Creative Conversations: Timo Rissanen

Rissanen has seen the fashion companies’ attitude towards sustainability change dramatically during the past seven years. Photo: Liisa Jokinen

Timo Rissanen is the Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons School of Design in New York since 2010. His research focuses on fashion and sustainability, especially zero waste design process. Currently Rissanen is on a sabbatical leave, writing a book and expanding his art practice.

What brought you to New York?

I applied for a job as an assistant professor at Parsons School of Design and to my surprise I got the job. Parsons had asked me for six months to apply for this job before I finally did. They were familiar with my research and my PhD on zero waste design process. I’m the first person in this position at Parsons. I used to live in Australia where I also obtained my education. At that time, around 2009 to 2010, there were not that many academics in this field. It was a very lucky moment in time for me.

Tell us a bit more about your job.

I teach five courses a year, focusing on fashion design, sustainability, and creative approaches to cutting. Furthermore I co-chaired the School of Fashion curriculum committee from 2013 to 2016. Most recently we have been working on embedding sustainability into the elective courses offered by the School of Fashion, with the goal of sustainability becoming a part of everything we do. I dedicate one day a week to my research and creative practice.

You are specialized in sustainable fashion and zero waste design process. New York is the capital of fashion but is it the capital of ecological fashion?

The situation has changed dramatically in seven years. Back then I remember talking at a conference and big brands, such as Nike and Puma, were not interested in my message at all. Now, even companies like Marc Jacobs have sustainability managers. These issues have become very urgent when people are dying and whole ecosystems are being damaged because of the fashion industry. For example, since 2012 approximately 1,500 garment factory workers have been killed in factory fires and collapses in Bangladesh, China and Pakistan. When the price of clothing is pushed down, worker safety gets compromised.

#communication by Timo Rissanen consists of cross-stitched social media messages. Courtesy of the artist.

What are the pros and cons of living and working in New York as a fashion professional?

I’ve had much more significant opportunities here than in Australia because the businesses and the whole fashion industry is bigger in New York. Here the companies may have a team specialized in just colors or trends, whereas in Australia, the design team is usually responsible for all those areas. The enormity of the companies makes it more challenging to implement sustainability into operations. However, once it is embedded, the impact is also larger across the industry. One of the the most interesting learning processes for me has been about understanding how the big firms are structured and what the dynamics and tasks are between different departments and individuals.

What are the main things you have learnt professionally during your stay in New York?

My relationship to time has changed. I’m now at my most productive and least stressed. After taking some self-development courses, I learnt to say “no” and to set clear weekly and monthly goals. In my first two years in NY, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work and the pressure to do more and more. I have learnt that opportunities do not stop if you say “no” one time.

You are currently on leave of absence. What are you working on now? 

I’m writing my second book, which I’m calling, at the moment, “Human Centered Fashion Design” and expanding my art practice. In the book, I explore how fashion design can become a more powerful force if fundamental human needs are the guiding principle for the design process. I’m following how people live with the clothes that I’ve designed and made for them, and study design for disabilities and humanitarian crises. To find balance with all the computer work, I also wanted to start doing something with my hands. I did one cross-stitching piece per day for 100 days. The works will be on show at two exhibitions, one in Idaho and one in California. From March to June I’m doing an artist residency at a library of my old university in Sydney. I will interview people about their relationship with nature and the library because that is where my ideas about zero waste design came into existence in the late 1990s. After that, I will write poetry and create cross-stitching works based on those interviews.

Text by Liisa Jokinen

A zero waste design -pattern. Photo: Mariano Garcia

A piece of clothing sewed according to a zero waste design -pattern. Photo: Mariano Garcia