Digitally exploring garment biographies

4 juli 2023
Student MSc Architecture TU Delft

To make young people rethink their relationship with their clothing and the stories embedded in them, the Localising Global Garment Biographies research project aims to develop a digital tool.

Back in February 2023 the Localising Global Garment Biographies (LGGB) project group visited numerous locations connected to garment production from regenerative organic cotton cultivation in the South-Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The group followed the lesser-known trails travelled by garments before they are shipped to the stores where we buy them, visiting spinning mills, dyeing shops and cut-make-trim factories to name a few.

Joey Lageschaar, Geo-spatial timeline of cotton garment production, 2023.

One click of a button

Given the extensive globalisation of clothing production, one click of a button can ship a garment to our doorstep. However, our deepest connection to its origin is the label that states ‘Made in India’.  It seems our relationship with garments is shaped more by the place of purchase than, for example, the acres where cotton seeds were sown or the factories in which the fabrics were sewn into garments. The LGGB research project hypothesises that this alienation has contributed to and maintains the fast fashion industry we are currently confronted with. We are exploring ways to make the garments’ rich and complex stories accessible to everyone involved in their production and use.

From regenerative organic cotton cultivation to dyeing units and cut-make-trim factories, we gathered information on the production of a T-shirt in collaboration with various local stakeholders and innovators. The gathered knowledge should provide a basis for reflection upon the production and use of garments among future fashion professionals, such as students of the MBO Zadkine, the Erode College of Arts and Sciences and the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. To be able to communicate the complex processes and interesting spaces that were documented, the idea emerged to express this knowledge through a digital tool aimed at fashion students. The LGGB research group embarked on an iterative design process to shape this informative and reflexive virtual environment. Consequently, we asked, “How can a digital tool encourage young people to rethink their relations to garments and how they produce, use, sell and discard them?”

Design process

As the project’s student assistant, I was involved in the development of the digital tool. To be able to design an innovative digital tool, inspiration was drawn from several groundbreaking examples that interwove academic and in-situ research with striking visuals. For instance, the web page of Refugee Republic impressed us through the dynamic interactions between spatiality and audio-visual storytelling. Other exploratory digital environments that drove our imagination were those of World of Matter and Make/Break - Mumbai, which both exhibit qualities of extensive research presented in a clear, engaging manner.  Although these examples do not concern the garment industry directly, they illustrate the capabilities of spatial storytelling in digital environments to provide insight into under-researched issues.

Refugee Republic, Informative web page, Online since 2012, Screenshot.

In my first few weeks, ideas were developed that took a closet as a starting point from which a set of garments and their biographies were to be explored. Exemplary pieces such as these punk jeans exhibited at Museum Rotterdam, reveal bits and pieces of their heritage through their material properties; labels, frayed edges, sewn-on appliqués, etc. The first design iteration focused on the details that were woven into the fabric and how they open up a range of biographical routes, focusing on social, temporal or even (geo)spatial heritage. While this framework could inform users about specific biographies and how they can be understood from a singular garment, it lacks interaction and would require a higher degree of intrinsic motivation to fully explore a garment’s biography.

Modzart, Green-yellow jeans, ripped and worked with coloured wool, punk clothing, 1981/1983, Museum Rotterdam, Source: Museum Rotterdam

Following loose threads

To define the complexities and inequalities of the garment industry, we chose to explore these topics starting with the garment. Where, when and how was it made? Who made it? The idea is that these simple-sounding questions can give way to follow-up questions concerning lesser-known topics, e.g. the origin of the cotton seeds, the individuals involved in fabric spinning or the transport routes the garment has travelled. Although the examination of a garment can generate such thoughts, the material qualities of or basic research on the garment cannot answer all of them. Therefore the term ‘loose threads’ arose, meaning those questions are not (simply) answered, but produce discussion about the unknown.

LGGB research group, Digital tool design sketches, 2023. Source: Joey Lageschaar.

Through this question-driven examination of a garment, Museum Rotterdam curator Mayke Groffen produced a first set of explorative notes on the earlier-mentioned punk jeans. This experiment shows how questions such as “Who produced the garment?” and “Why does it look like this?” seem to be answerable with Mayke’s expertise. More elaborate questions like “How were the jeans transported to the place where the owner bought them?” produce the loose threads. This method of content development involves an intuitive exploration of a garment's biography. However, it complicates the incorporation of this approach into an interactive digital tool because of the necessary prior knowledge and a tendency to ask such questions. The latter has been noticed to be lacking in fashion students, so this means that the research has to be partly predetermined for the target group to engage with it. Luckily for us, we managed to work with an existing concept that was able to include garment heritage, interactivity and personalisation.

Question-driven garment exploration, Digital content collage, 2023, Mayke Groffen.

Touchpoints and QR codes

In collaboration with the fashion-tech startup Candour, a concept has been drawn up that will involve creating a digital environment that uses their existing framework. This visual database will be accessible through QR codes sewn into several hundred T-shirts, designed through a joint effort by Zadkine Rotterdam and Erode Arts and Science College (India) and currently being produced by Raddis Cotton. The four students who together co-created the design are Alissety Ashley Hirschfeld (Zadkine), Larisa Manzueta Ramirez (Zadkine), Rasigapriya Sivakumar (Erode College of Arts and Sciences) and Jaswantee Vimalraja (Erode College of Arts and Sciences)

The T-shirts will be distributed in both the Netherlands and India so that a variety of users, even the producers themselves for example, and their stories can add to the collective heritage of the T-shirt.

Alissety Ashley Hirschfeld (Zadkine), Larisa Manzueta Ramirez (Zadkine), Rasigapriya Sivakumar (Erode College of Arts and Sciences) and Jaswantee Vimalraja (Erode College of Arts and Sciences) LGGB ‘Freedom’-inspired T-shirt, 2023. Source: LGGB

Coming back to the hypothesis of the research project, this digital tool should contribute to enforcing a deeper connection with garments to elongate the material lifespan. Upon scanning the QR code, consumers can retrieve information on pre-established ‘touchpoints’, which mainly concern the production aspect of the garment; from seed to shirt. In the current web concept, consumers will be able to add their own stories that they have experienced with the garment; the place of purchase, potential adjustments they have made to the garment, where they have worn it, and so forth. The T-shirt could be documented while it is (re)sold, recycled and eventually returned to Museum Rotterdam.

Looking forward

In this design process, the iterations helped us reflect on the divergence of possible narratives that can be applied to sketch an image of the fast fashion industry in which we all play our part. More importantly, the need for integrating places and people in this narrative strikes me as refreshing, as it opposes the omnipresent greenwashing of the fashion industry and adds a deeper layer to a future vision of sustainable garment relationships.

We hope to conclude the story-gathering process with an exhibition of the collected T-shirts in August 2024. In this way, the Localising Global Garment Biographies project aims to foster a new future of garment consumption, by enhancing first-hand experiences of clothing through stimulating reflection. After all, what do you know about your own clothing?


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