Movie: The Next Black
Director: David Dworsky & Victor Kohler
Running time: 47 min
There is, apparently, a format for these things. Maker content–books, movies, even talks–unerringly profile a couple of eccentric makers in the service of a bigger argument about the movement itself: something something about innovation, something something about social good, something something about individual responsibility. As maker content goes, The Next Black is pretty up there, in that it’s specific enough, smart enough, and occasionally interesting enough. Paradoxically, by bringing the maker lens to a field so specific as fashion, the film manages to be present a more complete and coherent case than any other of its ilk.
Largely because of this format, I’m more inclined to think (and talk) about this movie more as a maker piece than anything else, but beyond the value of the movie to our class, this is actually about the fashion industry waking up to the dual age of technology and of environmental disaster. Transformation is its mission statement, transformative in what clothes could do, how clothes could be made, and how clothes, indeed, could be conceived. These are the possibilities afforded by new technology and necessitated by impending environmental doom.
Some of these tangents parallel the themes of the maker movement. For example, I would call the 3-D printer a theme, not only because it repeats itself and is ever present, but also because it represents this force of new technology, the kind of technology that demands people create without limits but limits of their own imagination, as evocative and debilitating as a blank canvas. Another theme is the tension between consumerism and recycling, the onus of which is always put on the consumer and on personal responsibility, which is the case in most maker content and the case in this movie as well.
What is different about The Next Black is that it’s unapologetically about fashion, so dominated as it was by fashion insiders and heavily featuring as it does obscenely expensive brands. But this group of people do encompass–or at least, appear to encompass–the full range of activities within this niche of a niche. We have the kind of fashion that we ordinarily think about when the word “fashion” is invoked: The world of celebrities like Lady Gaga, this scrupulously weird and inscrutably alienating world of dresses that poop bubbles. We have men’s fashion, in the form of professional athletes, slightly more practical but no less inaccessible. On the more interesting end of the scale we have hippie-dippie organic fashion that tries to reduce waste, and we have what I had instinctively dubbed Americana fashion: rugged and fix-it-yourself and intensely individualistic.
By far the most inspirational and promising venture profiled in the movie was the effort of Sophie Mather and the Yeh Group, contending with, at last, the industrial fact of fashion. Mather and her group are using a new fabric dyeing technique that does not waste water or pollute streams, which is something I did not know about before watching this movie, and something about which there seems to be genuine hope. In fact the most substantial parts here all deal with fashion as an industry. Fast fashion, the narrator says, relies on the speed with which people change out their wardrobe and the speed with with the fashion industry hurries to accommodate it. It is this specificity and this intimate understanding of their work and their context that the fashion professionals bring which makes, for me at least, the persuasive case. The case is that technology can help, and they, the people in this movie, are going to do it. Contrast the mile-wide, inch-deep tourist view of the projects in Dale Dougherty’s Free to Make book, to name just one example, to these people who want to change their industry precisely because they can both love it and be critical of it.
But when we talk about the fashion industry, there is one group of people conspicuously absent. We have Sophie Mather, the former Head of Innovation at Nike Asia. We don’t necessarily have the women workers of Nike in Nike Vietnam, where much of this fast fashion is being produced. These women, Maria Hengeveld of Slate reports, are being paid below living wage and made to work in hazardous conditions: your textbook version of the sweatshop factory. “When it comes to sustainability,” the narrator says, “it’s easy to place the blame on unethical brands and polluting factories in faraway lands, but […] the responsibility is also with us, the consumers.” No, no, we blame factories for other things too.
That little piece of exculpation was in the service of Patagonia, a courageous brand that dares to challenge consumers not to consume. Recycle instead, Rick Ridgeway implored, and invest in expensive but long lasting, quality clothes. He’s not wrong, and it’s not even bad advice, but in what universe is this an appropriate call to action? Appropriate, I mean, not in terms of impropriety, but in terms of the prescription to the diagnosis. We have this massive behemoth that is the fashion industry churning out new clothes every day, and how we deal with it is changes to personal, individual consumption habit?
The New Black‘s diagnosis is incomplete anyhow. Consumption habits, which the movie sees as unchanging and as a fact of life to be dealt with, were in fact a product of capitalism, which requires the public to constantly purchase new things in increasingly small cycles. As maker books so fondly reminisce, people did not used to feel this need to replenish their wardrobe by the season. It was the accumulated result of relentless ad campaigns that convinced people that consumption (and fashion) was the primary method of self-expression. What we can ask is if this call to action, pleading as it does for us to change our consumption habit, is any different, or if it reinforces the idea that we are what we buy.
To be clear, I agree that some rethinking of fashion is in order, but I would like to push some of the rethinking to the labor vs capital part of the industry. It is this part, removed from the glamorous, bubble pooping dresses and closer to the dry dye technique, that I think has by far the greatest transformative potential, so transformative as–perhaps–to be collective.