Timo Rissanen

in conversation with Kerrin Smith


Timo Rissanen is an artist, an educator, a designer,and a stand for a world in which all life is flourishing. He is an Associate Professor at Parsons School of Design, a leader in the domain of “zero waste” fashion, has published multiple books on the topic of sustainable fashion, and is a founding member of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion. His art takes flight through cross stitch and the design & creation of garments.

K: What do you burn for? What are your dreams?

I burn for justice for everyone and for all species. It’s not simple but when you start to think about what that means and where that is missing in the world, there is a lot of work to do. That sounds very heavy and serious - I also burn for joy and love and laughter because we’re not here for a very long time as you start to realize in your 40’s.

K: How do you understand “sustainability” in fashion?

I’m going to quote John Ehrenfeld -- his definition of sustainability is one that I understand and like it for its succinctness: sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life and will flourish on Earth forever. Then we can ask, “What does that look like in fashion?” and then we can ask if everyone is flourishing in relation to fashion and that’s where you can see very quickly that the answer is no.

The older I get the more I see myself as one organism among many, and there is less and less difference between me and the lily behind you and even the soil that the lily is growing out of, for soon we ourselves will become soil.

We see ourselves as somehow being above or transcendent above other life. We see humanity as being above, and ultimately we’re not. We are completely interdependent on other life on earth. We are one part of this global system of life, of the biosphere on this planet. That is the connection that is missing - when I think about redefining what it means to be human, part of that is transcending the individual to see each other as, in a way, a part of us, and then going beyond that to see all other life as part of me as well. That’s how I see it. That’s the transformation that needs to happen.
K: What are your core principles as an educator?

I focus on the student - it’s about the student, not me. I am curious about leadership, so I try to find the leadership in every student - leadership not in the usual way we understand it, but people who are leaders in their lives, and that (kind of leadership) can look a lot of different ways. You can be a leader as a sibling, parent, child of someone.

Leadership is a quality that allows us to stay in action even when things get really challenging, even when there is a lot of resistance around you, or to what you believe is the right or necessary thing to do.

Finding that quality in my students, and from the perspective that there is no blueprint for it. Knowing that it will look different in every student but know that nonetheless I can find it one way in every student. Part of that is humility on my part - not assuming that I’ll know anything about my students or how to teach them. It’s about being genuinely curious about them and bringing a very generous listening into the teaching. I’m by no means perfect - it’s important to acknowledge that because I just made it sound like I am, and I’m not by any means! But nonetheless, that’s the kind of frame.

K: In the 2019 documentary Regarbd, you talk about the inherent complexity in the solutions to some of these issues - and how you’ve become comfortable with that complexity. What’s an example of such a solution, and equally as important, how did you come to be comfortable with complexity

I got to be comfortable just realizing that there are no simple answers. There are not any simple solutions because the problems are systemic and those systems are complex, they are messy, they include countless individuals, they are transnational. You have overlapping economic systems, material systems, climatic systems, systems of cultures and languages - all kinds of overlapping systems impacting each other. It’s layered and complex, and yet, once we start to think in systems - you take kind of a systems view, it gives a different access into the complexity because it gives an access to making sense of the complexity, but this is where things get challenging because particularly when it comes to the industry’s ways of thinking, there is a real avoidance of complex thinking.  I understand it, it’s probably quite human to try and simplify and make sense of the world, but it doesn’t work when it comes to sustainability.

For instance if we hear an announcement about using organic cotton, that needs to be looked at in the overall context of the operations - is that (cotton) going into garments that will just get burned? What does that (organic cotton)  actually mean? We’re not there yet in terms of how brands talk about these things. With some brands, like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, there is a humility in talking about what they do, and there’s a lot for other brands to learn from that. I think humility is a quality that isn’t valued enough because what humility gives us access to is bringing to view the opportunities for development in a way that is not (about) something to fix, but an opportunity for growth. It might be a small semantic difference, but for me it’s a profound difference because fixing is not a very powerful context in which to operate, and there is too much “fixing” in the world - and the things that get “fixed” usually have to get fixed again and again and again because the mindset that underlies the issues isn’t transformed.

K: To dive into your own practices of mindfulness or development - what are your touchstones that help you stay grounded or present?

Running. I left at 6am yesterday to go running in Central Park. I got to experience a part of the park where there are maybe only a few hundred people in the whole park. It’s difficult to experience privacy in New York, and if you go running early enough you get to experience that. But by the time I finish there are a lot of people t here, and I feel like we’re all there together. The other thing I do is cross-stitching, and the thing that connects both of those is concentration. I wouldn’t call it meditation, but there’s something about the concentration both take. Also, just getting rest - giving yourself enough rest. That’s a continuous practice for me. It’s not just sleeping, but allowing yourself to do very slow things, or nothing at all.

K: What’s something you are practicing or improving on right now?

Saying no, and more broadly, learning to say no in a way that leaves the other person empowered and satisfied with my no, and also leaves me at peace with having said no. I have a tendency to try and please everyone and be overly polite.

K: What’s a favorite learning you’ve had recently?

It’s something around the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, a union I’ve recently co-founded with some colleagues. This is a group of seven of us with deep mutual respect, and my learning is that doesn’t translate into smooth working together. I’m in this group of seven people, and I think all other six are extraordinary humans - it’s ongoing learning to work in this incredible group of people.

K: What does being Cool And Thoughtful mean to you?

I do think that practicing humility is part of this, and I don't mean the kind of false humility. What humility looks like for real is being able to say that you don’t have all the answers, because that gives you access to not just listening to people, but actually hearing people and being able to hear points of view other than your own.

Part of being Cool And Thoughtful is also having a commitment to something outside of yourself.

It’s not to say that you’re insignificant or unimportant - I think that all of us are - but the pendulum has swung too far to the individual in my view, and we’ve normalized a degree of selfishness that I think is not healthy. The access out of that, is having a commitment to something outside yourself, and I don’t see that as a sacrifice in any way. It can be incredibly enriching, rewarding, and it gives your life meaning. Lastly, it means having some level of commitment to joy. What’s also Cool And Thoughtful is calling one out on yourself when you are being resentful or committed to suffering because being committed to (that) is just rotten.

K: What difference do you think being Cool And Thoughtful could make in the spaces (environments, industry, communities etc) you travel in?

As an educator, I can definitely hold a space for voices that ordinarily often are not heard or are muffled or dominated by other voices. To me, that is one of the biggest gifts of being a teacher - that’s where the piece about privilege comes in too - I hope to be someone who can really hold the space and really just get out of the way of my students. Of course there is a part of being a teacher that’s about teaching things and holding them accountable, but there is another part of it that is giving students the space to say things that make me uncomfortable. I’ve had students call me on my BS and I’m very grateful for that. It’s uncomfortable, but if growth is comfortable, you’re probably not growing and you’re surely not being honest. Comfortable growth is a wonderful lie to tell oneself.
Where I might have an opportunity to expand being Cool And Thoughtful is in the way that I work with the larger fashion system, the industry. Specifically, I get very irritated very quickly when I see what I consider “greenwashing” by businesses. What I tend to then do is rant about it on social media which gets me a lot of likes on Instagram, but I don't think it really accomplishes what I’d really like to see change. Of course it’s satisfying in the moment, but the real question is, how do we have conversations about profound systems transformation in the world? That’s what I’m really committed to, transforming the world, including fashion, into one that works for everyone. I’ve been using the term justice for all species, and I do think that’s what we ought to strive for, even if it’s easy to dismiss by saying it’s not feasible, but I don’t think limiting ourselves to reasonable and feasible is going to get us through.

© Cool And Thoughtful™ 2020