Fashion: An unlikely catalyst for global change?


Clothes can be used to catalyse change – in their very fibre, or by amplifying human voice, writes Professor Helen Storey MBE RDI, professor of fashion and science, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion UAL.


Back in the 1980s I was an unlikely fashion designer – an imaginative, but insular drifter, with no educational record to speak of – I found my way onto an art foundation course at Kingston University, which changed my life.

Perhaps this early misplacement accounts for my approach which places no boundaries on imagination or between the things that light up the human mind, whether that’s the arts, sciences or the seemingly unknown.

After running my own label in the 80s and 90s I soon switched directions and have now been using fashion as a catalyst for change for far longer than I was designing for the likes of Madonna and holding international shows in London, Milan and New York. Even in those days I was much more interested in the people and their interior worlds, more than what they looked like in our clothes.

My first experiment and step into the world of science came via a gift of a question from my developmental biologist sister, Kate, in 1996, which led to a Wellcome Trust initiative, which invited artists and scientists to collaborate to see if they could capture human imagination towards the biological sciences in new ways.

Primitive Streak was the result, the first 1,000 hours of human life elucidated through textiles and dress, and which 18 years later, still tours the world. It set a precedent for using fashion to illicit an emotional response to complex scientific concepts to make them more accessible.

‘Wonderland’ in conjunction with chemist Professor Tony Ryan (Sheffield University), followed in 2008, which developed this collaborative way of working, teaming again with a scientist with a similar vision of a world not curtailed by the boundaries of subject areas, or where the sciences and arts sit apart. Together we made bottles that could disappear, and could tackle our huge dependence on plastic and our excessive waste. Each bottle disappeared into a growth substrate giving it a second life. We demonstrated the technology using dresses that dissolved in water. It ignited people’s imagination in a way that elicited a response that we could use to help develop the research.

Our next project Catalytic Clothing was sparked from an idea put forward by a 12-year-old girl at a Wonderland workshop “Why can’t scientists make better use of what already exists?” such a simple suggestion – which resulted in a product which uses existing technology in a new way.

Through the laundry process you can transform your own clothes into air purifying catalysts that have the potential to significantly reduce air pollution chocking our towns and cities. It is currently with the R&D department of a major laundry product manufacturer. Catalytic Clothing proved to be a beautiful manifestation of our true interconnectedness and the power of thinking and using differently, the ‘stuff’ that already exists.

Back in January 2013, I asked a mix of brilliant minds to come and talk to us about how they saw the future in 10 minutes – not an easy task.

Around the table sat people occupying very different worlds; business (Unilever), Climate science (Met Office) and from the world of psychology (Exeter University, who were doing a global study on how we as a species are and aren’t responding to climate change and why) – it was a turning point, out of which Dress For Our Time was born; a project which is currently taking me to the edge of myself and more ambitious than anything I have ever attempted. Less of a project, and more an answer to how I feel I should be spending the rest of my creative life, the first incarnation – which was shown at St Pancras International station in London in the lead up to COP21, tackles our attitude to climate change. This first phase, based on scientific data provided by the Met Office, visualised the world as we know it now and a projection of the places not affected by climate change in 2084 – an indication of what will happen if we don’t do enough. To see how the installation came about and the incredible reaction of the public to the piece, a film will shortly be available here.

Dress for Our Time is a culmination of all that I have learnt since working outside of the narrow confines of what people perceive to be fashion. Using the ‘surface of us,’ our clothes, can do more than self-actualization or keep us warm, clothes can be used to catalyse change – whether that be at nano scale, in their very fibre, or by amplifying human voice and how we express what it is that we care about.

At its crudest, Dress For Our Time has become a reusable, re-programmable surface, that offers up the power of the female form to shine a light on the greatest challenges of our time.

Crucially for me, the narrative around climate change, which invariably involves scare tactics, needs reviewing. We need to find ways to keep the human story at the centre of this debate and not lead with tactics which breed fear and guilt. Nature has no opinion, but if we were to endow her with a voice, she would be encouraging us to brilliantly risk everything, to address this crisis of our time – in evolutionary terms, we don’t deserve to be here otherwise.

Professor Helen Storey MBE RDI is professor of fashion and science, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion.

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DRESS FOR OUR TIME is supported by London College of Fashion, UAL, Unilever, Holition, Met Office, St Pancras International, UNHCR and HSF.