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Reporting back on Session 1 of Passagens with Prof Helen Storey and Prof Lucy Orta

love coat
love coat
image: Professor Helen Storey, Love Coats
Written by
Postgraduate Community
Published date
27 October 2018
By Maryssa Cook-Obregón  
MA Fashion FuturesLondon College of Fashion

image: Professor Helen Storey, Love Coats 2017 – Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan

The first Passagens event of the 2017/18 academic year kicked off on the evening of October 24th at the  London College of Fashion (LCF). The Passagens series is a Postgraduate Community Reading Group led Lucy Orta, who is Chair of Art and the Environment at LCF and part of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), which is a research centre based at LCF. Professor Orta developed the reading group with the aim of fostering conversation around migration and climate change. As it enters its second year, Passagens continues to grow as a forum for exchanges and dialogue between students, faculty, staff, and guest speakers.

This Passagens event featured a conversation between Professor Lucy Orta and  Professor Helen Storey, who is Professor of Fashion and Science at LCF and part of CSF, as well. The conversation was chaired by Camilla Brueton, who is the UAL Postgraduate Community Coordinator. Both Lucy and Helen have a background in fashion design, yet they each currently practice design and art in ways that diverge from conventional fashion design. Lucy’s work revolves around the practice of art and ethics and Helen’s work is rooted in science and the humanities. The conversation began with Camilla asking them to each describe how their work evolved to where it is now and how fashion affected their trajectory.

Helen started by showing some examples of how her work began to diverge from the traditional fashion norm when she began incorporating elements of science, particularly biology and chemistry into her work, in the 1990’s. This was in part catalysed by her collaboration with her sister, Dr. Kate Storey, who is a developmental biologist. Their joint project, Primitive Streak, was produced in 1997. Helen delved into other disciplines like science to enhance her practice of fashion design with the belief that cross-collaborative projects could inspire new ways of thinking.

Among other projects Helen has developed include the Catalytic Clothing initiative, which started in 2011 and sought how textiles could be used to purify air and breakdown air pollution. For this project, Helen explained that she focused on denim as she found it intriguing to consider how jeans, which are one of the most popular garments in the world, could positively impact air quality.  Her idea was to envision how a pair of jeans that were being worn could clean the air around them as their wearer moved about.

image above: Helen Storey: Catalytic Clothing, Clothes that Purify Air – ‘Field of Jeans’ installed at Chelsea College of Arts

The discussion continued as Lucy introduced her background by sharing a reflection she had early on in her career as a fashion designer; what could fashion design do and what was it capable of?  She explained that these questions were sparked by the first Gulf War in the early nineties, and they particularly crystallised for her when she saw a photo of Kurdish refugees who were fleeing war-torn areas in Iraq. At that point, she began to feel the need to practice design in an experimental field to respond to economic, political, and social changes.

Image above: Kurdish refugees from Iraq come to US 1976 Kurdistan

Refuge Wear is a series of objects Lucy and her partner, Jorge Orta, began in 1992. Refuge Wear was a direct response to the homelessness that was increasing in the early part of that decade, and the object itself acted as both apparel and shelter for the wearer. Apart from providing physical protection, Refuge Wear also intended to provide the wearer with an inner strength and resiliency.

image above: Studio Orta – Refuge Wear, 1992-1998

Throughout the evening, the audience was given a detailed glimpse into the varied and decades-long work that both Helen and Lucy have developed where fashion, a meaningful design practice, environmental stewardship, and social awareness intersect to create forms of critical design that both inspire artistic awe as well as reflective thinking.

Camilla also asked Lucy and Helen how they were presently practicing design and art, especially in a time where there are especially large global shifts in politics, economics, climate, as well as in people’s actual movement. In keeping with the spirit of the Passagens series, Lucy and Helen described current projects that are each striking responses to issues that are the forefront of the 21st century.

Helen described her current project, which is as much an academic and design challenge as it is a personal and spiritual journey. Helen works with residents of the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, which houses Syrian people who have been displaced by the war in their home country. Established in 2012 by the UNHCR, Za’atari has become a vast community where vibrancy and resourcefulness as well as trauma abound.

image above: Helen Storey with Za’atari camp participants – dress for our time project

Helen explained that her involvement with Za’atari began when she was sitting in an airport lounge and saw on the television news a sea of UNHCR tents at the camp. In that moment, she felt the need to connect with Za’atari and support the residents of the camp. One of her most recent projects, A Dress For Our Time, is made from a former UNHCR housing tent from Za’atari, and it has been displayed in various locations across the world with the aim of creating awareness of the plight of refugees. Helen has been to Za’atari six times in the past couple of years and each time she is there, she helps support programs where the residents can develop their own enterprises or creative outlets for coping with life in the camp.

image above: Helen Storey – Dress for our time project

Lucy shared her project ‘Antarctic World Passport’ which is an ongoing and evolving endeavor she began with Jorge Orta in 2007. Inspired by the principles of the of the Antarctic peace treaty, which symbolises the unification of world citizens and a borderless continent, the project offers viewers a chance to participate and apply for a world passport. This passport can be applied for by anyone on the condition they commit to uphold sustainable development, defend natural environments under threat, to fight against climate change, to support humanitarian actions, and to share values of peace and equality.

image above Studio Orta – Antarctica World Passport

Lucy explained that while the project was already ten years old, it was still growing and to date over 24,000 people around the world have signed up for a World Passport. So much is the interest that recently the project collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US to digitize the citizenry database and facilitate sign-up.

image above: Studio Orta – Antarctica World Passports

image above: Lucy Orta – Antarctica World Passport Bureau

During the Q&A at the end of the evening, one audience member asked for advice on how to find the right balance between creative practice and active engagement. Helen and Lucy both gave a similar answer that was reflective of their own experiences; projects like this can last for years or even decades. You must nurture them academically, creatively, and practically, and the balance between each of these parts will change as much as you will since change is inevitable. Much in the same way that problems across the world don’t appear overnight nor do they disappear overnight, solutions, including design solutions, can take a long time and are as subject to the ever-changing forces that shape our world. As the evening ended with this question, it was apparent that the forum Passagens fosters is essential to the UAL community in an ever-changing world.

Related Links:

Dress For Our Time:

  • Twitter @ProfHelenStorey
  • Instagram @dress4ourtime

Antarctica World Passport:

  • Twitter @StudioOrta
  • Instagram @antarcticaworldpassport

About Passagens:

With the aim of interrogating dialogues about a cross-disciplinary subject, Passagens (a Postgraduate Community Reading Group) is a response to
the debate following the UK’s vote to leave the EU and increased anxiety amongst students at UAL around issues surrounding the act of migration.

Passagens takes its meaning from the linguistic variables of the Portuguese ‘passagem’, which implies a number of different journeys: from one period in life to another, from one country, language culture and conviction to another, from being home to being a foreigner, from student to professional, child to teenager to adult, but also from one geological epoch to another, and allows for diverse perspectives to interweave.

This event is the first in our second series of events, organised by Lucy Orta, Professor of Art and the Environment and member of Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), in collaboration with CSF Associate Curator Camilla Palestra, and is supported by the UAL Postgraduate Community.