The Future of Fashion: Imagining Possibilities
On 5 October 2023, Centre for Sustainable Fashion launched its partnership with The Lab E20. This year long programme of reciprocity between ourselves, RÆBURN and Get Living is a significant element in us marking 15 years of co-inquiry, mutuality, co-learning, listening, respecting and guiding fashion relationships.
We are calling this a year of Imagining Possibilities – inviting ideas for living well together in a more than human world, in and through fashion. We are exploring and applying ways for contributing to social and cultural distinctions and connections through fashion. What might the future of fashion involve if we place earth and equity at its heart? Responses to this question will be threaded throughout the partnership with The Lab E20, as part of LCF’s Designed for Life and in LCF Sampled.
Imagining Possibilities will culminate in a three-day festival in April, where we will invite you to contribute to this reorientation of fashion.
Read below our Director’s conversation with The Lab E20’s co-founder, Yasmin Jones-Henry.
“Creativity is never a solo endeavour, it involves the living world, the air we breathe, the earth we tread and our fellow beings.”
Prof Dilys Williams | Director, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, UAL.
Yasmin Jones-Henry in conversation with Dilys Williams
Many will know you as Professor Dilys Williams, founder of Centre for Sustainable Fashion at LCF, and all-round legend when it comes to UK fashion and establishing London’s role as the global leader for sustainable fashion. Can you tell us your origin story? How did you start? Where did you start your journey in fashion and design?
Thank you, that's a great question. I've always been really interested in clothes, and it probably started with affection. My grandmother made a lot of clothes for me, it was a time that we spent together. She’d give me all the offcuts so I could make things – for my toys, for my mum – silly little things I thought my mum would be able to use but probably not brilliantly practical. Sitting around the sewing machine making things, getting excited about spending time with her. That was probably the starting point, and it felt like quite an intimate relationship. I got so attached to those clothes. When I grew out of them my mum put them in a big chest, and I used to sit beside it and cry. So maybe that's about cherishing things.
When i-D Magazine first came out – stapled, photocopied, typewriter text – it was amazing to see that fashion could be such a statement. I used to get it through the post, and it made me excited that you could stand up and be part of something by speaking out. That was a really important point for me to think that fashion could be a spectacle and statement.
I went to train at Manchester Polytechnic, and it was amazing. I lived in Hulme, a big council estate. It was a place where music, fashion and partying were exciting and accessible because you didn't need that much money. People were in it together and being quite radical about what we wanted to think about through fashion.
I’m a social person, so I've always loved the idea of working in the studio as a designer with machinists and technicians. They knew everything about a yarn or material and could help you think about how you might achieve what you want to do with it.
I’ve heard it through the grapevine, there’s a connection to Katharine Hamnett, the godmother of sustainable fashion. Could you share what working with her was like?
I was head of womenswear for Katharine, for over a decade, I designed the main line and licenced collections. I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if it weren’t for Katharine and the team of amazing people. We were reading The Ecologist alongside designing collections which was very different from anywhere else I’d ever worked! We came up with a set of non-negotiables – it had to be chrome-free leather and organic cotton. We would not use factories unless they had unionization, and that was a strong thing to do at the time. Katharine gave me the guts to think ‘you can do this’. It’s not easy to go against what the sector expects of you, but once you make these decisions, you have to stand by them. Thanks to Katharine I stopped in my tracks and started to make new tracks.
What did the world of fashion look like at this time? Why did it take so long for her message in the 80s – for fashion to slow down and take stock of its environmental impact – to cut through the noise?
You could count on one hand the people that were thinking differently about what fashion could be back then. At the time, we were going through that huge transition into neoliberalism. All the trade barriers and labour checks were taken away. Things suddenly started getting cheaper, production was happening faster and people were not being paid properly. So it's because of the lack of any kind of real legislation, and the ability of technology to be able to do things faster. And, you know, people like shiny things.
As a practitioner, what led you into the world of teaching?
“I realised that no one company or even a set of companies can do enough by themselves.”
It was serendipitous. I was invited into LCF to set up a brief for students and I was shocked to see that there was nothing in the curriculum around ethical, environmental considerations of what design is about. If you're going to actually look at change, you've got to change how people are taught, what they learn, and what success involves. And wider questions to the university about who gets access to education? What kinds of ideas do we say are good design? What is assessed as a good piece of work?
I was considering all of this alongside working with Katharine for a little while to begin with.
This November marks the 15th anniversary of Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Could you talk us through how and why you set it up? It’s quite an entrepreneurial and radical thing to have established in a pre-existing institution (UAL). What was the process of introducing CSF like? What were the challenges?
It's really difficult, but I decided that my best place was to be doing something from within. I was doing things from within the industry, and I wanted to do something from within academia to get to the heart of things. I had a real provocation – while I was teaching, LCF had its centenary, and the slogan was ‘fashioning the future’. That totally triggered me. I was like, “if you're teaching like this, we ain't gonna have no future”.
There was a new head of college who was open to conversation. I put together some ideas with a few other people who were really supportive and said to her “the only way to fashion the future is to change how you educate, but I know you can't do it overnight. You need to set something up that is about changing education, working with designers and developing research. It's a whole new discipline here.” She turned around and said, “okay, well I'll give you a year and see what you can do.” So that's how the Centre started.
First focus was on radical, ecological, equity-based education – changing what's in the courses, how they're taught, how tutors get the space to think about what they really care about teaching. Alongside changing current courses, one of the first things that I did was to start a course from scratch, to develop the first ever MA in Fashion and the Environment, (now called MA Fashion Futures), because I realised that to be able to dig in deep and think radically you have to start from the root of fashion, from the earth and from a sense of human equity. The course is 15 years old as well, with amazing graduates all around the world, doing incredible, awe-inspiring things. I look forward to involving some of them in our year of Imagining Possibilities too.
The Centre is also about reorienting fashion with people already in the sector, with designers in small to big teams, and it's about developing new research that looks at what design means when it's about mutuality. We work with businesses large and small, near and far, to demonstrate what design means when it's ecologically and socially rooted.
“I thought that by 15 years we’d have got to the point where things were a bit easier, but it's more challenging because there’s a load of greenwashing out there. I feel more fired up than ever about what we need to do.”
Whilst everything might seem overwhelming, relationships are what matters. Relationships in nature have found ways to be reciprocal, so let's do that as human beings. In the words of Martin Luther King, ‘we have learnt to fly like birds and swim like fish but haven’t yet learnt how to walk the earth as brothers and sisters, as kin’. Let's use this as a chance to create safe spaces where we can be honest with each other and work through some of the ways in which we might live differently and imagine otherwise.