“To be honest, I was never very interested in fashion. I don’t even read fashion magazines. But I couldn’t turn a blind eye to what was going on behind the scenes in the fashion world.”
So says Minami Higashinaka, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of International Studies’ Department of International Studies. Through the organization MG Closet, she has not only formed opinions on clothes, but also learned about how to express herself and approach issues. So what does campus life mean to Minami?
Minami HigashinakaFourth year student, Department of International Studies, Faculty of International StudiesIn one of her high school classes, she watched a video showing Japanese people contributing to the advancement of developing countries, which made such an impression on her that she became interested in working in international development herself. She was one of the founding members of the volunteer group MG Closet when it was established in 2019 and served as its representative for the 2020 academic year. Her interests include visiting tourist attractions, updating her social media accounts, and watching Korean TV dramas. During her high school years, she played the bass guitar in a band.
I want to support the progress of developing countries, but I don’t know how
It was an encounter with a friend that led me to connect fashion with international development.
I’d been interested in international development since my high school days and had been wondering whether I could support the progress of developing countries through tourism, since I enjoyed sightseeing. Having discovered that Meiji Gakuin University was part of something called the United Nations Youth Volunteer (UNYV) program, I entered the Department of International Studies at the Faculty of International Studies, as it had a strong Asian regional studies program and would enable me to study my areas of interest. However, I realized that international development is mainly focused on technology and began to feel powerless, since I lacked both skills and specialist knowledge.
Just then, I discovered that my friend Luna Fujii (a fellow fourth-year in the Department of International Studies) had applied to the Volunteer Center’s Volunteer Fund Student Challenge for a grant for an activity in which she was involved.
That was MG Closet. Fast fashion is cheap, enabling us to buy a lot of clothes and keep up with trends. However, those clothes are produced by low-waged workers toiling in harsh working environments and are also one factor behind the escalation of global warming and other environmental problems. MG Closet was therefore set up to teach people about the social issues caused by fast fashion, make secondhand clothing look glamorous, and encourage people to develop a stronger attachment to their clothes.
Runa has always had a passion for fashion. I think that’s precisely why she noticed the underlying issues. I wasn’t particularly interested in fashion, but after learning about its dark side, in the form of grim working conditions and environmental problems, I decided I might be able to get involved and help her solve these issues. I’d assumed international development was all about technology transfer, but I realized that spreading accurate information was one approach to tackling issues and began to believe there was definitely something I could do after all.
The meaning of holding a fashion show
At the 2019 Shirokane Festival, we held a fashion show featuring outfits made from revamped secondhand clothing. I served as leader of the wardrobe team. My role involved actually cutting and sewing the clothes to make the outfits, so I put together a team of younger students who had joined the group because they were particularly interested in fashion.
I vividly recall our heated debates about whether we should go for an ethnic theme or designs with more of a traditionally Japanese feel or something fashion-forward. There was so much work involved and we would sew late into the night. It came down to the wire, but we did just manage to get the outfits ready in time for the show.
However, I felt down afterwards, for some reason, and that feeling just wouldn't go away. I was glad we’d held the show, but we hadn’t created any opportunity to find out how those who attended had felt about it and whether we’d succeeded in getting our message across. Maybe they’d just gone away thinking it looked cool. I was left asking myself what our group’s purpose was.
Above all, it occurred to me that I’d imposed a heavy workload on my junior colleagues in the wardrobe team, even though we were meant to be tackling the problem of harsh working conditions in developing countries. Some of the group enjoyed holding the fashion show simply because they were interested in clothes and fashion. Others wanted to tackle social issues by using the fashion show to spread information. Some of the younger members ended up quitting because of these differences in outlook and attitude, and I felt as though we’d put the cart before the horse.
I want to have another go at tackling social issues head-on
When we entered the new academic year, I took over as representative of MG Closet. The first thing I wanted to do was to remind the members of our group’s purpose and significance. Because of the pandemic, the Shirokane Festival became an online event, so we couldn’t hold a fashion show, but as we had more time on our hands than we would have normally, I was able to engage in more in-depth discussions with members and I felt it gave us a good opportunity to reassess the group’s meaning. As its representative, I defined our goal as gaining personal satisfaction while tackling social issues and proposed that we create our own fashion magazine.
We called it MG Closet magazine: the ethical fashion magazine for students, by students. The term “ethical fashion” refers to fashion that meets certain standards in terms of not being destructive to the environment and not exploiting the workers who produce it. The magazine features stories about such topics as the underlying reality of fast fashion and the background to MG Closet’s establishment. We’ve also reported on the clothes recycling initiative operated by GU, where one of our members works part-time, and other universities’ groups focused on ethical fashion. In addition, we have a regular column featuring a week’s worth of ethical and revamped outfits created by mixing and matching upcycled secondhand clothes.
I want our members to have fun and feel they’re doing something worthwhile, without overburdening them with work. We produce the magazine carefully at a leisurely pace, without setting a specific publication date.
It’s about self-expression, not merely wearing clothes
Fashion = stylish. Fashion = presenting yourself appealingly. Fashion = individuality. That’s how I thought of fashion before I became involved with MG Closet. I thought it was about making yourself look more attractive in some way to someone other than yourself or a means of self-expression. Many of MG Closet’s members are certainly stylish and highly individual. But my interest in fashion itself hasn’t really changed since getting involved in these activities. I still rarely read fashion magazines.
However, I do think my attitude to taking on the challenge of addressing what I perceive as issues has definitely changed. Take my consumption behavior, for example. When I buy clothes, I know about and can imagine the grim working environments of the producers. And that makes me think again about whether I can buy and value those clothes nonetheless.
When it comes to producing the MG Closet magazine, too, I’m not afraid to speak up to the members about the things that I, as representative, have felt are a problem and I think we’ve found a new way of taking on the challenges presented by social issues.
I’m sure I’ll continue to be interested in social issues and to think about how to approach them. This attitude toward challenges is, in itself, how I express myself and I think I could describe it as my form of fashion.