bandwagon, it began to work to serve capitalism rather than benefit individuals. 

The first way it does this is through its advertising and marketing strategies. The establishment of 'success talks' puts the host or speakers in the position of 'the successful one' and the attendees as ‘I am not yet successful.' This immediately creates an imbalance that, unlike the student-teacher one is infiltrated deeper in social mobility and individual status. The notion of success also changes the definition of creativity. What does it mean to be creative? What makes a good designer? One who has several stockists and is featured on Vogue? Or one who has innovated their practice by discovering a new dye process? A person can be both, but the one who has cracked the economic growth logic is often perceived as the better creative.

In Against Creativity. Oli Mould explains that “the language of creativity has been subsumed by capitalism and self-interest is the guiding force of progress.” As a result, the interest in innovating and developing creative practice is determined by economic opportunity rather than bettering society.  

The second way in which talks and seminars serve capitalism is by promoting individualism. It is important to think about the stage that is given to speakers at these events. I do not want to undermine the need for leaders in society, the skill of speaking and educating and the value of an individual’s intelligence. However, the platform that is given to guests invited to speak often takes greater attention and significance than the subject in discussion. This is similar to media and press where the more an individual is seen and heard, the greater the perception they are doing something right. Sociologist William Whyte's concept of the Organisation Man goes against the idea of individualism; rather, the concept encourages collaboration, togetherness, and group work over individual creativity. 

The points above are not alluding to the fact that we should not be giving people a stage. As stated, leaders are pivotal for societal development and change. Likewise, a person who has gone through a process and made achievements should share their story. What needs to be reconstructed is how these stories are shared and what story is being told. It is these things that co-learning seeks to dismantle hierarchies and shift the focus of creativity from individual growth to collaborative development.  

This shift from the individual in practice is not radical. Earth Logic, a fashion research action plan that puts Earth first before profit, describes co-learning as “avoiding accepted roles of the learned and learner claiming that each citizen has value, capability and responsibility.” This means reconstructing mindsets so that communities are given more authority. It means redesigning educational spaces and readjusting language and how relationships are labelled. 

Colèchi has established three areas to transform learning experiences into co-learning. 

The first component in our co-learning method is Voice. In this context, voice refers to the audience participation and the idea that the 'leader' should not be hogging the mic. This is the notion that everyone who is in attendance should have the opportunity to speak and share. The obvious obstacle to this is an individual not wanting to speak, however, we must normalise hearing everyone in the room and create intimate spaces to gradually produce this. 

Secondly, who are we giving the stage to? A headliner is important when it comes to implementing a marketing strategy, however, it also perpetuates capitalist hierarchies. Rethinking how we give people a platform includes rewriting titles, we should introduce them concerning their area of knowledge. The physical layout of the space also contributes to the stage. Creating levelled seating, group discussions or ways to integrate all people in a room can change leadership dynamics. 

Finally, we consider the location of the talk or seminar. Wealth is concentrated in specific areas, so opening up more underprivileged locations and boroughs which are not mainstream arts and culture destinations builds new communities. Co-learning wants to establish that every experience and opinion is valuable so underrepresented people must be brought into the conversation. 

Co-learning continues to be a working concept that explores how collaborative learning can shift our interests from purely economic concerns into understanding real people, real problems and positive solutions. This model is focused on equally distributing power to all persons. 

Tina Wetshi is Cultural Strategist and Creative Director with a BA in History and Politics and a Masters in Culture, Criticism and Curation from Central Saint Martins. She is a co-founder at Colèchi, a co-learning and research space for independent fashion creatives and is interested in the intersections of fashion and politics with a focus on working-class communities. She has worked in press and PR for a selection of fashion brands.

Image: Colèchi