Cultivating Connection is Imperative for Creating a Sustainable World
A sustainability and resilience researcher and designer for the fashion industries, Ania Zoltkowski believes that our issues in this world stem from a detachment from our inner selves, from our communities, and from the Land, of which we are intrinsically interconnected with.
She points out that “we can place all the material, technological, and transparency fixes on the industry as much as we want, but if there is no fundamental notion of care for our planet, for all life, and one and other, then we are going to keep seeing the same problems occurring again and again.” By exploring spirituality within the fashion and textile design space, Ania opens up new and profound conversations, and manifests a vision of a fashion industry led by purpose, values, and heart-centred business practices, that regenerates the Earth, and empowers all of its stakeholders.
Interview by Dörte de Jesus
What made you decide to write a research paper that addresses the potentiality for a holistic and sustainable approach to fashion and textile design by embedding spiritual philosophies and practices?
I’ve been working within the fashion industry for the past ten years, and have dedicated the past four years to sustainability for this field. For the past five years within my personal life, I have been on a spiritual journey that has completely transformed my life, and has allowed me to cultivate practices and tools for inner peace, purpose, joy, creativity, community, and so much more. I am fascinated with how we can become our most expansive, truest, happiest, fulfilled, and creative selves within this life, and it was only a matter of time that I blended this with my fashion design practice and research.
We live in a world that values what can be measured and seen, over the felt and experienced, and because of this, it took me a little while to build up the courage to bring this into my fashion design practice. What I’ve realised through my research and work, is that spirituality is such an integral part of our experience here in this world, and it’s also imperative for creating a sustainable world. But it’s currently barely being talked about or put into practice for the fashion design space.
Spirituality, consciousness, awareness, presence, mindfulness, reflection, they all ultimately mean the same thing – connection. Our world is in crisis, and we need alternative guiding paradigms that will help us create a world of flourishing for all. I believe that our issues in this world stem from a disconnection to our inner selves, to our communities, and to the Land, of which we are intrinsically interconnected with. We can place all the material, technological and transparency fixes on the industry as much as we want, but if there is no fundamental notion of care for our planet, one and other, for all life on this planet, then we are going to keep seeing the same problems occurring again and again.
I see sustainability and spirituality as mutually interlinked. To me, both of these concepts are about heart-centred thought and action. As this has barely been explored in regard to the fashion and textile design space, I have started investigating the potentiality of a spiritual framework to help us in our march towards sustainability. I presented this paper at the Global Fashion Conference in London in October 2018, and I am now working on expanding this paper into a book and other offerings, that focus on the intersection of fashion, sustainability, spirituality and resilience.
What is your personal definition of spirituality?
It’s about cultivating a relationship to your inner being, to something beyond your physical existence, in whatever form that may be for you. It’s about tapping into those essences that make us human; love, joy, compassion, heart, empathy, intention, reflection, intuition, vitality, creativity, sharing, care, interconnectedness ... and bringing this into all that we do.
It’s a spirituality that isn’t founded in dogma or ancient written texts but revealed in the world around us. It’s about understanding the deep intrinsic interconnectedness that we have with Nature and all living beings on this planet, and that everything, utterly everything is sacred.
It’s about bringing this experienced and mystical element of our existence into all aspects of our lives. Indigenous people have long understood that the physical and spiritual worlds are one, and have lived from this knowing never separating the two. I often ask myself: What does it mean to be a human living within this earthly experience? This is what spirituality means to me.
Why do you believe a spiritual dimension is essential for our human experience and the act of creation?
We are spiritual beings in a human experience. Quantum physics states that we are all made of vibrational energy and that our inner world creates our outer world. What I mean by that is that our thoughts, feelings and beliefs create our outer actions, and this creates our world. This is also important as whatever we put out into the world, whether that’s a vision, a garment, a business, a system, anything, transmits an energetic frequency, either raising the vibration of the planet or lowering it. When we understand this, we can live and design from a place of intention.
So in order to create a sustainable world, we need to create a sustainable inner self, and that requires an inner connection, reflection, tapping into intuition, those elements of our humanness that can’t be seen. We can also harness this energy to fuel our creativity. There’s immense power in the act of design, and we can use design and the realms that accompany it to do immense good in the world.
Design can be a material culture that can contribute to our lives in a meaningful way – a catalyst for and an expression of transformation, a tangible manifestation of our values. The act of designing itself, from envisioning something, to creating it and putting it out into the world, can be an immensely sacred act when done with intention, care, reflection, and heart.
What role does the designer play within a spiritually grounded design practice?
I believe that our role as fashion designers is currently moving away from the traditional idea of maker and creator. I feel that as designers we are now being asked to step into roles that require us to become visionaries for the future: ‘What is the kind of world that we want to see?’ We are becoming designers of ideas and experiences, facilitators of alternative trajectories and paradigms, for the good that design can do for the world.
I love the idea of the fashion designer as a ‘doula’, as Otto von Busch introduced me to. I feel that a major part of our role now will be becoming custodians for Mother Earth, ensuring all that we design and create dances in symbiosis with her, and always gives back ten-fold.
For so long the fashion industry has looked only within its sphere of existence. It’s imperative that we bring an interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approach to fashion design, and I see future designers working within climate issues, politics, economics, ecology, technology, psychology and all other industries.
You created a set of spirit design cards – how can they help us to develop a different outlook and make more responsible choices?
Exploring how to effectively engage designers with these concepts, I developed a ‘Spirit-Design’ card deck. These cards blend my research and work experience within design strategy and resilience and are accompanied by some digital illustrations, which are intuitively drawn abstract representations of the concepts.
Change in design can begin with the values, priorities and intentions of each individual designer, and these cards are a starting point for deeper introspection around these ideas, into more considered practice and connection with oneself, community and the Earth. Each of these cards prompts divides into what I deem are the ‘4 Places to Intervene within Design’: Design of the Garment, Materials & Processes, Use of the Garment, and Presence within the World. They offer questions for designers to consider, within each of these design stages.
The ultimate aim is to develop a tool kit for designers that can aid in building and fostering intuition, resilience, creativity, responsible innovation, clarity, calmness, connection, and values, and these cards represent the starting point of this work and its practical implementation. These will be released this year, and it will be interesting to test them out.
Why do you think spirituality has barely been explored within the fashion and textile design space so far and why do you think it is important to bring it into the conversation?
We live in a society that values what can be measured as opposed to that which is experienced, and our current systems predominately do not support conversation or practice that revolves around the unquantifiable. Engaging with spirituality for our world requires us to reflect upon our current societal, cultural, and economic paradigms. Paradigms that are ‘convenient’ for a lot of us, profitable beyond measure for some, but also exploitative of many.
Additionally, the pace of fashion is important to note here. Fast fashion particularly, has brought with it an alternative pace in designing and creating clothing, and this brings about massive environmental and societal consequences. A more mindful approach considers a variety of rhythms and scales and encourages diversity not homogeneity. So you can see, integrating spirituality into the fashion industry will require massive systematic and paradigmatic change, and this is confronting and will require massive mindset shifts. But there are already people doing it, so that’s exciting!
This is important, as for far too long we have left this heart-centred element of our humanness at the door of when we walk into our workplace, run our businesses, design our clothing. We are at a stage in our evolution where I believe we are ready to integrate this part of our lives into all that we do. Of course, I speak of us in the western world when I say this, as Indigenous cultures have been doing this for ages.
If we are to make any changes that address our issues, this will require moving far beyond the physical and technological changes that we have seen to date, to changes made in philosophical outlook. I do believe this lens could generate alternative practices, rhythms, intentions, ways of being and doing.
Which designers and thinkers would you name as your key influences and what have they taught you?
There are sooo many!! I’m deeply inspired by Indigenous culture, spirituality, ways of being and designing. There’s so much we can learn from first people nations in relation to living and creating in harmony with one and other and all on this planet.
Within fashion, I’m deeply inspired by the sustainable fashion researcher and educator Professor Kate Fletcher. Her work within slow fashion, how we use our garments, ecological design, rhythms has had a massive impact on the space, as she suggests alternative ways of seeing and doing for the industry. What inspires me most, is her courage to ask the hard questions and tell the very inconvenient truth, that most in this industry are too afraid to do.
Fritjof Capra’s work around physics, ecology and systems thinking, has been massively inspirational. I particularly love his book “The Tao of Physics”, where he presents the deep interconnectedness of spiritual principles and modern physics.
Janine Benyus and her work in bringing biomimicry foreword into the design space has also been instrumental. Biomimicry is the theory of looking at how the natural world works, and modelling our systems upon its resilient frameworks. I love what she says: “How can we make the act of asking Nature’s advice, a normal part of everyday inventing?”
Joanna Macy, the eco-Buddhist and systems theorist, presents the idea of the “Greening of the Self”, as moving our identity beyond our physical body to encompassing all on this planet, and through this melding the mystical with the practical.
I’ve also been listening to Marianne Williamson’s work for years now, and her “A Return to Love” and the “Law of Divine Compensation” have taught me a lot about the laws of the universe, and how to integrate mystical principles into everyday life. Other notable authors I highly recommend looking into include John Ehrenfeld, Donella Meadows, Carolyn Merchant, Stuart Walker, Victor Papanek, Christopher Alexander, and Danielle Laporte.
Are there any contemporary fashion designers who investigate spirituality in their fashion design practices?
Yes absolutely! There’s many that I love! Elisa Jane Carmichael explores past, present and future, and her family’s connection to her country. Carmichael, an Indigenous Australian visual and textile artist, weaves personal narratives into her wearable mediums, reviving the practices of her ancestors’ traditional forms of dress. Some other inspiring Indigenous designers to look into are Kirrikin and Lyn-Al Young.
Chinese designer Ma Ke floods to mind too. Through her label Wu Yong, which translates to ‘useless’, Ma Ke creates reflexive, organic, experimental pieces, with a focus on artisanal hand-loom materials that honour her Chinese ancestors and their connection to life.
Iulia Filipovscaia the Siberian artist and designer, of label Lana Siberie, crafts unique bespoke pieces made from vintage, handmade and natural materials. Her work is deeply inspired by the nature, magic and potency of her home town within Eastern Siberia, and is founded upon values of consciousness, sustainability and health.
I feel that your magazine, Lissome, explores spiritual design so beautifully, and through a variety of lenses, and is important to mention here. It’s been incredibly inspiring for my own work following your stories, and discovering new designers and perspectives that you feature – so thank you!
You coined the term Sustainability 5.0. What does it stand for and what thoughts and ideas is it based upon?
Sustainability 5.0 was started by Amie Berghan and me last year – Amie coined this term! We were connected through a mutual friend, as we were both exploring similar concepts with our work. We believe that currently we are at sustainability 1.0 perhaps leading into 2.0, and have a massive way to go to get to where we need to be to live in harmony with the Earth and with one and other.
5.0 also relates to our humanness, as we have five fingers, five toes, five senses. There are also five integral elements to Sustainability 5.0, of which our work is based upon. They are: Source, Earth, Ancient Wisdom, Community, and Self. This is what we believe makes up sustainability for the new paradigm.
What do you intend to create through Sustainability 5.0?
Through Sustainability 5.0 we aim to bring forth conversations and experiences around these ideas, through online and offline events, festivals and offerings. We both believe that the current sustainability blueprint desperately needs an upgrade if we are to create a true and lasting sustainable world for all.
The aim of this platform is to guide designers and creatives back to self, community and Mother Nature, through facilitating and offering conversation and experiences around these ideas. Even though these concepts are universal, we both come from fashion design, so that’s where our focus is, but this work is, of course, open to anybody ready to receive it.
We are currently in the midst of planning an online sustainability festival for later this year, that will bring together various speakers around the concepts we share. Our aim with the festival is to introduce designers to these concepts (that aren’t really being put together), and also show how the spiritual can be put into everyday practice. In the future, we plan to run workshops, retreats and events.
Ania Zoltkowski is a sustainable fashion designer, educator and researcher. Her work challenges contemporary design and consumption systems, as she proposes a design for sustainability as founded upon a connection to our inner selves, one another and to Nature. Together with Amie Berghan, she co-created Sustainability 5.0, a platform and think-tank that moves beyond the technological and material solutions apparent in the sustainability arena, and guides us towards whole system solutions that regenerate and replenish Mother Earth. Ania is currently based in Sydney, Australia.