Science and art met in a fashion show to represent the first 1,000 hours of a human's life on earth. Fashion designer Helen Storey explains
No fashion collection can exist without the "invisible people", the ones who work their socks off from day one, for behind every designer name there lies a team of seamstresses, pattern cutters and assistants who, by the end of the collection, may be on virtually telepathic terms with each other.
This was certainly the case when, back in April, I approached Roy Peach, dean at the London College of Fashion, with an idea to create up to 50 outfits which would attempt to explain the first 1,000 hours of a human life, through the use of textiles, sculpture, millinery, embroidery and high technology. I planned to work with my sister Kate, a developmental biologist at Oxford University, joining forces in a Wellcome Trust initiative to promote the partnership between science and art.
Design colleges nowadays have to be run as businesses and, as such, it takes some courage to allow a designer like me to run amok with something as experimental as "Primitive Streak". Over two days I interviewed students specialising in all sorts of areas of fashion and settled on those who appeared, like me, to be drawn not only to working on a collection from scratch to the end, but who rose to the challenge of meeting a world relatively unknown to us, the world of science.
Occupying one of the three sites of the college, the building at 100, Curtain Road was a designer's dream, for it is a place that can best be described as a factory of possibilities, the perfect location to make anything from the finest chiffon to men's tailoring. For most of the project we spread ourselves through three large Victorian school rooms adjacent to banks of sewing machines and pressing facilities. Day in, day out we walked between the studio and the "factory" floor, bringing to and fro the latest piece of cloth, bonded to within an inch of its life, mirrored, rushed, stretched, pushed and boned, whatever it took to get the material or garment to express or suggest the embryonic event we were working on.
By July the team had grown quite spontaneously to 20 people, some from within the college, some from other places of expertise: Sarah Taylor from the Scottish College of Textiles with fibre optic development, Janet Stolye with her method of bonding fabric with ultrasound waves, Emma and Julia of Articular who cast from human bones and built all the metal structures that allowed us to create gravity-defying frocks. At the point where we were moving on to designing hydraulically heeled shoes and stuffing DNA sequences through print machines, it was clear that the collaborative spirit into which everyone involved had entered was in danger of producing a monster - a beautiful one, but nonetheless a creature that I was finding increasingly hard to keep under control.
Aside from all the normal hitches a fashion collection encourages - not enough money to do the concept justice, fabrics that behave like deviant children, arranging venues for shows, and not enough hours in the day - I was having to learn as fast as I was trying to design. I travelled to and from Oxford University where my sister Kate's research takes place; together we would blast away at scientific information, me trying to understand what was, up until that point, a completely foreign language to me. After exhausting sessions in the lab I would scribble on the coach back down to London, then sketch into the night trying to put down on paper what I had seen under the microscope and design science into something that could be worn.
My priorities were to stick to the accuracy of the embryology but also to create something that was beautiful in itself. It also had to be explainable to Carmel Kelly and Vivien Underwood, the pattern cutters on the project, as together we had to come up with a three-dimensional formula to translate Kate's world into mine.
This process of learning and translation between Kate and me and then on to the team was perhaps the hardest to negotiate, as many a time the temptation to produce something because, quite simply, it looked better that way, or was easier to construct, was difficult to resist. It was a challenge to convince those with an eye trained to the aesthetic to accept working in a way that did not betray the accuracy of the science.
On some days words failed us all and we ended up devising our own sign language - "you know the one that goes like this" followed by a deliberate waving of hands to illustrate a fold or a wrap around the body that defeated our drawing skills. Time was tight, our new language was soon the only way to get things done. I imagine the science community would have been horrified if they had overheard it; chromosomes pulling apart were labelled "water melons"; cell division was "the ones in the hoops"; the neurulating embryo was "Vidal Sassoon's shaved fur job". I developed two tongues: the pure for Oxford and a Cockney version for "our" lab at Curtain Road.
By the middle of August the chap working on the hydraulic heels had pulled out, terrified by the time scale, we were still short on the finance for a show and I had become ill under the pressure. I was becoming scared of getting the science "wrong" and of inadvertently appearing to send it up. This last was a constant worry as fashion has a habit of picking up the obvious for five minutes and then moving on to the next "big" thing.
I wanted the end of the journey to be something that everyone involved would feel a genuine part of and at the same time for the creative side of the work to stand up on its own with no explanation needed. Above all something new had to be generated, but if it happened it would have to produce itself; I hate the idea that the most that art can bring to science is effect.
On the day (due to lack of finance) that it looked most likely that no one would ever get to see the finished collection things suddenly started to click. Perminder Kalsi (see box below), the main student from the college who stayed the full course, started to take on that air that only surrounds the truly dedicated and, more than that, the silent knowing of someone who has got the plot. These are qualities that normally take years to come together, yet in her and the rest of the team there started a process whereby any decision they took about a pattern or a finish was one that I would have taken. This is what everyone knows as "entering the zone". Given that the inspiration for the collection was not something you could see in a film or grasp in a speedy read of a textbook, the moment was quite remarkable.
At the risk of sounding wet, "Primitive Streak" was setting people free to do what they did best, without conflict and in silence. The collection had developed a spirit. Days later the Crafts Council notified us that it was to sponsor the project, followed by a further grant from the Royal Society/Committee for the Public Understanding of Science. Things were looking up and we started to work towards photoshoots and an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which happened earlier this month.
As is often the case towards the end of a collection, the best ideas started to come, and, while managing to pull off more than I thought possible, the climax of the project was marked by a dismantling of the studio.
It seemed a strange and sad mission, to make the place look like we had never been there, and as I walked out of the building for the last time, saying good night to Charlie on the door, it suddenly felt like a lifetime ago when a teenage Helen Storey went for her first design interview at the London College of Fashion. In fact it was some 20 years ago. In those days, still struggling to find direction, I had thought I would be a cartographer, then a fashion journalist, then finally, after much indecision, a fashion designer.
In the intervening years much has changed in design education. For the most part we appear to run colleges whose strengths are perceived as either technical or design led - and never the twain shall meet. The London College of Fashion, however, is a college whose time has come.
Over the years it has been branded a technical institution, not in hindsight a bad thing as its creative students now have a framework which embraces the best of both worlds: the opportunity for students to dream and create coupled with the lecturers expertise and equipment to make those dreams happen.
Helen Storey is one of Britain's best-known fashion designers. The Primitive Streak collection will be taken on both a UK and an international tour in 1998.