May 6th, 2018, 08:29 AM

Experiencing the Garment Industry Firsthand: Interview with Frida Ottesen

By Dorothea Mursch-Edlmayr
Garment worker and Frida Ottesen
Image provided by Frida Ottesen
Frida Ottesen participated in the Norwegian award-winning TV-series “Sweatshop" and told us about her experience and her life after the show.

In 2014, three fashion bloggers travelled to Cambodia to experience the life of garment workers – confronting themselves with the negative consequences of the fashion industry on people and the environment. Frida Ottesen was one of them. The reality show had a big impact on the young Norwegian, and transformed her into a conscious fashion activist.

How did you become a part of the show?

I was 17/18 years old and I went to high school, and I remember that the things I cared the most about were all about me – how do I look, what do I wear, do people like me? I forgot to think about the fact that there are people in this world who have real issues. I always cared for humans, animals and the environment by nature, but in high school I was in my bubble. So one day I decided to go on a trip to Israel and Palestine with a solidarity project for my school. I saw poverty and people’s struggle and was deeply affected by this experience and I wanted to understand more. And then the biggest environmental organization in Norway, “Future in our hands”, was looking for teenagers to participate in a Web TV-Show about the negative aspects of the fashion industry. I was curious and applied, and they took me on the journey with them.

What were your expectations?

I travelled to Cambodia without any expectations. The producers just told us that we are going to film there in the context of the fact that the consumption in the world is going up and somebody is affected negatively because of that. I informed myself a little bit before the trip and was shocked, I didn’t know anything about the horrible aspects of the garment industry.

What was the first impression in Cambodia?

The first thing that hit me was the fact that there were so many people and they all were walking around wearing some sort of pajamas, it seemed like everybody was very poor. Honestly, at the beginning it was more like I’m going for free on a trip to Asia and I don’t have to go to school, it was very exciting and I clearly didn’t know what I was getting into. And the first thing we did was going to a market and so many people were selling things and especially food on the street. And everybody was staring at us – we’ve been the white Norwegians with a film team, it was very weird for me. We also slept in a 24h secured hotel. The Cambodian government is obviously not a big fan of Western people coming to their country and filming there, showing the bad side of Cambodia so we had to be very careful.

The show circles around a very sensible emotional and existing issue; you’ve been confronted with horrible life situations. How did you handle your emotions?

Anger, sadness and frustration – it’s all been real. Nothing was scripted, they just told us where we had to go, but nobody knew what the conversations with the garment workers would be about, nobody knew which emotions would occur on the surface. At the beginning I was a little insecure, I felt the emotions of the garment workers, but I also thought about the film crew and how I might appear on camera. It took me some time to be able to commit to my emotions. I remember one night in Cambodia, I was crying for many hours, so deep in my heart like never before. I realized in that moment that for the first time I was crying for somebody else except myself; there I realized that my whole life was always about me, me and me. In the end I truly understood the garment workers having a feeling of connection. I realized that we all are not so different from each other and that their pain was my pain.

Image provided by Frida Ottesen

What was the first thing you did when you came back?

I didn’t know where to put my focus. I was aware of how we talk to each other and what we talk about and how much we complain about things like the weather. Before this experience I did that too, but afterwards it just felt so ridiculous and wrong; we get free education, we have food, we have a bed. People didn’t really understand what I’ve experienced during my journey, although I tried to explain it. I really suffered, but actually I wasn’t suffering for me, I was carrying the pain of other people and I really couldn’t focus on school or anything else anymore. But I just always told myself “Don’t forget and get back to old habits”.

You produced two seasons; what was the difference between season one and two?

Since the first season was such a big success, we decided to make another one. So in November 2015, we went back again for a month. In season one we were naïve and humble, but in season two we knew what was going on and we had more freedom from the producer to do the things we wanted to do, it was not that planned out anymore. We’ve been too nice so before season two we’ve sent out 350 emails to factories asking to visit them with the film team, and nobody answered. So the producer asked us how we would feel to kind of step out of our comfort zone and to just go up there and knock on the doors of the manufactories. So at one point we really just walked in and there were so many garment workers, I couldn’t see the wall in the end and I didn’t know what to do so I just waved them and smiled to send some good energy.

What are you doing now?

One day I got contacted by an organization, and they asked If I could talk about my experiences – I thought that this is going to be very uncomfortable, but in the end I was really happy I did it. It spread and more and more talks followed, what in the end helped me process my experience and I feel like sharing helps others too. I’ve done mostly talks in Norway at schools and once I even got invited to talk in Berlin at the “Ethical Fashion Show”. At the moment I work at a restaurant three days a week and the rest of the time I try to become my own boss and give presentations once or twice a month. And that’s my favorite job anyways, to talk with people inspire them and get inspired by them.

How do you see the role of the consumers in the fashion system?

The power of the consumers is that the big companies will always want to please them in order to make profit. So if we start asking questions about our clothes and reduce our purchases, the fashion companies ultimately have to react in order to keep their customers. So we are very powerful and can influence the industry. But in the end I can’t control you, I can’t control the garment industry, I can only control myself. If every individual would just look in the mirror and would think about the consequences of every single action we could make this world a better place and that’s what I am focusing on in my presentation, I want people to start thinking in order to change the mindset. Ultimately more consciousness and awareness would make a change. It’s all about making people see how they are affecting the world.

Image Credit: Instagram @fridaot

What means fashion to you?

I once loved fashion and shopping, but today fashion to me is just a superficial way of communicating and expressing ourselves, it’s like a mask. At my presentations I often try to make people think about the different image they would have of me wearing a sweater and feather earrings or a business look and heels – they would see me differently, although I am the same person. Fashion is a way of finding your pack, looking where you belong to; but in the end it doesn’t really matter, or it shouldn’t at least.

Where do you buy new clothes?

Every time I am spending money I am giving a vote in what kind of world I want to live in and if I am buying unethical clothing I am saying this is ok and I support this. So I buy second hand and vintage, but actually I am trying to only buy clothes if I really need something, not just because I like to have something new. I also go to ethical shops to see what they do and to get inspired. And I admire the fact that they are trying to make a change in the industry, but I don’t buy there because to me it’s only buying new clothes and the world just doesn’t need more consumption. I truly believe that we don’t need more clothes because there are so many clothes existing already.

In the end it goes beyond fashion; is it an overall conscious lifestyle?

Yes absolutely, fashion is just one very big sector, but in the end our overconsumption touches every single field in our life as well. Actually I’ve never planned to become a fashion activist. Starting to look at one thing made me realize, that this applies to many other industries too and if you know that, you can’t just continue within your old habits, it comes very natural if the ball starts rolling, but it will take time. Slowly but steady can we make a change and become a conscious human.

Watch the show "Sweatshop" online and check out Frida Ottesen's blog and Instagram:

“Sweatshop” Web series:

Frida Ottesen's Blog

Frida Ottesen's Instagram