Our relationship with our clothes has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades; somehow we have fallen into a monotonous cycle of shopping, stockpiling and then periodically binning our clothes rather than cherishing, valuing and loving them. Aside from the sad thought that many of the items we initially loved so much now aren’t guaranteed to see the light of day, the fact remains that in the UK alone, we are still sending around 350,000 tonnes of clothes to landfill every year.
We have a serious waste problem that affects our community, our economy and our environment. It’s not just the physical waste – the piles of clothes in landfill sites around the country failing to biodegrade but the precious resources that have given our clothes life: the water, the energy, the labour, the time and the money, that are wasted too. It is clear that this cycle needs to change and this transformation will come in the large part through the way our culture values clothes. Clothes Well Lived is a CSF curicculum project that sets out to do just this – challenge our perception of the value and worth of our clothes. In collaboration with second year students from LCF’s Creative Direction for Fashion course and high street retailer, H&M, we set out to kick-start a move from a throw-away culture to a preservation culture.
The preservation of our clothes is vital to the preservation of our industry and there are various approaches in doing so, from the technological to the cultural. Currently companies like H&M and Kering, along with Worn Again, are working to develop a chemical recycling technology, which will ‘close the loop’ of the system, so to speak, creating a future where end of life clothes and textiles are collected, processed and made back into new yarn, and ultimately new clothes, over and over again – a system referred to as the circular economy. There is no doubt circularity will play an important role in future design, allowing us to rely less on raw materials, and ultimately letting our planet resurge. However, for it to truly work in practice, we must go one step beyond the chemical solution and start thinking about what the cultural solutions could be too.
Without a change in mindsets and a shift in behaviours, no new technology or economic model will have the impact we need it to have – we all must all be engaged for new solutions to work from the high-end to the high street. This brings me back to the brief set for students for the Clothes Well Lived project: using recycled clothing and textiles, create a thought provoking window installation, which challenges our existing culture and engages the public to think more deeply about the extended life and value of our clothes. Simple right?
Working collaboratively in groups, 70 Creative Direction students were engaged with the brief – many addressing design for sustainability in their work for the first time. 14 groups, 7 windows and 7 cities: London, Brighton, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin, each group worked together to explore communication design and to deliver a concept that will speak to millions of people across the UK. Much thought was given to the window, this enclosed but highly visible space, within a shop, within a street, within a city. Shop windows are part of the visual landscape of our high streets, telling stories of our towns and cities, and since fashion has the potential to shape and reflect our society the question for each group became – what do we want our window to say about the city, about society, about sustainability?
The city became the context for research and design development, as groups thought carefully about the people who would pass their window and what might possibly hold their gaze long enough to capture their imagination.
One of the most memorable moments of this project, was a trip to a warehouse where students were able to see just how much clothing is collected by H&M from London in the space of a week (this is the stuff that doesn’t end up in landfill!). Dumbfounded probably best sums up their reactions. The piles were overwhelming, but to see first hand the things which are discarded everyday is life-changing for any designer – digging through they uncovered everything from the expected tatty rags with stains and holes, the unexpected designer pieces that had been washed and pressed, and the down right weird which did happen to include a certain vibrating object. But perhaps the most significant sight was the number of pieces, which still had price tags (and not all of them as cheap as you might think), this was a hard reality check for a group of young people dedicating their time and money to the study of fashion.
I can’t say this project has been an easy task. Sustainability is a challenge for a reason. It is hard, confusing, and contradictory. As you can imagine there have been questions, lots of questions, and unfortunately we cannot always offer concrete answers. But it has been incredible to see the personal journey each group has taken and this has been reflected in the final outcomes. Each group thought creatively and deeply about the complex challenges before them, and for 7 groups their ideas will be displayed in windows across the country during Fashion Recycling Week 2015. These students have grasped the opportunity to intervene in fashion spaces to disrupt our everyday shopping habits, to challenge our cultural values and to capture our imaginations.
You can see the installations during Fashion Recycling Week, beginning August 31 at the following H&M Stores:
London – 174 Oxford Street W1N 0EE
Brighton – Churchill Square Shopping Centre BN1 2TA
Birmingham – Bullring Shopping Centre B5 4BF
Leeds – Leeds Shopping Plaza LS1 5ER
Manchester – 68 Market Street M1 1PN
Edinburgh – 41 Princes Street EH2 2BY
Dublin – 35 South King Street D2
Stay tuned for more on each installation closer to their unveiling!