Fashioned from Nature at the V&A is the first UK exhibition to explore the complex relationship between fashion and nature and its impact on the environment. Dilys Williams, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) speaks to Wilma about her role as special advisor for the exhibition. Based at London College of Fashion, the centre celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and has been a key player in the global conversation around sustainable fashion.
Wilma: How did you get involved in the exhibition and what was your approach?
Dilys: Curator Edwina Ehrman had a clear vision for an exhibition that looked at our relationship with nature through the lens of fashion, rather than purely a fashion exhibition. She’s an historian so in her own words was living in the past looking at the 17th and 18th century and absolutely in her element. She reached out to me and I came in as the 20th, 21st century girl! Together we wanted to articulate concerns on climate change through the medium of fashion. For the V&A, I think it was quite a radical approach.
What one message did you hope to convey to visitors?
That it’s up to us all. I sometimes do public talks and everyone wants a ten-point list. They ask: ‘Who should I shop with? What materials should I use?’ We wanted to show that it’s not about someone dictating what to do; it’s about making responsible decisions based on the information you have. It’s not simply about buying the hemp t-shirt. It’s about how you wash the garment you buy, how you wear it and eventually dispose of it.
Once you delve into it, you start to think about fashion’s relationship to social justice, economics and politics. Fashion is implicated in so many things. With the exhibition we wanted to introduce a political angle with a small ‘p’ and encourage visitors to ask themselves: ‘What do I care about and what do I value?’
Sustainable fashion has had a reputation for being responsibly produced but lacking in style. What do you think helped push it into the mainstream?
I’ve been thinking about this too. 15-20 years ago, there were a lot of well-meaning people and organisations that understood the problems with fashion. However, the solution that was produced or offered was not very aesthetically pleasing and the quality was rubbish. But that perception that has taken so long to shrug off.
Katherine Hamnett was the one of the first designers to cross over because she talked about how she is a sustainability-led designer. She speaks out about environmental justice and social issues but wants to make fabulous clothes too. Lots of small designers are also doing it. Big brands do have a place in making issues more visible but I don’t think they are necessarily the reason for the shift. They’re only one part of what’s making sustainable fashion aesthetically stronger, but do these things help or potentially hinder? I don’t have the answer but internally we talk about the H&M Conscious Collection, for example and question whether it helps sustainability or simply makes people think that’s all they need to do.
There can also be an affordability issue when you put ‘sustainable’ in front of anything.
I’m wary here as it’s easy for me to say ‘buy secondhand’ because I’m privileged enough to look at buying secondhand clothing as a choice, while for some people it isn’t. However, the expectation of always wanting something new is also not the only way fashion can be. The concept of ‘fast fashion’ has only been around for 20 years, when Zara’s ‘just-in-time’ production model inspired the term.
Clothes-swapping sites like Depop are another way to consider ideas around sustainability that aren’t about buying less or better; but something that is more culturally led.
We wanted to introduce a political angle and encourage visitors to ask themselves "what do I value?"
What are your thoughts on new materials?
I think we absolutely need greater diversity in our fabrics. Most fashion (and I estimate here) is roughly 40% is cotton, 40% is polyester, 5% is wool, 3% silk, then maybe 0.5% of other materials. Diversity is important to take the pressure off the current materials we use. Monocrops are not the way forward. For example, the idea of using waste from the food industry like pineapple pulp is great but it’s part of the solution, not the entire solution. There’s also the danger that if everyone were to suddenly turn around and use pineapple pulp for fabrics, it might become like the avocado situation, which causes a sustainability problem in itself.
You’ve recently been made co-secretariat of The House of Lords All Party Parliamentary Group on Fashion, Sustainability and Ethics. How has that experience been?
It’s interesting because the all-party parliamentary groups are a way to bring together ideas and thoughts you can turn into legislation. We looked at lots of issues that relate to social, environmental and economic development. We chose the Modern Slavery Act as it spans industries and we’re working on an amendment to make it even more rigorous. People assume that modern day slavery is happening on the other side of the world, but it’s not. It’s happening here.
Imagery from top to bottom, left to right:
Greenpeace Detox Catwalk in Bandung © Greenpeace, Hati Kecil Visuals
Embroidered silk waistcoat, France, c 1780-9. Image Vee Speers © V&A
Portrait of Dilys Williams, Anjana Janardhan for Wilma
Woven silk train for an evening dress, c. 1897-1905. Image Vee Speers © V&A
Ensemble, Stella McCartney, Winter 2017 © Stella McCartney
Pair of earrings, heads of Blue Creepers, c 1875 © V&A
An Ethical Education
Fashioned from Nature
Dates: Until 27th January 2019