An interview with Anneke Smelik

Anneke Smelik's photo

Photo by Ineke Batist

Anneke Smelik is Katrien van Munster professor of Visual Culture at the Radboud University Nijmegen, where she is coordinator of the MA programme ‘Creative Industries’. She published widely on issues of identity, body, memory and technology in fashion, cinema, and popular culture. Recent (co-)edited books include Delft Blue to Denim Blue: Contemporary Dutch Fashion (I.B. Tauris, 2017); Materializing Memory in Art and Popular Culture (Routledge, 2017) and Thinking Through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists (I.B. Tauris, 2016). Anneke Smelik is project leader of the research programme ‘Crafting Wearables: Fashionable Technology’ (2013-2018), funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

See: www.annekesmelik.nl

You just won the 2017 Radboud Science Award. What is your main line of research? What is your current focus in this field?

The Radboud Science Award is about translating my research in fashion studies to primary school children; this is very new and exciting. And quite a challenge to work with small children!

My main line of research concerns the creative industry of fashion, especially in relation to issues of identity and material culture. In my most recent work I have proposed a new-materialist framework for fashion studies. The ‘material turn’ has gained substantial recognition in social and cultural research over the past decades, but has received less attention in fashion studies. At the same time fashion hardly ever figures in scholarship on new materialism. The interdisciplinary field of new materialism highlights the role of non-human factors in the field of fashion, ranging from raw materials (cotton) to smart materials (solar cells) and from the textility of the garment to the tactility of the human body. New materialists work from a dynamic notion of life in which human bodies, fibres, fabrics, garments, and technologies are inextricably entangled. The context of new materialism is posthumanism, which entails both a decentring of the human subject and an understanding of things and nature as having agency. The key concept is thus material agency, involving a shift from human agency to the intelligent matter of the human body as well as the materiality of fabrics, clothes and technology. The insight of material agency is important for acknowledging the pivotal role of technology in fashion design today, allowing greater attention for the material aspects of high-performance fibres and smart fabrics.

I have just finished working on a case study of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. From a new-materialist perspective, Iris van Herpen’s high-tech and 3D-printed designs can be understood as hybrid assemblages of fibres, materials, fabrics and skin that open up engaged and meaningful interconnections with the human body.

You have published several books in the past years. Can you tell us more about them?

This year I finished a trilogy on cultural memory with my colleagues at the Radboud University, but here I will concentrate on my work on fashion.

With a colleague from the London College of Fashion, Agnès Rocamora, I have edited a volume in 2016 that discusses the thought and concepts of major thinkers, from Marx to Deleuze, and Bakhtin to Foucault, etc., and their relevance for understanding the field of fashion today. We think Thinking through Fashion makes an important and much-needed theoretical contribution to fashion studies. The field of fashion, from production to consumption, is very complex and highly globalized, and we need equally complex and wide-ranging theories to ‘think through’ its many issues.

In 2017 I published a really gorgeous and glossy book on contemporary fashion in the Netherlands, with lots of colourful pictures! I’m quite proud of this book, which is the result of a five year long research project, financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. It also resulted in four finished PhD’s, all of whom contributed to the book.

Delft Blue to Denim Blue maps the landscape of Dutch fashion in all its rich variety and complexity. The book assesses the diversity of Dutch fashion designers, firms and brands in their historical and cultural context. We extensively discuss the vexed and complicated issue of national identity in relation to clothes. Basically, we argue that in a globalized world all fashion designs are shot through with cultural signs of hybridity. What we consider Dutch comes in fact from elsewhere. For example, Delft Blue earthenware is based on Chinese porcelain; tulips originated in Turkey; and patterns and colours in Dutch regional wear have their roots in Indian chintz. Understanding national fashion identity as a contradictory and multifaceted issue, the book debunks myths surrounding Dutch fashion, digs up new facts and stories, and explores the creative relation to cultural heritage. Delft Blue to Denim Blue is based on solid academic research and gives a rich overview of designers, ranging from G-Star jeans, and affordable retailer C&A, to a savvy brand like Vanilia, and from the famous designer duo Viktor&Rolf to a futuristic designer like Iris van Herpen.

Image of Anneke Smelik's books

Are you currently working on a new title? Can you tell us a bit about this new work?

Yes, my new research is on fashion and sustainability. While reliable statistics are still not available, it is well-known that the fashion industry excels in waste, pollution, and exploitation of human labour and natural resources, due to over-production and over-consumption. In the past decade, scholars in Fashion Studies have highlighted the urgent need to engage systematically with the environmental, social and economic consequences of the globalized ‘fast fashion’ system. Fast fashion emerged at the end of the 1990s and is characterized by rapid changes in style, ever faster cycles of global production and consumption, and ever cheaper products. Achieving change is difficult because of the long supply chain of fashion on the production side and the perpetual quest for the latest trend on the consumer side.

The field of fashion does not only involve complicated chains of material production and consumption, but also pertains to immaterial issues of body images, identity, and social relations Again, I want to bring in the perspective of new materialism. New materialism has underlined how such elements, including identity, are materially embedded, while fashion studies has highlighted the embodied practice of dressing. By bringing those two theoretical perspectives together, my new project accounts for the multifaceted relation between issues of representation and the material aspects of (un)sustainable fashion. This is needed because neither the practice of, nor the scholarship on, sustainable fashion have seriously considered the interaction between the human and non-human factors of the fashion system. By revealing the deep interconnectedness of those aspects, a new-materialist perspective may give direction to the desired change and transformation towards sustainable fashion. Concretely, I want to research two specific elements: rethinking ‘the cult of speed’ and assessing advanced technological developments.