Kate Fletcher at WoW

Melanie Rickey talks Local Wisdom with Kate Fletcher at the WoW festival.

Melanie Rickey talks Local Wisdom with Kate Fletcher at the WoW festival.

Something we picked up a number of times over the last few days at the WoW festival was mention of making one’s own clothes. During her ‘in conversation’ with Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, Vivienne Westwood spoke of how she made her clothes as a teenager – having only enough money to buy shoes, she made frocks to go with them.

Then at another WoW event, CSF’s Dr. Kate Fletcher spoke to Melanie Rickey about her current work, framing it with an anecdote about how it was the norm for her that people made things, be that school uniforms or updating an old bicycle by covering it with a new skin, one made of stickers.

Growing up in Liverpool, her parents and most members of her community were makers and menders. This memory was not a nostalgic glance back in time to a better more simple life, anything but. Rather growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain meant Kate came to see that change was essential. This sense of community and engagement with things forms the backdrop to her ecological mindedness, an approach to both fashion and life that is deeply political, sustainable and optimistic.

During her talk Kate stressed the need for change, a move towards a deeper understanding of our fashion system and the materials that surround us. To contend with climate change, the exploitation of workers, our anxiety and pervasive messages of shop, shop, shop Kate reiterated the importance of a new and better way of doing things than is not simply about a purchase – “we keep buying more than eco-savings can deliver”.

Away from the narrative of consumption and shopping, fashion is free to be about creativity, ingenuity, once again about people and the personal. It is this new approach that Kate has been developing over five years through her Local Wisdom project. As she said on Sunday, her work is about designing future visions for fashion, and more than that, designing how we might live. Kate’s work focuses on the act of using clothes, giving us agency to think not just about clothes but about life too.

Encouraging us to step outside our current understanding of fashion, her work moves us away from a limiting understanding of fashion as a binary relationship between consumption and production. We have difficult questions to ask and to answer but that shouldn’t put us off, dissuade us from embracing the complexity of the world around us. In thinking about fashion in a way is acutely personal brings fashion very much into a political sphere, turning it into a political issue. The Local Wisdom project continues to seek out new ways of understanding and engages with the intrinsically political nature of our wardrobes.

At the end of the discussion Kate’s call to the audience was to be more materially minded rather than less. A surprising request you might think? But the materiality we were being asked to consider is a love of and a curiosity about the materials around us, the materials we wear. Because it’s important to remember that clothes are not just material objects, they are intertwined with our relationships with people, tools and means of communication.

To illustrate this Kate spoke of a dress – a white shift dress with pastel orange and pink polka dots – that belonged to Jean. So coveted is the dress between her three 3 daughters and 2 granddaughters that they now all share the dress and this requires communication and negotiation as to who might wear it/use it and when.

Kate was followed by Jacqueline Shaw, author of the African Fashion Guide speaking about the importance of recognising the stories and craftsmanship in African communities. Up next was Abigail Murray, founder of Designer Jumble who spoke of her appreciation and love of well-made, high-end designer items and the role of a designer as a commentator on the world around us. Finally, Carry Somers founder of Pachacuti urged the audience to get involved with Fashion Revolution Day, a movement asking “who made your clothes’ in commemoration of the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

At the end of the event the audience were asked to contribute to a manifesto for a more sustainable way to approach fashion. See what everyone came up with here.