Interview – Ivana Biočina: Mirroring society and the world through textile industry in transition

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Foto: Tomislav Sokač

Ivana Biočina, Master of Textile Technology and Engineering, section Textile Design and Management is the author of the book Modus Vivendi: Assay on political, economic and social in fashion (2014) and The Tyranny of Fashion: Using adornment in search of identity (2016).

She is an awarded author and has also received the Rector’s Award for her work in the theory of fashion (2007). Recently, she has published her third book Made in Croatia. Croatian Textile Industry in Transition, where transition is the main topic of the book.

“Through research and conversation I found a rich source of incredibly interesting data that used the textile industry and its history in various ways as a comparison or example of industrialization and capitalism. In addition, it is inevitably linked to workers’ rights, women’s position, modern society, and the world,” said Ivana in the foreword of her new book.

In addition to the release of her new book, Ivana’s knowledge of fashion, working class and the importance of production represented a natural course of discussion about the textile industry, which proved to be a starting point for consideration and questioning of elements of the system we are witnessing.

Spring and summer collections for this year have already been available in our stores. What does fashion represent to you and how would you describe yourself as a consumer?

Fashion for me represents an interesting aspect of our living, system, culture, politics, production, but also identity. Today, when I think about fashion, burdened with my theoretical knowledge, I look at it as part of the system, as industry, while as a concept it primarily means clothing which changes over time (such approach to clothing emerged as a unique creation during the Renaissance times). Fashion has always been a part of my life, from drawing paper dolls and clothes together with my mother while I was a kid, which was my favourite game, leafing through fashion magazines during my adolescent years, then came sewing, and finally studying and working in fashion industry. While maturing I have discovered the other side of that world, from theory to the actual face of production, and I have completely changed my perception. It should be emphasized that fashion is just one aspect of the textile industry, the one most present in glittering magazines, but in crime news as well, due to the way of textile production, pollution of both people and the environment. Today, as a consumer, I am cautious, and my dearest clothing items are those that I have inherited from my mother and other beloved women. I love objects which tell a story, which are special, which carry some kind of strength; I would even say a kind of magic. Whenever possible, I support ethical and Croatian textile. I am particularly glad to see the return to craft, manufacture and artistry on a global scale.

You can than say that you have developed a certain special relationship with fashion?

Certainly, through my life, my relationship with fashion has changed and evolved. I was lucky to be part of a family where everybody was sewing, my mother and my sister were talented drawers, and my aunt was a great tailor. Through the teens I began to sew clothes, visit fairs, search for fabrics, and interesting clothing items. Another advantage of my teenage years was the fact that there was no fast fashion (mass production of fashion items by popular brands) back then, so we had to come up with different creative ways to express ourselves through clothes. Nevertheless, I was never interested in what was offered through mass production and I always had a clear vision of what I wanted and how it had to look like. That’s why I studied fashion design. The next more radical phase was when in Berlin I sold and donated most of my clothes as an act of liberation and cleansing. Today I still live that phase, but in a healthier balance. I like discovering an interesting garment, but I think twice about whether I really need it. You realize that you do not really need much. Besides, since I’ve been studying the textile industry, I’ve started collecting quality garments from Croatian textile history.

In your latest book, Made in Croatia, you depict Croatian textile industry dealing with processes that affect the world’s most globalized industry, but also its comeback tendencies to Europe with an emphasis on production and not necessarily on the service sector. What is the current state of textile manufacturing and industry in Croatia, and can you share some experience and knowledge related to your research?

Although I assume that the majority of readers would not paint a flattering picture of the Croatian textile industry, but mostly place it in the more gloomy categories, I’m glad to say that such an image is distorted. Croatian textile production has a rich and complex history, and the new 21st century introduced a new period of global market and new endeavours. It is no accident that the textile industry is called “the world’s most globalized industry”. China took over textile production in 1993, and in 2005 it took over the European market. Croatian industry has found itself in the new century, with a new production order moving to China and South East Asia, industry devastated by privatization, lack of government’s vision for industrial policy and then the global financial crisis in 2007. Since 2005, Croatian textile industry had recorded a continuous decline in all indicators and in 2013 it hit the bottom. Then, since 2014 the negative trend has stopped. It experienced the biggest change and hope in 2016 when there was a return of textile production to Europe. The factories that survived function within new perspectives and visions and act on the European and even global markets. Textile has radically changed over the past decade, European consumers are no longer driven towards mass, cheap products, but show tendency towards personalized products of better quality, while production is geared towards specialized and small series production. The market for technical textiles is the strongest, accounting for one third of the total European production, but there are also successful examples in the production of high quality clothing and high added value. Increased importance of innovation and flexibility of the process, specialization, sustainability, development of new markets and products for market niches with higher added value is emerging, and the Croatian textile industry emphasizes the importance of investing in branding and technology and directing it to a clearly targeted consumer group. There are Croatian examples of excellent factories and good management which understands the industry and the market. Our huge problem was the fact that in the nineties there was no primary production, the only good example was the Regeneracija factory which recycles textile and has its own raw material. Namely, it is cheaper to produce raw materials than to import them.

The research lasted for three years and we visited factories and institutions all over Croatia, from factories that produce clothing for well-known fashion brands, to recycling plants, technical textiles, public sector, and the lohn production. We talked with workers, managers, trade unionists, economists, plant managers, designers, constructors, professors. Visions are many and different, but again they all emphasize the same problems and solutions in a certain way. This only confirms that there is a future for this industry and that we should not give up on production and textiles as the textile industry in Europe is the second largest exporter in the global market, right after China. Sweden today provides special government incentives to open a textile company and promotes investment in textiles, and Germany’s textile and clothing industry has identified itself as one of the leading industries. Also, we should not abandon the textile industry because it produced the largest number of unemployed women after the closure of textile factories registered at the Labour Exchange as permanently unemployed. Previous measures have shown that retraining of these female workers is quite unsuccessful and it is most realistic to re-employ them in the textile production. Furthermore, we must realize that we cannot rely on service activities and push the real sector somewhere in the background. The importance of production has not been reduced in developed countries as it means a drop in exports, productivity, competitiveness and slower growth. The state must have strong, good, powerful production. We missed the first wave of returning the industry through the 1990s because there was war, transition and destruction, now we have a new opportunity and I hope we will seize it. What the future brings, I do not know, but I hope we will show that we care for our production.

Where is the industrial heritage here? England has several examples of converting industrial objects into museums while IBA Emscher Park is well-known in Germany as an example of creative approach to physical planning and heritage. For example, the Nada Dimić Factory has neither been converted or used the city space nor it has been regarded as an architecturally and aesthetically significant object or a new cultural resource.

The problem of transition and privatization in the nineties finally broke at the industry that was destroyed due to attractive real estate in the city centre later transformed into office and residential buildings. In the 1950s, Zagreb became the Yugoslav centre of fashion and factories were opened in the very centre of the city, which would later be one of the decisive factors of their destruction. Of course, the industry did not need to be damaged to such extent and if privatization had not been conducted as it was and if the state had been more sensitive to elaborate a framework that would have kept production to some extent, things would have been much better. One giant factory possesses over the years and decades accumulated knowledge, experience and investments and has generated many small businesses alongside. Why are these today private sector business establishments? You just have to look around and think who the owners of these establishments are. For years I visited “Vesna”, a former ready-to-wear factory in the very centre of Zagreb, it’s a huge complex, and some ten years ago, it was possible, although you needed certain connections, to enter and bear witness to past times. The factory was devastated, but there were still patterns all over design and fabric cutting plant, as if the time had stopped and the workers left the factory in the middle of the work, not knowing they would never come back. Today “Vesna” factory is waiting to be converted into an office and residential premises. It is sad to witness this collapse, from factories to small businesses. I hope that things will start moving, that we have learned the lessons from history and that we are ready to join the new wave and that production will once again come to the fore and be part of a better, brighter future.

Is fashion a terror of choice? Do we suffer from FOMO syndrome that is the fear of missing out, let’s say some fashionable detail or a new dress that our favourite brand has just launched? How much individualism is there at all and are we too obsessed with fashion trends?

Well, we are of course. And I would say that there is no individualism at all, but only apparently when we identify ourselves with objects, we become the very image and we become objects ourselves. This constant buying and obsession, even blindness, persists because creating your identity through an object does not work. In Croatia we are witnesses of an interesting transition from consumer socialism to neoliberal capitalism and a full-fledged consumer society. As I said, as I was growing up in Croatia, there were no popular global fashion brands in our shops, there are certainly readers who remember shopping tours to Trieste, which was mostly done by my mother and sister, and for my generation it was going to Graz. Now, when we are still new in neoliberal capitalism, we have this feeling of abundant offer and we crave for mass, cheap clothes. But in the West, the consumer, as I have already mentioned, has changed greatly because they are saturated with low-quality fast fashion garments. Also, people have started to reflect on their relationship with garments and to think more deeply about their identity. If we associate our self with objects, it will be as volatile as those objects. I believe we will soon get saturated as well, especially younger generations born in consumerism. But it is exactly the youngest who are the most vulnerable group, and the fashion industry is mostly directed towards them constantly bombing them with images which are supposed to help them shape their identity while they are still trying to figure out who they are, actually. Women have a complex relationship with fashion, as well. But I cannot deny that adornment can also be part of something magical. First bodily interventions of prehistoric humans were due to magical purposes, but people of those times were immersed in nature realizing that the world was made of visible and invisible. Of course, the problem arises if we drown ourselves in that visible only and forget that it is not the only image of the world. I believe that beautiful clothes can be a source of joy, creativity and beauty, but it is important to question our relationship with the object never letting it take over our lives and ourselves. That is why education is extremely important, to know where and how these objects were made, which is the other side of the industry, that these objects are cheap for reason and that we can harm ourselves and the environment by accumulating these objects. I know life is complex, busy, and running and it is hard to think about Bangladeshi female workers while we have existential problems on our mind. But today, in a globally connected world, we can no longer claim that it is another world, far from us. Isn’t it devastating that the biggest tragedy in the history of textiles and the deadliest collapse of the plant in modern history occurred in Bangladesh in 2013? Is this a real image of our modern world and the 21st century? On the other hand, this year we have witnessed an example where children in Scandinavia have launched an international school strike for climate, even the initiator of the school strike, Greta Thunberg, a little girl from Sweden, has been nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. We may have been lost a bit, but new generations offer hope and refreshed views of the world waking us from slumber. Isn’t it wonderful?!

Foto: Knjiga “Proizvedeno u Hrvatskoj”

The textile industry has been built at the expense of female workers who often work for low wages in poor conditions, and consumers of these products are women themselves. Most women are placed on the other side of capital – production and consumption, where they still have no great opportunity to change their lifestyle. Can this class status of female workers in the textile industry be somehow overcome so that a female worker is able to buy a product that she has manufactured / produced herself?

This question was asked by workers in Croatia one hundred years ago, and globally even earlier. Since the beginning of industrialization this question has been worrying the workers. Even today, we cannot talk about the textile industry, without emphasizing the issues of class and gender. Let’s go back to the beginning of industrialization when the mass employment of cheap labour, mostly peasants, was used as a political element. Although the factories originally hired men and women alike, with a rapid technological development, the structure of the factories has changed and women become the most eligible employees because given the fact that they have families and children they are ready to work hard and handle everything in order to keep their job. The number of female employees has been increasing ever since, and textile industry is nowadays called “women industry,” as 85 percent of employees are women, and it should be noted that women’s salaries in the industry are 30 percent lower than men’s. Textile industry in Croatia experienced its peak and the biggest burst after 1935, when on the bases of the workers employed, textile industry held the first place. Although the textile industry was the most productive branch of industry female workers wages were below the minimum, while men’s wages were two dinars above the statutory minimum. Even then, workers stressed and criticized the issues of sustainability of an industry which did not allow its workers to be good consumers. They wondered if workers cannot participate in spending and buying products they produce, how can the industry be sustainable? There are numerous surveys and reports where workers deeply question and point out these problems, which have not been solved until today. There is a well-known story about Henry Ford, who doubled the minimum wages of his workers because “happy employees at the same time mean higher profits” and went so far as to argue that increased worker purchasing power caused America’s progress. Through my research, I have met female workers who pointed out that they cannot buy the product they produce and had already spoken to the factory owners telling them that if they could buy the product they would be good consumers. In Croatia, the problem of minimal textile wages is complex, and it is difficult to have a proactive trade-union agenda for a wage increase, as a business policy and a lack of strategy caused minimal wages in the textile industry. Also, in the lohn production of global clothing brands, any increase in wages can redirect a foreign buyer towards cheaper labour markets. Today, in global context, everybody talks about a living wages, the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. Stuck in this vicious circle, seemingly unable to break out of it, consumers are particularly important. By purchasing something we vote on how, what and where it will be produced. Whenever we are in the position, let us support Croatian and ethical textiles, because this is the way to shape the future of production.

It seems that the process which has started alongside industrialization, proliferation of textile industry and emancipation has never been completed. Today, this rise of hypersexuality is bound unconditionally with the notion of freedom and equality. As you write in your book The Tyranny of Fashion, the rise of hypersexualized culture is not a proof that we have achieved full equality; in fact, it reflected and amplified deeper power imbalances in our society.

To begin with, it is necessary to break the myth of emancipated women in the socialist countries, that they emancipated themselves only because they joined the labour market and that because of the high level of employment they achieved equality. It is about illusive equality that hides deeper problems and traditional gender relationships both in the family and life. We should state that the World Economic Forum, just over a year ago, predicted that women would have to wait for more than two centuries for employment inequalities to disappear, and if you follow the predictions, year after year this gap is widening and growing. Women are more likely to be unemployed and unemployable and “feminization of poverty” has been raging. We need a radical political and economic change, not the illusion of freedom expressed through clothing. Certain economists see women as a solution for the future, and there is no doubt that by directing towards a better position of women, the whole society and the economy would blossom. Of course, this is not just a Croatian problem, but a global one. According to Alain Touraine’s theory, society is modern to the extent that equality of the various marginal groups, primarily women, is established. I will return to clothing and manufacturing in Bangladesh, North Africa, Vietnam and Ethiopia – the new epicentre of clothing production, why do we care for clothes, but not for the female workers who produce it? “Coincidently” those are mostly women. As I wrote in my book, future is a noun of the feminine gender, but I also believe that we cannot make progress by being divided and that a better future can only be woven if we are united and together.

Foto: Iz knjige “Proizvedeno u Hrvatskoj”

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