Natalie Chanin: Punks & Pirates

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

I never really thought much about what punks, pirates, and the Spanish Armada had to do with farmers markets or sustainable life until I saw Richard McCarthy – a pirate of the very best order – speak. He has quite an amazing story to tell, made palatable by his charming humor, an easy-to-understand presentation, and, more importantly, good work.

I have thought so much about Richard, his work in the farmers markets – and relating his work to the Spanish Armada – since hearing him speak at the SFA Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. We will have to trust Richard’s accounts of naval history to be true. But, correct or not, I have thought about this presentation countless times and wrote to Richard on New Year’s Day.

I told him that working to change a fast-fashion industry feels like swimming upstream backwards – on a good day. His talk, with its simple illustrations, some good punk analogies, and the account of the sinking of the Spanish Armada give me hope and make my swim seem a little easier.

Watch his talk here and follow my rough summary of his talk and illustrations below. I have pulled out the core that relates to all cultural assets (food, clothing, shelter) but please watch the entire presentation for more literal workings of punks and pirates.
Richard begins his presentation: “I want to start where, I am sure all SFA talks begin, obscure 16th Century Naval Military History.”

In the late 16th Century, when Spain was at its Imperial peak, it had the world’s leading naval fleet, with the largest ships in the known world. It was impressive and intimidating and Spain felt that they had reached the pinnacle and had to knock out their competition – the Dutch – with their fleet, the Armada.

The Armada seemed too big to fail. But, Richard points out that their SCALE might actually have been the problem. In order to take out the Dutch, they had to sail past England – that small island in northern Europe with no organized navy.

They sailed through English waters and discovered that Queen Elizabeth had organized merchant seamen, rag-tag groups known as “Elizabeth’s Pirates,” with small and nimble ships, able to sail circles around the Spanish Armada and sink the fleet. Richard points out that this is a great example of asymmetrical warfare: where small was GOOD because it was able to out-maneuver the large (and flabby) Spanish Armada.

Richard reminds us that, aside from dashing clothing, pirates have been known for two really important themes: 1) Plunder, creating incredible mischief for the empire and, of course, 2) trying to get as much booty as they could from the empire.

In recent accounts of pirates, Richard notes that there were fulcrums of democratic organization in the way that the plunder was shared and the way decisions were made. There were seeds of democracy.
But what does this mean for us today?

Today we have cultural assets – treasures – like food and music (I am including fashion and architecture, too) that we have to attend to in order to keep them growing, as there are forces that want to homogenize them.

There are large corporations who want to make these cultural assets part of the “system” by homogenizing them, giving them a branding or corporate identity. The potential by-product of this is that the cutting-edge cultural assets are being dulled down, their sharp edges rounded by removing the regional taste and place and sound.
This is the struggle that we face – the battle between commercialization of our culture and our desire to protect the parts which are authentic.

In the music scene of the 1970s, we saw punks – social pirates – having an angry reaction to this homogenization of culture. There was benefit to creating mischief and social anxiety within the system. One of the results of this mischief was a democratization of music culture. If “official media” had nothing to offer you, this meant opening your own label, starting your own club, or writing a fanzine.
Bottom Line: It was an incredible DIY impulse. Sound familiar?

According to Richard, this has a parallel today in the food industry where we see large-scale homogenization of food threatening to remove the “complex, authentic textures and tastes that we want to treasure.”  The big-box scale of retail diminishes the importance of direct human contact with those who produce our food.

There is no room for human scale in the big box Stalinism that has become our food culture today (insert the cultural asset of your choice ____).

But, Richard asserts, there are certainly people and organizations that create mischief and plunder. This mischief is present in the independent films and guerrilla journalism emerging around food and in the lawsuits against fast food companies.

In the turbulent waters of industry today, we are beginning to see a rise of the democratic impulse. “We see lots of other pirate’s ships like our pirate ships.” They are ships that we may touch, we may see, we may work with – all similar pirate ships working in the high seas to try and be fulcrums for change.

And there has been quite a lot of success in retaking some of our local cultural assets; farmers markets abound; people (the pirates) are making a difference.

And in this success, we have to resist the call to become larger in scale because that larger scale, the Armada, may not be sustainable. As Richard said, “I think that we need to be really focused at being BETTER at what we are doing and not necessarily LARGER with what we are doing.”

Looking at the state of the corporate world, the system appears to be in crisis. And, Richard says, there are those up in the system looking out at the pirate ships and saying “Why are they having all the fun?” This large corporate “Armada” and those who work in it, see that smaller pirates are out there innovating. And, in seeing this, they begin to reach out to the pirates. And, with this, the pirates have to decide how to move forward.

Maybe instead of reforming it, maybe we can begin to sail in formation, creating communities and cultivating relationships. Because, in the end, we may sail alone but we have to find ways to anchor together on this big, beautiful sea.

What if we did this for fashion – what would it look like?

Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

Image: Hakan Dahlstrom

Natalie Chanin

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of Alabama Stitch Book (STC – February 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – March 2010) and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012).