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Creating Community:
Esther Muñoz Grootveld


Esther Muñoz Grootveld is an independent program manager who is working with a variety of conscious fashion initiatives. Currently based in Rotterdam and working her magic at DE WASSERIJ, a creative breeding ground for innovative fashion professionals. Allow Esther to tell you about her experiences on building a community to drive change and its role in the future of fashion:


︎︎︎ROSA JOLIEN LAAN / SOCIETY


ESTHER & DE WASSERIJ

“As a freelancer my week is mostly divided in working for De Wasserij, a fashion community in Rotterdam and State of Fashion, a cultural fashion platform in Arnhem. At De Wasserij I am more of a community manager, so I bring people together and in Arnhem I’m head of program. That’s more of a strategic job and here, at De Wasserij, it’s more hands on.”

“In the beginning of last year, I decided that it was time for my own studio space and I had already heard that De Wasserij was in development. At one point, I met one of the co-founders of De Wasserij in a fashion-meeting in Arnhem. We met for coffee and the further we talked he said “wow, I think we are looking for somebody like you”. The project had been in development for some years and it came to the point where they really needed to start building the community, but they didn’t have a community manager with experience in fashion. So, it kind of just happened that I got involved.”

    Photo: Kevin Faingnaert

BEING OPEN

“Shaping a community is very much about being open, generous and never having a pre-judged image about anybody. Also, you need to be curious and not afraid to make contact. Like what you did with me: reaching out and being genuinely interested in me and inviting me for a talk. I think being curious in general is a very important skill in the world of today. If you’re curious and open, you’ll be surprised by the people you meet and that’s how your network grows. Your network is your currency.  If I start a project, I never keep it to myself. The first thing I do is chat about it with others. It’s important that people know, as they will connect to it, or tell somebody else about it. This leads to opportunity. I really believe in that.”

“Your network is your currency”

“I think my open attitude is something that I developed when living abroad. I think everybody should have the experience of living abroad at one point. You are exposed to so many different people from all over the world that you would never meet here. That enriches you. When I lived abroad, I discovered that I am super Dutch in a way. I always felt like: “no, I’m a citizen of the world! I can live and work anywhere” but that’s of course not completely true. Abroad, I was totally confronted with the fact that I view the world through a culturally specific and privileged lens. Spending time within another culture really opened my mind.”



“The reason that I left for Shanghai in 2011 was partly because at that time in the Netherlands, the circumstances for the creative industry were very difficult. After cutbacks, there was no money for anything, and it felt like nothing was possible. Living in Shanghai taught me you that if you want something, you should just start doing it. Don’t spend too much time making plans, just start and it’s okay to make mistakes. I worked for an agency that conceptualized and realized museums and other cultural spaces. Back then, I was surprised to see that private individuals could just decide to start a museum. But then I realized, who has the right to tell them that they cannot do that? If you want to start anything in art world in the Netherlands, everyone would first ask: “do you have an art degree? “In Shanghai it was like: do you want to start a museum? Do it, why not? I found that extremely refreshing.”
Photo: Aad Hoogendoorn, 2019

BUILDING THE COMMUNITY

“In de Wasserij we have about forty studios and now that we have a steady base, a lot of people are contacting us to join. They always first meet me, and I have a talk with them, to get to know them. I’ll ask questions such as: “Who are you? What is it you want to bring and what are you coming to get in this community?”



“When you are building a community, you are looking for people with a certain mindset. People who are always open to questions and ideas. That is key. Of course, there are so many fashion entrepreneurs and you are always looking for extraordinary talent with great ideas. But the aim of De Wasserij is not to gather ‘only the best’. We rather look at potential and try to find the right match for the group. If you have a building full of people that have already proven themselves, the community doesn’t work. You need a mix of people: people in different stages of their life and career, and people with different skills. People that have already ‘arrived’ and people that are still on their way. That’s how we try to build a community here and I have to say I am very proud, because it really works.”


“If I have an idea, I find it important that it’s realized at some point. I if don’t really care if it’s realized by me or someone else”


“I think feeling safe is a very important aspect in building communities. If I look at the traditional fashion networks that I am a part of, I often still notice a fear of sharing ideas and plans with each other. People are afraid: “maybe they will steal my partners, or they will go for the same funds”. Why don’t we try to work together? If I have an idea, I find it important that it’s realized at some point. I don’t really care if it’s realized by me or someone else. Most of the ideas that I come up with, or the community comes up with are for the greater good; making positive changes in the fashion industry.

WE TEACH EACH OTHER

“I get a lot of energy from seeing people thrive. I like days at De Wasserij where I’m walking around, seeing that people knock each other’s doors for a chat, and seeing collaborations emerge from the community. I literally see what my contribution is here. People finding each other and bringing their own practice a step further because they are here, that is very satisfying.”


“For example: we have a lingerie designer in the house, or actually, she is a fashion engineer and she found a way to scan women’s bodies and she 3D prints the braces of the bra, so made to measure. She makes the bras here in De Wasserij and she was always interested in embroidering, but she didn’t know how to apply the technique. At the moment there was (and still is) an embroidery artist in the building. They met, and he taught her to use the embroidery machine. They created a beautiful collection together.”

“People finding each other and bringing their own practice a step further because they are here, that is very satisfying”


“I invest most of my time in investing in the community, bringing people together, creating synergy. Of course, at some point a community needs to start supporting itself. That’s always a big challenge. You see within many creative breeding spots, not only in Rotterdam but everywhere in the world, that there’s always a few people putting the energy in. There needs to be a transition at some point where more people in the group start joining the flag bearers. In DeWasserij, this is actually going pretty well.”

At De Wasserij’s Makerslab and sewing room. Photo:s Aad Hoogendoorn, 2019


AS A MEDIATOR

“Building a community is more than just getting the right people in the building. A community of course reaches past a building and the people in it. I am always telling people about De Wasserij, about what we want, what we do, to try to see if there’s chance to collaborate. “

“For instance, our collaboration with Museum Boijmans van Beuningen resulted from this. They contacted us for the opening of their new ‘depot’. They were working with a lot of creatives in the city, and they also wanted to connect with designers from our network. I had an initial talk with them to see who would be a fit and in the end they decided to work with our residents AnoukxVera.

I helped the designers a little bit with setting up a proper agreement with the museum and of course with the communication. In that sense De Wasserij is also a mediator. I have to say I didn’t really find a business model for this kind of mediation yet. This community and network that we are building have a value, how do you convince people to pay for that?

CREATING CHANGE


“Obviously the organizations I work for are small when you compare it to huge companies like Zara or Primark. What I see as a very interesting new path for bigger players to contribute to change is ‘de-growth’. I think it’s very clear that we need to stop the production machine. Of course, there is a big responsibility for the companies, but I really do believe that governments need to start mingling in this discussion. If they don’t at one point say: “new outlets of Zara cannot open in the Netherlands”, the companies will just keep doing it. Creatives like those in De Wasserij can come up with 'dangerous' ideas such as these and inspire others to follow.”


“Governments also have a big responsibility in what we do with fashion waste. A large percentage of all the waste of fast-fashion we export to other countries. Either we sell it and it’s burned, or it ends up in the second-hand market there. That is a huge problem because we are just polluting their markets in many different ways. Not just environmentally, but also culturally, because all this second hand fast fashion that goes to for example the African continent, ends up on the market there and people stop buying local. It undermines local economies and the more people become part of this system, that is driven by the West, the more it hurts the communities. Because jobs disappear and though it creates some new jobs; who’s really benefitting from that? Big companies.”


“You really, in some way, need to understand this bigger picture, although it seems like something that doesn’t affect you. I have discussions in which people say: “yeah, not everybody thinks in this way and not everybody can think in that way” and I totally disagree. Caring about your environment, the people and the land we live on, is a basic human skill. In this sense, I think we can learn a lot from traditional fashion communities, such as those in Indonesia or in the inlands of Mexico, where some may not even know how to read or write. In the West, we tend to look down on them, but they might have key strategies for shaping a better future. So, I think that we as fashion professionals, ‘fashion’ being a total Western construct of course, we need to start looking into what is really going on there and how can we learn from those values.”



“Often I see solutions that are tweaking the existing system
while the system in itself is broken”





“Of course, I also find it very interesting what is happening in terms of innovation such as people working on bio-materials, digital solutions and circular systems. It’s great, we shouldn’t stop that. But it’s not the only solution. Often, I see solutions that are tweaking the existing system while the system in itself is broken. Changing the system will take a long time. You need to start planting that seed in the educational system, in primary schools where kids learn to look at the world in a different way, to look at consuming in a different way. It’s about kids understanding that you don’t need a new outfit every day to make you better than somebody else and why should you be better than somebody else? These kind of things, basic human values you need to change in order to change the world.”
Photo: Frans Hanswijk, 2019

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