Interview with Helen Storey

Helen Storey

Source: Yousef Al Hriri

Helen Storey is an artist and designer and professor of fashion and science at London College of Fashion. For the past four years she has worked alongside refugees at Zaatari camp in Jordan on collaborative projects focused on supporting entrepreneurship, creativity and financial independence. One of her most famous works is Dress for Our Time – a dress made from a decommissioned United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tent that once housed a displaced Syrian family at Zaatari camp.

Where and when were you born?
Belsize Park, London, 1959.

How has this shaped who you are?
I think in spirit, I was born in Yorkshire – at least I feel I have been shaped by my dad’s rejection of the north when he first came to London as an art student at The Slade back in the 1950s. My sense of self has grown far more out of what my birth meant to him than the physical place I grew up in – at first, living in two rooms over a butcher’s shop in Bloomsbury, and then what turned out to be quite a bohemian Belsize Park, sharing the street with Twiggy and David Bailey.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
An awkward one. I found my passion late, having left my rather rough comprehensive school with just one O level – it was a place to survive rather than learn. I found my tribe with 19 other lost creative souls, in what I still maintain was one of the best years of my life, on an art foundation course at Kingston [Polytechnic]. “Spotted” by the then head of fashion, I went on to the BA course and, shyly and out of my depth, slowly found my way. My work never fitted in, but the words of the head of college to my parents at my degree show – “Helen is lovely, but utterly unemployable” – turned out to be my making.

Many people would see art and science as worlds apart. Why and how do you bring these together in your work?
Initially through an instinct that they should never have been made so separate. Crudely, if science is all we can know about existence and art how we live it, I am not sure they are worlds apart. One realises and makes sense of the other.

What was your inspiration behind Dress For Our Time?
Not so much inspiration as provocation, I think. The climate team at the Met Office were, in 2014, making films with many of our UK industries about how climate change was going to affect their futures and they came to London College of Fashion to learn from us, and us from them. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21, in Paris, was on the horizon, and they realised that both the music and fashion industries, with their fan bases and loyal followings, might be the fastest way to develop work that caught the public imagination around the climate emergency. The dress used fashion as a Trojan horse to talk about complex issues. It became a magnet for curious, difficult and memorable questions, and was placed at the London gateway to the summit, St Pancras station, ensuring delegates saw it as they boarded the Eurostar. It went on to the Science Museum and the UN headquarters in Geneva and was worn on the Pyramid Stage to open Glastonbury. It has become a powerful symbol of the urgent need to focus on the relationship between the climate crisis and the mass displacement of people. It was, however, the unanswerable questions from children who saw the dress in London that took me to Zaatari for answers.

You were appointed the first UNHCR artist-in-residence at Zaatari refugee camp and are now involved in a research project helping refugees in the camp produce personal protective equipment (PPE). What has your experience there taught you?
Perspective, humility and the teachings that come from heartbreak, resilience and disappointment. Having worked with the people of Zaatari since 2016, when the pandemic landed, getting PPE into the camp was a huge priority. In collaboration with UNHCR Jordan, the University of Sheffield and London College of Fashion researchers, we made PPE using locally available, low-cost materials that can be repurposed after the pandemic. Training and employment opportunities were delivered at a new mask production facility, with the priority of keeping people safe, while also reducing single-use plastic waste. Over time, I have learned that war invades every cell in the body and hums there forever. In this sense, working with the people who are now in their 10th year of “lockdown” away from home has shown me the tensions held in extreme living; in many ways they have been living all our potential futures. I have come to believe that being a refugee is to be born into this world twice – once through love, with your birth name, and a second time, through war – such is the impact on the potential for you to become you.

The sustainable-fashion movement seems to be gaining momentum but there is still a huge amount of waste in the industry. What changes would you like to see and how likely are these to happen?
We often think about sustainability through the lens of systems, but its roots lie in a crisis of belonging, to each other and to the planet. We seem, as a species, to have lost connection to the capacity for contentedness, either through cruel circumstance or through its opposite: a form of life gluttony with no sense of what “enough” means. Working with colleagues in the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion we have focused on these issues for more than 10 years – and although the past two years have seen a huge shift in consciousness, especially among the public, it’s not moving quickly enough to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals, for example. Working with students I have seen what can be achieved when you apply radical thinking and courage to what can seem like insurmountable problems. We have the capacity for system change; we just have to work collaboratively, something that comes naturally to fashion practitioners. 

What advice do you give to your students?
I don’t give advice, but I do love questions. The best advice comes out of conversation, when something is realised, together. I think we have arrived at a time where the gaining of knowledge isn’t as important as what we do with it.

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