It’s early November, and Timo Rissanen is sitting amid scattered tools, fabric, and hardware in the Aronson Galleries at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. He’s putting the finishing touches on an exhibition that’s rather unconventional for his field. For the past three years, the Finnish fashion designer and scholar has curated an installation and performance piece that advocates for sustainable changes to the fashion industry.

“Nobody should be dying for the sake of fashion,” says Rissanen, his normal grin fading as he discusses the ethical issues raised by the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh earlier this year. “That’s one thing I think everyone can agree upon.”

Rissanen’s work in ethical and sustainable fashion design is aimed at awakening the behemoth industry to its systemic flaws. For his doctoral dissertation (a rare undertaking for fashion designers), he explored ways sustainable practices could be implemented in the industry and in the process coined the term “zero waste fashion design.” Rissanen’s findings are the topic of this month’s Research Radio show “Stitch by Stitch.


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Zero waste fashion design represents a drastic change from contemporary design practices. “Typically, the production of any garment results in 15 percent of the fabric being wasted,” says Rissanen. “Zero waste fashion design requires rethinking the patternmaking process in order to use the entire cut of fabric for any garment.” That may sound like common sense, but the application of this concept forces a change in industry hierarchy.  Traditionally, the fashion designer provides a finished sketch to a patternmaker, who then presents a pattern for cutting to the manufacturer. In zero waste design, the fashion designer must start with the pattern, rather than the sketch, so as to eliminate any cut-off fabric waste.

The patternmaking process is only a small—albeit crucial—cog in the big machine that is the fashion industry, which makes incorporating sustainable changes in production difficult. “Fashion is essentially run by the economic system,” says Rissanen. “So while I soon realized that focusing on individual aspects of the process wouldn’t lead to the holistic change I was hoping for, it was a start.”

He cites the actions of civil rights leader Rosa Parks as an example of a small intervention that had major consequences. “Her actions on that bus started a movement that created massive change in a large and complicated system,” he said. “That’s just what the fashion industry needs—enough small access points that lead to tougher environmental and ethical standards overall.”

Rissanen sees that activist mentality in many of his students at Parsons. “This is the first generation of fashion designers and industry leaders that is beginning to think that implementing sustainability and ethical guidelines is feasible,” said Rissanen. “Ten years ago, people scoffed at the idea that fashion could ever be sustainable. They said it was too hard to change the system. Now we’re seeing so much movement in that direction.”

For the past three years, Rissanen has been collaborating with Finnish artist Salla Salin on an installation titled 15%, in which a performance artist sews plain white T-shirts for six hours a day. The leftover fabric from the design is packaged along with the finished garment. The performance is currently on view at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center and features Parsons Fashion Design alumna Janelle Abbot. It highlights two important facts about the fashion industry:  the amount of fabric that is discarded in the production of a simple tee and the labor-intensiveness of the process. “Not many of us in developed countries realize that behind the manufacturing of every article of clothing is a sewing machine, and behind that sewing machine is a person,” said Rissanen.

His installation is part of Fashion Interactions, a multidisciplinary exhibition, exploring contemporary fashion culture through a variety of media. The exhibition runs through December 11 in the Aronson Galleries at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. Learn more about it here.

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Research Radio is a New School podcast series that explores academic inquiry at the university. Our faculty and students have been researching pressing social and scientific issues, from sustainability to psychology to politics, for nearly a century—and now you can hear about their latest findings.