AUP students enjoying an evening picnic at the Seine river.

Communication, Media and Culture

Professor Sophie Kurkdjian on the Geopolitics of Fashion

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Professor Kurkdjian

Sophie Kurkdjian is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Culture at The American University of Paris. Her recent book, Géopolitique de la Mode, published in French, explores the geopolitics of fashion from the late 19th century to the present day.

When did you become interested in the history of fashion?

I got my PhD in the cultural history of the 20th century from Paris 1 Université Sorbonne. I then became a lecturer at various universities before joining AUP last September. I also worked as a researcher at the Institut d’histoire du temps present within the French national center for scientific research (CNRS). There, I developed a research seminar on the social and cultural history of fashion. Nowadays, I focus much of my work on the social aspects of the industry: questions of labor and garment workers from the end of the 19th century. I also work on the question of immigration in the fashion industry. If you look at the grand couturiers in France at the time, a lot of them weren’t French; they came from Britain, Greece, Germany or the US. Textile workers in France have often come from abroad: from Italy, Armenia and Germany after the rise of fascism or from Africa and Asia after the Second World War. Fashion still creates a huge amount of jobs today – often unrecognized textile workers in Bangladesh or across Africa.

How did the book come about?

I was contacted by French publishing house Editions de Cavalier Bleu. They have a series called Geopolitique that commissions books on the geopolitics of different subjects, like borders or wars. They wanted one on fashion, and I proposed that I take a historical approach. What’s happening today in the fashion industry is not really new – that’s why the book starts by looking at the relationship between Paris, which has been a fashion capital since the end of the 19th century, and London, Milan and New York, which emerged more prominently after the Second World War. Fashion has long been valorized because of its economic importance, and clothing trends have often resulted from economic changes. Fashion is used as a tool of “soft power.”

Can you give me a historical example?

In 1913, fashion was the second largest industry in France. After the First World War – after both wars, in fact – it was important to France to show that it still produced clothes, that it was active on a creative level. During the Second World War, the Nazis had a plan to move Parisian fashion houses to Berlin. France doesn’t want this to happen. Fashion became a priority – the French government, but also trade unions, did all they could to protect the industry.

Is this still the case today?

Paris Fashion Week is still a huge opportunity for demonstrating soft power. For example, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has developed an advertising campaign for fashion week aimed at tourists and journalists. Three years ago, Emmanuel Macron organized a dinner for young designers – and he also invited Anna Wintour, because it was important to have the American press involved. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work at these events – buyers and journalists who attend fashion week are met at the airport. It’s a really precise process designed to improve their experience and make them feel positive about Paris fashion.

Is Paris still the capital of fashion?

Nowadays it has some competitors. In the book, I look at how the model of haute couture, which has long been at the forefront of the industry, is being put into question by prêt-à-porter and fast fashion. Paris, London, Milan and New York are still very important to the luxury sector, but we also have new actors like Zara from Spain and H&M from Sweden. I also look at new challenges to the fashion industry, such as sustainability, which nowadays may be more important than creativity. To be a capital of fashion today, you need to be green. You also need to master new technologies, such as 3D printing and virtual reality. Paris, however, prefers its traditions.

What will different audiences get out of the book?

The idea was to make something accessible, so people can understand how the fashion industry works. I tried to give people food for thought. In France, we don’t have enough books about fashion – most of them are coffee-table books about Dior or Chanel, not about the history or sociology of the industry. I hope the book will interest both fashion students and the grand public. I wanted to show that fashion has always crossed borders, but today this is more visible because of fast fashion and social media. It’s very important to me that younger readers think about the ways in which we consume fashion. Just recently it emerged that certain brands are working with subcontractors that use Uighur slave labor to produce what we are wearing. We need to make new consumers understand that we can’t go on like that.

How do you approach these subjects in your teaching?

At AUP, I teach classes on communicating fashion, on fashion journalism, and on the history of Paris and its place in global fashion. But the idea is to go beyond Paris, so that students understand that fashion is not a Western invention. I think it’s important to deconstruct that idea and to train students to look critically at the industry. Even just looking at the wording of things: when people talk about the West they use words like modernity and innovation, but when they qualify fashion in Africa, they use words like tradition or costume. And then, what do people mean by African fashion? Africa is a continent! How can people say there is only one kind of African fashion? We need to teach more about fashion in Congo, Brazil or Senegal. It’s not easy because we don’t always have access to archives or sources, but global fashion is certainly something students want to study. At AUP, students bring perspectives from all over the world – it really reflects the connected history of the industry.