Fashion Design Student Ren Habiby's Perspective on Post-Pandemic Life | the Robert Benson Interview Series
Ren Habiby is a fashion design student studying at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Her passion is sustainable and ethical practices in the fashion industry. She graduated high school in 2020 from Francis W. Parker in Chicago, Illinois, and was Editor-in-Chief for yearbook and co-captain of the varsity volleyball team.
Thank you for joining us - let's head into the Dialogue.
Robert Benson: What technology do you expect to impact the most in a post-pandemic society?
Ren Habiby: So, the tech that I would expect to really be impactful post-pandemic would actually have to be with Wi-Fi. As a student, I clearly use it all the time, so I think that, with Wi-Fi, it will give businesses and consumers more opportunities to take advantage of faster and stronger connections.
And again, as a student, I really do hope that Wi-Fi will be more accessible to communities that don't typically have this ability to better their lives and just connect throughout the world. And along with that, I also think businesses will kind of transition into the use of robots or even AI in order to save money on labor. Beacuse, functioning in the pandemic, it's clear that there are some businesses that have - don't necessarily need humans to work. So I think with that idea, businesses might continue to pursue not having to actually pay people to work on - do their jobs.
RB: How does it relate that businesses automate, you know, much of their business and not pay people? And you're thinking that more people will have - there'll be fewer jobs for people? Or what's the - and therefore people will need to find another way to make money? Or how do you think that works?
RH: Yeah, I think so. 'Cause I was thinking, especially in factories and things like that, you could really have - if you have a good system - it could really be automated by robots. And I think - so people might need to get creative and think of new jobs and ways to incorporate themselves into the economy of robots, start to -
RB: So one of the responses could be, you know, automated systems don't get COVID.
RB: So, take the people out of the situation. So you think there might be much more influence on how work is done because these systems won't get sick, that's interesting. On the Wi-Fi thing: so there's already a 5G movement. You're guessing that's going to be amplified, move faster and be put through more because of the needs for broadband.
RH: Yes, for sure.
RB: And, you know, I think you highlighted one of the biggest issues right off the bat: there's a huge disparity in access to the internet across communities. You know, how do we fix that? What are ways - I know, Elon Musk wants to put micro satellites in space so that every surface of the earth is wired, potentially. But it's not just the broadband - you know, the west side of Chicago, there's plenty of broadband out there. They just can't afford it or can't afford the device that connects them to it. How do we fix that?
RH: Yeah, I'm not - I mean, obviously I'm not like a professional in that. But I really think maybe if people are willing to educate others and come together and perhaps even - again, bringing in, like, being a student I'm really into creativity and things like that. So I really think if people come up with like creative solutions, even using like resourceful materials and building these new - I don't know - types of mechanisms that can - it doesn't obviously have to be the speed of 5G, but even at least a little bit of Wi-Fi connection with certain scraps of metal and things like that, I really think if people come together and build something new...
RB: It's a huge, huge issue. And I'm fully - when I saw the story early in the pandemic of the two girls in the parking lot at a Taco Bell, trying to grab Wi-Fi so they could do their schoolwork, if that doesn't get everybody motivated, I don't know what will.
RH: Yeah, exactly.
RB: Certainly an issue that we need to work through. Anything else on the technology side?
RH: No, that's (Laughing) that's all I've written down, for me.
RB: So social behavior, you know, yesterday - we have a, you know, pretty small bubble here. We don't go anywhere, we don't do anything. My cousin had just been tested twice, plus an antibody test. He was clear. So he came over, kids love him. He walked in the door and he put his hand out to shake my hand and I looked at it for a second, like...
RH: Mhm. (Nodding)
RB: And I ended up shaking it, but then I was like, "You know what, I'm going to go wash my hands." What social behaviors do you think change post-pandemic?
RH: I wrote down handshaking as one of the things that people are definitely going to be more apprehensive about and just be like, "Ooh, I don't - I don't really know where to go from here," things like that. But I also noticed even pre-pandemic, I think customers in, like, stores and things like that, they would, for some reason, stand really close to one another. And I don't know, I think - it was really ridiculous how close people would stand to one another. And there just, there wasn't really a sense of a common bubble. So I would hopefully think that people would suddenly become self-aware of the personal space and kind of giving themselves distance with one another.
And also even like the interiors of stores, someone could perhaps design stores. When people go out, they will design them in different ways in order to draw in more customers, but also make them still feel safe and not have to really worry too much about if COVID is still here, or any other health concerns and things like that.
RB: So the stores might actually incorporate - new stores coming online might actually incorporate distance measures in their base in the way that they're organized, is what you're thinking?
RB: So effectively the spacing that we're talking about becomes permanent.
RH: Perhaps, or just maybe not the stores right now, but even if people decide to build new stores in the future, they could incorporate, again, with tech. They might bring in new-
RB: So you think stores will continue? Physical, brick and mortar.
RH: I'm not sure. 'Cause I was going to say that I think if - the stores that'll adapt in ways to draw in more customers, I don't - I think that there might be a change in the future in order to draw, again, more customers. And because obviously we're going online, there's so many stores that are now functioning online and people don't really see how convenient it is to leave their home and not have to waste all the time and effort or whatever, and to going into start when they can just have it right at the comfort of their own home with a computer or anything like that. So in order to draw in customers and bring in the foot traffic, you have to come up with more creative ways to get your money's worth and stuff.
RB: Okay, go ahead. What else did you have there?
RH: I also would - something I would really hope for would be if the US adopted a practice similar to East Asia, where no matter, how small or how - even like from a common cold, how small a sickness would be, they would still cover up their face and kind of, you know, be mindful towards other people. I really think that practice in East Asia is honestly really smart and really selfless in a way. And I think - I don' know if you want to get too political, but I don't think masks are political or whatever - I think it's genuinely for the health and safety and concern of all citizens. So I really think the US needs to adopt that social change as well.
RB: That's really super interesting. You know, I think the use of masks, you know, seemed very odd in this country initially and having been to China, and Taipei, Japan, myself, they're very common and I think we're over that hump. I don't understand how it's a political issue. I, for the life of me, I can't understand it.
RH: Yep. (Laughing)
RB: I can't bring my mind to it. It's literally just a medical issue and trying to stop this terrible thing. And it's just absurd. But I think you're right. It's a very, very interesting point that even for the common cold, if you have the sniffles or you feel like you've got any kind of symptoms, you should, one, stay home. But two, if you can't do that, you should wear a mask, post-pandemic, no matter what. And I don't think there should be a stigma anymore. And I, and I'm not - my hope coming out of this is that we don't have a stigma and that that you do - you know, that is part of the norm. That's a really interesting point.
RH: Yeah. Yeah, I just think in east Asian culture, people tend to be really selfless and kind of care, not just for themselves, but for other people. And I think the US - it'd be best in the US's interest to take on that selflessness.
RB: I read a very disturbing article over the weekend about UK citizens, basically having pandemic fatigue and not listening to the new - they've had some new restrictions rolled out by the Prime Minister and they're just blowing it off and - not just this country.
RB: You know, so there's some struggles, there's struggles in Germany as well. So I think this thing has really been tough for everybody.
RH: Yeah. And I just, I wish the US - not just the US, but like other countries, obviously - I know New Zealand, they have such a smaller population, but they've clearly they followed all the rules and regulations and they haven't had a COVID case in, what, months or something?
RB: Well, they're an island so, you know, and they also prohibited - they also prohibited all travel. Like, no one can come to their island.
RH: Exactly. But the thing is: the strict restrictions, I feel like they kind of work. I know it makes things really difficult and there's so many aspects, but the thing is, you do need to - you don't have to follow as intensely, but you have to at least be smart and follow like some of what the experts are saying, 'cause it's clearly helping the numbers decrease. So, I don't know.
RB: I just like to make sure everybody's calling out New Zealand is an island and they had, they eliminated all travel. So you know that - and now the travel is highly regulated. Whereas here? We eliminated some travel, but we were way too slow to do that. And even the Democratic Party was opposed to it when it was done.
RH: Right, I-
RB: So, you know, the US is way off the mark on that one. And we're much bigger. So in Europe - same difference. Everybody's traveling everywhere. It's super hard to do that. Anything else on social behaviors? It's been great.
RH: So far, no. Yeah.
RB: What about school? You know, social behaviors in school. You actually - you haven't gone to Pratt yet physically. But, you know, certainly you've been a student for a really long time. You're apprehensive at an assembly. Are you apprehensive - if you had to go to a lecture, if people were seated right next to you?
RH: I think... I think it honestly might depend on the student, 'cause some - 'cause we're young, Some students, they actually may miss being in, like, a group of people, and they may find comfort in being near one another, but then there are other students who will be more apprehensive and, again, you don't really know if a student's carrying sickness, whatever, so they could be more apprehensive about sitting near someone. So I honestly really think it depends on the student, but I definitely see how there will now be like two sides to want things like- (Inaudible)
RB: From a majority standpoint, if you were to guess, post-pandemic - and by the way, post-pandemic in my mind does not mean that there is no coronavirus.
RB: It just means that we've achieved some sort of equilibrium. So it could be that we're getting a coronavirus vaccine every year. It could be that there's just a certain number of cases - you know, we're just going to have to move on at some point. Or it could mean that it mutates into a weaker or form, like the Spanish flu, and then we're just not aware of it. Any one of those as possible. So there is some sort of a new normal, but it's not the same as in 2019. So my question is: concerts and art shows and - do you see the majority of folks your age interested in going to a concert?
RH: I think, at least for my generation, I think kids are really excited to get back into the concert and have that type of atmosphere and vibe, because that's something that - I guess every teenager, amongst all generations, I think really enjoy going to concerts and... I don't know. There's just this certain, like, feeling you get, I think, in your heart and you just get really happy and being with everyone.
RB: The energy. (Nodding)
RH: Yes, exactly. And watching this one artist that you really, really enjoy. And I just, I think people really miss that - I mean, I really miss it for sure. So I think, yeah, I think people are really are gonna enjoy having it back.
RB: I think you're right, I think you're right. I think it - I think that the middle age and the older generations are going to look at video of a mosh pit and be just horrified, in a new way. But that's, that's fine. The musicians that I've talked to are just dying to get out and they're, they're tired of playing in their basement, so I get it.
The last, the question was about markets and typologies. And this is really just more of a thought about economic situation. For instance, just to give you some background, schools are not sure how many students are going to apply. There's a lot of kids that would say, "I'm not paying for Pratt virtually, I'll defer and I'll wait," and, or, "I'm going to do something else for a while." And college admission was kind of dropping before the pandemic. You know, as an institution, as a part of the economy, schools are one thing to be thinking about.
Returning to work in offices, returning to retail - we talked a little bit about stores, have been absolutely decimated. If you drive around Chicago right now, you just see one closed store after another. So what are your thoughts on the economy and the market?
RH: I actually broke it down into a few sections.
RH: I have retail, the arts, education, travel and entertainment, so, should I just get going?
RB: You got the floor.
RH: Cool. So for retail, obviously we just discussed it, but I noticed that the retail market in person has really changed. A lot of shopping has been moved online. Obviously there isn't really that much need to go into real stores. Being a fashion student, I'm genuinely like concerned about the physical experience of going to the store and being able to touch your textiles and see how garments are placed on the store mannequins.
I just, I really wish - I wish that it wasn't kind of going down. Because I really think that it's a good experience and it feels like a more personable experience versus online. Sure, you just get your thing, but I think when you get to see the clothing in person, it's kind of worth it and you really do get your money's worth when you know that it's the right fit for you.
And then for the arts I was mostly thinking of like museums and performing arts and that's certainly something that's really hurting. I think everyone's aware of that. And I think there's going to be a need to - there's going to be a need for change in that aspect as well. So, museums. The museums and performing arts, they really need to adapt as quickly as possible or else they're going to really have difficulty staying afloat. And I'm not a hundred percent sure how they can do that, because I know that there's ideas of like virtual galleries and things like that.
But again, at the same time, you won't be able to see the actual like artwork or performance with your own eyes. And I really do think that there's something special about that. And again, you just get like a certain feeling and just a good feeling in your heart. And I - it's just, it's not the same, just viewing it on your computer.
RB: That reminds me, years ago, the Google Art Project came out and the goal there was to make art - famous, priceless art - accessible to everyone who could get on the internet. And so they would do these micro scans of famous paintings, for instance, and then you could zoom in really close and see it and... you know, Ad Reinhardt, those black paintings - there's one at the Art Institute - and you stand there and you get in front of it, and you're within three or four feet, it dilates your pupils because you're looking at black and then over time you start to see crimson and purple and some very subtle hues in the black.
You can never pick that up on a digital scan. It just doesn't work the same way. And you're zooming in so close, you can't tell the color shifted. Stuff like that supports your point about being in person with the art and right now, social media pre-pandemic was already putting - we were viewing art, consuming art on a phone. And I wonder how people wonderful that is. On one hand, I'm really glad that it's out to more people and more people are probably more aware of more art than ever before, but their experience is significantly less because they're not in person.
So you're saying that the galleries need to adapt. That adaptation is certainly interesting. How do they do that? Do they push more content to social media and then beg you to, you know, go see - I mean, how does that work, I wonder?
RH: I guess that's technically one way you could go about it, for sure. But I don't know if they'd have to raise prices or reorganize the layouts, or something like that. Again, it's going to be - it's really difficult to reorganize how you're going to look at a whole gallery or something like that.
RB: Who's your favorite artist right now?
RH: Oh, Jesus. Wow. That's a good question.
RB: Or favorite piece or what's - what's really got you, you know, you're really thinking about?
RH: I've always - this is probably basic - but I've loved, I liked Banksy's street work. There's also somewhat - I don't know how to pronounce his name correctly - but it's John Michael Basquiat, or something like that.
RB: Basquiat, yeah. Yeah. He died 20 years ago or something, yeah.
RH: I think I actually did a fashion collection for one of my projects inspired by some of his work and I just, I think it's incredible and really...
RB: There's a pretty fun movie about him, have you seen it?
RB: Look it up. it's good.
RH: What is it called?
RB: Oh just... Basquiat, just Google "Basquiat film", and it's a pretty good film and it takes you into a little bit behind, sort of... and there's a lot about the idea that you're a street person, artist, and then you get all this fame and you're, you're trying to cope with it, I think is a little bit about that.
Banksy's Instagram feed, he's one of the only people that I have - that if he posts something, my phone tells me, I have it set to alert me because he doesn't do it very often, but it's been really good. So I'm with you there. That's absolutely true. All right, let's get back to your examination on the economy.
RH: Okay. (Laughing) And then for education, we previously talked about this, but I hope being online, the quality of online education would improve. Because I know that it's still brand new, if you think about it, it's like it's not even a year old yet. So I really hope that it would improve and, I don't know, help students with their education. Because right now it's kind of difficult for us to learn and adapt to because we're not in-person and it's there's like a barrier I feel like, between-
RB: Oh yeah. I can't imagine trying to do fashion in this situation.
RH: Oh, yeah it's really... (Laughing) it's really difficult, for sure, but we're pushing through. And also with education, I really hope that it would be more accessible, bringing it back to Wi-Fi being more accessible. I really hope that maybe more lessons will perhaps be put online for students and young children to at least be able to learn something, you know? I really believe in my heart that education is really important, for everyone, no matter who you are, where you come from. So I really hope that at least there's some education out there for kids that may not see that as an opportunity, when it could be an opportunity for them.
RH: And then also for travel, that's been a huge market that's really been impacted. I'm sure people are aware that like airplanes and airports, they aren't like the most sanitary places that you could, obviously, go to. So thankfully airlines, they've been making more of an effort to be cleaner. And the flyers are also more mindful of cleaning their personal space. Like prior to sitting down such as like cleaning their headrests, their tray table, their seatbelts, et cetera. And I also even see - I don't know if this is good or not - but I even see airlines being able to create products, in a way, to take care of this concern. Like they could hand out little hand sanitizers or little disinfecting towelettes or things like that to make the customer feel even more clean and things like that in an unsanitary area.
RB: Yeah. And it's also been pretty interesting - as terrible as this pandemic is - the dramatic reduction in travel, both airline and vehicular, has already improved air quality considerably. So it's a real interesting sort of double-edged sword there. And I hope that when there's a movement to pushing a better, cleaner technology for transportation - because as you and I talk about, the importance of going places, seeing the art in person, seeing different communities, learning from different cultures. We want people to travel. It's an important part of what we do, but we also need to do it in a sustainable manner. And I'm hoping that is able - we're able to look at this and say, wow, this has been really amazing. How quickly the error, you know, repaired itself. And we need to, we need to not screw it up again. So hopefully we were able to get that worked out.
RH: I remember reading an article about Venice, Italy, and how the boats, they would stop traveling through the canals. And then people are like, "Oh, it turned clear. And we can see fish, now." That happened. They're like, "Oh look, there's a swan!" And it was like, "Oh, that hasn't happened in, what, years and years?" So it's just - that made me happy, but again, you emphasize the importance of being able to travel. So I think, I really hope, again, maybe answering your first question, tech would be more eco-friendly and things like that, I would hope so. Yeah.
And then for entertainment, I mostly focused on streaming. I think streaming has - it was already a big thing, but now it's probably skyrocketed and I've obviously taken advantage of that. I watch a lot of Netflix and even like Disney+ and things like that, I have to admit. So obviously, people, they can watch movies now, in the comfort of their own home without having to go anywhere and although that's really nice, again, I really am sad because it will probably take away from the experience of cinemas.
Being able to sit in a movie theater and eat popc- obviously you can eat popcorn at home and things like that - but I just think there's something so special about being there and watching it on this huge projector with perhaps people that also share that same interest with you. And I think streaming kind of being able to direct - directly release movies right to your home, you won't be able to have that experience anymore.
RB: Yeah. This has been an issue for going a long time. David Lynch famously, when DVDs came out, was furious because he wanted everybody to go to the theater as well. You couldn't fast forward or - you could pause, but you couldn't fast forward or rewind. There was something in the software, because he wanted that control. He wanted you sit down and watch it in that one format. And I remember thinking, "that's just not how the world works." So, the cinematic experience is not nearly as popular as it used to be. And they've tried, pre-pandemic, to bring alcohol in, more comfortable seats you have to reserve ahead of time, trying to try to do anything they can to keep that experience going. I'm just as curious as anybody as to whether it'll make any sense going forward, I don't know.
RH: Yeah. I mean, we're seeing theaters unfortunately close down, over the city. Again, I think this creates room for creativity. People need to think of ways that they can draw in customers and bring a personable experience, I guess, to each a buyer of a ticket. And yeah, I... it's going to be a difficult industry - or difficult thing to keep alive - but I wish there was a way for it.
RB: Yeah. I designed Showtime's headquarters in West Hollywood a couple of years ago. If you go to the link on my email, there's a web address and the password is L-U-X-E-T-S-P-A-T-I-O, lux et spatio, which is Latin for light in space. But that proejct's on there and we - HD is really, the camera technology is amazing. So you can see all the makeup on an actor's face and when you're watching HD, it's really kind of different than the old school format. Projection film, you know, movies. And I like both. There are different things, but I do the fact that a single expression in an actor's space is very visible. So they really have to be committed to the role because you really reading all those expressions. And the design of the Showtime project, we blew their faces - a portion of their faces - up to be spatial, to be architectural, full-size.
And the space confrontation of being in the presence of such an enlarged photograph was really tremendous and a big part of that project, but it highlighted reality for them. Showtime realizes that you might watch their programming on your phone. You might watch it on your laptop, a tablet, a large monitor. And sometimes if it's social enough, you might actually have people over and project it on a garage door or something. So they realize that the way that you consume the media, they can't control. And I think the reality to that is probably not going to reverse itself. I think what you're talking about probably still happens a little bit, 10 years from now.
And I think that you might get, "Oh, wow, isn't it cool to go watch a movie," but it'll be the experience and the novelty of going and seeing that. But then the minute they're in there - people are in the movie they're on their phone, they're texting, they're not paying any attention to anything for two hours. Where I think it gets interesting is when movies have indeterminate endings, and this is something that's been coming online the last few years. Whereas you might watch a movie, I might watch the same movie, but we have different endings because I interact with the movie and made different choices or had different reactions than you did, and it took a different path. So I think the whole concept might change and could be really interesting.
So I wonder if, to your point, we get pushed more and more into the digital realm, that something like what I'm talking about becomes more popular. Who knows what happens from there. And then if the actors are - think about it this way - if the actors are not actual human beings, but digital simulations, which we see a lot of, now they could make nearly - add the AI that you talked about, that could have nearly infinite endings for every movie.
RH: Yeah, for sure. That reminds me of... for sure. That reminds me of the Netflix - Black Mirror episode where it's like, Bandersnatch or maybe - I don't remember if that's the one-
RB: Yeah, I thought- No, go ahead. (Gestures)
RH: I hadn't done that in like forever, but I would just remember there was like this one episode where obviously you'd have to be like really engaged in what you're watching and you'd select the characters' path and what they're doing. It's literally going to determine like the whole rest of the plot, basically. So, I guess that's a way to demand the consumers' attention.
RB: And with that, you think about the popular YouTube channels. One of the most popular is this kid who opens up gifts, or something, and other kids watch him open up gifts. And this is one of those things where if you'd told me, "Oh, millions and millions of kids are going to watch this kid open up presents," and I'd be like, "You gotta be kidding me." But imagine if you had customized movie cinematic experience - where you're, just like the Black Mirror, you're picking the characters - and then you can watch the film that I created by watching it. And if I'm, let's say I am the famous person and you - everybody'd want to know, "How did David Lynch, what did he watch? What did he see," or, "Ren, the famous fashion designer? What did she watch?" And, I think we're getting into, you know, this stuff's never existed before. So I think that part's kind of exciting.
RH: That'd be really interesting to see in the future, for sure.
RB: Any other thoughts on markets or economies?
RH: No. Do you think - should I speak on anything else, or...?
RB: Any other points on post-pandemic adaptability, and any other thoughts you have on where you see this going?
RH: I mean... I hope it'll end soon. I, obviously, as a student, I really hope that it'll get better. I look forward to having more vaccines released and things like that. And I hope people will - I know people are iffy about taking the vaccine, but I really do hope that they'll strongly consider it, those who are on the fence about taking it.
RB: I think you're going to see - I think you're going to see, you know, ideas where, well, you're not getting on an airplane. This is already the case. If you don't have a negative test, you're not getting on an airplane. And ultimately for the people that go ahead and get the vaccine, I think there's going to be more opportunities than people who don't.
I think, I'm a little concerned that's going to create two worlds and we'll be doing the Hunger Games', you know, reality show. I don't want to see that. I want to see - I want to see us to come together more than be separated. And I think to me, this is - this thing is really bringing this to a head. And there's such vast differences between political ideologies. And I'm just hoping that we can strengthen the center and listen to each other a little bit better.
RH: Me too.
RB: And I don't know how to do it other than reaching out to more people and trying to have conversations, but I think we'll be past it. I don't know that we can get done with it in time for you. I'm sure you'll be in New York, going to New York. I think that's a really good idea. Rent an apartment and do your online classes from there, but my guess is the fall, you're back in school. You know, preschools, grade schools, they're all doing in-person classes. They've adapted to cohort strategies where it's only - you're only going to interact with your class. It's not as good as regular school, but it definitely cuts down the rate of infection. And universities are doing this too. So I think you'll see the ability to do that. I think social distances and masking up is really working in cutting a lot of this down. So I think they will in the fall be able to do that.
So spring, definitely not, obviously, but I bet the fall, I bet you see it. And University of Illinois has done a really good job, for instance, of testing people - staff, faculty, students, everybody. I think you'll see a broader roll out of that. So you're - it's going to work out.
RH: Thank you, yeah. My best friend, she actually goes to Illinois and she gets tested like every like week - once a week, two times a week or something. And they don't even let you in the building, unless you have a negative COVID test, which is so smart. And I really hope more colleges or - more colleges, they will adapt it, but they'll get on that a little bit quicker. So yeah.
RB: Last word. Anything else you have?
RH: So far, no. I'm just - I'm very curious to see how the economy will change and adapt for the next five years. And even further in that, I'm really curious to see what even, again, being a design student, I'm really just interested to see the more, like, creative aspects, and what other ideas that people will come up with. I know, perhaps, even kids my age in like five years, we'll be done with college. So maybe some kids even I know, might come up with a great idea for post-pandemic. So I hope to see that soon.
RB: Me too. I can't thank you enough for taking the time and for being so thoughtful about it and writing it all down, I really appreciate that.
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