A remembering of culture and community

An exploration of the ambiguity and significance of everyday affordable sustainable clothing

In her Master of Design – Fashion thesis, Leica Johnson explores the ambiguity and significance of everyday affordable sustainable clothing. In the following edited interview with Johnson, she delves into how she approached her research.

“As sustainable fashion designers located in New Zealand, we can move beyond the mainstream environmental impacts of the fashion industry and away from (object-focused) textile concepts. By working towards new approaches and practices in addition to supporting and nurturing our environments, we also work to support our society.

“Critical evaluation of social histories of the fashion industry is required if we are to gain a better understanding of the relationship between present-day social inequalities and fashion related activities.

“Beyond the symbolism of clothes and what they represent to the wearer, my interest lies in producing affordable sustainable product that provide both an emotional and functional purpose.

“What I love about clothes is that we use them as a way to communicate who we are and how we feel on any given day. For me there is agency in clothing in that respect. Clothes also reflect our society, so fast fashion is a perfect example of globalization; it’s a reflection of where we’re at as a society. Clothes allow you to work with individual expression and at the same time address global social and political issues.

“When it comes down to the very heart of what the research was about, the social political aspect of clothing and the unaffordability of sustainable clothes is the focus. Budget consumers are often ignored by the design industry, so I was designing for the budget consumer.

“As part of the Master of Design programme, I took Contextual Review with Rachel Carley and it gave me the time to develop my critical thinking around my previous experiences as a sustainable Fashion Designer. I was able to put my thoughts, experiences and ideas into an academic context.

“After working in industry, I was excited about the opportunity to simply study and develop my thoughts and ideas around past experiences and I was able to find and articulate my voice through the writing. I knew I could do it through clothing, I have been doing it all my life, but the writing of my exegesis is the thing that I am most proud of.

“I developed design thoughts and ideas about what sustainable design is and can be. Most sustainable companies are object focused which means that for clothing they will change the fabric and the object and believe that makes it sustainable and the job is done.

“For me sustainability involves the political, environmental and ethical implications of design. So, it’s as much about approaches and processes as it is outcomes.

“I wanted to develop my thoughts and ideas, my upbringing and my present lived experience of the design industry. I was searching for a home for those and the theory gave me an opportunity to do that. I was able to connect the different aspects of myself and put them into a context so that I knew why I was doing what I was doing and its relevance.

“I did some research around architect and philosopher Tony Fry’s Design. Fry asks the designer to look at the long-term implications of a building and I applied that idea to clothing design, so I considered the present implications and implications in the future as well. It focuses on the work being a politically engaged process rather than just an object focused approach, this became the framework for my project.

“The project was practice-based and involved multiple areas of research such as environmental impacts of the fashion industry as the social, cultural, historical and political aspects of clothing. Action research allowed me to do that, I was able to look at real world issues and resolve them with a practical approach.

“I used sketching and storyboarding, developing 2D illustrated ideas and taking that into 3D and then continually working that 3D. In terms of the writing I probably did multiple drafts of every single paragraph because in the beginning I would write around an issue and not directly to it. I had to learn how to figure out what I was saying and how to write it in the most succinct way and that was really challenging.

“During this process I learned how to write and it gave me agency, because I had thoughts and ideas based on my experience and the ability to write well allowed me to express myself in a more convincing way. Cornelius in the photo studio, Matt in the 3D labs and Fleur in the book bindery were available and willing and supportive whenever I needed them and that was a really nice surprise. It was genuine care, care for their craft and what they were doing.

“I had done all the prototyping and considered every detail; I knew exactly how everything needed to look and be made and the technicians at AUT were incredibly supportive of what I was doing. When you do an undergraduate degree in the fashion department you would say “this is your final collection” it’s not, it’s your first collection. For me, it’s the first iteration of an idea of who you may become as a designer or as a design thinker and post-grad allows you to dig deeper into that and take that to the next step.”

Centre for Design Research
Te Kura Toi a Hoahoa
School of Art and Design

Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau,
Auckland University of Technology


Susan Hedges susan.hedges@aut.ac.nz
Mandy Smith mandy.smith@aut.ac.nz

Authors are responsible for obtaining permission to publish images or illustrations with their papers in CDR; neither editors nor publishers of CDR accept responsibility for any author’s/authors’ failure to do so.

© Centre for Design Research, AUT University 2021