What makes them tick – Ben Wubs

In the series ‘What makes them tick’, Erasmus researchers explain why they love their research and where their passion comes from. In this episode, Associate Professor Ben Wubs from the Department of History talks about his studies on the transnational fashion industry. ‘It’s important for people to know and understand that fashion is an industry that touches every aspect of life.’

His research
‘I concentrate on business, economic history, and international relations, with my main research focus being on the transnational fashion industry, international business, and economic regions.’

What makes him tick
‘The older I become, the closer my research topics are related to my personal interests. I’ve liked fashion ever since I was young. When I was eight or nine years old I already thought about what to wear. I liked denim before I was allowed to wear it; at that time denim was for hippies and no one wore it, so wanting it felt kind of rebellious. With the way you dress, you can develop your identity. You can copy others or consciously create your own personality.'

'I’ve also always been fascinated by history, trying to understand the world around me by looking at it from a historical perspective.

'There’s a general interest in fashion: everybody does it and everyone has something to say about it. Every morning you think about what you’ll wear. Even people who say they hate fashion are doing it – anti-fashion is also fashion. What I also like about it, is that it’s international. It connects people. People in New York know what people in Paris are wearing and vice versa. Cultures meet in fashion. And I like the world. I don’t differentiate between people.

‘Fashion has been studied mainly from a costume and cultural-historical perspective. Together with other researchers, I’ve fuelled a new interest in the business behind fashion. What I want people to see is that fashion is the most important business in the world. And that it indeed is business. It’s not just about creativity: the design part is relatively small. Education in fashion is directed towards design: all fashion students want to become Karl Lagerfeld. But while we only need one or two of those, we could use more people with an overview who can work in the industry at several levels.

‘In that sense, academics have a role to play. I conduct research in an academic way, but I like to popularise scientific knowledge and connect it to the industry. The conferences about fashion and denim I organised were mainly attended by people from the industry. They see fashion as a spontaneous process, there is very little analysis. But I can see some long-term developments and tendencies, and they are interested in that.

‘One of the major changes that have effected fashion is globalisation. Production has been outsourced from the west to the east. It raises a social question: shouldn’t we bring back production to Europe and pay for it fairly instead of having it done cheaply in Bangladesh or China? But do people want to spend fifty euros on a shirt they previously paid five euros for? The second aspect is sustainability. Fashion is a very polluting industry. Cotton production is growing rapidly, and requires lot of water – clean, drinkable water. And the chemicals that are used to produce cotton destroy the soil.

‘I like beautiful things and things that last. I always buy sustainable clothes. I’m currently wearing Japanese denim, the most sustainable denim in the world. It’s not cheap, but it’s of high quality and I can wear it for ten years. Fast fashion has made articles so cheap that people throw shirts away after wearing them twice. Some shops throw away half the stuff they don’t sell. It is crazy.

‘Still, I’m very optimistic about the world. I believe many people that work for multinationals are good people who want to do well. The simplistic, negative views that anti-globalists have about them are biased. Take, for example, H&M. That company has a bad reputation amongst some people, but I see that it’s really moving towards sustainability. They’re pretty strict with their contracts when it comes to chemicals and child labour, and have well thought-out ideas about the future of fashion.

‘The awareness we increasingly have when buying food, we should also have about fashion. When I was in my twenties, there were only a few shops where you could buy organic products. Now there’re available at the local supermarket. That’s going to happen in fashion too: people will become more conscious about what they are wearing. It’s important for people to know and understand that, like food, fashion is an industry that touches every aspect of life.’


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