Art and design education, and now particularly fashion, is my passion. We hate it when students say, oh my passion is fashion, but it is what I’m about and what I’m totally committed to, so I hope that this will come across this evening. I also want to explore what I think about, what motivates me and how this has contributed, obviously, to getting my professorship in art and design education, of which I am extremely proud.
Education as a Transforming Force
At the heart of everything, I believe passionately that education is a transforming force. At a time when this is coming under question and debate because of everything that is going on within the changes to the funding regime with so much emphasis on value and on money, education as transformation is certainly what motivates me and what I think motivates so many people in this College and in this University and across the sector. Education has to be about how we transform our thinking, how we give students the opportunity to investigate, experiment and really test their ideas. It is a personal journey and transformation to which I believe everybody is entitled. People forget how much education transforms the way we think as a society, as a culture, and within our industries. I’ve always tried to be realistic in terms of what the government agendas are – there’s no point in pretending that you can resist the irresistible – nevertheless, we have to be aware always about the implications of the decisions that we’re making in terms of our own belief in our subject areas and what our students and staff need to investigate and push their subject disciplines. For me, higher education and working in an institution like this is about how we can take responsibility for not only our students but our subject plus the external environment and how we can work to transform that.
A number of quotes have become very important to me throughout my career and it’s quite interesting to note what CP Snow wrote in 1959.
“With good fortune, however, we can educate a larger proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant either of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once they are seen, cannot be denied.”
Here we are over 50 years later and he’s talking about the need for higher education not to have an ivory tower existence, to work across the subject disciplines. In the ‘Two Cultures’ lecture he made the point that science and art need to work together. There is much going on that has made that happen, but as we know, government thinking tends to direct the science and technology in a particular direction. Snow was interested in how, by working together, higher education institutions, the subjects, disciplines and research could address the great global challenges like poverty. Since his lecture, we’ve had an enormous shift in terms of global economies and societies – we have knowledge based economies here in the West, while technology and communication has transformed our world. These significant changes have also bound us together, creating many opportunities, but also presenting great challenges.
“The risks of ecological catastrophe form an inevitable part of our horizon of day to day life. Other high consequence risks, such as the collapse of global economic mechanisms, or the rise of totalitarian superstates, are an equally unavoidable part of contemporary life”
Here Giddens makes clear our great challenges, and as we know we have had the recent financial collapse and terrorism, but, for me, the issues around climate change and shrinking resources are what we need to think very carefully about as higher education institutions, for we can collaborate through our work with our students, staff, subjects, disciplines and our external organisations to address these challenges and make a difference.
I want to talk about how a discipline such as art and design, even if you would not immediately think so, can transform our world in a very obvious political, social and economic way. I believe passionately and I know that people here tonight do as well, that that is absolutely possible.
Journey as Educational Concept
I’m interested in the idea of the journey, of the opportunities that are presented as you go on to create and develop work, because it’s bound in as a part of what it is to be a creative practitioner, and that obviously is where I started. The relationship between the concept, the external environment and your internal motivations is at the heart of what I believe. As practitioners we make choices about the way an object is going to look and what’s going to happen with it – that’s also replicated in providing education for students. They need to understand that there are many opportunities and myriad ways to reach a particular destination. Within education we should encourage the idea of experimentation: the idea that there are multiple choices that you can take and they can all be equally valid. There isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong way of doing something. I hope we give that sort of confidence and opportunity to our students.
There have been a number of key artists and writers who have motivated me. For example, John Cage – and a lot of you will be aware that obviously he’s very famous for his compositions or almost his lack of compositions if you think of Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds [4’33”] – was also an expert on mushrooms and a great chess player. Whatever was important at that particular point in his life, he would investigate and research and use that to feed the work that he was doing. Frida Kahlo, Julia Kristeva, Simone de Beauvoir – they’re all people who’ve pushed the boundaries of what the subject is about and what motivates them.
At the heart of all of this, something that I return to so often, is that as part of the creative process, a part of what it is to be exploring, whether that’s within a piece of work or trying to develop a small business or creating a new type of cultural organisation, that we have to be able to experiment and take chances, to have risk. Again, at a time of pressure on what we mean by the value of something, students will feel more concerned about not taking chances, but we must experiment and be aware that mistakes are absolutely crucial to how we learn as human beings and how we push our creative thinking on. As artists and educators in this discipline, we must play with that continually and embedit within the work that we do with our students.
An Art School Education
I began my work, or career, even my life, in art school within this institution. I went to Saint Martins to do a foundation, did my degree at Saint Martins and then went on to do an MA at Chelsea. That was fundamental in terms of developing my thinking and allowing me to consider what it is to be a practitioner. I followed this with part-time tutoring on a range of different courses in differing institutions, which gave me a grounding to understand what it is to work with diverse students who’ve got different motivations and ambitions for their work. I came to understand that within art and design, for every one of its subject disciplines, the students come from different starting points, with different ideas, different concepts and different ways of articulating those ideas. That spread of experience helped me with the work that I’ve subsequently gone on to do in terms of my leadership of departments and courses. As part of being within the art school, I learnt that mistakes are obviously critical and so important if you’re going to be working within art and design.
“Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root modules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we would never get anything useful done….We are built to make mistakes, coded for error…What is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on error.”
Thomas, L Cited Robertson, 1987
This is an interesting way of looking at it, because it is about that movement between different areas, different materials, different subjects. This quote implies creative linkages into completely different disciplines; other organisations; and other ways of thinking about things. It also implies that collaboration and experimentation are part of exploring what that creative act might be as you come in from different areas to work together to create something. So – how do we collaborate, how do we develop different types of projects and opportunities?
Developing A Philosophy
All these experiences came together and helped me to develop a philosophy about creating a piece of work. Whether it’s within art, an arts based course, or from the perspective of a designer, that artefact, that object, that piece of drawing, that bit of textile contains so many different elements.
“Pure creativity draws on something which is already there; it moves from one space to another and the creative act is that movement”
Hall and Maharaj, 2001
It has what Reid termed, embodied meaning: it brings together not only the creative inclinations and perceptions of the artist and designer, but also the tradition, the genre, the ideas and the references that they’re pulling together. We can also add to the mix: the experimentation, judgements and, inevitably, because we are grounded in society, culture and the world that we are: the economic, social and cultural context. All are embodied within a piece of work. We can recognise the aesthetic properties, the criteria and the intentions, but also the motivations and communications: the connections made externally as well as internally.
“The arts are related in certain specific ways, and none is independent of the others. Collectively, the arts serve society. Therefore one must consider the function of particular arts or groups of arts as they affect the well-being of society.”
Harris, R 2003
Professor Roy Harris, who is a linguist, describes how the arts, not just fine art, relate to and affect absolutely the wellbeing of our society of individuals; we have a responsibility to work with that. We also have a responsibility to recognise that we can and do have an effect on the world around us. We have a huge set of talents and opportunities both within our subjects and within the students and the graduates, that we have to see how to make a real difference, rather than it just be about the work in and of itself, which obviously is important, but let’s recognise that we can also do some extraordinary things with our practice and channel some of that energy, as CP Snow challenged us, to make a difference to the world around us.
A Changing Landscape
Having worked quite extensively in a number of different organisations, teaching a range of different disciplines, I became aware of changes that were beginning to take place within higher education. It was shifting quite significantly. When I was doing my degree, education was changing under Mrs Thatcher, but it began to escalate as governments recognised that they needed a different type of workforce. As manufacturing disappeared and a knowledge based economy developed, questions were asked about why governments were funding higher education institutions; what was happening to the students and what were they doing to the industries and societies that they were moving into? Reports were coming out around skills and how we were going to get a more directed and instrumental influence by government. They began to explore different ways of modularising, expanding student numbers and merging institutions. We were being asked to respond to all of these decisions, yet on what basis were we making them? If we were working within an art and design discipline where students spend a lot of time, our experience was about time invested in total immersion almost within the subject that you’re working with and responding to. How are we going to cut that up and package that differently and yet still give students the same sort of experience that we had, or the same opportunity for real investment in the subject, experimentation and risk taking?
I decided to do a DPhil, which I did at Oxford University in their Education Department because I wanted to think quite differently about what was motivating the sector and to get a different sort of perspective. As I began to look at some of these implications and understand what was going on, I realised that a great deal of my thinking was predicated on the Robbins Report of the 1960s. He talked about the aim of education not being about producing specialists, but about producing or educating cultivated men and women, as he termed it. It must be about the advancement of learning and the search for truth and that these are essential functions of institutions of higher education. I still believe that that is what we have to do, albeit we maybe need to direct it and package it up in slightly different ways. He was also interested in the idea of transmission of common culture and standards of citizenship, but things were changing. Governments were signalling strongly that was this was no longer enough.
“It was easier to be high minded when meritocracy meant that a small handful of clever children from working class backgrounds could be given the advantages that the best 4-5 percent of the population expected for their children. That was egalitarian elitism in its simplest form”
Ryan, A 2001
This quote comes absolutely to the heart of what is challenging Higher Education. Yes, we agree absolutely with meritocracy: we want a higher education that’s like that. But we are being challenged as to how we achieve it. If we were going to take more students and be more accountable for what we were doing, that meant that we had to think differently about higher education. It was much easier when the numbers were smaller, then we were able to be, quite patronising and “allow” a number of students to come in and study with us and weren’t they “jolly lucky”.
Drawing the Line
We therefore needed to change our thinking and practices and to have a new conception of what it is. This was at the heart of what I explored in my doctorate, which I entitled ‘Drawing the Line, the Massification of Higher Education and its Impact on Fine Art’. At that time I was still working within a fine art context, this is an area which is about investing and immersing in the practice- it’s not about looking to answer particular challenges that are external to what one is concerned and motivated about as an artist. Therefore I considered that if I could see the effects of some external challenges on the teaching of that discipline, we would be able to draw conclusions from the research that would be useful for the rest of the art and design sector. I looked at issues around increasing student numbers, a more diverse student body, increasing accountability and reduced funding. I examined what we could adjust, what we could compromise on and what we would absolutely draw the line against and say: this is absolutely critical if we’re going to be able to really teach and educate students through this subject.
I interviewed 13 people from across the sector to find out how we might learn from their thoughts. Interestingly, everybody recognised that the higher education sector was fragmenting and altering and that some aspects were now very difficult, but what came back most strongly was that the subject itself was disintegrating and the boundaries between the subject areas were shifting quite rapidly. We all knew the student body was changing and the sector was aware of that in terms of the work and the types of practice coming out, but this was happening in a far more significant way. The sense from the respondents was that we not only needed to adjust to some of the factors coming out politically, but we also needed to respond more significantly to ways in which we would teach the subject and the students would learn, because fine art itself was evolving. Somehow we had to divest ourselves of the nineteenth century atelier model for the teaching of fine art practice. That had to go. If that didn’t happen we would be producing too many ill-prepared graduates. This was going to require a re-conceptualisation of what we do.
My main conclusion was that we needed to be more honest with ourselves and recognise that there was a large cohort, instead of the smaller, more elite courses of the past, that we needed still to bring in students to have this opportunity to learn from what can be an extraordinary experience on a fine art course. What sort of course would they need and expect? We would need courses that were both in and through the subject. We needed an opportunity for students to invest and immerse, so they would see themselves as the creative dynamic of the particular area of fine art practice that they would be going into. For some students the particular skills they were developing were more relevant outside fine art and the opportunities and the significance of having undertaken a fine art course meant they had a range of skills which could, through that experience, be applied to a whole range of other subjects. For me, this confirmed the significance of art and design – because I believe that this is a really significant subject for the twenty-first century. If we could articulate clearly, that you can study and become a fine artist, but also demonstrate to students that they can apply this experience elsewhere, then this would ensure fine arts relevance to the broader based students who are coming to study with us. This, in turn, would require us to look at the disciplines we wanted to be connected with: the type of industries and creative and cultural organisations, but also science, technology, medicine and other areas that would provide different experiences and possibilities for fine art courses. This could begin to transform thinking in this area. So fine art graduates could understand how they can move into other areas, which would enable the sector to see the broader context and the challenges facing us. As a discipline we could reach out and address issues that were connected to climate change or health and wellbeing. We could this way understand that we had just as much expertise – a different type of expertise – but just as much expertise, as anybody in the more obvious disciplines of science and technology to develop world changing solutions.
Academic Leadership – Higher Education Institutions as catalysts for change
The DPhil therefore helped to crystallise my thinking. We should be connected to a whole range of other subject disciplines and we needed meaningful collaborations with external agencies and relevant industries. Also, we should address some of the ideas that CP Snow was highlighting and push them even further. I had begun my DPhil when I was in Gloucestershire and completed it in inner city London, which was interesting in and of itself. In a rural or regional university there can be great poverty and issues around widening participation, just as significant as in an urban environment. Again, how do we ensure that we’re working with all the different sorts of students and addressing issues around skills and employability. At this time, I was also playing a role within CHEAD – the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design. I had worked on the Destinations and Reflections report of 1997, which this University has taken up with the Creative Futures report more recently. Destinations and Reflections was a seminal project as it argued strongly that art and design graduates really begin to make the difference in their industries five years after graduation. How we articulated the significance of employability in our area was something that I had worked on a great deal and was committed to during my work with CHEAD. Also, I commissioned a report on widening participation because my concern was that, often, within art and design, we like to say yeah, we’re really hip and cool and definitely we’re open to everybody and aren’t we so sort of broad and so on, but when it comes down to it we put up many barriers. We needed to try and analyse where we were, what the issues were, how particular institutions were dealing with it and really begin to address that. That early project drew on a lot of thinking that I’d done as part of my DPhil. That in turn, through CHEAD, linked to the work that the NAL Network is now doing. Part of this crystallisation of my thinking and what I needed to address in terms of my academic leadership, was the issue of external projects and events, which had to be critical to what we did. It was important to remember the importance of practice; the need to work with a diverse and changing student body; and balancing the demands of our subject with the different expectations and requirements of our students. We need to have a current pertinent and relevant curriculum that is dynamic and exciting for our students, but also push forward the thinking both within the discipline and for our external organisations. We should be looking at how this sort of thinking addresses other issues.
“What I have longed to create, what I have believed in, what I have dedicated my life to is that formless something floating in the mist. That mysterious something can be intuited only through the miraculous sensibilities with which humans have been endowed. It is pre-lingual, it can only be labeled an intangible asset.”
Those of you who know me know that Yohji Yamamoto is somebody whose clothes I spend far too much money on. More importantly, he is an artist who happens to express himself through the medium of fashion and somebody who’s always interested in the mistake, in the failure, in what has gone wrong. I’m aware that when I pool all my thinking together and I’m working out what I want to do with the courses and the students, in the end it’s a sense of something – an idea about what’s important. It absolutely needs to be addressing external issues; while I’m trying to get other people to think clearly, some of these things are intangible. We’re being driven down a road which is always about packaging and having clear branding and demarcations and parameters set, but within that, how do we create a space which is more intangible? For me, that is as relevant whether you’re working within a college, a course or a piece of work that you’re trying to create. The same issues are absolutely there.
London College of Fashion
“Clothes are inevitable. They are nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible, the very mirror of an epoch’s soul.”
Laver, J 1949
I was very excited and extremely happy to be appointed to this position. On the one hand, everything led towards this for me, but on the other, I’m sure people thought: who is this person, she’s not fashion. She might like Yohji but that doesn’t mean that she’s come up through fashion. But this quote in a way says so much. For me, clothes are fundamental to who we are as human beings and how we express ourselves. It was a great opportunity to come and work in a college with a discipline which is closely linked to industry, but is all about creativity, reinvention, exploration and influence. For a long time fashion has been seen as ephemeral and insignificant, to which we shouldn’t be paying a lot of attention. When I was appointed here, the College was about to celebrate its centenary and I was thinking: what a huge responsibility. Where is it going to be in a hundred years if all the issues around the environment and shrinking resources are coming into play? Just what’s that going to mean? I was interested in the possibilities of working in a college which is about everything that fashion can be. How could we use the breadth as well as the depth to drive change? That has been a significant motivation for me. It is also a huge business. Some of you will know from the recent British Fashion Council report, that in the UK it’s a twenty-one billion pound industry. An industry as significant as that demands an absolutely and equally serious fashion education system. We have to be about promoting and developing and working with that industry. We must make it clear that fashion isn’t just about frocks at all, that it’s obviously media, it’s TV, it’s retail, it’s management. Looking at clothing worldwide, it’s a trillion dollar industry employing 26 million people. People in developing economies want to have elements of fashion simply because it is an engine, because of the skills that are required initially. So we need to address everyone
working within it.
“At the heart of lifestyle is style- today’s vital, indispensable language of identity. From an ever-growing supermarket of style…we choose those items which signify most precisely where we are ‘at’.”
I believe that art and design is a 21st century subject because style has become central to who we are and how we operate. Somebody who I worked with on CHEAD described it as the ‘cappuccino effect’: you could go and get your cup of coffee which is 50p with a plastic cup, but you’d rather go and spend £2.50 and have the froth and a nice table. That’s what art and design does. It gives that sort of leverage, creating the desire to want to spend a bit more, to have something which changes them. What is so important about fashion is that it links to everything. It is a curious, chameleon like discipline because it is connected with everything: from what we think about ourselves to what we want to wear. It addresses the physical, the social, the cultural and the anthropological. It deals with relationships, it links to science, it links to medicine. It moves out and touches so many different things. So it is, inherently, very powerful in many ways that have been undervalued and underrated. For me, and a lot of people who are equally committed to it as an industry and as an education, I felt very strongly that we needed to make sure this was a key message coming out. Part of that argument needed to be articulated in another way. It wasn’t just about saying, actually clothes are wonderful and don’t they look good and make you feel better; actually we needed to talk about fashion differently.
Soon after I started here, I gave a talk entitled ‘Better Lives’, picking up on how we were going to use fashion to make us think differently about the world that we’re a part of. How could we use fashion to think about climate change, shrinking resources and education for people who have never experienced it before? I wanted people to value fashion differently, because we put clothes on and they are next to our skin, so why wouldn’t we want to think about who has made them and where those resources have come from. Something that is so personal, yet people disregard it. How could we put that centre stage and, as educators and students, think more responsibly about how we put that design and thinking right at the heart of what it is to create. For me, ‘Better Lives’ was a framework that would allow us to pick up on some of these issues.
“if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social well being of whole societies.”
Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009
I am sure that a number of you will be aware of the book, The Spirit Level, which was published in 2009, and showed that the more unequal a society is, the more problems that it has. Like CP Snow, it said that we can do something about this and we need to argue to achieve it. Testing this within fashion, I realised that we need to articulate more clearly that the pressure we all have to consume more is juxtaposed with the fact that a lot of the people who are producing the objects we like to consume are experiencing severe poverty. Also we have an industry that will marginalise the elderly and the infirm and inevitably push us towards a particular type of beauty and a particular aesthetic. How could we challenge ourselves? How could we lay down a gauntlet to say what can we do within fashion to develop sustainable, credible solutions to some of these problems facing the world that would get us to think differently about new economic models for what fashion and the fashion industry might be? If we were to do this – and as a college with 100 years of experience, if we can’t, then who can – what opportunities and projects could we develop to take some of these ideas forward? This brought me back to thinking quite carefully about making sure that we take responsibility as a college for both the many students who want to come and study with us and a lot of industry that looks to us. How can we signal clearly through quite high profile projects or events, what we are interested in and committed to?
Project with a Women’s Prison
We have a project with a women’s Prison. When I was in Gloucestershire, I set up a writer-in-residence project at the prison there and it always stuck in my mind: why couldn’t other subject disciplines explore some of the opportunities for transforming lives? Among people who have little education and few skills, we have a responsibility to try and effect change. Obviously fashion is significant for all the reasons that I’ve spoken about, so what were the opportunities that we could offer we would also learn more about working with different types of students, and it would allow us to address the fact that, as we know, 80 per cent of people who are released from prison re-offend within a year and that for women offenders there is very little education.
“I believe that it is timely to bring about a radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole of the criminal justice system. There needs to be a fundamental re-design of women’s custody introduced in parallel with other gender specific workable disposals and sanctions …..Custody as it exists today is disproportionately harsher for women than men.”
Corsten, J 2007
Prison is such a male dominated system and women are fitted around that and suffer quite disproportionately for it, as can be seen from the significant Corsten Report. Why not take some of these ideas on board as a college and work in partnership with a prison to see whether we could develop new skills and opportunities for offenders? Not only would they get skills, but it would give them the possibility of finding a different sort of creative outlet and also, if we could get it right, the opportunity for different forms of employment. Obviously what tends to happen with offenders is that they are released with no training opportunities, they go back to the places where they offended because they are often very concerned about their families and their children and start re-offending again.
We did a project making jackets and then had a photo shoot to show categorically that when given the opportunity, people can produce the most extraordinary and wonderful garments. The offenders develop new sort of set of skills and we were stunned by the quality of the work being produced, but what was so exciting was what our own staff and students gained. We thought that we were committed and quite good at recycling, but not compared to the resourcefulness and use of opportunities by the women. It was absolutely extraordinary. They know how to be very inventive, very creative with every material that’s out there. Also they said: ‘Oh well, I’ve got to work to a deadline, because obviously normally time isn’t an object.’ Having the discipline of working to something and the opportunity for people that were really interested in something like this was great. Our students benefitted greatly. Some of them now want to go on and work in this particular area learning about what it is to work in education, in a workshop environment and actually teach, in a way investing their skills with others. It has made us think carefully about how we can go on to work and develop this still further; we are looking to develop a production facility that would be based on one of our sites where, as the women come through we are able to then give them employment opportunities because the quality of the work is so significant. We know there are opportunities out there for exciting manufacturing, which would also help us in other ways.
That’s where so many of these opportunities link up. Something that has been important to me, which was already established when I was appointed, but I have put a lot of energy into promoting and developing it, is the Centre for Fashion Enterprise. This is dedicated to helping to support, nurture and incubate young designers. You can see from the people who have shown up here tonight that we have some extraordinary people who are working based on our site. That gives us insight for our students, just as the prison project gives us issues around manufacturing and the fact that there are definitely people out there who can go on to create and develop new skills
Here, within the Centre for Fashion Enterprise and the work that’s been going on, we are beginning to understand that there are all sorts of issues around developing new approaches to manufacturing. There is a real need not only to support, nurture and grow young businesses, which is extremely important for a college dedicated to a subject such as fashion. We need our students to understand that they can move out into the industry and that as a college we are learning and working with people who are out there and understanding what their needs are within the business. One of the issues is manufacturing and we have just got another major bid from the European Development Fund which is going to be around helping to develop and up-skill the manufacturing based here in London. So it is getting us to understand that as an institution we can have a real effect. That bid would not have happened without the work that had been going on within the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, where a lot of research looked at the needs of the industry. What kept coming back was the need for more manufacturing, which allows us to go on and do it. So incrementally, bit by bit, you begin to put all the sort of jigsaw elements together and understand that they are connected. That is what is so exciting about working in a college like this and in an industry like fashion where there are so many inter-relationships and inter-connections.
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and families, close-knit consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
President Jimmy Carter 1975
It is quite depressing when you think that it is something like forty years since Jimmy Carter said this and it is still there. In fact it is worse, because we all are aware that the issues around fast fashion have made consumption ever faster. Fast fashion, the democratisation of fashion is just about consumption, it has got nothing to do with a love of clothes at all; it is just about the love of going out and buying something. So how can we address that? It is difficult because we are caught up in industry where now, designers are doing six plus collections a year; the internet, the media, everything is directed towards selling and yet as a college we need to work with this in some way. Fashion is inspirational, it makes us feel good about ourselves and it is important for the economy. It doesn’t help if we all say: ‘I’m going to stop buying.’ That displaces and causes problems elsewhere. It is a bit like the ripples in a pond, if we decide to do that, there are people who are dependent on the fact that we buy. But how do we address that conundrum? How do we work with that oxymoron? How do we make sure that we are developing an industry that plays to the fact that it wants to be fun, plays to the fact that we want to consume, but is also going to be sustainable?
This has been very much at the heart of my thinking. I set up the Centre for Sustainable Fashion precisely to help shape the industry and minimise the effect on the environment. As a college, we needed to embed that. How could we make sure that our students were doing this? How could we make sure that we were also understanding what was going on out there and working with staff to develop the curriculum in that area? It also picked up on the Stern Report: he said that our biggest market failure was that our prices do not reflect the true cost of the production. So how are we going to understand that better? How are we going to understand the issues around consumption? Somebody sent me an essay that Charles Kingsley, of ‘The Water Babies’, wrote in the 1870s about cheap clothes being nasty. He was talking about tailors in the East End and the terrible, horrific conditions that were happening then. We have managed, very successfully, to export that elsewhere. How could we bring some of these issues and begin to take a stance on that? How also could we meet the needs of our students, who often work in schools and are totally committed to these issues? They were coming to us wanting to know what we were going to do about it as a college.
The great thing about what we are doing within the Centre is that we are working on all sorts of different levels with the industry. We’re looking at continuing professional development, addressing the research and the needs that they’ve got, and we are also working to celebrate the students, not just here within the college, but internationally.
A Fashionable Future
We set up the ‘Fashioning the Future’ international competition, which is precisely to celebrate the work that’s going on internationally. Also, as a college, we wanted to stress that this is at the heart of what we’re thinking about. We’ve got staff engaged in some extraordinary research projects, looking and partnering up very closely with scientists and engineers. For me, the strong signal of a real sort of transformation is that the industry is beginning to put some of these things at the heart. I think the issue around consumption, what people want and how much they’re prepared to pay for it is one of our biggest challenges. How do we get across that? How do we get people to think differently? That is something I want to think very carefully about how we address as we move forward over the coming years.
“The world we have is the product of our way of thinking”
We could be fatalist and think that there is no point in trying to change us as human beings, we are what we are, but, on the other hand, I think education and fashion are absolutely creative and aspirational and optimistic. Working in a college like this, where there are always new ideas, new ways of thinking about the subject, that we can within that also use it to address the fact that maybe we can also get other consumers to value clothes, to think about clothes, to think about the industry quite differently.
“And since we are sisters and don’t have to stand on ceremony, I’ll speak to you as I want. I’m saying that it is our nature and our custom to keep reinventing the world.”
Dialogue Between Fashion and Death – Leopardi, G 1798-1837
This was written in the early nineteenth century – and it’s great. It is a dialogue between Fashion and Death and obviously they are sisters within this. It is the idea that we are at the very heart of what fashion does. We can keep reinventing the world in which we are a part of and, for me, if we can’t do that here within fashion, if we can’t be creative, if we can’t be entrepreneurial, if we can’t be enterprising, and if we can’t be responsible within that, then who can. Thank you.