Can fashion improve lives?

A couple of weeks ago, as part of my induction into the Graduate School at London College of Fashion, I attended a debate entitled “Can Fashion Improve Lives?” The discussion panel included: Frances Corner (Head of London College of Fashion), Caryn Franklin (Visiting Fellow at LCF, fashion activist and founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk), Susan Postlethwaite (Course Leader MA Fashion and the Environment) and Timothy Long (MA History and Culture of Fashion student and curator of the costume collection at the Chicago History Museum). Because “Better Lives” is the mission statement for London College of Fashion, the aim was for the panel to debate if and how the fashion industry might improve the quality of people’s lives – for example by building self esteem, challenging stereotypes and improving working conditions in the industry. The focus was going to be on challenging common presumptions about the fashion industry and so I was very interested to hear what everyone had to say.

Professor Frances Corner kicked things off by telling us that “fashion can be used to make a difference to the world we live in”. She reminded us that we have a responsibility – to the designer, clothing workers and the resources used – to make sure people are responsible for what they buy. Clothes used to be rare, exclusive and valued – so expensive that they were passed down to the next generation. Timothy Long mentioned that all clothing is a piece of history and all items have a story to tell. He commented on how connected everyone is to fashion. It helps us to look at who we are, where we came from and where we are going to.

Caryn Franklin introduced herself by saying that she was initially more interested in identity than fashion, however, as a presenter on BBC TV programme The Clothes Show she got a chance to deliver clothes to refugees, visit clothing workers and talk to ordinary women about their lives. This seemed to mean more to her than interviewing big name designers and so introduced many fans of the show (myself included) to another side of the industry. She told us that “clothes are the power tools of image construction” and is currently doing a fantastic job of promoting diversity of the women in fashion images. The All Walks Beyond The Catwalk exhibition ‘Snapped’ by Rankin at the National Portrait Gallery – featuring un-Photoshopped models of a variety of ages, sizes and ethnic backgrounds – received a massive 4,000 visitors in one night.

Sue Postlethwaite studied at Central Saint Martins and was a womenswear designer before moving into curating. She noted that “ethics and pleasure run all the way through fashion but, with the ethics, many people forget the pleasure”. She also told us that Professor Helen Storey called fashion a “Trojan horse” as it can get important topics into new places to engage with larger audiences. After further debate and a handful of questions from the audience, the discussion was summarised with the following points: we need to go back to a less relentless fashion message; embed sustainability and ethics in everything we do; focus on being more mindful (beautiful things, well made); and turn people into conscious consumers. A tough list to tackle but, with people like this on the case, I think we’re off to a good start.