Advance Copy

De-hierarchising Fashion Education With the Help of Mycelium Networks

19.10.22, Arnhem

This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts.

ArtEZ University teachers, Hanka van der Voet and Chet Bugter, discuss their recent open source paper A Fruiting Body Of Collective Labour: Working Towards A De-Hierarchised System For Fashion Education. The document looks to the collaborative world of fungi and mycelium networks to find inspiration for de-hierarchised models of fashion education. We’ll learn how lichen networks influenced their approach to the management of the Critical Fashion Practices Master’s course and discuss how fashion designers, entrepreneurs and practitioners can encourage more collaborative ways of working.

Advance Copy: I’d like to ask you to introduce yourselves and to tell us about your work at ArtEZ University.

Chet Bugter: I’m the head of program of Master Critical Fashion Practices at the ArtEZ, University of the Arts Arnhem. I worked at the program as a freelance tutor and teacher, I [also] graduated from the program and before that I graduated as a fashion designer from the Art Academy in Utrecht (HKU), Netherlands. I also have my own practice, Bodies Making Meaning where I work with and around the body within the constraints of industrial fashion: how industrial fashion treats the body, how it gives meaning to bodies, and how we can use our bodies to regain agency over these representations.

AC: What was your personal path into the industry?

Chet: My journey towards fashion was a very typical one of dreaming to become like Viktor and Rolf or any other big Dutch fashion designer. It comes from this very fantasy-rich, dreamlike idea of fashion. But I very quickly found out that it’s not what I value in fashion. It’s more the many different layers that are underneath these star designers and collections and the many possibilities garments bring in interacting with people and building relationships with other people.

Hanka van der Voet: I teach at ArtEZ Master of Critical Fashion Practices. I’m not trained as a fashion designer; I have a bachelor and Master in Cultural Studies with a focus on Media Studies. I did the Critical Fashion program (back then called Fashion Strategy) after working as an editor at Glamcult magazine. I’m a researcher for the ArtEZ Fashion Professorship which you might know from the publication Dissolving the Ego. And I have my own practice, which revolves around critical fashion publishing. I make Press and Fold | Notes on making and doing fashion. I initiated the Warehouse Review which is published by the platform Warehouse | A Place for Clothes in Context of which I’m one of the co-founders, together with Femke de Vries and Elisa van Joolen. And together with Femke, I also created the workshop and zine A Magazine Reader, which is about the deconstruction and reconstruction of a mainstream fashion magazine.

AC: Could you introduce us to ArtEZ as a university and an educational platform?

Hanka: ArtEZ is one of the biggest art schools in the Netherlands. Master in Fashion Strategy started from a course you could do if you graduated as a fashion designer [and were] looking to develop a strategic perspective on your practice, more business and industry oriented. Over the years it’s been evolving into the Master in Critical Fashion Practices. Chet and I were part of this change that helped us in thinking [about] fashion education and what it should be rather than what it is.

AC: In 2022, you published an open source paper, A Fruiting Body Of Collective Labour. Could you give us the top line of what it explores and where the idea for the subject came from?

Chet: It coincided with us working towards a new course vision for the Master. We both felt the need to bring this out into the world, to put this in the context of other fashion education philosophers. What was interesting in writing this paper is that it brought together a lot of unsaid things or implicit knowledge within the course and within the team of the course and made it explicit and gave us something to use as a tool to show to the world what this course is about.

Hanka: For context, there were some scandals that happened within the arts education and fashion education system in the Netherlands. Where abuse from students, teachers and mentors came to light within the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague and at the Fashion Institute in Amsterdam. Around that period, an Instagram account called Call Out Dutch Art Institutions appeared where people could anonymously share their stories of abuse, racism, et cetera. It also happened in a period of Covid lockdowns as well as the Black Lives Matter movement coming to the fore. All these things together made us realise how fucked the arts education and specifically fashion education system is and how much abuse of power is going on. Everyone has a story, and we laugh our trauma away. It is actually not funny at all, just super tragic once you discover it’s systemic. That was the context which we were experiencing, and it seemed [appropriate] to put it into words and to publish it.

“This paper tries to provide a metaphor for de-hierarchising fashion design education through the mycorrhizal network or through the mycelial network.”

AC: Could you summarise what a Fruiting Body of Collective Labour is about?

Chet: This paper tries to provide a metaphor for de-hierarchising fashion design education through the mycorrhizal network or through the mycelial network. Fungi networks are very much capable of de-hierarchising the way in which they are structured. And if you put that network over fashion design education it gives you a lot of possibilities to do the same: not putting one person on top of the network, but instead seeing every player within the network as an important node-like connection point where many different threads come together and then go on. Because of this de-hierarchised approach, you open your pedagogic view on design education to a lot of very relevant and important perspectives that are quite often ignored within fashion design. We move from the idea of the mycelial network as a new foundation for fashion design education into how this new foundation can lead to the application of, for example, anti-capitalist or decolonial perspectives within fashion design education.

AC: What you are doing is also quite off the moment as there is a lot of fresh literature, authors and speakers who are applying this idea of using nature’s existing systems to solve a wide variety of problems in the world. A Fruiting Body of Collective Labour specifically looks at different fungi networks for inspiration.

Chet: One of the most important ones is the mycorrhizal networks, a specific sub genome of fungi. And those are the fungi that we all know about that are in between the roots in forests, for example, that make sure that trees in a forest can ‘talk’ to each other. Then you have the lichen which are one of the most prolific organisms in the world. It’s the greenish stuff that [grows] on the trees. They are a symbiosis between plants and fungi and have this symbiotic approach of collective labour and working together to establish their networks and presence.

“Mushrooms are of the moment, people are talking about fungi, whether it is through micro dosing, as a representation on garments or as a material.”

AC: How did you go about researching and bringing the paper together?

Hanka: The writing of the paper was a really organic progression of conversations we had within the team and between Chet and me. Like you said, mushrooms are of the moment, people are talking about fungi, whether it is through micro dosing, as a representation on garments or as a material. I had read The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, a book about a specific type of mushroom and how it can provide a perspective on living on what she calls “capitalist ruins”. Chet and I firmly believe that capitalism is not going to solve our problems. So, thinking with capitalism is not going to be helpful in tackling problems such as racism, climate, and disaster.

AC: Something that holds the whole paper together is de-hierarchisation.

Hanka: You have to acknowledge that hierarchies exist within fashion education. We function within the institution that is ArtEZ and within that we have to follow certain structures. We try to show with this paper that there are possibilities to, at least, create some awareness of what these structures are and how to create symbiosis or a coming together within that structure; a realisation that we can thrive together.

“This project, our practices, and our teachings are rooted in anti-capitalist thought and the idea that capitalism will not better your life.”

AC: Could you share some hands-on examples of how a part of the course, or a workshop might look like when we use the metaphor of a mycelium network instead of a hierarchical system in education?

Hanka: It’s important to say that this project, our practices, and our teachings are rooted in anti-capitalist thought and the idea that capitalism will not better your life. Reframing this course, we decided to specifically position it outside of industrial practice. That means that we don’t cater to or position ourselves within the fashion industry because there are so many other types of fashion that don’t exist within the fashion industry that need attention. This is the ground on which we built our educational program and our own practice that informs all our teachings and workshops.

Chet: This anti-capitalist or non-industrial approach is seminal to each aspect of the course and the classes that are given, but also in how assessments are made. Assessments are not built upon [whether] a project is going to be viable within the fashion industry, which is often the most important assessment within fashion education. Another important aspect is how we have structured our way of teaching and interacting with our students or ‘participants’ as we try to call them. Because one of the ways to get past this teacher/student hierarchy, which is one of the easiest to de-hierarchise, is if you just start calling yourself differently and behave in a different way.

What we try to do within the course is to grow this learning community and to make [it] safe for participants interacting with the course. One of the most concrete examples is that we have moments during the year where we collect direct feedback from participants on the course and we try to employ this feedback and make sure that participants can share with us how they are feeling within their educational process. Connected to this are certain roles created within the course. It’s quite normal to have a group coach or a study trajectory mentor and we try to make this person a spokesperson for the participants, to be a bridge between the still existing hierarchy of assessors and the people being assessed. We have tried to find ways for these fungal-inspired rooted networks within the educational approach.

“Focusing on collaboration or cooperative ways of working together opens your world to a lot of extremely valuable perspectives.”

AC: To pick up on what you said about the importance of language, most brands use very classic job titles: Director, Executive, Managers, Assistants, and Interns. Would changing these titles help to address the hierarchy in the fashion industry?

Chet: What needs to happen first is a very abrupt moving away from this idea that’s within any fashion brand, whether independent or not, that there is only one person that is the genius. Before giving new names, this whole paradigm needs to be shaken up. Changing the titles will not change anything because it will further mystify the hierarchy that is there.

Hanka: The language needs to represent something tangible because otherwise it’s just branding or greenwashing.

AC: Are there any tools or advice from your learnings and from your thinking in this mycelium-like way, that entrepreneurs or fashion designers who wish to be more conscious could apply?

Hanka: We talked about language, and I think language is super important, but it does need to represent concrete action. For example, there’s a lot of talk about sustainable fashion, but honestly fashion is never going to be sustainable. The most sustainable thing is to not make and buy fashion. We have enough clothes already going around and we can live off this clothing production for years if we just take time to repair, hand stuff down and share garments that don’t fit anymore with other people. It’s not realistic to stop production altogether but I think it’s important to think about the afterlife of a garment. And maybe avoid the word ‘sustainable’ but be transparent in the actions that you are taking and make the [backend] visible: who is making the garments? Are they well paid? I think those are some important steps to take.

If you’re talking in general about making new systems, and functioning within or outside of capitalism, there are so many models. For example, work as a cooperative so that means sharing resources but also sharing profit. There are several ways in which you can work where you can work collaboratively, share burden collaboratively, but also deal with profit collaboratively. Self-organise and find your peers because it’s useless doing things alone. That’s just not the reality of living.

Chet: Even though we have a very anti-capitalist perspective, we are also aware that we are still living within capitalism because it’s inescapable. If you try to live by those alternatives and try to build your business, or your design practice, around this I think that can give you more than just an ethical company. It can help you to find your place within the world and connections to other people. Focusing on collaboration or cooperative ways of working together opens your world to a lot of extremely valuable perspectives. Besides from the business aspect, also on an interpersonal level, it can give you a lot. Especially when, for example, dealing with trauma from education. That’s the advice I would give people: don’t try to continue working in the way that you were taught, but really try to solve this by finding others that have had the same issues and look [at] how you can move beyond them collaboratively or collectively.

“I would really love to see the body regaining its power over fashion or taking back what has been taken away from non-normative bodies by fashion.”

AC: Something you explore in the paper is this idea of having multiple universes of fashion. How do you imagine a world of multiple fashion systems?

Hanka: There are existing multiple fashion systems, it’s just that we lack the acknowledgement of them. When we say fashion, we think about industrial fashion because that’s what we’ve been fed through the fashion media. Fashion that is in the high street shops, on the catwalk, in the museum, et cetera. Those are the forms of fashion we are familiar with. But there’s also self-made fashion – that’s a system in itself. There is repairing fashion, which is also a whole ecology. There is critical fashion practice, which is something that Chet and I practice and that is practiced within our Master program, which is a combination of outside the system fashion, scholarship, and activism.

By talking about these other forms of fashion within our program, within our practices and within the publications we’re trying to create space and talk about [them]. They’re kept in the dark by mainstream fashion media because they don’t function within a capitalist or economic model of profit. That’s a pity because they’re as valuable or even more valuable to talk about and think through. Through discussing all these different viable [ways], maybe not in the economic sense, but ‘viable’ as in healthy and fun and generous, maybe we can reduce the power and the dominance of the industrial fashion system.

Chet: My dream scenario is indeed continuing what is already happening now. Shedding light on this existing multiplicity of fashion systems. But personally, I would really love to see the body regaining its power over fashion or taking back what has been taken away from non-normative bodies by fashion. One of the most toxic things fashion has done is create this idea that this ongoing mistreatment of bodies is normal in all aspects. Both in exploitative labour, but also in exploitative representations of bodies within the many different facets of fashion. What we need to do is self-organise and create new spaces for these bodies. That’s what I try to do in my own practice. We have very nostalgic feelings about these moments during our education where there were no expectations, where you were just doing. That’s a way of doing fashion that is becoming quite interesting to me again. It fits within this idea of mycelium network, giving yourself all the possibilities, not restricting yourself by a certain concept, goal, profit, or funding.


The paper discussed in this interview, A Fruiting Body Of Collective Labour: Working Towards A De-Hierarchised System For Fashion Education, is a free resource available to enjoy here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.