Kindness As Utopia

by Orsola de Castro

I am extremely well practiced at building things that are improbable.

To me, it feels as though I started when I was a child, but I guess in the context of achieving utopias this relates more to my career than anything else (although I would say that quite a lot of my life outside my job has been about achieving impossible things too). But with my work it has been tangible, and actually quite well documented, and the thing that seems the most impossible of all right now is that people actually noticed.

Let’s talk about fashion, about clothes. I love clothes. I love wearing them, making them, watching people wear them, make them, I love talking about clothes, turning them inside out, I love fiddling with them, changing them, adapting them, making memories with them. I love elegant clothes, I love broken clothes, I love clothes that aren’t mine, and I love my own like they’re my friends, and this is how I treat them.

However, I also love the bodies inside the clothes, as much as I love the people who make them— and here comes improbable thing number 1—working in an industry that fundamentally doesn’t love the people who make clothing, or if it does, picks and chooses who is lovable and who isn’t. These choices are very ungenerous.I also very much love nature, as well as its people, so it felt insulting to my principles to adhere to an industry who has systematically broken all boundaries, revered all sorts of harmful excesses, and descended into a decadence of total disregard.

Hence, I chose to work in this industry only on my terms, and adoperate myself to effect radical changes as I went along my journey. Which I did. And I promise you that 25 years ago, when I started making the kind of dent I was intending to make felt improbable, if not altogether impossible.

Improbable thing number 2 is how it happened: with intense, unashamed competition.

I know, I am contradicting the title of this piece, “kindness as utopia,” or so it would seem, until we look, accurately, at what competing means, and the true significance of the word. The etymology of the word compete, from the Latin word competere, is ‘com’, which means together, and ‘petere’ which means to seek. So to compete actually means ‘to seek together.’ And there you have it. Some bloody brilliant people decided to seek together how to make a better industry: one that would put a stop to the endemic exploitation of people and nature, one that would include rather than exclude, one that would allow itself to be open to scrutiny, to be a vessel for all industries to become different.

Clearly we are nowhere near where we need to be, but we are further than where we were, and believe me, we are at a tipping point, which is why we must continue to believe in the impossibilities that lie ahead as if they were realities that we will reach, the utopias we will see happen, because happen they must.

And improbable thing number 3, which is the one I am most proud of, is the clothes I made and how I made them, the start of my journey, which was rubbish. Trash was my passion. Anything found, accidental, anything that nobody else wanted, I had to give it a usel Like some people rescue pets, I rescued clothes, fabrics, and scraps. Broken, damaged, undesired, they were my mediums, my tools, my materials. Animistic to the soul, seeing things as living, loving leftovers like lovers do.

25 years ago we didn’t talk about upcycling, but that’s what I did. And of course my journey from creative to activist was because I was increasingly witnessing an industry hell bent on throwing out, on producing excessively, cheaper and cheaper, abusing nature in its extraction and disposal, and exploiting people - both workers and wearers - trapped in a vicious cycle of bare minimums, where low quality of product and low quality of life for the makers of those products became the norm. This is why I decided that being a rebel was about keeping things (because the only antidote to a throwaway society is to keep), and being kind, (because human rights abuses and ecocide are not), and made them my two operating principles —my impossible utopias— in the constants of my working life.

And really, keeping is nothing else than the physical manifestation of my kindness, because I keep to prevent my waste going to countries we have already been abusing and exploiting for hundreds of years, and because I respect the work of the people who make my clothes, wherever they are. Fashion has to rebrand itself into an inclusive, welcoming space. One that supports rather than shames, pays its workers a living wage, a progressive force for a future that provides true wellbeing, not just a continuous, miserable flow of products without meaning, or jobs without dignity.

Kindness—radical kindness, sheer kindness, total kindness, unashamed kindness— is my utopia: the one revolution I pledge my services to, my roadmap, my path. Walk with me.