Fashion, innovation, research and enterprise


The fashion industry has always thrived on new ideas – sometimes radical and paradigm–shifting, at other times, more incremental and evolutionary, yet it is now so much characterized by speed alone.  Fashion moves faster than most other industry sectors, but the mantra “fast, fast, fast, cheap, cheap, cheap, now, now, now” unfortunately sums up the current state of an amazingly complex and varied industry, to its detriment.  There is not one, but many and various business models, however it is not unusual to see emerging designer businesses having to compete with multiple retailers in finding suppliers and  manufacturers whilst trying to maintaining competitive edge and integrity of ideas. Add to this the imperative to consider sustainability issues of all kinds, the pressure is enormous on fledgling companies, as well as those who are more established.

The higher education sector in the UK is celebrated for its education of innovative graduates in fashion and textiles, not least the colleges of UAL. These graduates fuel the global industry with ideas and products, but much of the economic value ends up overseas.  Many brave souls venture to start up their own business but often emerge from the chrysalis of the college education system, briefly thrive like butterflies on publicity generated by their ideas, and then struggle to survive in the hard reality of fashion business. Many years ago, when I started my own company as a designer making unusual ‘designer’ knitwear, I experienced the struggle first hand.  Although communication technology has changed beyond recognition, many underlying problems are still the same – knowledge and access to support for manufacturing at the right scale, quality and price, business and financial advice and access to emerging and existing technology in order to experiment and test new ideas.

Last year, UAL was invited by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to develop a pilot project we have called FIREup (Fashion Innovation Research and Enterprise) that aims to support the designer fashion sector to unlock the potential of research collaboration and ‘knowledge exchange’ with universities. FIREup builds on the key research and enterprise centres and hubs across three of UAL’s colleges:  LCF, CSM and Chelsea, in a first cross – UAL research project.  These UAL research centres are the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, the Textile Futures Research Centre and the Socially Responsive Innovation hub within the Design Against Crime Research Centre.  Three enterprise hubs are already supporting the fashion industry and emerging businesses: these are the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) , the Designer-Manufacturer Innovation Service Centre (DISC) and the Fashion Digital Studio at LCF.

Research in and through the practice of fashion is relatively new to business thinking in the fashion sector, but I believe strongly that with closer integration between the knowledge held within the university (its research, academic expertise and industry understanding) and the needs of the time-poor designer fashion sector, more support can be generated for sustainable business growth. That is – business as usual is no longer possible, and new research and understanding will help develop new paradigms for this amazing industry that utilizes design and fashion thinking to its full extent,

Together , the FIREup team – myself , my co-investigators Prof Rebecca Earley (CCW) and Adam Thorpe (CSM) ,  Alex McIntosh from the CSF, our researchers Alina and Emily and our project manager Duska, are driving a fast and furious one- year-long agenda of events, workshops, interviews, projects and online platform development.  Watch this space for more news!


Prof Sandy Black,

Principal Investigator, FIREup

Project funding call and survey:   deadline 2nd July!