Q&A: Professor Helen Storey MBE RDI about Dress For Our Time

Photograph: John Ross One of the earliest pioneers in fashion-meets-science has been Professor Helen Storey MBE RDI, Professor of Fashion and Science at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, and Co-Director of The Helen Storey Foundation. For the past 15 years, the award-winning artist has been working with the symbiotic relationship between what we wear and how we came about, using the first to express complex ideas in the second. The first project was Primitive Streak (1997), which showed key events in human embryonic development through 27 startling dresses; the most recent was Dress of Glass and Flame (2013). Many of these projects are still touring and most are underpinned by ethical concerns. Last week, Professor Storey launched a powerful new campaign: Dress For Our Time aims to gather our thoughts and imagery about climate change through social media and use them as part of experimental digital content for a couture piece for the planet later this year. Get involved: www.dress4ourtime.org/#a-dress-for-our-time

Bel: You were one of the earliest to investigate the fashion and science … Helen: My heritage is fashion. My first job was with Valentino so it was high fashion. Then I came back here with my own label. In 1992, I started something called Second Life. In retrospect, you’d now call it upcycling but back then it was perceived as grunge and anti-designer. So I was ill-at-ease; I knew I wanted to do fashion but not in the way it was construed for us to do. Then, in 1997, I got this opportunity with the Wellcome Trust. This invitation, which came through my sister, a developmental biologist at Oxford, was to get artists and scientists together. Initially, it was quite scary to bring together something ubiquitous like fashion with something that, on the face of it is quite complex - but it also felt like there might be a new way for these two worlds to understand each other.

Bel: What’s the appeal of fashion? Helen: We have a vested interest in how we come across to other people; it’s that old paradigm our second skin is the language that helps us communicate who we are and who we’d like to attract. It’s really primal and, when it comes to big things like the environment and climate change, we need to be working with things that are instinctive to us. We’re hard-wired to have self-interest. And what’s been interesting in this recent foray into climate change work is, we need that [self-interest] more than ever. The things that are most difficult to articulate, understand and believe, need currencies that are easy to us as doorways.

Bel: And science? Helen: I’ve always had an interest in science, not in the academic sense but in a fascination in how things come to be and how they die away. In that sense, I’ve been working across the sciences now for 15 years.

Bel: Your first project was Primitive Streak … Helen: Yeah, and that’s still touring, so there’s something about that combination - with ‘where do we come from?’ ‘how did I get here?’ ‘What makes me me?’ - that everybody has an interest in, And, at the same time, how we inhabit that skin that expresses that through our lives, which is our clothes. I see [fashion and science] as fundamentally connected, but because of the way we educate, the holistic side of human imagination is driven out. Left to their own devices, people see connections through these things all the way.

Bel: We’re talking about boundaries - and I think of you as someone who breaks through boundaries. Helen: Not for its own sake, but I do often have a sense of what needs to be done. It’s partly a response to having had a really poor early education myself. I sometimes feel I retrospectively had to teach myself to learn. I’m not sure it’s as crude as that, but I have no expectations of what any particular subject will deliver. It’s just a curiosity about being alive - and that can manifest itself right across subjects. The big change between my fashion days and now is that the need for meaning and reason and purpose is as important as anything that was important to me back then.

Bel: Reason, meaning and purpose … Helen: If you look around us, whether within the fashion industry or outside, the world is asking us to behave differently and to evolve different aptitudes for living. We in the West are very privileged, certainly by comparison to the developing world – and climate change for me is the only question there is. What I’m trying to do now is work with it in a way where those two words aren’t actually mentioned, because they carry such a heavy stigma. It’s a bit like “sustainability”; it’s a word that’s lost its meaning before we’ve even got the job done.

Bel: There’s a lot of fear attached to climate change. Helen: There’s a fantastic science paper called The Dragons of Inaction [by Robert Gifford, University of Victoria]. They’re the twelve reasons why we, as a species, won’t go near climate change. They range from ‘technology will save us’ and ‘God will save us’ to ‘it’s not happening’, ‘it’s too complicated’, ‘no-one else is doing anything, why should I?’ And from interviewing people myself, the worst thing I’ve heard is, ‘well, everybody I know and love now will be dead by then, so I don’t care.’

Bel: Which precludes grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Helen: It does, yes. We’ve talked a little bit about that, that inability to have empathy for those yet to be born. Again, that’s partly hard-wiring. And that’s where the evolving of us is required, where the Other becomes as important as we are.

Bel: Collaborations seem important in your work. Helen: When collaborations work, you both end up with something better than either of you could have imagined. You’re exercising all sorts of things – what you think you know, what you prefer to believe. And when you find something more important than both of you, something worth being in service to - whether that's a cure for something or changing something in society - and you bring those two very different skill bases together, all those things are far more possible in collaboration than they are on your own. [It’s about finding the right person] — and, by the ‘right’, I mean somebody with similar life motivations, not (as in my case) whether they’ve got more A-Levels. There’s something about being able to ask a question that might feel naïve but not have it received as if it was. That builds an incredibly powerful feeling. That’s the bit about collaboration I enjoy the most, having something worth solving, and then people who are willing to be intellectually vulnerable and open to what the right answer might be.

Bel: You’ve talked about the importance of releasing ego … Helen: If one tries to release one’s ego, it requires effort and is largely a fruitless task. But there’s something about working at a very creative level with an 'other' that frees you up from yourself in an effortless way.

Bel: Do you have a project that still resonates with you? Helen: Primitive States was the first project of its kind, bringing together biology and frocks, that the Wellcome Trust had funded. Because it had no precedent, they were open to what it could be. And then they backed it again in 2010 and I worked on another piece for it.  And I’m doing a new commission for them now, which is going to go into the very wonderful space called the Reading Room, at the Wellcome Trust on Euston Road. And, only this morning, I realised I’m still quite proud of the first Primitive Streak we did, in so much as it survived a period of not knowing what the hell we were doing. In this project, I’m moving slightly away from the educational side – as in, how can I open it up for other people – to the freedom of ‘what does science make me feel?’ It’s a completely different kind of starting point that I may not have had confidence to pursue before.

Bel: Yes, feeling can turn something that was ‘over there’ into something directly relevant to us. Helen: When it works, it’s both. Hence, fashion and science. If you think of science as everything that (as best we know it) exists and of art, as how we experience our humanity, putting those two things together, you’ve got something closer to who we are holistically.

Bel: Tell me about Dress for Our Time. Helen: At the beginning of 2014, I had a meeting at the Groucho Club. I’d asked climate scientists at the MET Office to come up and say in 10 minutes how they saw the future. And I asked some people that helped write the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to do the same. And a researcher who had been commissioned by a global research agency to look at how we as a species are - or aren’t - responding to the notion of climate change, and why.  There were about 15 of us around the table. They’d never met each other before and they each did their 10 minutes. At the end, we all went very quiet, and we didn’t say anything and  we had a glass of wine and we went home. And I couldn’t sleep. Then, slowly over the next two or three days, I started getting texts and emails and phone calls saying, ‘did you hear a date?’ And I said, I did - and it’s changed everything since then. What those people had to say collectively, we’ve all heard differently before, in different ways, but there was something about that moment, with that combination of people – and the lack of reaction.And I don’t think the lack of reaction was not having heard it, it was not knowing how the hell to process it. And so a team of us emerged out of that, and they’re the team that are the backbone to this project.

Bel: What was the date? Helen: 2020. 2020 is our tipping point.

A Dress for Our Time.

Bel: What came out of the talk? Helen: That, sometimes, when things are too big to process, you have to hang out in that space and then you realize it isn’t about finding answers so much as asking the right questions. Out of that meeting came three questions. The first is to do with reciprocity: how can we act with those we consider to be our enemies? The second question is around freedom, being able to treat what we know and don’t know with the same sort of value and attention. The last is how you engage with all this with authenticity and optimism, even if you feel paralysed by the nature of what you know. Rather than be the evangelist who just says ‘it’s awful,’ you need to help people see themselves in the problem. That’s the role I think arts and culture and fashion can play. We’ve partnered with the MET Office and their scientists were recognising that I’ve worked with some of the difficult stuff in the world, within the complexity of science, things like air pollution, and the dissolving dresses was an alternative way to talk about dwindling materials – and they were saying 'we know everything about climate change, but we have no idea how to talk to people about it. They see us as the science of doom. We need to find a way to have conversations about living now, what it means to be human, with all that we know.’ And so that’s my role, to come up with different activities, to find ways to get people simply to be in relationship with it.

Bel: 2020 is five years away. Helen: Yes it is.

Bel: Is there a part of you that wants to get it out there as quickly as possible? Helen: Yes. It’s beyond being in service to it. We have X amount of years on this planet individually and this is how I want to spend them. Whether it works or not. When I have this conversation, I experience one of two things: either someone who says, ‘I’m with you’, and they stand up and, whatever their contribution is, they find a way of being a part of it. Or they leave. Often, it’s as if I turned up early to talk about their funeral. So the first job is to find a way to not trigger defensiveness but to use awe and wonder and humour and nature, all the things we feel fed by, not the things we feel fearful of.

Bel: Five years isn’t long. Helen: Yeah. The detail of those five years though is, we experience it as happening over there, it’s already happening over there, but it won’t happen here for 50 or 100 years. It depends where you live. But I don’t think that’s a good reason for those with the greatest power to do something to wait until it’s on their doorstep, because then it’s too late. This is what part of our evolving is. We have to exercise the part of ourselves that can bear this news and do something about it.

Bel: Yes. Because our children will have to live through it. Helen: I know, I know. I realised that, although I was sitting in an academic institution, I couldn’t wait a year to get it funded or not, or get it approved. So I’m going a bit rogue. I spoke to Frances Corner, head of our London College of Fashion and told her ‘there is only one subject for me now and would you let me devote all my time to it?’ and she has been immensely supportive. The first job was to make something we could share the thinking with, so we made a film by my hijacking an afternoon on the third day of a two-day shoot for another project. The theme tune comes from a girl I heard busking in King’s Cross. I was coming down the steps one Sunday with my son who’s in the music business and there were five people missing their trains, listening to her, in tears, and I thought, ‘she’s the theme tune’.

Bel: It’s haunting. Helen: That was what she could do. And it will happen in other ways. All I’ve managed to do so far is create a web presence and a mock-up of a frock. We harvested the world of all the imagery that was happening as we were making the film in real time, with climate change, and we flowed it over the dress. I spent a year talking to fashion tech people about the next step that would be worthy of a global installation, a heavyweight art piece. There is a huge sense of urgency and I need to move very fast. The next thing we’re doing is working on a social media campaign and working with people with large followings, as an experiment in up scaling awareness fast.

Bel: Who are you working with for this campaign? Helen: Louise Teasdale, One Direction’s hair stylist … She’s got two million followers, but she’s also got a young daughter, so she knows this future is coming, and she wants to find a way of bringing us to that fanbase. Her followers are the next generation. The current project, ‘Look Mum, No Future’ is based around nostalgia, asking mums how they would like life to be for their children.

Helen Storey with her father. Photographer John Haynes.

Bel: What can the individual do now? Helen: It depends on where in life you find yourself. One of the reasons I’m able to concentrate on this is that my young one is now 29 and I have enough energy and sense of what needs to be done to devote all my time to it. Most people say ‘give me the list of things to do’. Those lists exist - recycle, wash at 30 degrees, all those things - but I think the requirement is to enter the ring in a new way. Be part of it. Stay alert to what’s going on. And when you see something in your own life that contribute, do it.

Bel: So it’s about understanding? Helen: I think it’s as much about empathy and helping others as it is about all those practical things. We’re all pixels and it is the upscaling of all those pixels that makes a difference, not the single individual. And that is the bit of a leap of faith one has to take. Because the instinct is, ‘what difference is it going to make if I do anything? This is too big.’ But if hundreds of thousands of people do one thing … one of the jobs our project has to do is to show what happens when you upscale, when you experience life as connected to others.