Reflections on the Journey of Fashion and Sustainability

Image Credit: Here Today Here Tomorrow

Image Credit: Here Today Here Tomorrow

This year is the ten year anniversary of Centre for Sustainable Fashion. A milestone that is particularly meaningful to me, as it marks the time I enrolled on the inaugural year of the MA Fashion and Environment, now known as Fashion Futures, at LCF. Sometimes it is only with hindsight and reflection that we can truly appreciate pivotal moments in our lives, but I believe I knew then that I was involved in something extraordinary.

I had just completed a BA in Product Design and Development for the Fashion Industries, specialising in accessory design, also at LCF. A placement year in industry had somewhat painfully opened my eyes to the realities of the fashion system, its wasteful, superficial and exploitative nature, that until that moment I had somehow been blithely and naively ignorant. I graduated in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I was disillusioned with the industry that I had spent four years training to enter, and there were no jobs available even if I had wanted to start a career in fashion.

At this time the theories and concepts of sustainability and fashion, although existing, were very much on the fringes of fashion education. It was through my own self-initiated research, and with the guidance of one or two wonderful and supportive tutors, that I had started to develop a sustainable approach to my own creative practice during my BA. So it was fortuitous that at this time in my life, with a desire to know more and to carve out an alternative and more meaningful route that was not currently on offer in the existing fashion industry, that the Centre for Sustainable Fashion was established and the MA Fashion and the Environment was launched.

Of all the experiences gained through that course, what stays with me the most is the incredible bond that formed very quickly between the cohort. Coming from different backgrounds and areas of study, from different parts of the world and different stages of life, this group of people, many of whom are still close friends, became indispensable as we explored unknown territory and were pushed to new limits of our own learning and practice, often occupying spaces that were not quite comfortable. As is often the case with important life experiences there were moments of elation and moments of despair – but together we navigated this unique educational experience, supporting and inspiring each other throughout.

During the Masters we were in an environment that encouraged us to critique and challenge a well-established and highly problematic system, to imagine something better. But after graduation reality loomed large. I needed to work, I needed money to survive. How could I compromise on the values I held so high, and enter an industry that was so slow to change? Luckily I wasn’t the only one in the group I studied with who felt the same. Four of us came together and decided to set up a collective and public creative space, where we could collaborate and continue to work in a progressive and experimental way, this was the start of Here Today Here Tomorrow.

For 6 years we had a small retail unit in Dalston that was a hub for collaborative endeavour and a space for creative freedom, open to anyone to interact with. Although we didn’t frame what we were doing at the time in terms of an alternative business model, looking back it is clear that is what we were doing, that we were attempting to engage with fashion beyond the act of transaction. By having a dual commercial and creative space – a shop/studio – our idea, quite simply, was to be transparent to the local passer-by about what we were doing, how and why. If we were making a garment customers could see the materials, tools and time that went into that.

From here we wanted to develop something that was more scalable, and so started our own fair trade knitwear and accessories label, working with a producer group in Nepal. This brand continues today, and our collections are stocked in boutiques across Europe. For us, the value and meaning behind this brand is not just the product, but the makers. The livelihoods that we support in Nepal, the brilliant women there that bring the designs to life. This group endeavour continues to evolve, develop and grow as indeed each of us do.

Now I am starting a new chapter of this journey, returning to LCF as Lecturer in Fashion and Sustainability for the School of Design and Technology. The creation of this new role recognises how critical sustainability is in fashion education. It is a necessity that students build an understanding of the wide-ranging and complex issues that face the industry, and also that they are equipped with the skills and mindsets that will enable them to be changemakers in fashion and beyond. At the 10 year anniversary of CSF the imperative for embedding this into the curriculum is more important than ever.

Education plays a crucial role in shaping the fashion industry of the future. On the one hand it can be a space to work in collaboration and cooperation with businesses, as has been brilliantly exemplified by the Kering partnership of the past 4 years. But universities can (and should) also allow students the capacity to critique existing systems and interrogate modes of fashion that extend beyond the commercial sphere as we currently know it, thus contributing to our vision of an environmentally and socially equitable society.

The milestone of CSF’s 10 year anniversary allows us to reflect on the last decade, and I am determined to focus on the positive. We have seen awareness and action around sustainability, across all industries and walks of life, gain momentum at rapidly increasing rates, the issues are no longer dismissed as a fad or passing trend as was often the case years ago, and as a new generation of creative practitioners are educated and empowered to instigate change we have every reason to feel optimistic. I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years bring.

By Julia Crew