The London College of Fashion has transformed since its inception just over a century ago and speculating on the next hundred years raises interesting questions.
The College was founded to help prepare young women for work in West End couture houses. Now we educate students in every aspect of the industry from footwear and accessories through styling and photography, buying and merchandising even to journalism and PR. Our 4,500 students reflect the seismic changes which have taken place across the industry itself.
The great social changes of the last century together with fashion industry developments like the sewing machine and the creation of department stores, have supported the democratisation of fashion. It has become central to how we express ourselves as individuals. Now everyone can buy fashionable clothes at a variety of prices, many of which are almost instant imitations of the most recent catwalk collections. They can be purchased or even personalised on line and bought in most major towns and cities.
Fashion is an inherent part of the media: from the broadsheets to the latest underground fanzine. Driven by celebrity, yet inherently creative, it imbues us with our sense of identity, making us feel as though we as individuals express the future.
While fashion has become democratised, so the media and technological developments which characterise the 21st century have supported fashion becoming a cornerstone of many world economies. The clothing industry is worth over $1 trillion worldwide and ranked the second biggest global economic activity for intensity of trade. Yet the pressures of climate change and ethical concerns about how goods have been produced, coupled with a growing realisation that consumption dominates too many lives means that many of us in fashion education are conscious that we have to rethink how we prepare our students for a complex industry.
I have started a debate in the College about how we help shape an industry to have a lasting future. One that minimises its effect on the environment; is built on great design; yet keeps at its essence fashion’s ability to bring real fun and joy to peoples lives. We want to combine the creativity, knowledge and enthusiasm of staff and students with the experience and latest developments in the industry. Higher Education institutions are the ideal catalysts for change, as they bring together key stakeholders and leading edge thinkers to inform, inspire and develop real solutions. For example, the “Wonderland” collaboration between the chemistry and fashion professors, Tony Ryan and Helen Storey has created the dissolving dress from polymer chemicals. Similarly, the ‘Shared Talent” project for which the College was granted a Green Gown award, allowed students from a variety of courses to travel to South Africa to work with women in a township outside Johannesburg to develop accessories to sell successfully in Western markets. These successful collaborations between education and industry help point to new ways of designing, manufacturing and disposing of fashion items to attract the consumer while limiting the impact on the environment.
Understanding how much more we could do, led us to establish a Centre for Sustainable Fashion to help guide both the College and industry in this crucial challenge. The Centre aims to spearhead debate, research and practice in this field. Since it was established it has collaborated with Oxfam, Tabeisa, Unilever, Arup, Defra, and the Indian government. It aims to work with all levels of the fashion industry to educate, innovate and create momentum for change by bringing together a range of experts to debate how we might future proof our industry, by making it responsive, adaptable, profitable and ultimately sustainable. We want to harness the power of creativity and design and use it to transform the way the industry approaches business by looking at the conceptual phase of designing products in order to remove the negative consequences of this industry and maximise the positive. We want to enlighten, excite, inspire and radicalise the future of fashion and hope that you will join us.
Image by Saida Bruce MA Fashion and Environment 2011