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London welcomes Wearers Festival, a celebration of the power and joy of everyday dressing

By Nora Veerman

29 Jun 2021

Culture |Interview

Image: Naomi Zaragoza and Nessa Recine

“Here’s to the pony tails and locs, to the tattoos, to the fringes, zippers and buttons, to the corduroy, the denim and the silk. Here’s to our preferred lingerie and our office suits, here’s to the party dress, turbans, niqabs, and the hijab. Here’s to clothes as witnesses of our stories and documents of our memories. Here’s to clothes that make us dream, wish, and travel in time. Here’s to clothes that are armours, canvases, and cocoons. (…) Nothing in dress is ever ordinary.”

This poetic piece of text is an extract from the manifesto of Wearers Festival, a newcomer to London’s cultural offering. A rhythmic ode to everyday clothes, the manifesto mirrors the festival itself, which involves a string of events dedicated to exploring the relationships between people and clothes. The festival was founded by London College of Fashion alumni Naomi Zaragoza and Nessa Recine and launched in April this year. With two successful events to look back on and many more to come, FashionUnited speaks to Zaragoza and Recine about the festival and the importance of talking about dress.

To start off, what exactly is Wearers Festival?

Zaragoza: Wearers Festival is a multidisciplinary platform that explores and celebrates everybody’s relationship with their clothes. It’s about the political, social, cultural and environmental meanings of dress, and the role of dress in identity building among different communities in London, the UK and the world. That is to say, our scope is international, but we mainly focus on London.

The idea is to produce an annual programme with digital and physical events. These events vary a lot: we have online talks, exhibitions, workshops, and a book club as well as a film screening in the works. We also have a blog on our website. All of this we do in collaboration with diverse London-based and international researchers, artists, creatives and culture makers. We’re trying to build a community that is interested in dress and culture.

On your website, it says Wearers Festival is not a fashion festival. Could you explain why you mention this?

Zaragoza: If you say it’s a fashion festival, anyone will answer ‘oh, so it’s like Fashion Week?’ But it’s not, because Wearers Festival is not about designers, brands or the industry.

Recine: We are both passionate about clothes, but from a very relatable perspective. We want to know why people wear what they wear on a daily basis. Just normal people like you and me, or the lady that works at the grocery store.

Zaragoza: We sort of found a gap between platforms that address trends and the fashion industry, like ShowStudio, and platforms and magazines that address clothes and dress from an academic perspective, such as Vestoj or the Fashion Studies Journal. They are amazing and we love them, but there’s not really a platform which speaks to people, in a very accessible language, about what they wear every day - which is not necessarily what the fashion industry dictates. We only care about trends as long as we’re talking about everyday people.

Recine: There is something to be said about the clothes you wear, and how you relate to them. There’s always something that is derived from your culture, your identity, and the people you associate with. Sometimes you’re influenced by the people you hang out with. Why? Sometimes you’re influenced by a colour. Why? That’s what we want to talk about.

To some people, that might seem like a trivial topic. Why is all of this important?

Recine: Oftentimes, dress and fashion have been deemed frivolous. But it’s not frivolous. We all get dressed, we all wear clothes.

Zaragoza: We understand dress as a multidimensional phenomenon. Politics are embedded in dress, as well as cultural group dynamics, social status, our relationship with the environment…The way we consume clothes, whether we look after them or not, whether we buy and discard or buy and preserve - all these practices are just so relevant. Dress is part of all aspects of human life. For that reason, we think there’s always something that people can relate to and engage with.

Recine: Wearers Festival is about building community and about sharing different points of view. We are lucky to already have started building an audience reach from across the world, which is really great. It’s interesting to see that people from all over the world can have strikingly similar outlooks on the same topic and at the same time, people from different ethnicities are bringing in different views. It is important to involve all of these voices.

Zaragoza: The festival is about cultural diversity, too. It’s an urgent matter, especially in the UK, especially now, with things like Brexit and the Black Lives Matter movement going on. These social phenomena show that the UK is undergoing a big identity crisis - it doesn’t seem to know if multiculturality is a problem or a blessing. The festival is our way to show how much value and richness there is in multiculturality. We believe that dress is a fantastic way to address that - to celebrate the fact that many different ethnicities, groups and communities converse together, and inhabit a city like London, and make it what it is. Dress is a huge part of that.”

How do you transform these ideas into events?

Zaragoza: Our events are super diverse, but they have one thing in common: they bring people with different backgrounds and expertise together to discuss topics that are relatable for many people. Our first event in April, for example, explored the concept of professionalism in dress. This theme is on everyone’s mind right now, because we’re in a moment where many people are unemployed, looking for jobs and having interviews, or working from home, which results in changing dress codes. We invited two fashion psychologists and a curator who has a lot of experience recruiting and applying for jobs. We felt like we needed to bring all these different perspectives to the table.

The event sold out, which was amazing. The people in the audience were very engaged, commenting, asking questions, and really challenging the speakers, which was very valuable. Last month we had an event on the intersections between dress and human rights, and the same thing happened. Later this year we’ll have events on dress and trans pregnancy, on queer youth and identity building through dress, on dress and black diaspora in the UK… just a few examples of what we are working on.

Recine: We’re bringing in experts, but also always someone from the community who has something to say on the topic. It’s about engaging people, and making it known that they can approach us. If they have something to say, they should feel free and safe to say it.

What is the audience that you want to address?

Recine: Everyone. Whether in London, England, or the world. We especially want to include underrepresented voices, because they are often the ones who don’t have a platform.

Zaragoza: Right now, because we just launched a couple months ago, our main audience is fashion students and fashion academics, which is also great, but the idea is to grow and be known as part of London’s cultural offer of festivals.

Are there audiences that are difficult to reach? If so, which are they?

Zaragoza: The hardest audience to reach is white heterosexual cis men, who usually don’t give a damn about dress and clothes or consider them as relevant topics to talk about. We recognise that historically, dress and fashion have been regarded as feminine topics, because everything that is related to femininity is related to domesticity as well, and is therefore considered irrelevant. Obviously it’s much more complex than that, I’m being very simplistic here, but it’s 2021 and there’s a general misconception that dress and fashion are topics for women and for members of the LGBTQ+ community. This is increasingly changing, but we want to support that process by encouraging white middle class men to talk about why they dress the way they dress, and how they feel about it.

Finally, any person who is unfamiliar with fashion and academia is a challenging audience for us, but also the audience we are aiming for.

Recine: There’s something to be said about the language that we use across our social media channels. It’s very informal. Because of that, audiences that are not informed about dress and the topics that we are discussing might otherwise be attracted. While if we’d communicate it in an academic language, they might not think twice about it.

What can people expect from Wearers Festival?

Zaragoza: What people can expect depends largely on funding. We started in a challenging year, obviously. It’s more difficult to get funding right now, not just for us, but for everyone, especially in the arts and culture sector. However, we’re working hard with the resources we currently have. In the short term, people can expect monthly digital events that are free for everyone. We have a few collaborations cooking in the oven with different institutions in London, such as a summer event series on mending and sustainability, an exhibition with Borough Market, and various activities in October. The actual rhythm of things depends on funding, but there will always be quality content on our blog, our YouTube channel, and we have plans to create a podcast. We want Wearers Festival to be an ongoing thing that is always active, as opposed to a festival that happens two weeks every year.

Recine: In general, people can expect to have intimate and important conversations with people, to have fun, be surprised…

Zaragoza: …And to be confronted as well. We are creating a platform for people’s enjoyment, but we also think it’s necessary for people to be confronted with various issues. For example, how dress may violate human rights, something that was discussed during our digital event in May. What happens when school uniforms defy children’s rights to comfortable clothing? What happens when uniforms incur racist or sexist practices? And how about France banning the hijab? We believe that people need to confront these topics, especially those who think this has nothing to do with them because they’re not refugees or Muslim women. These topics concern them as well. They concern us all.

What are your dreams for the festival?

Zaragoza: We want it to grow - we want it to be big. Most importantly, we would like to become an integral part of the cultural offer of London.

Recine: We would like people to have dress at the back of their minds, to actively engage with it and contribute to the content and the efforts that we are delivering.

Zaragoza: We would love for people to consider dress as something important. We are definitely not the only ones working on this, we are continuously inspired by the work of people in the fashion industry and that of fashion journalists and academics. But an ultimate goal would be to have people recognise that there is a festival on dress too, and that it offers an amazing programme of events. We want people to look forward to it every year.

Image: Wearers Festival