LONDON — Professor Dilys Williams has a few tales to tell about the leaps that fashion has made since the Nineties, when she first started working in the industry, as a designer for Whistles, Liberty and Katharine Hamnett.
“I used to go to the fabric shows with Katharine and ask for organic cotton, and people would sort of laugh at me and say: ‘Well, cotton is organic, it’s a plant,” Williams said with a big laugh, adding that in the Eighties and Nineties, the whole sustainability in fashion conversation was riding on the back of the punk movement. “It was quite political and antiestablishment,” she said in an interview.
Not anymore: Classes are oversubscribed and students are asking more nuanced questions about sustainability at London College of Fashion, where Williams teaches and where, in 2008, she founded the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, a research hub that’s been leading and shaping the debate around environmental issues. CSF already has a five-year deal with Kering to support sustainable practices and innovation in the fashion industry, and on Tuesday, the two partners will unveil the details of a new initiative, the world’s first open-access digital course dedicated to sustainability and luxury fashion.
Here, Williams talks about the challenges the industry still faces, CSF’s role in the upcoming “Fashioned From Nature” show at the V&A and why she’s loving her new Veja sneakers.
WWD: How far has the industry come since you founded CSF a decade ago?
Dilys Williams: Most of the conversations in 2008 were about choices around materials, and asking how to make better decisions about the things we selected to use for collections. Today I don’t think there are very many people who are working in fashion who don’t know that it’s implicated in climate change issues and social injustice. So we’ve gone from a few people saying things loudly to everybody knowing something. We’ve moved a long way, nearly every business we work with, a lot of students, a lot of courses talk about something to do with sustainability.
WWD: How much more work needs to be done?
D.W.: We have got to this point where it’s almost like certain words have been hijacked, the word “radical,” the word “transformation.” Everybody is using these words and it’s a bit like the word luxury — it gets passed around. Also, that whole idea around organic being not dyed and only coming in a gray state or in beige — we haven’t completely gotten over that. We still get people going: “Oh, well you know, sustainability is a bit, you know, boring.” The good thing is that everybody is aware, but the concern I have is that the idea of sustainability has been watered down and everybody thinks that they’re doing their bit and that tweaking things at the edges is enough. That said, big businesses can’t completely change overnight and we are working within a capitalist system.
WWD: How have the students’ attitudes changed over the past decade?
D.W.: There has been a huge shift. At London College of Fashion, we used to have a few students who were really passionate, whereas now the courses that we run are oversubscribed. Ten years ago, students were coming in and going, “How can I find a sustainable material? Just tell me what to use. I’m kind of interested in this.” Whereas now the questions and the conversations and the thoughts that come up are really much more philosophical. It’s kind of like “What the f–k are we doing?” We’ve got these issues to do with climate change, we’re involved in an industry where people are in modern-day slavery, and what does that mean about our cultures? Students are coming from different backgrounds and you get into a debate that gets quite heated. It’s a much more engaged debate, that students are coming in with a whole deeper level of understanding of the wider political, social, cultural issues as well as thinking, “We’ve got a problem with the amount of water that is used in making jeans.”
WWD: You’ve been working closely with the Victoria & Albert Museum on the upcoming show “Fashioned from Nature,” which aims to trace the relationship between fashion and the natural world since 1600. Can you talk about it?
D.W.: We’ve put together five items that everybody would recognize even if they don’t wear them: A T-shirt, a pair of jeans, a trainer, a nylon bag and a wrap dress, and looked at them from different levels of the market. We’ve turned each of them inside out: You see this lovely pair of jeans, and then you see what goes on in the creation of the jeans. For the dress, we’ve got this long receipt that tells you the price — and all the costs to the environment. There’s a message with each of them, about reduced consumption, or looking after things better or about asking questions when you buy something.
WWD: What about the other parts of the show?
D.W.: We looked at four potential scenarios of what the world might look like in 2030, and what fashion might look like, and we are going to make that into four short films and ask people questions about their aspirations for fashion because ultimately the future is what we want it to be. It will be interesting because every visitor will be asked to fill in a little questionnaire and we’ll collect the data, so by the end of the exhibition we’ll be able to take the temperature of what the public really cares about and thinks about. (The show runs from April 21 to Jan. 27, 2019)
WWD: How do you square the need for less stuff, that’s more ethically produced, with the seasonal demands of fashion and designers’ need to build businesses?
D.W.: It’s a great design challenge: Everybody wants excitement, but how can we have excitement without it being about more stuff? How can we enjoy what we’ve got for longer? How can we celebrate the stuff that already exists? At the same time, wearing different things is part of what fashion is about, so it’s a huge challenge but it’s also an amazing opportunity. It is the most exciting time to be a designer. There needs to be a bigger rethink of what fashion is.
WWD: Do you practice what you preach? What do you wear? How do you shop?
D.W.: I’m not a Mango or an H&M person. I think if you don’t go into those stores and if you don’t look at that stuff then actually you kind of automatically dress differently and think differently with what you’ve got. I’m also 52 now, and I’ve worked out what works for me and maybe I’m a bit more confident in my wardrobe as well. I’ve got a couple of garments that are 30 years old, which I love and make me feel like I’m “me.” I do find that I delight in having fewer pieces that are exciting to me and well-made and I love the designers who have made them. But I also know that it’s easier for me at my age to say that. I’ve got a pair of Veja trainers and I love them, but I chose those because I think what they’re doing is great and brave and it was bloody hard for them to work out how they could use the rubber that they used and source the leather that they used. I’d prefer to put my money toward someone who’s been brave.