Parsons ADHT’s Casey Haymes sits down with MA Fashion Studies alumna, Joelle Firzli, to chat about what she’s gotten up to after graduating earlier this year.
Casey: Thank you for taking time to meet with me to talk about your life before, during, and after Parsons ADHT.
Joelle: The pleasure is mine; I was in the neighborhood, you know.
How does one collect 8 years of experience in the fashion industry at a young age? I’m very impressed, either/both with your ability to downplay the appearance of age and/or process education and experience so quickly. Is this a matter of a vegan diet and skin exfoliation or a strong sense of determination?
I’m not so young anymore: 33 years old! I’m not a vegan either, but I practice yoga, which helps me keep a focused and clear mind. I also have a mother who sends me the best creams.
Even with 8 years of experience in the industry I still feel like I’m at the beginning of learning! It helps that I’ve been surrounded by the right people at the right time in my life. It helps that I am not afraid to make changes (even if the changes end up being wrong turns), and I tend to put myself in challenging situations.
Compare/contrast your teenage imagination with the reality of your life?
I was an idealist teenager who wanted to save the world. I grew up in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in a community of expats and diplomats. In my class in school, there were approximately 30 students of 8 different nationalities! From a young age, I wanted to discover the world and its humanity; I loved geography, culture, and history. Today, I merge my love for history and culture with my love for fashion and design. Along the way, I met and collaborated with smart, proactive, and inspiring people. There is no where else I’d rather be than where I’m at right now.
Let’s build a rough timeline of your fashion industry experience. Did you enter via retail?
I was recruited by the fashion editor of Marie Claire Arabia as a fashion journalist and stylist. I shifted to retail when I moved to Hanoi, Vietnam and worked with Metiseko. I also freelanced as a stylist for local designers and magazines, and co-hosted a (make-over) TV show.
Did the education you received by being in that nook of the industry lead to styling or graduate school?
Despite the fact that I’d gained so much experience working in the industry, it was precisely my lack of formal fashion education that motivated me to go back to graduate school. Something was missing. I wanted to explore the academic v. the industry.
For our current and prospective MA Fashion Studies students, share with us how, how, how: How did you choose Parsons ADHT over other schools? How did you choose ADHT over other Parsons studies? What support did you find critical at Parsons?
I only applied to Parsons; I had heard about the reputation of The New School as forward thinking and liberal. I was questioning the fashion system and my practice within the system. The ADHT program offered the opportunity to finally bridge the gap between academia and the industry.
Being a graduate of Parsons ADHT provided me with an interdisciplinary platform for the study of fashion, and with the tools to further explore it. I am forever grateful for all the great teachers and peers whom I have met, particularly for the teaching of Dr. Francesca Granata and her bold and edgy approach to fashion and its relation with the body and its borders. And grateful to Professor Elizabeth Morano for her extensive knowledge in the history and literature of fashion.
Were you always thought of as a writer? Or was that a response to the requirements of the ADHT program?
I would never refer to myself as a writer. A researcher and curator, and maybe a critic some day.
I feel comfortable assuming you feel comfortable networking and are in possession of a talent for building professional relationships. Could you elaborate on the experiences that would either confirm or correct my assumption?
My travels and international background prompt me to be who I am: open-minded, non-judgemental, and accepting. I’m also a good listener, and you know how people like to talk.
Any advice for developing networking skills in the fashion industry?
While swimming with the sharks wearing diamonds, one must play the game and get out there! Know your audience. Read. Do your research. Follow up. Ask for advice. Care about the people you meet. You must find your voice and your style to stand out.
Which fashion magazine do you freelance for?
I style and write for a Lebanese women’s magazine called NOUN, which highlights the Lebanese community in New York City. The magazine is in French and keeps me practicing my French writing and affords my foothold in the country. Being Lebanese, I wish I had more time to dedicate to this activity. It is my small contribution to Beirut, until something bigger happens.
How do you nurture resilience?
By challenging myself, setting up my goals, and building relationships.
What about setting up some time to sleep?
On a regular night I sleep 5 to 6 hours. Sometimes I indulge myself and sleep for 7 hours, but rarely more than 8 hours. Not the best scenario, as you can imagine.
What has your fashion research taught you about your fashion practice?
The research opened my perspective, which my previous fashion industry experience had limited. I found the answers and tools to understand the subject and where I stand. Research increased my respect for the practice and my interest in fighting the complex issues within the system.
What highlight from your knowledge in Twentieth Century and contemporary fashion history and theory impresses dinner party guests the most?
Avant-garde fashion, the grotesque, fashion photography, textiles and sustainable practices.
Compare/contrast your bookshelves around the world?
New York City: Fashion Spreads by Paul Jobling, The Fashion System by Roland Barthes, Fetish by Valerie Steele, Fashion at the Edge by Caroline Evans, Spectres, When Fashion Turns Back by Judith Clark. I am also a fervent reader of Valerie Steele’s Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.
Paris: The Impossible Wardrobe by Olivier Saillard (catalog)
Beirut and Abidjan: These places are mostly associated with holidays, so short stories and fictional books.
Considering the tilt your answer gives to NYC, I’ll deduce this is your favorite.
Living v. Working: what’s the difference?
There is a work component in everything I do and however I live. Everything can be inspiration. The difference is privacy. Taking some alone time to think and unwind, to enjoy the little things: spending time with my partner, nurturing my friendships, going to exhibitions, practicing yoga, reading, blasting music in my apartment and just dancing until dawn like nobody’s watching.
What is the live/work balance in Abidjan v. Beirut v. London v. Paris v. Hanoi v. New York City? Where do you feel most relaxed, or at home?
I must admit that there is nothing like the energy of New York, and I love my apartment in the East Village. It’s a mix and match of old and new, eccentric and classic, familiar and strange.
All of those cities are precious to me. I’ve met some extraordinary people. I’ve learned a lot about myself in each of those cities. I collect objects, which bring me luck and keep memories alive.
Do you ever wake up confused after one of those naps that bridges daylight to night?
It’s funny you mention the word confused. Waking up in a new place is always a little distracting; I feel lost for a few seconds. But I love this feeling. It’s like floating in an unchartered territory before returning to consciousness.
Would your choice of career be possible without the willingness/ability to travel and collaborate?
Choice is the correct word. Today I choose to combine my travels with my work and collaborations. Maybe one day I’ll slow down the travelling and spend more time on Facetime and Skype and less time interacting in person. Although, I still prefer the original version!
Any guesses on how the post 2016 election environment will affect your career?
I feel like people are more than ever willing to fight for what they believe in. I stand with those who choose to overcome the election results. It has been rough to understand the outcome and exit the echo-chamber of NYC. I have amazing friends here, and we support each other. I want to stay positive and believe in the potential of this country and its people.
When I contacted you for an interview, you responded by saying you wanted to collaborate on a piece. It’s the word choice of collaborate I’m circling right now.
Collaborations are at the heart of my work. Interaction with others make possible conversation, exchange, the creation of content as well as the construction of one’s relationship with other and the sharing of emotions such as happiness, anger, trust.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
I’m a partner at Design and Flow, a strategic design and innovation movement based in NYC that initiates leading-edge dialogues about culture, and champions design as a tool for positive social change. I work as the curator and label manager, exploring fashion in relation to design, sustainability, and technology. We are currently working on a new theme for 2017, preparing talks and panels, an exhibition, and exciting collaborations.
Is independent curator an organization? Should the name be capitalized?
It’s the name of my website and the beginning of a new project. I enjoy the intimacy and humbleness of lowercase letters.
When words fail, what remedies their failure?
Words fail when they are disconnected from their true intention and context. Gesture and action can remedy their failure, and sometimes they act as great alternatives to convey meaning.
How does the collaboration between words and images elevate or devalue its individual parts?
A collaboration between words and images is essential to elevate its individual parts. The images should illustrate the words. The words ideally explain the images. But there is another external element: the viewer actively participates in creating the meaning for the image. It is my job as a curator to make the objects/garments/photographs carry linguistic meaning and produce a response, whether positive or negative.
I feel like we’re not done. What else do you have?
I could talk about how I’d love to move to Mexico City one day or discuss the grotesque.
If Pornography/The Grotesque was a street and Fashion was an avenue, what would populate the four corners of their intersection?
A voyeur, an exhibitionist, a fetish, and Terry Richardson.
Regarding democratizing fashion, what can you tell us about the fashion designer Doulsy, who transforms Senegal’s trash into Afrofuturist haute couture?
Obviously the world of fashion changed dramatically over recent years, and with mass production it is suggested that fashion is no longer associated only with the privileged and the elite. Does it mean that fashion has been democratized? I don’t think so. It’s the illusion of democracy because the public is still victim of a system that offers fast, accessible, and affordable clothing.
Designers like Doulsy make me love my job. Taking elements from the street and mass culture to construct garments in the most complex and fascinating ways is a return to the craft movement that is growing around the world, including in NYC.
I am currently collaborating with an emerging designer whose work delves into the celebration and the revival of culture, craft, and tradition through sustainable practices. JAHNKOY intervenes into everyday wear and found objects, displacing them from their usual habitat. She reflects on the current state of the fashion system. Her work is inspired by mass culture, everyday materials, and symbols of capitalism. It defies expectation by forging new ideas in conformity with tradition, culture, and human values. When people reconnect with themselves and their environment they can reconnect with their clothes. Only then can fashion act as an agent of freedom, expression, democratization.