Fast Fashion and Slow Activism

Fast Fashion and Slow Activism: Alison Jeffer’s reflections on Common Wealth’s Fast Fast Slow at the 2023 British Textile Biennial, Blackburn.

From October-November 2023, Common Wealth staged Fast, Fast, Slow part catwalk, part theatre, part investigation into our personal relationship to fast fashion and the impact it has globally. The show was performed as part of The British Textile Biennial in Blackburn & BD is LIT Festival in Bradford. Alison Jeffers: academic, author and lecturer in Applied Theatre and Contemporary Performance at University of Manchester, who joined us throughout the creative process and final shows, reflects upon Fast, Fast, Slow and what she took away from the show, personally & politically. 

When I’m feeling a bit low and want to boost my mood I’ll go and buy something. That ‘something’ is often an item of clothing. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive, a T-shirt perhaps or a cheap jumper. I like buying clothes and I like to think about what I’m wearing. I plan outfits for work and for my downtime. I look at my wardrobe to assess what colours are dominant – what do I need more of? I plan what to make when I have time to get back to sewing. I love clothes. Always have. 

Until recently I assumed that my clothing habit was largely benign. I had an income, I bought some clothes and I got rid of what I didn’t want any more in what I considered an ethical way. By giving my old clothes to local charity shops I even believed that I was involved in some kind of altruistic economic circle. I only gave away garments that were in good condition. I even packed my black bags with care, folding every item, making sure things were paired if necessary. Then I began to hear the rumours: ‘you know that most of your stuff doesn’t go into their charity shops? It goes to land fill. They get traded abroad in poorer countries’. Surely not, I reasoned, but I did wonder why I never saw any of my stuff on the rails in my local shops.

My encounters with the 2023 British Textile Biennial (BTB23) in Lancashire sadly proved those rumours true. Common Wealth was commissioned by BTB to create a performance around clothing and our relationships to our clothes. Fast Fast Slow was the first live performance in the BTB which has taken place twice before. Previously most of the work had focused on the visual arts. The performance took place in The Exchange in Blackburn, a huge space on the first floor of a derelict Grade 2 listed building. It was staged on a long catwalk supported by bales of fabric like the ones usually destined for places like Ghana. The site is significant because it was opened in 1865 as a Cotton Exchange in the centre of Britain’s cotton weaving industry (see )or more information on the history of the building and its restoration). The fashion show vibe was reinforced by lights on huge gantries, a full sound system and a two-way entrance on either side of the catwalk where the performers would emerge. 

In many ways Fast Fast Slow brought the story of British textiles full circle. Here were 21st century Blackburn people talking about their relationship to clothes in a performance that was taking place in what had been the centre of the textile trade (and Industrial Revolution) walking across bales of discarded clothing destined for African markets. The circle was well and truly closed by the presence in the show of Kwamene Boison an activist who runs The Revival, a clothing project in the biggest second-hand clothing market in the world, Kantamanto in Ghana. I’ll come back to this fascinating circle in the minute but first I’d like to give you a flavour of the stories that Fast Fast Slow put on the catwalk/stage.

Common Wealth’s artists worked with six co-creators, local people based in and around Blackburn, over several months in the run-up to the show. They talked to them about their relationship with clothes and, using these ideas, helped them to craft six individual stories, or ‘concept collections’ which became the backbone of Fast Fast Slow. Some the co-creators were a bit like me – they loved clothes and owned lots! For some their relationship with clothing had changed over the Covid pandemic when walking and being outdoors was all that most of us could do in the midst of a national lock-down. Some had a difficult relationship with clothes falling in and out of love with them as their mental health and body image changed. About 15 other models joined these co-creators on the catwalk, moving, posing and dancing to help each of them to tell their stories. It was moving and challenging, loud and visually exciting. It fits with Common Wealth’s aim to make audiences feel empowered. Director Evie Manning explained to me ‘I think you don’t activate people if you make them feel stupid, or if you make them feel passive and quiet. If you say, no, you sit in the dark and we’re important people over here.’ She explained that 70% of the audience stayed after the show every night for a post-show discussion. Evie sensed that ‘people were hungry for not just for answers but to ask the questions and say things out loud.’

We had seen Kwamena and his colleague Yayra Agbofa on screen being filmed in Ghana. They explained about the bales of clothes arriving in Kantamanto and how so many of them were damaged or unsuitable. They told us about their efforts to upcycle and reuse as much of this waste as possible through their project, The Revival (see In a dramatic moment towards the end of the show Kwamena himself bounded onto the catwalk in person to deliver some important thoughts from the recipients of our clothing waste in Ghana. This made me think about the scale of the problems of clothing waste that Kwamena and thousands like him face and how small many gestures of resistance can be. Sewing a button back onto something, stitching a hem back up or patching a pair of jeans are tiny gestures. But what Fast Fast Slow showed us is that small gestures are important. They are not only about repair but also about slowness. It takes time to do these things but as we slow down to carry them out we are also challenging the speed of fast fashion and throw-away culture. We’re challenging the fast fashion message that we need more; that we can’t be seen twice in the same outfit; that a quick purchase of a cheap item of clothing will boost our mood because we’re worth it.

Kwamena told me that in communities in Ghana there was always a tailor, even up to 5 tailors, in a community sewing things for themselves to sell. But predominantly they were working in collaboration with people in in the neighbourhoods to make a fix things. He sees possibilities in ‘putting this concept against or around the concept of fast fashion now’. Collaborating on the ground, sharing skills, slowing down to mend clothes is what Kwamena calls ‘a beautiful model that could be replicated on a global level’. Kwamena added that the collection Denim Juice which was part of The Revivals collection presented at the show is an appropriate example of the power of community and collaboration as the collection was a collaborative design initiative with pineapple farmers to produce an estimated 3000 protective gear annually with discarded denim from Kantamanto.  I’ve learned a lot from BTB23 and especially from my involvement with Fast Fast Slow and the artists and activists that worked on it. I’m trying to see the beauty in mending and buying fewer clothes and sharing this message whenever possible.