At the end of November Helen Storey, Professor of Fashion and Science at the University of the Arts, received the honor of Royal Designer for Industry from the Royal Society of Arts, "for pushing the boundaries of fashion and design and making challenging scientific concepts accessible to the public."
In her honour it wouldn't be a bad idea to reread (or read for the first time, if you've never done so) her book Fighting Fashion. Published in 1996 by Faber and Faber, the book is a honest account written by a woman, wife and mother working in the fashion industry and facing many life challenges.
The book starts with Storey recounting her childhood years and her early fashion experiments as a teenager in nightclubs. After graduating from Kingston Polytechnic, Storey moved in the early '80s to Italy where fashion thrived and where she trained at Valentino and Lancetti.
Back in the UK she moved with Bellville Sassoon before founding her own label and launching successful collections, at times supported by strong sponsors including BP and YKK.
Storey created collections inspired by Nijinski, Fortuny and Greek vases; looking at some of the pictures in the book, it is easy to rediscover some of her original inspiration in later designers including Alexander McQueen and Gareth Pugh - think about Storey's warrior or primitive women, her bum revealing dress, her moulded rubber and silk crepe dress, her bin liner gown designed in 1991 (think about McQueen's bin bag dresses from his A/W 2009 collection and Pugh's trash bag gowns from his A/W 2013 collection) or model Susie Bick impersonating Death, carrying a stick and wearing a black velvet bias-cut coat with a long tail and raven black and oil green feathers curving up to hide her face.
Through her designs Storey tried to address several issues: in the finale for her "Angelheart" (A/W 1993) collection she used ten vintage patterns from couture masters of the past but made the designs with very cheap cloth, to show how beautiful clothes need not cost a fortune.
Her final collection, "Edith's Sisters" (A/W 95), showcased in an underground tunnel in South Kensington, brought her the realisation that catwalks "are not right any more". After it Storey's company - that had heroically managed to live through her husband's illness, recounted in a very moving and tender way - went into receivership.
This slim but intense volume is worth re-reading as it can help us making comparisons between things that have completely changed in the fashion industry and things that are still the same.
For example, since Storey wrote her book the perceptions about British designers have definitely changed, while the Italian fashion scene declined. Storey also highlighted how the lack of knowledge in brand-building and the fact that fashion businesses weren't forged through long-term partnerships often led to the sad end of many fashion houses and creative ventures.
You could argue that things have changed as more people know what it means to build your own brand at the moment, while new powers have rose on the horizon, including huge conglomerates buying brands and fashion houses or investing in young talents (we will only see the benefits and damages the conglomerates are causing now in a few years' time...) and High Street retailers flooding the market with cheap clothes and fast fashion that are mainly produced by exploiting the workforce in Asian countries.
Besides, the catwalk was the only fast and cheap way to get your images across the world when Storey was writing, but now it's the Internet.
Yet there are points that Storey made in her book that never changed: she claimed for example that fashion was treated at editorial level "as one would a seasonal beauty contest", which meant that important debate was ignored. She also compared the process through which young British designers went through to that of stone-washing in which garments are thrown into a machine with stones, grit, chemicals and water.
Sadly, talking about fashion in a serious way is still not that popular and we all know that many young designers do not manage to last more than a few seasons because of stress, fast rhythms, lack of investments and cash flow and the disgusting habit of the media to constantly look for the next big thing and not allow a designer to grow up and develop (think about the game of musical chairs that starts every time a designer leaves a label/fashion house after just one/two seasons and another one arrives with more promises and expectations...).
Storey had actually managed to foresee the future in some parts of the book: at one point she claimed "we should be working towards a seasonless year with drops of ranges throughout to commercially cushion the environmental and economic changes which surround us". A seasonless year in fashion doesn't exist yet, but it is something we should seriously consider to let the planet, the fashion industry and many designers take a rest and breathe a little bit.
In another part of her book she called for a hybridisation of disciplines and cross-fertilisation between cultures, pointing towards a collaboration between fashion and science that she developed in more recent years in her own projects, creating an innovative language in which fashion dialogues with science and art. In her collection "Primitive Streak" (1997) Storey collaborated for example with her sister, Professor Kate Storey, a developmental biologist at Oxford University, to create a fashion collection chronicling the first 1,000 hours of human embryonic development. Two years ago her experiments with scientist Tony Ryan led Storey to the "Catalytic Clothing" project, focused on reducing air pollution using nanotechnology applied through the laundry process.
There is one last point Storey made towards the end of the book when she wondered "why don't we train buyers, merchandisers and pattern-cutters on the same scale as we do designers?" The question remains open and hopefully Storey will write one day a new book chronicling her more recent projects and showing us a path towards the future of fashion as well. Till then you can still reread and get inspired by Fighting Fashion.
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