Fashion studies

Conversation with researcher and Vestoj magazine founder Anja Aronowsky Cronberg

In the spring of 2021, the Fashion Department invited Anja Aronowsky Cronberg to talk to students about her experience as the editor of the magazine Vestoj. Cronberg was a pioneer in developing an academic theoretical approach without denying a love for the glamour of fashion. An abridged version of this conversation, led by Aude Fellay, is presented here.

Today, a journal dedicated to critical thinking on fashion doesn’t seem that special. Foucault is now quoted in show notes, yet there was a time when theory was definitely not in fashion. That is why Vestoj, founded by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, broke new ground when it first launched in 2009. By asking writers, designers, artists, theorists and scholars to reflect on a particular topic for each new issue —from masculinity to capital—Vestoj has brought a diverse set of perspectives to bear on fashion. Crucially, by having the industry and academia enter into a productive dialogue, it has helped bridge the gap between theory and practice, and highlighted the various forms that writing on fashion can take. This is an edited excerpt of my conversation with Cronberg (available in full here), which took place in March 2021.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg. Photo: David Myron

 

Aude Fellay: Before we dive into Vestoj, I want to start our conversation by asking you about your personal relationship to fashion.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg: My personal relationship to clothes and to fashion is probably as ambivalent as it is for a lot of other people: I love it, I hate it. But ultimately, I do love playing with clothes. I love thinking about the consumption of clothes – both my own and that of others. I love being part of the industry and seeing how fashion affects me on a visceral, emotional level, rather than on a remote, academic level. The first generation of fashion scholars were often people who came to fashion from other disciplines: sociology, art history, economics, or whatever it might be. They came from these disciplines and applied them to fashion, and yet they are not necessarily people who take pleasure in the consumption of fashion itself, which I do, and I always have. To be a great scholar, enjoying the applied side of your discipline can only ever help.

A.F.: What did you think of fashion when you first started working in the industry?

A.A.C.: I knew early on that I didn’t want to work in academia because I love the industry’s pace, its objects, the networking, the glamour… These are all the things that it represented to me. But I was trying to figure out a way to work in fashion that would also challenge some of its norms, perhaps by looking at it through a more overtly critical lens and incorporating the critical thinking and analysis that I was bringing with me from academia.

When I first went to Acne Studios, I remember going to the company full of ideas about how things should be and what kind of references would make sense and would make the company stronger. I was working in communications for a while, and I edited Acne Paper, a magazine that the company had then. It had a high production value; it was very beautiful and sophisticated. I was trying to bring in an element of fashion or critical theory.

A.F.: What prompted you to start Vestoj? 

A.A.C.: The answer relates to your previous question. It had to do with finding a space for some sort of alternative way of talking about fashion, and particularly finding a space for good, challenging, thought-provoking writing about fashion.

This is something that I found very frustrating in my work, from writing the press releases for Acne Studios, to evaluating what space the text occupied in Acne Paper. I always found that visual language in fashion is prioritised over text. It becomes a vicious circle in a way. There’s an assumption that people don’t read about fashion so there’s no point in putting a lot of effort into the text, which of course means that people don’t want to read it because the quality is poor, and on it goes.

I started Vestoj out of frustration and being annoyed that writing about fashion was of such an inferior quality. It was too much about the same people. Certain stylistic tropes and cliches would always return, from how one might speak about different trends to the questions one might ask a designer. I found it was so formulaic a lot of the time, fifteen years ago when I started working. I thought that starting something new and good in that climate was a no brainer, because there was so little competition. There was academic writing about fashion that was for academics with a particular jargon, published in textbooks that looked dull, with far too little of the visual language onto which the mainstream fashion press put so much emphasis.

With Vestoj, the object itself has a design value. The images are interesting and communicate something about the topic, while at the same time there is high-quality writing that people want to read. I couldn’t believe that it was unique in this way.

A.F.: Was Vestoj welcomed by both the industry and academia?

A.A.C.: It’s interesting because I found that it was very welcomed by academia. I started being invited to conferences; I had primarily positive responses from the scholars who I invited to write. People were proud to be a part of it and were supportive. After producing around four issues, LCF got in touch: I was a part of their research department for eight years. I think that there were a lot of other people like me, perhaps of a younger generation of fashion thinkers, who were also invested in the industry, who loved fashion and its objects, the wearing of clothes and the day-to-day aspects, while being invested in research and scholarship. They had been missing something like Vestoj. But when it came to the fashion industry, I felt that there was a lot more resistance because it is very hierarchical. You must prove yourself before you are welcome. People will often look for the approval of others before they commit to something themselves. The fashion industry is not one for taking chances on unknown people.

Critical thinking and theory and philosophy have now become a form of capital in the industry, a way of showing that you are intellectual. Fifteen or twenty years ago, it didn’t have much capital because other things were considered more important.

The first years of Vestoj involved me networking in Paris to get to know people and make personal relationships. It was about charming people and getting them to say yes to an interview or to connect me with someone, normally because they liked me more than they cared about Vestoj. And then, little by little, because time passes and there were genuinely people who liked reading the magazine, it did fill a gap. It is because Vestoj is good that it has built its own readership.

For me, it was much more important to prove myself to people in the fashion industry, probably because they put up more resistance, and so I felt the rejection and took it much more personally than I did in academia. I always felt more like a visitor in academia, as I don’t think of myself as a fashion scholar. I don’t participate in writing for peer-review journals and in this whole system that is a part of scholarship. I am a practiced-based researcher, as they would say at LCF. And so, with the fashion industry there was a lot more at stake for me.

Vestoj #6, “On Shame”

 

A.F.: Fashion Studies are grounded in pluridisciplinarity. Vestoj keeps that tradition very much alive. What is more surprising or unique to it is that you also make room for fiction.

A.A.C.: I’m a reader. As I have said, one of the biggest impetuses for starting Vestoj was to create good writing about fashion. This can and should take many different forms. You can write about fashion as prose, as poetry, as theory, as oral history, as personal essay or through a large-scale investigation. For some readers taking on the theory aspect of Vestoj might feel daunting but reading a short story or an interview with somebody would be a more welcoming place to start.

I really love the challenge of working to themes and being able to immerse yourself, in my case as a creator, but also as a reader. To be able to explore one grand narrative and see how that can connect in many ways to fashion. I think fiction and theory and oral histories and prose are all different dialects in a way, different ways to enter the theme and into the wider exploration of fashion as culture.

A.F.: You are obviously involved in fashion education. I have found that a lot of students have been told that they can’t write or that they should channel their creativity in making clothes as opposed to writing as if writing is not something that you can learn to do. Have you had the same experience? And if so, why do you think writing is bracketed off from making fashion in a way it is not say in art education? 

A.A.C.: Writing often has a strange role in fashion education because it’s tacked on at the end. Students are tasked with doing a piece of writing that explains their work or puts it into context. Perhaps some of them would know how to put these words together and communicate their thoughts in an interesting way even if they were not writers. But when they’ve had no guidance throughout their fashion education and it comes to writing their statement or thesis, it is not fair to expect that students can go from never thinking about communication in terms of the written word to producing something that is of great significance as to how their work is judged, without having learnt the skills of how to do so