We all have superhero powers
By Jessica Smulders Cohen
I was brought up straddling multiple continents, with a childhood in Southern Africa, my teenage years in Italy, and yearly visits to Canada to see family. Being born into a family of travelers has instilled in me a respect for multiple cultures, and I have met many inspiring people along the way. The careers of my parents also had a big influence: My father is an agricultural economist for the United Nations, and my mother worked for NGOs in the field of environmental toxicology. Both always encouraged my creativity and inspired a celebration of the environment and the people with whom we share our planet.
I have always had an interest in textiles, but it was in my first year of university that I decided I didn't want to make dresses or curtains. I was fascinated by the world of constructed textiles, and the machines that made cloth. So my final piece featured the air-compressed run Jacquard loom I spent most of my time on at Goldsmiths. If I hadn't done a degree in Fine Art, I would have studied environmental science or international development. I have always cared about our world and the people who live in it, so when I discovered Sustainable Design I decided I wanted to use my creativity to make a difference. Other projects I care about include Visible Mending, which is part of a wider movement celebrating the art of fixing in response to our global waste problem; The Kente Weavers of Ghana, an ongoing project about the people I spent two summers with, learning about their cloth culture; and A Fibreshed for London, my thesis project exploring the potential for a natural, locally produced wardrobe in the city. These have all stemmed from a love of textile culture and the need to nourish and preserve ancient techniques.
The very moment I realized the unsustainability of our current fashion and textiles system, I wanted to use my skills to change it. Most recently, I have decided to set up a design consultancy that will address this problem, so watch this space! I would like to help convince the industry that there is a better way of doing things. As a woman, when most women in the world contribute to the fashion and textile production line in some way or another (definitely as a consumer, if not a producer), I believe we have a real chance to make changes, to increase its sustainability, for everyone's benefit. We all wear clothes, sleep under sheets, and use cloth in our everyday lives. The sustainability of this sector affects us all, and its current unsustainability is already having hugely negative environmental and human impact.
I had the privilege of meeting fellow female warrior Helen Storey at Kingston University whilst on my MA course. Not only is she the very image of a stylish, intelligent woman of grace, she has completely changed her life and her design practice to embody the issues around climate change and refugees. Her current project, Dress For Our Time, and the work she does with women in the Za’atari camp in Jordan is phenomenal. I remember reading a blog she wrote for the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at LCF a couple of years ago, in which she issued a call, saying, "We need new songs!" I completely agree — we need to write new futures, we need new inspiration, and we need new narratives to talk about what we would like to see in the world. She describes having conversations about the future with fellow colleagues "as if I've turned up too early to discuss their funeral arrangements and any meaningful conversation has shut down quite fast." She has inspired me to have the difficult conversations, not to live in denial, and to step up and make a difference now — as there is absolutely no time to waste.
Creativity almost always involves overcoming self-doubt, as one has to nurture the confidence to do something new. Like a lot of creatives, I have also suffered from depression, which is the epitome of self-doubt. I think these moments are important, as they remind us of our vulnerability. There is only one way to go when you’re down — up! It is a slow and often painful process, but I believe that it makes us stronger; the journey back up defines us, as we have to stand up for what we believe in. This confidence is rewarding, and is always achieved with the support of close friends and family. Sometimes you need to be reminded of why people believe in you to convince yourself that what you are doing is important.
The biggest impact on my life so far has been my Bipolar Affective Disorder diagnosis, which I received last year. 2017 was the worst year of my life, and having come out the other end of it I feel grateful to be here and ready to work hard to make a difference in what I believe in. I think that weakness, especially when it comes to mental health, is really stigmatized, especially in the world of work. We are expected to be active and thrive consistently; it is bad practice to have any gaps in our CVs, for example. The nature and necessity of rest are often overlooked. Taking a year out to recover from an episode of mania and the worst depression I've ever had seemed like the healthiest choice. Luckily I was eligible for benefits, and my parents and partner covered the rest. However, I always think that if we lived in a society that offered a fixed, universal income, we would be able to take time when we needed it and still be able to survive. There is a long way to go still toward appreciating an individual as a holistic being, and what this means for our working life.
A friend once told me I was her superhero. At first I thought she was being silly — what could I possibly be doing that inspired her so much? But then I realized the importance of those around us believing in what we do, and the perspective they have to value it. If you want to make a difference in the world, you have to first convince your nearest and dearest. So my advice would be to figure out what you can do as a superhero in your immediate family, in your closest friendship group, in your community — and do it! We all have superhero powers. The biggest thing you can do besides deciding to make a change is inspiring change in others.
The biggest challenge I have found is shaping my career. I know where I want to make change, but it is hard to materialize this calling. I have found it hard finding a balance between the satisfaction of making, and the realization that my design skills are probably put to better use in changing systems rather than designing more fabric. I also often feel very alone. There are a lot of people doing research in sustainable fashion, and more and more young designers starting ethical brands. But what about the H&Ms of this world? It is all very well campaigning — asking brands to be transparent about their worker wages, for example, which Fashion Revolution does very well — but it is a broken system. How are we going to change, and what will we replace bad practices with?
Who will change the minds of the consumers, who ultimately have the biggest power: purchasing power? I think the flip side of this is the rewarding bit: There is so much scope for change, it is a designer's paradise. We need to redesign the system, and seeing this as potential — a challenge, yes, but one we can rise to — is very exciting. Change-makers have the best chance at rewarding careers, in my opinion. I'm striving to be one of them.
Jessica Smulders Cohen is a designer, weaver, writer, and sustainability advocate. She is most well known for her work with The Kente Weavers of Ghana, and for founding A Fibreshed for London in 2015. Her newest project, NIMA, is in the early stages of conception, but will operate as a sustainable design consultancy for fashion and textiles. Follow @jessweaves.
Words: Jessica Smulders Cohen