Last week I went to meet Helen Storey to talk about her current project Dress For Our Time. She is a Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (London College of Fashion) and co-founder of the Helen Storey Foundation. She is still and thoughtful as she speaks, carefully considering both questions and her replies. In the 90’s she was lauded as a leading British fashion designer but her work has since moved into perhaps unexpected territories. She creates fashion derived arts installations as a vehicle for exploring, communicating and creating dialogue about issues that are unarguably important to us all; as humans how we interact with each other and our environment In doing so she combines current scientific research with media and design, working collaboratively internationally with leaders and innovators in specific fields.
Helen’s work is not usually found in galleries but instead in public spaces – shopping centres, parks, museums and schools, seeking to reach the most diverse of audiences. In 2004 she created Wonderland in which dresses made of plastic were suspended above giant goldfish bowls which melted as they slowly descended into the water, provoking discussion around how we waste our finite resources. In 2008 she created Catalytic Clothing presented as a field of jeans hung scarecrow like on canes. They were treated with a washing powder containing an enzyme which literally filters and cleans air, focussing on air as our most basic resource and that its quality is dangerously poor for many of us.
Her current project Dress For Our Time is launching to coincide with the global Climate Conference in Paris and will be fittingly located at St Pancras Station (from 26th – 29th November), as delegates pass by to board the Eurostar.
This project has involved Helen making a dress out of a UN end of life tent. It has a complicated structure that involves digital technology enabling information to be screened onto the dress via a computer link. I am struck by the human presence in this work, embodied by materials that we are clothed in and that protect us. It highlights human rights; that many don’t have the most basic of shelter or safety and that these are under threat for us all. The dress has a dual nature – a harbinger of doom in its death, shroud like quality, but also hope in the evocation of peaceful emissary, or oracle.
The project has been two years in the making and Helen describes it as a “collaborative collision” arising from dialogue with partners including the Met Office, UNHCR and Unilever, described as:
“people from very different backgrounds in science, business, education, humanitarian work, technology and fashion, to explore ways to engender a public debate about this most critical question.”
The work controversially embodies climate change together with one of its human impacts – the imperative movement of people.
The potential audience is multi-dimensional; interacting on different platforms before, during and after. There will be those who physically encounter the work, but also those who do so remotely through digital media and who are also able to directly feed into the installation as it happens.
In the coming months, I will be working with Helen and the team to understand method; that is the exploration of the role that art and culture has to play in helping people connect with ‘difficult stuff’. Helen is concerned with how you can capture people’s imaginations in ways that allow them to engage, to think further and deeper rather than being put off or feeling told off.
Whilst funders (amongst others) may sometimes have difficulties in trying to categorise Helen’s work, I think there are elements that weave strongly throughout, creating a cohesive and powerful pattern. Of these what is fundamental, is her continuing belief in the power of us, as individuals and collectively, to change our world for the better, even in the face of the countdown to irreversible climate change.
Imogen Slater is a Research Associate at CUCR, Goldsmiths, where she has worked in various capacities for 15 years. Contact: email@example.com
She is also a Director of Art of Regeneration – http://www.artofregeneration.info/about-forte/
 This was gifted by the UNHRC and was no longer in a usable condition.