Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran, PhD is a designer and lecturer in fashion design at the prestigious RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests are nontraditional design methods, multispecies worlding, biotechnology and design, material identity, communitarianism, traditional craft, and ecological design.
Many questions need to be asked about fashion and authenticity. In a screen-mediated society in which images affect our sense of self, authentic connections—even between friends—can be difficult to maintain; authentic fashion experiences are even more difficult to pin down. While the facets of fashion that are seen as inauthentic are easily (and often!) isolated and criticized, we need to find ways of nurturing authenticity in the production of fashion. Authenticity in this case can be differentiated from originality, which is becoming increasingly difficult to establish in the melee of brands in the digital image market.
This could be because contemporary fashion design is a highly competitive game of referencing. Between the players of this game is an almost sportsmanlike understanding that we can ignore rules about originality and allow the experiences and products that are considered authentic fetch a higher value. But what is an authentic fashion experience? Is it the materiality of a product that bestows upon it authenticity, or is it the endorsement of the brand/designer through the construction of specific images? How does the brand or product contain or embody authenticity?
I’d like to reflect on authenticity and fashion by introducing one very specific fashion phenomenon: paper clothing in Japan. In Japan there is a longstanding and secret culture of wearing paper clothing. I say “secret” because among the many globally popular traditional Japanese aesthetic traditions, very few people are aware of paper clothing. This could be because it has completely died, been resurrected, then died again. It just couldn’t stand up to its more functional replacements like cotton and nylon. Historically speaking, Japanese paper (washi) and paper clothing would have been used as an ersatz material to make rainwear, workwear, and even furniture and homewares, to name a few of its wide-ranging applications. Now, it’s use for clothing is in a single Buddhist temple in Kyoto once a year, for a ceremony involving fire and water.
But washi’s wider application, or appreciation, is in the process of being resurrected once again. The place where this life-death-life resuscitation is occurring is in a town many miles north of Tokyo called Shiroishi, so famous for papermaking that even Issey Miyake visited in the 1980s to learn how to make paper clothing. But there is only one papermaker in the town now: Abe has planted Paper Mulberry from bulbs pulled at the original plots, and makes his paper in the garage behind his family’s liquor shop. But is he making authentic Shiroishi paper? What makes his paper authentic? It could be argued that he is making Shiroishi paper because he is located there when making it, and is making it using raw materials from the area. Are tradition and place the only ingredients in authenticity? To quote from a 2018 article I wrote about place and fashion, I think the following passage is illustrative.
Mass-produced fashion is a uniquely placeless enterprise, where the local socio-material contingencies of production are intentionally obfuscated to promote brand messages. The global fast fashion system, built from rafts of disembodied symbols, exists as a fleet of placeless floating islands anchored to nowhere in particular. Despite this, a system of material production does exist that gives value to materials and objects that can only be made in a specific region because of the linkage between people and landscape—local material idiosyncrasies could manifest a sense a place in their expression of an intimate exchange of matter bound to a specific place. Predicated on the possibility of bodily exchange of matter with the landscape, a method for fashion design could be promoted that is aware that a region-specific sense of place—or terroir—exists within cloth in the same way locality can be identified in wine or cheese as an expression of the seasons, region, climate, and landscape.
I think that one way authenticity can be achieved and expressed is through acts of transparency. If a brand’s heritage is traced back and made visible, from its beginnings—whether they be in a small town in Italy, a farmers field in Japan, or a basement apartment in Harlem—the story of the places and cultures from which it emerged is there. Transparency is also vital in expressing when, how, where, and of what a product is made, in order to tease out the vital question of why a product should be made in the first place.
Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran, PhD
Lecturer Fashion Design (Honours + Masters) RMIT University, Melbourne Australia
Daphne is a fashion designer and researcher. She recently relocated to Melbourne after spending ten years at Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion School studying and teaching. Her PhD dissertation outlined a theoretical and conceptual framework for thinking through art and design proposals when species meet, and considered fashion design methods that might emerge at moments of ecological instability. While in Tokyo her design work was exhibited internationally; she also worked alongside Shoichi Aoki, the founder and editor of FRUiTS magazine, was a trend forecaster for Stylesight and WGSN, and contributed to A Magazine, MUSE Magazine, Dazed & Confused, FRUiTS, Tune, The Japan Times, and peer-reviewed academic journals. Working with Anika Kozlowski (Ryerson University, Toronto) she is probing and critiquing existing sustainability narratives in fashion, and exploring forms of dress and material culture that emerge during and after ecological crisis.