Dilys Williams, Directrice du Centre de la mode durable du London College of Fashion, University of the Arts

Sustainability, always in fashion

Dilys Williams, head of Centre for Sustainable Fashion

Professor Dilys Williams is fighting not to make sustainability a part of fashion, but to make fashion sustainable. As the head of Centre for Sustainable Fashion, she has created the first programme of its kind, in which students are taught how to incorporate sustainability into what they design so it becomes one and the same.  K magazine caught up with her recently.

Dilys Williams, Directrice du Centre de la mode durable du London College of Fashion, University of the Arts

Lending a studious atmosphere to our meeting one recent afternoon, Professor Dilys Williams sits in a dimly lit office, the lights turned low to conserve energy. It’s an indication she is concerned about sustainability.

Formerly chief designer for the ethically-minded British label Katherine Hamnett, Williams is the director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts. The Centre is based at London College of Fashion.

We discuss some of the turning points in the fashion industry becoming more conscious and responsible, and embracing sustainability. Think the loud-message T-shirts that Hamnett made with slogans like ‘Sanction China’ or her 2003 London catwalk when models wore T-shirts sporting the logo ‘Stop War, Blair Out’. "Those made front page news," recalls Williams.

"Katharine Hamnett was very politically engaged," she says. "She realised that fashion has a huge social impact. At Hamnett, it was about our ability to live in a fair society and understand what is around us and think about our future. Whether it was to do with T-shirts for the Iraq War or for anti-nuclear campaigns, we found fashion was a great way of getting the message across.”

Dilys Williams, Directrice du Centre de la mode durable du London College of Fashion, University of the Arts

She fast forwards to another turning point, when Stella McCartney launched her brand with the Gucci Group (now Kering), in 2001. "That was equally amazing because she said I would love to but I don't do animal products." A few years later, such stances started to make a mark on education, and Professor Williams was asked to give talks at LCF.

Cottoning on

She became a change-maker. "There was an awareness that issues of sustainability had a relationship to fashion but it was not part of any curriculum," she says. "I came and did a project around sustainability. The focus on sustainability was then on choice of materials; it wasn't about designing differently. It was that someone out there had to do something different and then the designer would think what type of cotton," she recalls.

We found fashion was a great way of getting the message across.

Other figures were looking into something like-minded, like California-based Lynda Grose, who developed a similar programme at the California Center for the Arts, and co-founded the first eco-friendly fashion line for a major brand, Esprit. "There was the idea around fair trade. But there was very little that was design-led," she recalls. "There were very few people in fashion thinking: ‘let me do something in sustainability.’”

Then Williams was appointed professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability and asked to set up the Centre in 2007. "My first role was to oversee a group of design courses. I put sustainability into the curriculum in 2006/2007 but it was almost impossible to find ways to teach it," she says.

She decided to think big. "I put together an idea for the Centre for Sustainable Fashion,” she says. “I realised if we were going to do something, that it had to be named. I decided to have four considerations in looking at sustainability in relation to the curriculum. I asked how we could work with designers, research, businesses and political engagements. We also asked employers if there was a demand for this kind of training and there was, because no one had the skills."

Firing up

Getting started was a challenge. "I wanted to think about how we could inspire design and bring it into the present," she says. "It was a difficult thing to do for a lecturer and for the students. They would say ‘I want to create something beautiful and long lasting’. Then they got to thinking about climate change and would say: ‘No I don't want to do that if it harms the environment’."

Ultimately, "I came here full-time because I saw there was an appetite from students to learn," she says. Still, they need to be realistic. "I had to say to them, think about what you want to do but also about getting a job in the real world," she says.

Dilys Williams, Directrice du Centre de la mode durable du London College of Fashion, University of the Arts

The programme has come a long way since. Some things have changed, for better and for worse. "Students are not as anarchic as they used to be, which is a shame," she laments. "The whole questioning-the-political-system has been dampened a bit. Hopefully there is still a bit of fire in the fashion students' belly."

But a large luxury group has opened new horizons. "Working with Kering has taken it to a completely different level," she says. In fact, she is fresh from a meeting with executives from the enterprise, which is partnering with the CSF in a five-year, three-part programme: teaching modules for a masters course in sustainable fashion, an annual talk and two awards  for sustainability in fashion (with accompanying internships in some of the Kering brands). This is a milestone in itself.

Curriculum vitae

"I was excited about working with them because they have real integrity. Being able to partner with an organisation that really wanted to create something was brilliant. They didn't want to just come in and do a project. They wanted to offer students wisdom. It was: how can we really help each other or learn from each other. So we came up with a plan to change the curriculum." And the response has been huge. They had 160 nominations for the awards alone.

The end goal of fashion becoming more sustainable is to see that we are connected to nature and others.

"A lot has changed in terms of teaching," she explains. “What is happening now is that there is a new discipline called ‘design sustainability’. We have gone from a reductionist approach of how can you make this more efficient, to being more expansive, design-led, philosophical and diverse. Students are thinking about sustainability now. Before it had limited slots like upcycled garments; now it is more nuanced."

But Williams thinks that there is still a long way to go. "There is a census that 97 per cent of scientists think humans are changing natural habitats. They agree humans are messing with nature for the first time in human history," she says.

Connecting

"That is why I think fashion and sustainability are so important. There is an increasing rich-poor divide. It is directly related to health and living standards. We don't behave that differently though. If you had a consensus around these things, like social inequality and climate change, or if it were socially unacceptable to buy 50 garments a year or bad dyes, then people might change. Fashion is a great visualiser."

“The end goal of fashion becoming more sustainable is to see that we are connected to nature and others. Maybe, if we thought about how important nature and other people are to us, we would change."