'Taking your time and not feeling like you need to be part of a "moment", or part of your moment even, is important', renegade stylist Ib Kamara says in The Slow Grind, a book curated and published by creative polymath Georgina Johnson in 2020. Kamara's take on the pothole-filled road to creative balance is one that resonates in an industry predicated on burnout, where value is accrued through likes and a whole lot of smoke and mirrors goes on. Sustainability, says The Slow Grind, is just as much about the value we place on our workforce in terms of mental health, and economic and social mobility, as it is about the detrimental impact this trillion dollar global industry has on our earth.
In curating and editing the anthology, Johnson wanted to emphasise the testament of collaboration, which rings as true today as it did when she began the project over two years ago. The industry can't, and won't, change unless it's a group effort; this was highlighted at the recent Cop26 conference in Scotland, where there is still no legal mandate holding brands to their promises to meet the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. Despite the small shifts we saw during the first lockdowns, such as pressing pause on the relentless fashion week cycle and editorial mastheads creating a more inclusive work force, the industry is on track for getting 'back to normal'. With physical menswear fashion weeks gearing up for January, we caught up with Johnson to discuss where the industry stands today.
Hetty Mahlich: How did you first approach putting the book together and what voices did you want to include?
Georgina Johnson: For me, it’s always about a space to create an open dialogue. For all the people involved in the book, whilst the premise of their text is different, the linking thread is thinking about the urgency of the current situation we find ourselves in. The pandemic brought it into the wider public eye; people were more ready for those conversations, but I feel like it’s a situation that we’ve always been facing. It is an intersectional text because it's where all these junctions meet, which is incredibly special, to be able to have so many points of view and it still be accessible to read.
Even though it does have an academic tone a lot of [The Slow Grind] is personal and informal and I like that because it’s good to be able to merge those types of tones of voice, so in terms of curating the book it started with a lot of conversations with people. I spoke to Sumitra Upham (curator and educator) - who at the time was at the Design Museum [she’s now with the Craft Council] - about mental health, specifically in working environments and top level positions, and she wrote a piece for the book that touched on this.
The book is actually a continuation of all my work, an amalgamation of everything I've done, the child of everything I've been working towards. I would never have thought that doing my first zine in 2017, when I didn't know how to publish...I just tried it, kept that attitude through every publishing project I worked on, which led to me publishing a book. It is nice in hindsight to see how these things relate, to build up to this point, to become a bit more confident in this realm.
HM: Do you think that 2020 fostered an atmosphere for some of the subjects The Slow Grind addresses to be discussed more openly?
GJ: A lot of people that I was having conversations with [in 2019] were hesitant to put their ideas down, I think there was the sentiment that if you said something that didn't go with the status quo then your career was somewhat in jeopardy. That, to me, feels like a symbol that those industries are not only cliquey, but they want you to work in a certain way so they can run in a certain way. Initially, I included the names of the designers and design houses that I worked with and my editor said that I could be called out for libel or sued, so I thought we'd make it more anonymous while also hinting to those characters of the design houses.
Then the first lockdown happened. June happened, Black Lives Matter erupted and everyone was calling everyone out and I felt annoyed at myself that I didn't do the same thing because the book had already gone to print. In hindsight, I think it was the right thing to do because all the people in the book are still being incredibly blunt about their experiences, but there is still a level of protection.
HM: How have you seen the behaviour of big fashion brands change since March 2020?
GJ: Now the urgency of the first lockdown has passed and has not been replicated this time round. I think a lot of people feel the disappointment at there not being such a lasting, drastic shift. In one way, it shows that these things don’t last and it’s sad for me, as a black woman who’s part of the black community, that it can feel like your voice is trendy and instrumentalised. It's used for a particular time when people are jumping on the hype and want to be an ally. The support you would’ve gotten last year in June versus now in 2021...It’s unfortunate that you still have to think about protecting yourself.
I am having to work a lot harder to push this conversation this time around, which is strenuous and tiring and it’s not fun. I wish people would just be more aware about how they come across and the fact that these things are just really intrinsic to being progressive. A downfall of conglomerates and big businesses is that you can easily lose meaning in the vastness of it all.
There have been some mainstay positive changes that have come out of that time you know, I do think there are a lot of people that are hanging on to the agency that they cultivated or blossomed during that time, but I do think there is that sense of how precarious things are in Britain at the moment in general. Everything is a melting pot of the environment that we’re in or forced to be in. There isn’t that much safety, so it does feel a lot more precarious.
HM: In The Slow Grind, Ib Kamara talks about the pressure to be part of a 'moment'. How do we resist this and walk our own path?
GJ: In order to break that cycle, there needs to be more transparency and a lot more compassion. People won’t then feel like failing is the end of their career, they might just see it as ‘a part of the journey’. A lot of us are burdened with trying to emulate the propaganda of it all because it feels like the biggest image we have of things. The more people talk about their experiences, the more there’s transparency, and mobility in an economic and social sense. What are we even running towards? If we’re not trying to be ourselves, then we’re trying to be somebody else. I think that is also capitalism in general, right? It wants you to keep pushing forward and keep the machine going.
I am an artist and curator, and ultimately a polymath. I try things and some of them don't work, I try other things and some of them do work. I’m learning not to keep chasing these images and comparisons. I used to be really bogged down by it, but I also think that’s only possible if you have the right kind of support around you because it’s quite difficult to be a solitary voice pushing against things because that can ultimately lead to burn out and lethargy. I really do believe in the collective, and in regards to Ib, he talks a lot about working with his friends, and the support systems they create and then the network that expands through this person working with this person. I think, or I hope, that young people understand the value in the collaborative way of working.
HM: What does the future look like for The Slow Grind?
GJ: I’m confident that I want there to be three books in the series; I’m going to start doing the research for the next book next year and hopefully that’ll be out for 2023. I definitely want to provide a launch pad for anyone that engages with this project, to think about how they can also cultivate hope and imagination in all their work. The first book points to us trying to get more in sync with nature. When we do live in such a fast-paced environment we don’t stop to just look at the little things, and I know the second book will be a lot more about meditating on hope. The Slow Grind podcast will be out next year.