Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review of “The Next Black” - Mending, Disrupting, and Marketing the Future of Fashion

"Shouldn't there be something more progressive than design and style changes? Shouldn't there be innovation that alters the entire concept of clothing?"

These words narrate the early minutes of “The Next Black,” a short film directed by House of Radon (a Sweden-based advertising agency) for household appliance manufacturer AEG. The questions frame a 45-minute documentary that attempts to distill a common purpose from design studios, consultancies, inventors, and DIY repair experts pursuing innovations in fashion, in one manner or another.

The “should” statements also evoke the ambivalence of the film - for what purpose should fashion change? What problems can best be solved by design? How do advances in one realm of fashion production or aesthetics or repairability influence the broader ethical concerns of consuming responsibly?

“The Next Black” centers upon a series of case studies of the future of fashion. These case studies begin in the realm of delightful and strange design – from developing wearables to monitor peak athletic performance and creating ethereal bubble-couture-art for Lady Gaga, to growing bio-fabrics in little containers. Midway through, the film pivots to focusing on the climate impact of recent “fast fashion trend” which has encouraged wastefulness, overconsumption, and environmental damage. The film profiles interventions such as water-free fabric dyeing techniques, promotional campaigns to encourage re-use and mending, and organizations that empower individuals to understand how to care for items increasingly seen as disposable and unfixable (this rings especially relevant in 2017 as IFixIt and other organizations advocate for right to repair legislation especially in the electronics sector).

While each case study is beautifully rendered with soft-focus camera work and wonderful transitions between segments, the film is less successful at demonstrating connections between the various segments and their broader significance. How might wearables help increase the lifespan of clothes, for example? Could bio-fabrics be used by individuals to chemically design (and perhaps then 3-D print) their own clothes?

The film also fails to show any diversity in the individuals and communities involved in producing this fashion innovation – every interviewee is white, and the only people of color shown are factory workers and street merchants. And rather than show a more diverse or intricate portrait of the issues being raised, the film instead has a tendency to ignore analysis in favor of lingering on textures and colors, which are admittedly quite beautiful (the juxtaposition of cell-like shapes and an interview about water supply pollution and sumi-e paintings of interviewees in the outro both come to mind).

It is through this uncomplicated reliance on design and aesthetics for their own sake that “The Next Black” betrays its origin as an agency-produced piece of media created to serve a marketing function. House of Radon explains their ambition behind the film in a case study published on their website:

Washing machines aren’t the most glamorous subject. So when appliance manufacturer AEG asked us for a concept and campaign platform that would spark interest in the low engagement segment, we thought long and hard about it. After a lot of exploring we asked ourselves a simple question: what’s the most important element of laundry? The clothes, of course.”

“The Next Black” succeeds in raising questions of value to its viewers, but fails to challenge the breathless rhetoric of innovation and inventing the future using technology, or to make a persuasive argument for the everyday impacts of the small design studios it portrays. Just as those “shouldn'ts” hover unanswered in the opening minutes of the film, so too does the film fail to contextualize the statement “one day we will wear the surface of the computer on our bodies,” or explore the limits of advertising campaigns to advance reuse and repair efforts. There are a lot of ideas floated beautifully across the screen here, but the implications are better explored elsewhere.


I'm definitely interested in the idea of learning the skills necessary to repair & maintain clothes over time, and how these practices take root in a commitment to both environmental sustainability and mindful care for everyday items. I'm curious to learn more about the role of digital hardware in aiding slow fashion -- what about wearables that monitor the status of clothes, or 3-D printing your own ultra-reinforced fabrics, or using homemade sensors to map your body and actually create clothes form-fitted to you from scratch? I also really enjoyed Brittany McCrigler of IFixIt's reflections on teaching people repair techniques. Her work at IFixIt seems to combine threads of community-based education, technical writing, and DIY/maker ethos in this really wonderful way, and it definitely makes me curious about maker-adjacent or maker-overlapping fields for a future career. It's all rad stuff!

1 comment:

  1. I think your point on diversity is a fantastic one! The only people of color we see in this movie are the Thai workers in the segment about dry dye, who do not really speak. It's another problem of diversity I noticed: one in the job roles of the interviewees. Fashion is rather notorious for its poor treatment of foreign workers, none of whom we actually see, but that was a lot of time we spent with designers and owners, wasn't it.