Nationalism as Sustainable Practice: Patriotism Through Pichulik

Completed in partial fulfilment of the Master of Arts degree in Fashion Studies at Parsons School of Design.

Pichulik is a bespoke range of wild neckpieces designed by Katherine-Mary Pichulik, trained artist and patissier, that first launch in September of 2012 after it’s namesake’s first trip to India. Each piece in handcrafted in Cape Town, South Africa using locally manufactured ropes and interesting found materials. Inspired by Africana and Middle Eastern ornamentation, Pichulik creates statement pieces for ‘bold and courageous women’ inspired by the ‘intimate relationship women have with jewelry, reflecting their travels, relationships to their mothers and grandmothers, and the people they have loved’. (Pichulik, 2012) Aesthetically, the designs reflect a distinctly African inspired colour scheme, using production techniques that mimic the weaving of traditional baskets, textures that express artisanal craftsmanship, and shapes and colour arrangements reminiscent of tribal ceremonial adornment of cultures such as the Xhosa and Ndebele, indigenous to South Africa. This label was born as the second coming of the Proudly South African branding initiative, designed to promote local production and design of commercial goods.

First conceived at the Presidential Job Summit in 1998, the Proudly South African Campaign was born out of socio-economic necessity to create jobs, under the leadership of the former South African President, Nelson Mandela. Through the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), the Proudly South African Campaign was launched in 2001 and supported by Government, Organised Business (BUSA), Organised Labour and Organised Community.

The Proudly South African ‘buy local’ campaign encourages the nation to buy local products and make use of local services, in an effort to stimulate the local economy and help create jobs. Proudly SA also promotes national pride, patriotism and social cohesion. ‘When consumers buy locally produced products and support local service providers, the local economy is stimulated and sustainable job opportunities are created. By supporting local producers and manufacturers (by buying goods which carry the Proudly South African logo or a 'Made in South Africa' label) each and every South African can contribute towards creating a bigger demand for home grown products and services; stimulating South Africa's economic growth; helping to prevent job losses and helping to create job opportunities.’ (SA gov, 2005)

Though Pichulik is not an affiliate of this branding initiative by the South African Government, it employs these models of sustainability as standard operating practice, and is part of a new group of young creatives and designers in the country who are embracing these values and repackaging them for a design concious youth culture emerging as part of the post-apartheid new middle class.

Sustainable design is the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to comply with the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability. The intention of sustainable design is to ‘eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design.’ (McLennan, 2004) Manifestations of sustainable design require no non-renewable resources, impact the environment minimally, and connect people with the natural environment. Beyond the ‘elimination of negative environmental impact’, sustainable design must create projects that are meaningful innovations that can shift behaviour. A dynamic balance between economy and society, intended to generate long-term relationships between user and object/service and finally to be respectful and mindful of the environmental and social differences. (Engage by Design) Creative designers and artists are perhaps the most inventive when it comes to upcycling or creating new products from old waste. A growing number of designers upcycle waste materials such as car window glass and recycled ceramics, textile offcuts from upholstery companies, and even decommissioned fire hose to make belts and bags. Whilst accessories may seem trivial when pitted against green scientific breakthroughs, the ability of fashion and retail to influence and inspire consumer behaviour should not be underestimated. Eco design may also use bi-products of industry, reducing the amount of waste being dumped in landfill, or may harness new sustainable materials or production techniques e.g. fabric made from recycled plastic bottles or bamboo textiles. Production of Pichulik accessories, includes the use of exclusively locally sourced materials such as cotton rope, stone, and woven indigenous textile. This practice not only promotes local production, but emphasizes environmental sustainability through the use of indigenous natural resources and upcycled materials.

Because standards of sustainable design appear to emphasize ethics over aesthetics, many designers and critics have complained that it lacks inspiration, a legacy emerging brands are working hard to counter, which can be seen in local (American) labels such as Reformation, Anthropologie and American Apparel, as well as smaller more upmarket designer labels such as Telfar and Slow and Steady.  A leading advocate for an alternative view is architect Lance Hosey, whose book The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (2012) was the first dedicated to the relationships between sustainability and beauty. Hosey argues not just that sustainable design needs to be aesthetically appealing in order to be successful, but also that following the principles of sustainability to their logical conclusion requires reimagining the shape of everything designed, creating things of even greater beauty. Reviewers have suggested that the ideas in The Shape of Green could ‘revolutionize what it means to be sustainable.’ (Easley, 2012) It is precisely this attitude with which Katherine-Mary Pichulik has approached the design of her intricate accessories. By reimagining the way jewelry is supposed to look, sustainability has become an integral part of the aesthetic of her brand.

Fashion is the way in which our clothes reflect and communicate our individual vision within society, linking us to time and space (Fletcher 2008). Clothing is the material thing that gives fashion a contextual vision in society (Cataldi et al. 2010). Fashion is something that always changes, while its meaning remains unaltered. Fashion, which is a deep cultural expression and aims directly at who we are and how we connect to other people, frequently suggests a passing trend, something transient and superficial.

As Walker (2006) points out, these negative connotations of fashion pertain only to the way in which it is manifested and used. Change itself is inherently neither positive nor negative—it is the nature of the change that matters. Sustainability, by contrast, has to do with long-term perspective. Fashion can be defined as the discarding of clothes that are fully functional for purely semiotic or symbolic reasons. The fact that the production and use of fashion garments generate a great amount of waste, would make it appear as an impediment for sustainability. But, beyond these contradictions, fashion should not necessarily come into conflict with sustainable principles. Indeed, it has a role in the promotion and achievement of sustainability and it may even be a key element in working towards more sustainable ways of living. (Walker 2006) According to Hethorn and Ulasewicz (2008), fashion is a process, is expressed and worn by people, and as a material object, has a direct link to environment. It is embedded in everyday life. So, sustainability within fashion means that through the development and use of a thing or a process, there is no harm done to the people or the planet, and that thing or process, once put into action, can enhance the well-being of the people who interact with it and the environment it is developed and used within.

According to Jonathan Chapman of the University of Brighton, UK, emotionally durable design reduces the consumption and waste of natural resources by increasing the resilience of relationships established between consumers and products. (Chapman, 2009) In his book, Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences & Empathy, Chapman describes how ‘the process of consumption is, and has always been, motivated by complex emotional drivers, and is about far more than just the mindless purchasing of newer and shinier things; it is a journey towards the ideal or desired self, that through cyclical loops of desire and disappointment, becomes a seemingly endless process of serial destruction.’ (Chapman, 2005) According to Chapman, 'emotional durability' can be achieved through consideration of the following five elements:

·      Narrative: How users share a unique personal history with the product.

·      Consciousness: How the product is perceived as autonomous and in possession of its own free will.

·      Attachment: Can a user be made to feel a strong emotional connection to a product?

·      Fiction: The product inspires interactions and connections beyond just the physical relationship.

·      Surface: How the product ages and develops character through time and use.

As a strategic approach, ‘emotionally durable design provides a useful language to describe the contemporary relevance of designing responsible, well made, tactile products which the user can get to know and assign value to in the long-term.’ (Lacey, 2009) According to Hazel Clark and David Brody of Parsons The New School for Design, ‘emotionally durable design is a call for professionals and students alike to prioritise the relationships between design and its users, as a way of developing more sustainable attitudes to, and in, design things.’ (Clark; Brody, 2009)

The Brave Women Series is an archive of intimate portraits of local women from varying vocations, backgrounds and races, put together by the Pichulik creative team, to document the personal journeys of courageous women who embrace their product. The series consists of a brief interview and bio, a photo series of the women in their most natural environments, and a short video of them each navigating the world in Pichulik. ‘Jewelry in African Tribology, has served to initiatory transitions and has aggregated women’s circles where stories and blessings were shared and communities were made. Pichulik pieces can be worn as talismans to a community of bold brave women, and here we document sensitive investigations into these women’s lives.’ (Pichulik, 2012) With this series featuring on the website, Pichulik has built an emotional attachment into the product by establishing a relationship between the product and a connection to gender, culture, empowerment and notions of belonging. A powerful branding tool, the series promotes a sense of community between the consumers of the product, and fosters a deeper relationship to the physical product as a result of the emotional sustainability of it’s message.


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Kate Fletcher’s Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys brings together information about lifecycle sustainability impacts of fashion and textiles, practical alternatives, design concepts and social innovation. It challenges existing ideas about the scope and potential of sustainability issues in fashion and textiles, and sets out a more pluralistic, engaging and forward-looking picture, drawing on ideas of systems thinking, human needs, local products, slow fashion and participatory design, as well as knowledge of materials.

The book not only defines the field, it also challenges it, and uses design ideas to help shape more sustainable products and promote social change. Arranged in two sections, the first four chapters represent key stages of the lifecycle: material cultivation/extraction, production, use and disposal. The remaining four chapters explore design approaches for altering the scale and nature of consumption, including service design, localism, speed and user involvement. While each of these chapters is complete in and of itself, their real value comes from what they represent together: innovative ways of thinking about textiles and garments based on sustainability values and an interconnected approach to design. This guideline served as the framework through which I was able to more intricately approach the concept of social design.

Social design is design that is mindful of the designer’s role and responsibility in society; and the use of the design process to bring about social change.

Within the design world social design is sometimes defined as a design process that contributes to improving human well-being and livelihood. (Engage by Design) The agenda of social design is inspired by among others' Victor Papanek’s idea that designers and creative professionals have a responsibility and are able to cause real change in the world through good design. Papanek writes about responsible design. Designers can contribute to designing more ecological products by carefully selecting the materials they use. Papanek also remarks on designing for people's needs rather than their wants. Responsible design includes many directions and one of these is design for the Third World. Designers have responsibility over the choices they make in design processes. (Tainter, 1988)

Social design thinking within the design world joins developing human and social capital with new products and processes that are profitable. Profitability and ownership of the processes are the cornerstones of sustainability that underpins human well-being. Another author that contributes to the development of this definition of social design is Victor Margolin. He writes in The Politics of the Artificial about the ‘designer's ability to envision and give form on material and immaterial products that can address human problems on broad scale and contribute to social well-being.’ This ideology is something that social design is built on. (Holling, 1973) In this view social design is an activity that should not be framed with connotations of charity, aid donations, help etc. It is not voluntary work, but it should be seen as professional contribution that plays a part in local economic development or livelihood. ‘Pichulik is a team of brave women – Joyce, Elita, Sarah and Melissa who are inspired by making bold jewelry for othe brave women. If the Pichulik brand was a person, she would haveawicked sense of humour, a strong yet inspired presence. Kind wise eyes that speak of many journeys through exotic lands. She would smell the way Jasmine smells in Johannesburg at the end of Winter – promising Spring. She would tatse of Pomegranates from Granada and Rose Syrup from Morocco.’ (Pichulik, 2012)

As part of it’s branding, Pichulik emphasizes the artisans behind the physical products, making consumers blatantly aware that there are people behind these intricate creations, and not a nameless machine as part of a larger desensitized factory system. Not only does this bolster the emotional connection to community and to the emotional longetivty of the product, but it serves as a tool for female empowerment, a socio-political act that is both beneficial for the economy but also for culture. By promoting the skilled artisanal work of indigenous women, Pichulik products are embued with an intangible sense of culture and nationalism, of feminism and empowered labour, and creative patriotism.

According to the European Commission, the textile and clothing industry is a diverse and heterogeneous industry covering a large range of activities from the transformation of fibres to yarns and fabrics and from these to clothing, which may be either fashion or non-fashion clothes. The clothing industry is intensive and offers basic level jobs for unskilled labour in developed as well as developing countries. Job creation in the sector has been particularly strong for women in poor countries, who previously had no income opportunities other than the household or the informal sector. (Gardetti, 2013)

A starting point for outlining social design is strategic thinking of design, creating policies and implementing them on civil level. The two poles: tradition and the market economy can, in one of the models for social design, be placed in interaction, rather than in competition, with each other. An author that has to be mentioned here is Jacque Fresco and his Venus Project. He proposes that the future of the social systems needs to be designed by the scientific method. Social design can then be seen as a process that leads to human capabilities that in turn contributes to their well-being. As Amartya Sen writes, ‘poverty is seen as deprivation of capabilities. By focussing on capabilities, rather than e.g. income, Amartya Sen suggests that development within various social aspects of life can contribute to general development. Understanding and using social design processes can contribute to the improvement of livelihood.’ (Sen, 1996)

Working with a different emphasis, some researchers and institutions have pointed out that a fourth dimension should be added to the dimensions of sustainable development, since the triple-bottom-line dimensions of economic, environmental and social do not seem to be enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society. In this context, the Agenda 21 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) Executive Bureau lead the preparation of the policy statement ‘Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development’, passed on 17 November 2010, in the framework of the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders – 3rd World Congress of UCLG, held in Mexico City. Although some would still argue that economics is primary, and culture and politics should be included in 'the social'. This document inaugurates a new perspective and points to the relation between culture and sustainable development through a dual approach; developing a solid cultural policy and advocating a cultural dimension in all public policies. The Circles of Sustainability approach distinguishes the four domains of economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability.

Other organizations have also supported the idea of a fourth domain of sustainable development. The Network of Excellence Sustainable Development in a Diverse World sponsored by the European Union, integrates multidisciplinary capacities and interprets cultural diversity as a key element of a new strategy for sustainable development. The Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development Theory has been referenced by executive director of IMI Institute at UNESCO Vito Di Bari in his manifesto of art and architectural movement Neo-Futurism, whose name was inspired by the 1987 United Nations’ report Our Common Future. The Circles of Sustainability approach used by Metropolis defines the (fourth) cultural domain as practices, discourses, and material expressions, which, over time, express continuities and discontinuities of social meaning. (Cahil et al. 2013)

According to Kate Fletcher (2008), the process of transforming the industry into something more sustainable and more sensitive to our needs takes time. It is a long-term commitment to a new way of producing and consuming that requires widespread personal, social and institutional change. In the shorter term, there exist other, more easily won, opportunities to tackle consumers’ patterns, such as those that come from subverting well-recognised social and psychological mechanisms that induce blind consumption such as the pressure to compare themselves to others, for example through the accumulation and display of possessions; the continuous replacing of things with their ‘updated’ versions; the cultural obligation to experience everything and buy things accordingly; and the constant consumption as part of a continuous process of identity formation

By fostering strong relationships with other established and emerging local labels, Pichulik and the greater impact of it’s brand, creates a sense of community, of national creative identity and social upliftment from the inside out. Coupled with the environmentally concious production practices and the emotional longetivity of the narrative embued by it’s close association to culture, it represents a new kind of future for young South Africa, it’s fashion industry and empowerment model, and is an effective example of nationalism as sustainable practice.

Make up x Bobbi Brown

Photography x Anthony Bila

Edited x Dr. Francesca Granata

Shop the collection here


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· Liam Magee, Andy Scerri, Paul James, James A. Thom, Lin Padgham, Sarah Hickmott, Hepu Deng, Felicity Cahill (2013). "Reframing social sustainability reporting: Towards an engaged approach".Environment, Development and Sustainability (Springer).doi:10.1007/s10668-012-9384-2

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·      Sen, Amartya; Suzumura, Kōtarō; Arrow, Kenneth J. (1996). Social Choice Re-examined: Proceedings of the IEA conference held at Schloss Hernstein, Berndorf, near Vienna, Austria 2 (1st ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312127398.

·      Tainter, J.A (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies Cambridge Univ. Press

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