Letter from a Fashion Doctor
All my life I have had the feeling that I am lacking a distinct core, that there is no authentic or real self that defines who I am. Perhaps it was for this reason that I was unsure of what I would do for a living if I ever grew up. As a child I fantasized about working with antiques or as an architect, and later I thought I would like to wash dishes at a restaurant. Everything and nothing seemed possible. At university, I studied literature with the vague hope of one day working at a publishing house, only to realize halfway through the education that this subject was not for me. Even though literature at the time was my primary field of interest, the seminar discussions seemed to me lacking in regards to the lived and embodied practices of the everyday. We were discussing interpretations of life, rather than looking at the specificities of life itself. So, I turned instead to Sociology, Ethnology, and Gender Studies, not knowing where it would lead, only that it was more closely linked to what I wanted to spend my days thinking about.
However, I still had the desire to focus on matters of aesthetics and communication, which was what had initially drawn me to literature. After much thought, I realized that the best way I could combine my interests was by focusing on fashion as an object of study, but based in ethnographic research methods. This is how I started my journey to become a fashion theorist. At the time, fashion studies as an independent academic discipline did not exist, but by chance I was at an acquaintance’s birthday party the summer after graduating university, where I met a man who was involved in this project. I still remember the first time I ever heard the words “fashion” and “studies” combined in a sentence, and how I immediately knew that this would be my calling. A few years later, the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University was founded, and I became one in a group of three PhD candidates to begin our training as emerging fashion scholars.
I spent five years at the Centre as a PhD candidate, learning both the trade and the politics of academia. It was challenging in many ways, but it is through difficulties and hardship that we grow the most, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to find myself a scholar in this field, regardless of the many obstacles that I found in my way.
Afterwards, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. As I was the first to complete my PhD in fashion studies, I had no one to turn to for advice. But, as most people who have an interest in modern and/or contemporary fashion, I was fascinated by the mythical role of Paris in the creation of modern society. As I was unemployed, thankfully I had time to read things unrelated to research for the first time in years. I spent my days with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as well as Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, and the reading of these texts made it clear to me that I should live in Paris.
Through an acquaintance, I came into contact with an Italian fashion school based in Paris, and during the summer after I had defended my thesis, they offered me a few teaching slots. I covered the cost of moving by selling my Swedish apartment and most of my furniture, and began working in Paris in October that same year. Quickly, I became part of the organization and took on more and more teaching. I was also soon promoted to program leader for the MA programs, while also developing new ones for schools around the world, as well as ensuring that our academic partners in the UK would approve potential new MA programs for the Paris school.
Working at the mid-level of an international organization, with strong ties to the local Paris fashion industry – the school had its head office in Milan and departments in Paris, London, and Shanghai, while continually expanding to other countries as well – was both enriching and exhausting. I had trouble sleeping due to stress, there was little time to eat and all hours of the day (and night) were focused on work. Parallel to my position at the school, I was engaged in a variety of different projects for fashion brands and cultural institutions, working as a writer for different magazines, regularly traveling back to Sweden to work at four different universities, all the while also making time for staff meetings in Tunisia and Morocco. It is hard to be present in the now when you are always on your way, and I began to wonder why I worked the way I did. My initial worry that I would not find work was now turning into anxiety based on the fact that I had too much of it.
One of the reasons I did so many parallel projects is that as the first person to complete a PhD in Fashion Studies, I lacked the confidence that other people found this field – or more particularly, my expertise – interesting. Every time someone offered for me to be part of a project I thought it would be the last time. But, gradually I came to realize that having a theoretical perspective on fashion was also of interest to the industry. Many companies and key players were interested in what an academic approach to fashion could entail, and in just a few years, I collaborated on a gender-blurring capsule collection within the H&M conglomerate, wrote a fashion-themed cookbook, worked for the Swedish embassy in London, the Swedish Institute in Paris, and paired up with several different museums all over Sweden, in addition to industry projects with companies such as Promostyl, Givenchy, and Vetements that I supervised at the university in Paris. But, I was quickly losing the joy of working, having turned myself into an almost mechanical figure, working relentlessly on different tasks but not knowing why or with what results, as I always had to move on to the next project without pause.
In life we know two things: that we once were born and that we one day will die. What we do in between these two facts is uncertain. More specifically, why we do what we do and how we make sure these chores have meaning is what we spend our lifetime trying to figure out. I knew I wanted to work theoretically within the field of fashion, but the heavy administrative duties, staff responsibility, the many international flights and the constant fear of being in the wrong country when a meeting was taking place were all signs that things needed to change.
Just two years after I moved to Paris, I was in Florence, where the school I worked for had rented a palace by the river to host a great party. I remember sitting in a beautiful Renaissance ballroom having a three-course dinner, waiting for the clock to strike midnight. That was the sign that my contract, which I had refused to prolong, would end. When it happened, I quietly got up from my chair, left the palace and went home to my hotel room, without even saying goodbye. Back in Paris, I deleted all my e-mail accounts connected to my old work place and cleaned up my computer. I spent the summer unemployed in Paris, watching Hitchcock movies, visiting museums and drinking wine on the terrace.
Based on my own personal work experiences, but also following the ongoing media debate on the role of work in today’s high-technological society, I started to become more and more interested in the organization, practice and symbolic value of work in the creative industries and more specifically, in the field of fashion. Why had I allowed myself to work like this? What was the allure of fashion? In what ways did work in this industry differ from other creative fields? Why do we do what we do for a living?
Soon, I was interviewing stylists, designers, photographers and fashion writers, using the network that I had built up during my years of working nonstop. The concept was simple: I first asked the informant what they did for a living, and then I asked them why. In this way, I could study the narratives concerning work in the field of fashion. Quickly, I realized that the question of work was actually the question of how to define a meaningful life. What we do is interconnected with why, and this unpacks the ideas we have of what we want to spend our time – which literally is our life – doing.
That first study was published in an anthology by Lund University in the south of Sweden, situated in the larger Copenhagen area, which had developed a BA program for Fashion Studies. Soon I was offered a temporary position in the subject, which soon was turned into a tenured position as Assistant Professor.
Strangely enough, Lund is located in the region where I lived as a child. It has been an odd sensation to be back in this place, full of memories but without connections to my present existence. But, I have come to be fond of hearing my own dialect spoken around me, and it is rather strange to know my way around again, after so many years away. Also, shortly after I returned, we received a generous donation to further expand the research aspect of Fashion Studies at Lund University. This will allow me to spend a large part of the next three years working on my latest project, which is a monograph on creative work in the contemporary fashion industry, based in ethnographic fieldwork.
When I look back, I can see the red thread connecting the dots of my life. Deciding to study Ethnology seemed, from a financial point of view, to be an idiotic decision. To pursue a PhD in Fashion Studies even more so. Moving to Paris without a clear plan was borderline stupid, and quitting my position there, having yet again to relocate internationally was reckless. But, all choices I have made have been based in my desire to know more about the world, to further my education and to sharpen my expertise. The reason I have been successful so far is that I am driven by the need to continually develop and grow. Through my experiences I have realized that the most important aspect to working is to know why you do what you do. In what ways does your work matter, to yourself and to the greater community? What problems do you strive to solve? What solutions do you offer? By having a reason for doing a particular kind of work, you have articulated your driving force, and this force will open doors you didn’t even know existed.
This past fall, outside of my work at Lund University, I have also worked at Stockholm University and Beckmans College of Design. I was a fashion writer for Bon magazine, both online and in print. I was the fashion editor at Plaza magazine. I made the plan for how Sweden will promote fashion through all our embassies and consulates around the world. I was copywriter for the rebranding of furniture brand Swedese. I planned one of the largest national ad campaigns in Sweden. I worked with the Swedish consulate in Istanbul in promoting a feminist perspective on fashion, analyzed the fashion at the Nobel dinner for Swedish television, participated in a fashion exhibition in Stockholm and planned an upcoming international exhibition on fashion styling that I will curate with Dr. Ane Lynge-Jorlén in 2018. I also collaborated on a number of other fashion-related projects, with a number of different partners.
I know what my career has looked like up until this point, but I have no idea what lies ahead. The donation covers my research for the next three years. What will fashion studies will have evolved into by then? Or, more to the point, what kind of work I will have the opportunity to engage in, and in what places in the world? For me, as long as the work in itself has meaning and it in some way helps develop the society that I am part of, the exact nature of the chores is of lesser importance.
Editor's Note: Thumbnail photo by Amanda Mann for NG.se.