Professor Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL, says now is the time for fashion to start making a positive impact.
As the director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with ideas around how the fashion industry can do things differently and how it can contribute to a life well lived.
In setting up the Centre I have been able to bring together incredible people and created the space to play out some of fashion’s possibilities, based in nature and in the honouring of all people. We explore some of the fundamental questions lying at the heart of an industry facing an uncertain future. Through recognising climate change as a cultural issue, understanding our interconnections and naming the ethics in our creative practices, we connect with students, educators, industry and other cultural institutions. The emergent ideas from these collaborations are showing that positive change is within our grasp.
As a mother, educator, designer, daughter and country-girl-cum-Londoner, in considering this question, I look for a plumb line that can trace back towards life’s core along with the freedom to play out possibilities that can be pleasurable, reciprocal and affirming.
We don’t always see where the line goes or the breadth of possibility, as what is most visible is not always the complete picture. The lens that we look through has filters that are brought into focus through experience, knowledge, social acceptability and personal politics. It would be limiting and rather dull if there was a formula for a life well lived, if it was already sitting somewhere, just waiting for to us happen upon it.
Fashion can be an incredible means for us to make connections – between nature and pleasure, self and others, giving and receiving. It is a spectacle of our times and a vital part of how we each present ourselves and sometimes hide ourselves away. It can tell stories, honour people and places, but it can also be lethal and exploitative both to the people that work for it and the environment, which sustains it. Fashion has long since broken and discarded the plumb line that reaches back through its soil.
There’s a disconnection elsewhere too. In our understanding of climate change, we live in a post-scientific consensus, but pre-social consensus era in what we accept as a context to live well. In fashion this is exacerbated by an accepted system oiled by the means to persuade us that there is a formula for pleasure, apparently only involving consumption, leading us into a corrosive loop of discarding materials and other values inherent within our attire.
At the CSF we explore the fact that climate change is fundamentally a cultural problem. Fossil fuels, inappropriate use of technology and flawed economic systems may be direct causes of our climate change problems, but socially acceptable identities are what guide our actions; fashion, therefore, has a huge role to play both in making destructive manifestations of fashion unacceptable and in donning fashion that really does do good.
What that looks like in practice keeps us very busy. We design, develop and deliver fashion education that explores connections between nature and society, honing skills that include listening, exploring, reflecting, making and co-operating. Our students and graduates act as cultural probes that stimulate and are emboldened by us in equal measure.
Living in London for over half of my life, coming from a Worcestershire hamlet, I am intrigued by the city as a place of social vibrancy and openness whilst simultaneously stifled by its disconnection from many aspects of nature and people.
The city’s distortion of space, pace, order and scale has led me to develop the Habit(AT) project, conceived through thinking about fashion in relation to our appearances and activities in an increasingly city-based world. In the time that you take to read this article (assuming that I can keep your company to its end) about 24,000 people will have moved to a city.
Our lifestyles emerge through the habits, places and influences around us, so we are looking at aspects of fashion that can contribute to a healthy city metabolism, where everyone has the ability to do great things, to get and give in equal measure. This project has three phases: gathering voices, noticing habits and exhibiting some of the utopian and dystopian possibilities that emerge.
In December we will take Habit(AT) to Paris for the United Nations conference on Climate Change COP 21, where we will stand up for our concerns using elements of fashion as a voice for change calling out to other cities across the world and asking ‘what do you stand up for?’ in relation to collective and individual lifetime prosperity.
Our ethos at CSF is embedded in acting with sensitivity as we work, but also with vigour and collaborating with others helps us to move more boldly. We are seeing real change in some of the biggest fashion brands in the world. Working with those who are committed and who are not afraid to lead, with openness and honesty, we’ve found an incredible partner in Kering, with whom we’ve entered into a 5 year partnership. We hold a supportive and provocative space together, both completely serious about the imperative and the consequences of change, each with different tensions as businesses and educators.
Our commitment has established an annual platform to bring the fashion industry together to vision and share ideas, to mentor and award sustainability innovation and apply it to a range of Kering’s businesses (Stella and McQueen being the first two), and to co-create a curriculum for a new kind of graduate, better equipped to achieve great things as citizens and as fashion professionals. By cross-weaving academia and business, we can each extend each other’s and our collective reach.
Ensuring a Life Well Lived
Now is the time for fashion to take up its definition as a changemaker, as a thing of wonder, as future, as life, it applies to us all. The majority of people choose and wear clothes, this gives us the power to make small changes which can have huge impact. The identities that we select through our making, wearing and caring for fashion enable each of us to be a voice for change, engaging in society, culture and economy, hence we can alter the course of the fashion industry and prove that we can all contribute to a life well lived for years to come.
Professor Dilys Williams is the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL. She will be speaking tonight (Friday 18 September) at Art of Progress at 19 Greek Street hosted by Salt Magazine. Click for ticket info.
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Photo credit: Tamta Giorgadze from Flickr