Dun-Well Doughnuts is a sumptuous sweets emporium in the heart of East Williamsburg. Named the best doughnut shop in New York City by The Daily News, it’s a unique, warm, welcoming storefront with a myriad of delicious vegan doughnut treats. It’s no wonder that Joshua Katcher, known locally as well as internationally as an advocate for veganism, sustainable fashion, and innovative cuisine, has chosen to meet me here.
Katcher is the creator of site called The Discerning Brute, dedicated to the very best in, according to their tagline, “fashion, food, and etiquette for the ethically handsome man.” As well, he’s a part-time lecturer at Parsons The New School for Design, creator of the fashion line Brave GentleMan, and a frequent collaborator on many projects exploring vegan cuisine, among many other methods for sustainable living. He’s agreed to sit down with me over tasty doughnuts and tea to chat about his work and his philosophies.
Chatting with him sheds insight into how influential fashion is, especially in a culture that doesn’t take it quite seriously enough, a fate commonly shared by cuisine and even sex. But before all this, let’s begin with an origin story.
I’d like to hear your own personal story of what got you started in the world of fashion and education, so tell me about your original inspiration and what got you to you where you are.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. I grew up reading comic books and really loving super heroes and playing outside. I grew up in upstate New York and I spent a lot of time in my backyard. We had a little forest, where we created this little fantasy world of the woods and animals and nature being this very magical source of inspiration. I was inspired by both heroes and villains, really believing in this idea of true justice and fighting for what’s right, I found villains fascinating too, for a very different reason. Later on in life, when I realized there were so many problems in the world, I felt like I could do something about it. I felt as though I could make a change and I had impact and was valid. So my approach to tackling those issues was very proactive and creative.
I ended up leaning toward fashion and menswear design, and I’m a professor at Parsons, because I think fashion is an incredible form of communication where we create our visual identities. This is how we represent ourselves; this is how we want to be perceived. We create these visual representations of what we believe, and even if you consider yourself to be anti-fashion or someone who doesn’t participate in fashion, you’re still creating these narratives that are hidden. When you buy a $10 t-shirt, for example, it might mean nothing to you, but there’s an entire narrative that happens with the people who made that shirt, where the cotton was grown, who picked the cotton, what happened to the ecosystem where that cotton was grown, and those are the narratives that are hidden intentionally in the fashion industry, and that is something that especially fascinates me. The way in which we shift the meaning of something to create something entirely different, the way we deny truth and reality in order to form our identities. I think fashion is the epitome of where that happens.
Before getting into narratives, what is an anti-fashion person?
There are several different forms of anti-fashion. There are people who look at the fashion industrial media complex, which is magazines and editors, these very powerful big designers who have a lot of money and influence. You can be against that power structure and hierarchy, which is very similar to all other hierarchies in our culture. It’s top down, it’s dictated to us. We’re told what is going to be in, what is going to be cool, what is going to represent luxury and class and status and wealth and all these things that we are seeking as individuals. As animals, we naturally seek power and validity. You can be against that structure and be anti-fashion. You can also be somebody who’s against aesthetic representation, who’s against the fallacy of what is only surface. And you can be somebody who’s counterculture, that could be anti-fashion. There are many different forms that anti-fashion takes, but I think the overarching theme of anti-fashion is being against what the mainstream fashion industry is promoting for us to consume. We all participate. We all have blood on our hands, so it’s about being effective and addressing problems, and communicating. Right now, fast fashion is the hot topic for a lot of people who are anti-fashion.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is walking into one of those stores where you can get a $15 jacket and thinking that that is appropriate and that we deserve to get a $15 jacket, that it’s owed to us somehow, and that fashion should be cheap. But when you take a $15 jacket and look at the production process, and you ask yourself how is it that after retail mark-up, I’m only paying $15 for this, what does it mean for who made it? What is it made of? Why is it so cheap? Trace it back to the origin, and it’s a very scary process, and it happens often overseas, out of sight, out of mind. It’s toxic conventional cotton; it’s toxic synthetics that are not made sustainably. It’s slave and child labor in sweatshops. We’re given this completely marketed meaning of what that jacket means when it arrives in the store. So fast fashion is really problematic in that sense. It trains the younger generation to believe that fashion is a right, it should be cheap; we should be able to express ourselves through fashion indefinitely and perpetually with every whim. This illusion of progress, this illusion of constant change, where the moment you buy something it’s out and you need to buy something in… if you look at it from a psychological standpoint, if you were to look at an individual who behaved that way they’d be considered insane, but if you look at an organization that behaves that way it’s considered good business.
So how do we go against these narratives and corporate methodologies?
It’s a problem. There’s something called aesthetic irrationality. It’s kind of like cognitive dissonance, wherein we look at that fast food burger, or we look at that jacket, and because it’s pretty or because it’s yummy, we, in our brains, transform it into a social good. We see things in terms of good and bad, it’s part of the cultural atmosphere that we live in. We are raised to see things as good or bad, and often when we see something that’s attractive we see it as a good, even though the way it’s made is a bad. A fur coat is a perfect example. Fur coats are beautiful, they’re soft, they do all of these things that we love. That’s why they’re so popular; they represent luxury. Fur is a complicated issue, and it’s one of my favorite things to deconstruct. Because it’s pretty and because it’s soft and because it represents all these positive things, we look at it as a good. But when you look at how it’s made, that conflicts with the idea that it’s a good, so we don’t want to pay attention to how it’s made, because the end justifies the means in that way. It’s very complicated. The process doesn’t come along with the final product. If we had to experience what went into making it as part of experiencing eating it, it would be very different.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism of vegan culture, of different countercultures, of intellectuals, that suffer from being too intellectual. People will immediately say, “So what, you’re smarter than me?” What can you say about that narrative?
It’s defensiveness. Seeing through ideology is painful. Seeing behind the curtain. I think it can be best summarized in the scene from They Live, the 80s horror film, where [one of the heroes] tries to convince his friend to put on the sunglasses and see the truth and they get into this ridiculously long fight scene. Seeing through ideology is painful because it shatters things that we hold dear and that we enjoy, and that is not an easy process. There are people who will fight to the death to maintain their ideologies; there are people who do fight to the death to maintain their ideologies. So it’s not something where somebody’s going to say, oh you’re going to take down everything I believe; ok that’s fine, let me start from scratch. There is a culture of shame, of ridicule, around academia, around intellect, and I think that’s a really scary dangerous symptom, and that’s something you can see in a lot of different periods of history where fear of truth, and fear of loss of ideology, was a threat to people in power and what they would lose because of that truth.
We’re so often referred to as consumers, and that’s such a passive thing. We’re like, I’m just going to sit back and absorb and consume and that’s my job. I’m not a citizen. A citizen means a participant, somebody who’s active and involved. A consumer is just sitting back and reaping the benefits, supposedly. I’m not against capitalism, per se, but I think that when we go shopping for ethical or sustainable fashion, which we should invest in, we’re not consumers, we’re citizen investors. We’re investing in the companies that we want to see flourish. We’re investing in small business owners and people who are changing the structure and how things operate, and that’s a really important identity to embrace.
I feel like politicians feign concern for small businesses, but as a small business owner myself, as a menswear designer who’s trying to do sustainable, ethical fashion, I use factories that pay their workers fairly. There’s a lack of knowledge, there’s a lack of understanding of the production process, of the idea that time and energy and labor and money and research goes into making something like a t-shirt. So, that is something that has to be addressed. You go to the mall because you know it’s there, you don’t go online and look for a small, independent, sustainable designer because it’s not easy to do that, it’s all about convenience and ease and familiarity, and also belonging, and having confidence that when you go to a place like H&M you know that your style’s going to be right there along with all the other mainstream, and you’re going to fit in.
What are the things you’re working on now, and what are you building towards?
I have several different lives that I live and they all intersect in different ways. I teach two times a week at Parsons, I teach a course called Fashion and Culture, and a course called Fashion and the Narrative. I’m doing research on a project I can’t really talk about, but it involves synthetic biology and future textiles. I am working on a book called Fashion and Animals, which takes a really historical, psychological, sociological look at fashion’s use of animals, and what they represent, and how they’re reduced to these two dimensional symbols in fashion. For example, a tiger represents strength, something we hear often, but you couldn’t say a human being represents any ‘fill in the blank’ because we look at this broad diversity of personality. That diversity exists in other species, but we choose not to look at it. We look at the qualities we would like to adopt for ourselves, that we can absorb from the animals, and we do that literally, by taking their skins and pelts, or we do that in a representational way, by taking inspiration from their patterns and physical forms.
In addition to that, I run The Discerning Brute, which is a lifestyle and culture website. We focus a lot on fashion, food, etiquette, with an emphasis on sustainability and ethics. And then, I have my fashion line, Brave GentleMan, which is a full menswear line. We do shoes, boots, accessories, ready to wear suiting, belts, wallets, and the focus on that is using materials that were made from recycled materials or made organically with high tech synthetics that are sustainable in some way. I don’t use any animal based materials.
Talking about the clothing line, as well as veganism, how do those things intersect? You plant yourself in the idea of changing masculinity, and you call the site The Discerning Brute, and the clothing line Brave GentleMan, and it’s a popular bit of discourse right now, trying to combat ideas of masculinity.
It’s a marketed idea of what masculinity is. We’re inundated with media. Just by the time noon approaches on any day in New York you’ve probably seen thousands of advertisements and marketing material, and we’re inundated with these ideas of how gender should manifest. Masculinity is marketed as this thing that is very, very limited. I call it the four Bs of mainstream masculinity, where the mainstream male ideal lies, and that is, forgive my French because one of them is intentionally a derogatory term. There’s ball, which is sports playing, there’s bitches, which is womanizing, there’s beer, which is drinking, and beef, which is meat-eating. So those four Bs are sort of the foundation of mainstream masculinity, and if you’re not participating in at least three of those things, you’re going to be seen as straying from what is the ideal of American masculinity. And it might be similar in Europe, it might be a little different.
I remember being friends with these two guys in Spain. They’d go out looking for–I love this term, it’s so telling–looking for “strange.” I was in a long-term distant relationship at the time and they told me, “She’ll never know, come out with us.”
Because that’s what it’s about. It’s so ridiculous. There’s all these problems, but I focus on masculinity because we live in a patriarchal culture where masculinity is equated with power, and the dualities of masculinity, being logical for example, manifest in these very powerful ways. If you look at the stock market, it’s this indicator that highlights what is the representation of the most powerful things going on, concerning money. There’s no indicator for wellbeing in the stock market. There can be an oil spill and a whole bunch of money can be exchanged, and that will look good from a monetary perspective. But there’s no indicator to say, oh wait, this was actually bad. It’s another form of aesthetic irrationality in a sense, or economic irrationality. And a whole bunch of people could be dying of cancer, and because they’re spending, and money’s moving around because of therapy and treatment, it looks good for the economy, but it doesn’t look good for wellbeing.
I think that there’s a lot of guys who are afraid of showcasing compassion, of showcasing empathy, even though they might secretly feel those things. Being able to be won over by empathy is weakness. If you’re about to kill someone in war, and you suddenly have an empathetic epiphany, and you don’t want to kill them anymore, that is seen as a bad thing. If you are hunting, and you have to shoot the animal, and you’re suddenly overcome with compassion, your buddies that you’re hunting with are probably going to call you any number of derogatory terms for not having the balls to go through with it. There’s all these limits to subscribing to mainstream masculinity, and one of those limits is if we are truly working toward a sustainable and just civilization, mainstream masculinity is a huge roadblock to that. We have to address it, because we’ll never have true sustainability and true social justice if the most powerful identity is preventing us from coming to term with those things.
Do you ever work on the connections between masculinity and sex?
Yeah, I mean, we’re inherently all sexual animals, so it’s all connected. Fashion has a lot to do with sex, and I feel like all of our food has a lot to do with sex, these are all very sexual things. So, I think that there is a lot of fear around sex, and sexuality in general. What’s appealing about masculinity is it provides this very rigid structure to fit inside of so they don’t have to worry about, you know, these outside feelings.
The idea of equating femininity with weakness is really interesting too. One thing I didn’t talk about is I’m an amateur crossfit athlete, and that involves a lot of Olympic weightlifting techniques and gymnastics stuff, and strength, and as a vegan, and as a man, in this very paleo macho crossfit culture, I see a lot of these incredibly exaggerated portrayals of mainstream masculinity. This myth that, for example, if you eat muscle you become muscle. So, like, you must eat meat to be strong. This idea exists that if you are a man, there’s some magical ingredient in an animal’s flesh that is going to make you strong. I perform pretty well in crossfit and I’m usually in the top five of the class of the day. I’m not a pro. I’ve been a vegan for 17 years, and in the past three years I’ve put on 25 pounds of muscle, just doing weight training. I think we need to inspire mainstream men to be able to say I can be a hero and a protector and a defender of those who are less powerful than me and still be a man. I think it’s a step in the right direction.
We have many dichotomies, and I’ve met people over the years who reveal it’s more complicated than many understand. There’s lots of fear that turns to hatred, as well toward people who are open with their sexuality or perform in the world of sexuality. The rest of the mainstream world will probably continue to want you to dissociate yourself with that kind of media.
I think it’s a problem of categorization, where you can’t put all of pornography under one umbrella. You can’t say all of porn is ‘fill in the blank’ because it’s a diverse industry with diverse filmmakers. I’m sure there’s exploitation that goes on in every industry. There’s exploitation that is horrible that goes on in fashion, but that doesn’t mean that everything that happens in fashion is horrible. So, yes, I think there is empowered porn and empowering porn, but there’s unfortunately a mainstream stereotype. And I think it’s through the portrayal we see in media of the type of people that gravitate towards it as being victims of childhood sexual abuse, as being victims of rape, or being all these. I think that almost plays into the fantasies of a lot of people, of a certain demographic of people that seek out a certain type of pornography. So, it needs to be separated out. These are two things we’re talking about.
There’s a lot of personal agency that you can take towards this, by choosing sustainable fashion, by choosing to associate yourself with sustainable pornography. But where does this change begin, and how much of it is based in image, and what do we have to change to start getting toward a sustainable world of fashion, cuisine, and sex?
I think the first thing is to acknowledge that from a feminist theory standpoint, this is all intersectional. Meaning that all oppressions are interconnected, that when you look at the oppression against workers in the fashion industry, when you look at the oppression against animals, ecosystems, people, these are all intrinsically interconnected, we can’t separate them. That’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around, so I would say that an attempt to look at all these issues from an intersectional standpoint is probably a good place to start. To look at similarities, and to not be afraid of comparing atrocities, to say what’s happening to animals is related to what happens to children, what happens in war is related to what happens to clear cut forests. These are all not isolated events. And also finding community, finding likeminded people, finding ways to embody those values and support the people who are doing the things you believe in and agree with, both financially and in a community-oriented way.
Also, we’re fascinated with the idea of transgression, of “sin.” For example, in cuisine, veal and foie gras, those two things are celebrated and sought after specifically because we know how cruel the process is. We’re celebrating that transgression, that makes the consuming of it even more sought after, more desired, because we believe that when something is truly coming from a sinful place, it must be really, really good. We gravitate toward what we see as sinful because we believe that the satisfaction we get out of something like that will be greater than something that came from a good place. Good is seen as vanilla and boring and crunchy. It’s not exciting, it’s not sexy, it’s not dangerous, it’s not edgy, it’s just boring and all of the excitement lies in the transgressive realm.
The fictional representation of villains in our culture is very enticing. I think we are taught to celebrate villains, to embody villains, because it’s easy. And that I think is especially true in fashion. I’m not sure if that’s true in many other realms, but I think fictional evil and true evil are vastly different. True evil, not in a religious sense but in a societal sense, is invisible. It’s only seen in hindsight. It’s the power in the machine.
Sex is often put on the backburner when talking about all this. We all have trouble admitting that we all want it, and we all enjoy it, and we all have our own identity linked to it.
Fashion is put on the backburner also, and I think they’re put in the same category, as these very sort of infantile, surface pleasures of the flesh. Fashion has this amazing, almost magical ability to have this duality that is so highly contrasted, where on one side the general public sees fashion as this very frivolous, carefree thing that’s just clothes, and shopping, and finding deals, and that’s fun and that’s it. On the flipside, fashion is this incredibly impactful, global, industrial production process and media complex where it affects millions if not billions of people, billions of animals, ecosystems everywhere. It’s this hugely impactful and influential industry that has the luxury, no pun intended, of being seen as this very unimportant frivolity. So it doesn’t get taken seriously, and therefore it isn’t addressed seriously. Maybe sexuality is the same thing where it’s something we all experience and it impacts everyone, however we look at it as something that’s just about having fun and feeling good, and that’s it.
Before we cut ourselves off, I’d love to know the top things people can do in their daily lives that can help them be, say, a brave gentle man or a discerning brute?
I would say that one really important thing to do is to look at the larger picture from a systems standpoint. I think men are good at looking at systems, so take a step back and look at all these cultural institutions as systems, and understand the power structure there. Not in an effort to become part of it, but in an effort to understand why it’s so problematic and how to challenge it. Analyze systems is one. Take responsibility is two. When you do something as simple as buying a tube of toothpaste you are financially supporting a system. If that is something you believe in, continue to support it. Take responsibility for what you buy, look for sustainable and ethically made products, because you are investing in those companies and you want to support those companies. The third thing is take aesthetics seriously; they’re not frivolous. If you want to be influential and powerful and be taken seriously, one step in that direction is to represent yourself visually in that way. So get a grip on what your personal style is, what do you feel represents you on the outside, or what do you want to aspire to, and how can you create that visual appearance. And the fourth thing is to give veganism a try. It’s not the scary stereotyped thing that you see in the media, it’s an exciting, innovative realm of cuisine, it’s healthy, it’s athletic; that’s all.
If you want to be a discerning brute like Joshua Katcher, check out the goings on at http://www.thediscerningbrute.com/, and support http://www.bravegentleman.com/; you’ll look and feel sustainably handsome, with warm empathy and muscles to match.