Chantal Brocca is a woman of many talents: co-founder of Studio Asanawa, an ethical luxury lingerie boutique based in Dubai, stylist, photographer, creative, director, cultural writer, researcher, critic, blogger, and sustainable fashion activist. Whew!
Creativity Undefined managed to grab some time with Chantal to talk about pandemic life, her perspective on people’s evolving relationship with fashion and how that’s impacting the industry, and her upcoming projects.
How are you surviving COVD-19 so far?
Pretty well actually! Things have obviously slowed down and on some fronts grinded to a halt, but that’s only given me time to reform relationships with the things that matter to me in life, more so than constantly being productive – it’s just not a conscious, sustainable way of living. I’ve rediscovered self care, my other half, my family and was forced to think a lot about where I want to go in life. Direction and the feeling of being part of a group, a space that was mine, are the two things I was sorely lacking and I feel like I’ve gained a lot of ground this year.
What are you looking forward to the most once life returns to ‘normal’?
DANCING! Please Lord, let me dance! It’s my primary form of expression, it’s how I feel free. Not being able to unleash everything that way has been really difficult – it’s affected my writing and creativity immensely. I even picked up yoga, for God’s sake.
You are passionately outspoken about sustainable fashion, vintage fashion, and the slow fashion movement. How do you think the pandemic has affected these? Why?
The pandemic was the match. The need for sustainability or at least, for a major shift in the industry, was being talked about for a long time, and although some changes were being made here and there, I think a lot of them were plaster solutions – temporary fixes, or solutions that cleared up the symptoms but not the root cause of the issue. The pandemic forced the industry to grind to a halt, and that’s what it needed. It was constantly in motion and moving way too fast for any kind of awareness or real thinking to take place. I think the game changer here is that our concept of time is being reworked. We were too used to speed and perpetual novelty – the pandemic has allowed for brands to move towards a slower, seasonless fashion approach on the one hand, and taught consumers a big lesson about life on the other, that mindless consumer products aren’t the be it and end all of life, and that if you want something good, you’ll just have to wait for it – the two go hand in hand. Generally speaking though, we’re going to see a big immersion in the digital – events and runways will never die, I don’t really believe that, but how we approach these things will differ. The old model is dying, there are no rules anymore.
Do you think people’s perceptions and relationship with their clothes has changed since the pandemic began? Are there are shifts that you have observed that could continue after this is over?
Maybe this is just me, but I feel like when you’re in the middle of a global crisis, the allure of luxury starts to feel empty. The pandemic sparked a sort of global consciousness – people are informing themselves about the issues they care about, they’re understanding the importance of safe-guarding our environment and how every individual counts; in short, it’s injected a little soul back into us. It would be hard to believe that a shift in consciousness like that hasn’t impacted people’s relationships with the objects in their immediate space. I definitely see a lot more interest in supporting local businesses and small emerging brands or artists, and even sustainability in general. The environment is having a moment this year. My Instagram has flooded with all these cool new ethical brands I’d never heard about – I don’t know if it’s because everyone was suddenly online 24/7 and so all that traffic on crack allowed these new entrants to be seen or if a ton of new sustainable brands launched this year, but it’s great to see. I am 100% sure this interest will continue well after the pandemic because change is just a question of reprogramming habits. If you began purchasing more ethical during the pandemic, there’s a high chance you’ll only take that further.
Has this impacted the fashion industry or consumers in a way that industry insiders and clothes lovers will be able to start untangling the web of ingrained practices, complicated supply chains etc. to shift to a more positive and supportive direction?
Definitely. It’s all the industry was talking about for years, but actually stopping has given players the space and time to truly dedicate to developing solutions that truly have the power to innovate and reprogram outdated structures and processes. That being said, the word ‘supportive’ is something that I feel has no place here. In the end, it’s all a business, people need to make money, and they will only enact changes that make sense financially – and seeing how interconnected everything is, implementing even a small positive change in one space has all these other domino effects in other areas. Things aren’t so simple. I don’t believe in utopias, human beings are too complex for that, but I do believe that we can develop and achieve win-win strategies that tick both the economy’s need of growth and our need to preserve the environment.
One thing that’s impacting people’s ability to purchase ethical/sustainable pieces are their high prices. Do you think we’ll reach a point where ethical and sustainable fashion will become more mainstream and affordable while still giving creators their due?
It’s already happening! When we started Studio Asanawa sustainable fashion pieces were extremely expensive, we were totally raped by our wholesale purchases. When an entire system is constructed and comfortable working in its ingrained ways, doing things in an entirely different way becomes extremely difficult and expensive. But the more interest, action, and money is invested in other means of production, the more that space becomes a lucrative one to be in inviting all sorts of players to innovate and make everything easier, smoother and cheaper to do. Everything becomes mainstream in the end, all it needs is the collective focus for a period of time. At the same time, I’m sorry to say that if people expect things to cost like at H&M they’ll be sorely disappointed. If you’re only willing to pay nothing you get shit, it’s not a question of getting everything you want simply because you want it, it’s a question of wanting less and needing less bullshit to feel like a whole person – buying things of value that last and have meaning to you.
We read in WOMENA that you’re also a stylist for Ounass. How does your experience with STUDIO ASANAWA and your personal philosophies impact your work with Ounass, given that you’ve been outspoken against luxury brands and fast fashion?
You know it’s interesting that you’re asking me this, because it’s a question that’s risen a few times this month. Taking that job was a really big struggle for me, because in a sense it felt like going to work in the belly of the beast. I’ve always struggled with my personal boundaries between integrity and survival, it’s the perpetual battle of art versus commerce that all artists have endured since the dawn of markets and will continue to do so. I have turned down so many brands and collaborations because they went against my principles – but there’s a limit to this kind of behaviour. Unfortunately, being this level of picky with your jobs is a privilege for the very rich, make no mistake about that. People need to eat, they need to pay rent and survive, and to do that you need to sometimes take jobs that you don’t necessarily agree with. It’s the reason why so many creatives take commercial jobs – commercial jobs are what pay. True art that pays enough to support you is extremely rare and to be honest, a bit of a utopian dream, unless you have some sort of art patron supporting you. Every single person that I know that is able to do that is someone who is well off, who doesn’t have to worry about rent or that to some extent has that safety net of family or a financial contributor to their lifestyle, whether it is their parents, a spouse or very generous friends.
Noam Chomsky said it best regarding activism – it’s hard for people to go on and change the world because eventually when their resources are depleted (at one point they always will be), they’ll be forced to spare time and energy for survival; the rent I was talking about earlier, but also supporting their families. It’s what prevents them from going at it full steam. What he said resonated with me so much because it was right when I was organising events on sustainability with Fashion Revolution. I was beyond broke, living on rice and potatoes and just giving my everything to researching issues, writing about them and spreading this to the world, and eventually this lifestyle caught up with me. I had to take care of myself, take care of my family’s expenses – it’s not easy to live a life of perpetual deprivation. I may disagree with the entire premise of luxury ecommerce, but I simply needed to take that job – I’m proud of the fact that I can support my family, it makes me a more rounded human being. And I never forget silver linings – I’ve learned a lot about the inner workings of the fashion machine, and this is information that will only fuel my personal work.
Your photographs are rich and evocative. How does photography and travel impact the way you view the world around you? And how do you think it influences the way we view and interact with each other?
Thank you! Look, the more I learn and grow, the more I see how much I don’t know. The world is so vast, and even the tiniest grain of knowledge opens up this whole chain of more knowledge, it’s like going through infinite Russian dolls. This mindset is kind of what drives me to keep traveling. I’m not there for the nice resorts and to lay back at the beach, it’s just not interesting. I travel to new countries to walk the streets from morning till night, to meet new people and hear what they have to say, to learn how life is like for them. It’s what makes me feel alive, I feel like an explorer, but for myself, I just want to create my own understanding of humanity. Photography is how I try to capture that, it’s moments in time that I never want to forget. I could just as easily take photos on my phone, which I do of course, but what’s funny is that it’s really not the same. When I go through my developed rolls, I’m literally transported back, I remember the feeling I had when I took the photo, the sensations swirling around in my soul, I go back to being in tune with the environment that I left behind. I’ve actually started journaling my travels so that I can accompany the images with stories that give a bit more insight into the life of people there – on small things, like the feeling of walking on cobblestone streets in the late morning to sit at the café where all the locals hang out, and sip your coffee, breathe in this different, open air and just watch all these lives intermingling and going about their connected and separate ways before you.
As for the second part of your question, we live in a globalised world; travel and the export of culture around the world is how we got to this place we are in now, this big mash up of traits and values. Our world has opened up and so, we ourselves are more open.
Will that be the same post-pandemic?
It will be even better! We’ve nurtured sensitivity and understanding throughout the pandemic. It’s the first time in our generation that we’ve felt a sense of total unity. Everyone went through Covid 19, from China to Peru. We’re in the same boat and this is a feeling we’re going to take with us into the future even after the pandemic chaos dies down. That’s what I think at least – but hey, humanity has never stopped its tribal battles, it really doesn’t take much to start a full-blown culture war. So I guess we’ll have to see.
Do you have a much-loved item of clothing or accessory? Can you please share more details about it – where did you find it, what do you love the most about it, etc.?
It’s hard to pick just one, so many items in my wardrobe have a story that I love, but if I’d haveto pick just one it could be this one very elegant vintage pinstripe coat I took from my mom. I’ve worn it everywhere for years, it takes me back to so many places, when I was wandering the streets in my own world, feeling free and doing me after years of not allowing myself to breathe and go after what I really wanted. I just feel so on it when I wear it.
What item of clothing or accessory would you love to own? Why?
There was this jacket from the 1600s that I came across in an antiques market – it keeps coming to mind because it was so goddamn fabulous. And it was a piece of history of God’s sake! Who doesn’t want to hold history in their hands? Imagine what life the person that once wore it has had, what life in general was like. Wearing this would transport me to another place. If I had had the money I would have bought it then and there, but I was literally walking around with 10 euros. Once I have my own space I’m going to deck it with antiques, they just take me to this mystic place where I feel connected to centuries of humanity.
Are you currently working on a new project? Can you share some details about it?
I’m working on tens of projects! It’s my issue, I never do things one at a time. I’ve got a still life sculpture series in the works, a couple of articles – on the state of architecture, on the psychedelic experience and on worker rights, and ongoing shoot collaborations with different artists. There is this one project that’s close to my heart but that I’m finding a bit difficult to enact – I was putting together a digital event on freelance worker rights, and it’s just been on hold for a while until I’m able to get through to a freelance union. They are so incredibly difficult to get on board! Hopefully that will clear up soon.
Any future plans that you can share? Whether for you personally or STUDIO ASANAWA?
My next big personal goal is to publish a comprehensive zine exploring how we are the new lost generation. I created a small limited edition teaser which I handed out at a photography exhibit I put together in d3 last December, but I really want to get proper into it, collaborate with artists to illustrate it, get photographers involved and add to it with many more articles exploring various sub-topics. I’m currently looking for an independent publisher so let’s see.
To learn more about Chantal, please visit: https://www.immaterials.net/
You can also explore her Instagram account