A conversation with Pascale Gatzen feels like attending an inspiring lecture by an animated professor. She talks with captivating rhetoric about the state of the current fashion industry and how she relates to it as a person and through her work. Gatzen’s work exudes an introverted beauty. This beauty is accompanied by a fascinating story that rewrites the rules of the contemporary fashion industry.
The dazzling catwalk
‘Today’s fashion industry is an outmoded system. A good example is the catwalk show, which has been elevated to a kind of exclusive reality: a reality that is within reach of only a handful of fashion professionals. But fashion comes from us all. It is an expression of who we are, of our time and our culture.’
Gatzen believes that although fashion designers may translate the impulses they receive, that is not fashion’s starting point. Fashion is not outside us: we are fashion. We live and experience fashion and thus we continuously make fashion together. ‘That’s what I love about fashion. It’s about inspiration. It’s about our position in society and how we relate to others. It’s a natural process that is especially evident in a group of people who have been together for a long time. Within such a group a language develops and that is anything but an exclusive reality. It’s a natural process of inclusivity.’
The Temporary Fashion Museum is showing Gatzen’s project With Light: five woven jackets for which she developed a special thread in partnership with local craftspeople in the Hudson Valley in Upstate New York. The design of each jacket stemmed from the different weaving techniques used in the production of the fabric. ‘I can’t do anything with a simple piece of cloth. That doesn’t work for me. My collections are primarily about construction: how a garment is put together. There is always a transparent relationship between the inside and the outside. And in the case of the five jackets, everything is interlinked. The surface of a jacket is determined by the connections between the different weaving techniques and the connections between one component of the pattern and another, not by a predetermined design.’
There are 150 hours of labour in each jacket, made in partnership with five friends. In this way Gatzen has, as it were, established her own worker cooperative. ‘When I first encountered a worker cooperative, I thought: now is the time to develop an activity with an economic basis.
A cooperative is a perfect hybrid model in which we can learn to be active citizens once again. We no longer know what it is to contribute to society, how to devise and organise our lives.
A worker cooperative is primarily about the needs and aspirations of its members. It’s about personal development, not increasing profit margins. And that was the first time I thought I could become a business enterprise, because it is for the benefit of a group of people and also makes a contribution to shifting the paradigm of the contemporary fashion industry, which is so stuck right now.’
The capitalist system has worried Gatzen for some time. The only thing fashion is currently producing is money: the production of financial value. Gatzen believes that we are no longer producing human values, in any case not in the big fashion houses. Designers are moved around like pawns on a chessboard from one investment opportunity to another. Fashion has become big business intent upon making as much money as possible through clever marketing techniques. This paradigm employs purchasing power to guarantee both the exclusivity – the divine status of the designer – and the accessibility of a brand. The bright lights of the catwalk blind us to what is really happening around us. And that includes Gatzen. ‘In my twenties I was creating a name for myself in Paris, in the international fashion industry. I wanted to be the best. I had learned that in Arnhem. And then when I was twenty-nine I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t go on. My body refused to make clothes. I had been completely swallowed up by a narcissistic mechanism in which, despite the successes, I constantly felt I had to prove myself because it was never good enough. My work had developed enormously but I had absolutely no personal life. It was a long time before I could let go of the idea of having to be the lonely design genius.’
In reaction to the existing paradigm of the fashion industry, Gatzen has developed an alternative design curriculum at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Gatzen encourages her students to explore the relationship between fashion and reality. ‘We express ourselves through our clothes, and fashion is the aspect that connects us. In coming together we experience the unique quality of who we are. It is the place where we make choices and, when there is openness, we inspire each other, because we are moved by each other’s vulnerability or beauty: the extent to which we are open to others. And the beauty is never the big beauty – “the glossy one” – but is always unexpected. The real quality of the connection lies in the open environment within which we cannot reduce things, within which we cannot exert control. Many of my students do not go on to become fashion designers. They discover what makes them happy. And if what you do makes you happy, then you have so much to give. Then you have space for other people. And then partnership is no longer an issue, because you need each other. If we were all conscious of this we would suddenly be able to create an entirely different world together: a world in which we are together, where we feel at home, where we recognise that we are part of each other.’