A design collaboration by Borders and Frontiers, a brand which benefited from support from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Photo by Kerry Dean. Below photo of white dress by Sean Michael.
Inside the London College of Fashion's eco-hub
15th September, 2011
Fashionable ideas get an ethical makeover at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Matilda Lee reports
Fashion is at a crossroads. Literally. It's the streets of London's Oxford Circus, where the revolving carousel of fast fashion shop windows screaming ‘buy me now!' intersect with the London College of Fashion's (LCF) radical ideas for a fashion world yet to come. Tucked away down the LCF's winding corridors just off Oxford Street is the small office of Dilys Williams (pictured below), director of its Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF). Fashion, yes, but not as we currently know it.
‘This is temporary', Williams tells the Ecologist, waving past the piles of work in progress stacked neatly in corners. ‘Once the renovations finish, our offices will be on the top floor, closer to the roof - and the bee hive.' LCF makes its own honey, and Dilys's colleague Alex McIntosh also happens to be a registered beekeeper. Despite having ‘sustainability' in their name, they both are keen to emphasise, CSF is not the same as ‘CSR'. They are not there to keep the building's thermostats down and empty recycling bins. In the sustainability industry, they are the pollinators of ideas.
The Centre's staff is drawn from a variety of backgrounds. Just to mention a few...Helen Storey, MBE, whose ‘catalytic clothing' uses nano fabrics to purify polluted air; Kate Fletcher, author of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles and pioneer of the ‘Slow Fashion' concept and Sandy Black, author of Eco Chic: the Fashion Paradox, and leader of the Evolving Textiles project which converts 3D body data into bespoke, perfectly fitting clothes.
After a decade of designing collections with Katharine Hamnett, the fashion world's ‘queen of green', Williams and Nina Stevenson, now a project coordinator, set up the Centre in 2008. They wanted nothing less than to challenge the fashion status quo.
‘I wanted to embed and imbue sustainability throughout London College of Fashion's whole curriculum but I knew we needed a "deep dive" into sustainability, so we set up the MA,' she says.
The Head of London College of Fashion, Professor Frances Corner, was completely on board. She says that considering the environmental impacts of fashion is one of the ‘big issues' affecting the industry in the 21st century. ‘Fashion is a great catalyst for changing the way we think about things. It's part of what defines us. With that comes responsibility'.
Changing the system
This year, the 3rd cohort of the Centre's MA in Fashion and the Environment graduates will, if all goes well, join the ranks of the fashion industry's bright young things. Previous MA graduates have woven a broad spectrum of career paths. Four grads from the first year set up 'Here today, here tomorrow', an experimental fashion shop and studio which aims to engage customers in how products are made. Another, Lizzie Harrison, set up a fashion upcycling social enterprise in Leeds called ‘Antiform'. While others go full throttle in to the mainstream, joining companies such as Boden or John Lewis.
The MA degree tries to walk a tightrope in twinning the goals of creating new fashion business models and remaining firmly entrenched, and relevant, to the existing one. ‘We really start from the lens of being eco-centric. We teach for sustainability rather than about sustainability,' Williams adds. ‘Skills are gained through nurturing as we teach, as well as what we teach.'
Instead of focusing immediately on the economic viability of the final year projects, the first term is spent delving into ‘new perspectives on fashion' giving students the opportunity to work outside the constraints of the economic system. ‘The challenge is that we need to get people jobs at the end of the course. But whereas the normal benchmark is how relevant student's work is to industry, our approach is lifelong learning and the application of values in our work,' Williams says.
But with a bleak economic climate and fierce competition in the tight job market that graduates face, is values-based fashion any more than pie in the sky romanticism? ‘Don't call it fluffy,' Williams warns. With the fashion industry as a whole having to face up to sustainability issues, whether through rising consumer consciousness, campaign pressure spurred on by social media, or businesses cottoning on to dwindling resources, the Centre's graduates will be instrumental in the momentum gaining towards an industry tipping point.
This point is borne out in Williams's experience at LCF. At first, she says, many tutors were nervous that ‘sustainability' would impinge on creativity, or fearful their students would know more than they did about it. ‘Now people are knocking on our doors' she says.
What does she put that down to?
‘I would like to say it is because we don't prescribe things and try to make sure the visual communications are strong. A lot of people think sustainability is about materials only. It's more than that, it's an opportunity to be radical in fashion.'
Reclaiming the meaning of fashion
Being radical in fashion goes way beyond green labelling. If fact, many seasoned designers like Orsola de Castro of upcycled fashion label From Somewhere, long to be rid of eco/ethical/sustainable categorisations that places brands on a sliding scale based on where their commitments lie: are you more ethical than fashionable or the other way around?
Alex McIntosh (pictured left), who leads the Centre's knowledge transfer with industry says, ‘The term fashion is sometimes used by people showcasing ‘development ideas'. ‘Organic t-shirts are great, but it's not fashion,' he says. ‘Fashion is a distillation of self-expression. It's form and function'.
Fashion is also a term used to promote consumerism. ‘The current fast fashion business model is the problem. It has been successful in getting people to buy and then throw out clothes. But that's not what fashion is about,' Williams says.
Going organic and considering the metrics in reducing water, waste and toxic impacts in clothing production and use is one path towards sustainability. But, ‘We won't stop run away climate change just by increasing efficiencies,' Williams cautions.
The Centre focuses less on metrics and more on changing criteria and thinking, in some respects putting it outside the finger-wagging band of fashion do-gooders and delivering the meaning of ‘sustainability' back to those who practice it. Sustainable fashion ‘can't be pinpointed by aesthetics but only by values of design and the integrity of a designer's work,' she says.
McIntosh, who puts sustainability into practice working with small businesses in London through the Centre's Business Support programme says, ‘We try to look at sustainability not as another set of barriers'.
Brands supported through the programme include Christopher Raeburn, whose redeployed military jackets have been plucked for the prestigious NewGen programme at London Fashion Week, including his own catwalk show on September 16th, and Ada Zanditon whose quirky, structured designs have become a favourite of musicians.
Currently, McIntosh is running in a 12-part series with cult fashion magazine i-D, ‘i-sustain', which gives the Centre a larger platform to help shape the new fashion dialogue.
The new aesthetic
Fashion always goes forward, but the MA in Fashion and the Environment takes this truth to a new level. How do you design something that won't come to fruition in your lifetime? These are the kinds of complex ideas students are asked to research. Another, the, ‘strategic repair' project tasked students with finding somebody in their local community to exchange skills with to get an unused garment back into the system in six weeks.
‘What we need is designers who think about what happens to the clothes that sit in the closet unworn for six months,' Williams says.
So from the school which produced household names such as Jimmy Choo, Emma Hope and LK Bennett, we can expect a new crop shaping what we wear tomorrow and beyond.
This November 10th will mark the third year of the LCF's Fashioning the Future Award. This year, they are celebrating ‘unique' responses to our collective desire for a thriving world and have partnered with the UN, in the year of biodiversity, to focus on sustainable fibres.
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