art-science pioneer helen storey's radical fashion manifesto

She designed for Valentino in the 80s, upcycled rubbish into couture in the 90s and is tackling climate change head-on in the here and now; Professor Helen Storey is leading the fashion revolution.

by Charlotte Gush
13 May 2015, 1:45pm

Helen Storey with Cath Walsh, Kingston Uni Bar c.1980

"Destroy something beautiful" - it's not the kind of advice you hear every day, and it is even more unusual from a trailblazer of fashion, an industry that ultimately strives to create beauty. But as interviewer and erstwhile i-D fashion editor Caryn Franklin said at the start of a sweeping retrospective of the designer, artist, alchemist and activist's career: "This is not your average professorial platform; Helen Storey is not your average professor".

Having started her career in fashion as a designer for Valentino in the 80s, Helen Storey built her own fashion brand in London in the 90s before going bust, reassessing her priorities and taking on what she considers to be the singular issue of our age - climate change - as an academic at London College of Fashion. If destroying something beautiful can make vivid the devastating environmental crisis, then that is a price creatives must be willing to pay. Here are five notes from Professor Storey's radical fashion manifesto...

Helen Storey's dissolving polymer dress by Nick Knight

Destroy something beautiful

In 2007, Storey created a dissolving dress in partnership with Professor Tony Ryan, a leading chemist from Sheffield University. The dress took weeks to make - designers toiled over the pattern so that its colors would chase each other in the water in a "ballet of biology" - but it took only 15 seconds to dissolve completely, leaving no trace. It was a powerful statement about consumption, waste and the scarcity of resources.

"You can't talk about disaster to people, but you can if you use beauty," says Storey, explaining that some of the things that are happening to our planet we cannot see, and the people who are in a position to do something about it cannot feel. To them, climate change is something that happens on TV, to other people, far away. But destroying something beautiful in front of their eyes can be a powerful way to make them feel it."

'Selfie' by Helen and Sophie c.1975

We can bounce forward from trauma and defeat

"You're prepared to risk more when you've lost almost everything," Storey muses while recounting the absurdity of her situation when, after her fashion label of 10 years went bust, people were asking for her autograph in the dole line. It's hard to imagine when you consider the incredible scope of her career, but Storey did not have an easy ride. Achieving just one O-level (the old name for GCSEs), she just managed to get on to the art foundation course at Kingston, where she was kicked out of sculpture because her molds broke and glued everyone else's work together, leading her into the fashion class instead.

On a global scale, Storey says the horror of the Rana Plaza disaster--the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed over a thousand workers--has made the true cost of our consumption vivid even to the average person on the street, kick starting a movement to end unsafe and unfair working conditions.

Erin O'Connor wears Helen Storey's "Catalytic Clothing" air purifying dress

Radicalize what you already own

Making everyone buy expensive new stuff is clearly not the answer to climate change, Storey explains while describing perhaps her most incredible creation yet: clothes that remove the pollution from the air. With long-time collaborator Tony Ryan, Storey created a dress that purifies the air as the wearer moves through it. First designed as a not-very-comfortable evening gown sprayed with "pearls of concrete" on the inside, which scratched model Erin O'Connor to pieces, Storey reformulated the active ingredients into a washing power that can be used on the clothes we already own, turning us into walking pollution neutralizers. This potentially revolutionary invention has made its way into the research and development department at "one of the biggest laundry brands in the world," so watch this space.

Light My Fire: A Sensory Experience with Prof. Helen Storey and Caryn Franklin at London College of Fashion

Create a sensory experience to get your message across

"Do take off your shoes and walk along the grass," visitors were encouraged on arrival at the London College of Fashion lecture theater that housed Storey's professorial platform. Soundscapes ranging from birds singing to waves crashing and the wind blowing were used along with scent-scapes created specially by Givaudan, to produce a "sensory experience" that would allow attendees to fully take in Storey's message. Apparently, sensory stimulation helps us to retain information; it's not just what you say, or how you say it, but what it looks, sounds and smells like that can make knowledge stick in the mind.

Helen Storey's social media-powered Dress for Our Time

We are all going to have to live like artists

Work blends with life; day blends with night; the digital blends with the tangible -and this is a good thing. Storey learned at a young age from her writer father that creativity is all consuming and we need to be completely consumed by the problems of our age in order to find the solutions the planet so desperately needs. But Storey is optimistic; "the answer is within us," she tells an audience of rapt students, academics and industry. Despite a Conservative government that is set to make swinging cuts to both science funding and the arts, "we have to think and live beyond politics… as an individual, you have to follow what you believe to be right - you have to find out what it is that you can offer".


Images courtesy of Helen Storey and London College of Fashion.

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