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A More Disordered Beauty

Fizzing through academia like a fiery comet, Zowie Broach, head of fashion at London’s Royal College of Art, is forging a stellar vision of the future.

Fashion moves at the rate of knots, but aesthetically, it’s on pause. It’s because there is no new, dynamic space - aesthetically or economically - for it to function in. Even the work of Iris van Herpen has only moved us forward an increment. It’s a side branch that hasn’t affected the main trunk.

Can you describe Iris van Herpen’s work?

She works with a software developer and an architect in the same way fashion designers would traditionally work with a pattern-cutter and a machinist. She enables the algorithms of a piece of software to produce a physical 3D outcome in new magical ways that are informed by the shape of a body. The result is clothes that look like a mathematical - emotional equation. They are deeply beautiful but held by the cause and effect of the machine system that produced them.

And you say there is no new economic space for fashion design either?

We are still in an economy where you’re beholden to numbers, big numbers. That’s why the darker side of mass production is where you make money and have power. If you are trying to build a small company, or build a new aesthetic, you are restricted by those dominant mass economies.

Someone leaving the RCA today as a fashion designer will have to run a company in a way not dissimilar to the way we ran ours, Boudicca, ten years ago. It’s a business model with a very low profit margin and after a while it becomes difficult to survive.

The rest of the world might be imploding, but here in this space, through cross-discipline conversations, we can begin to analyse how the industry needs to change

We need to look at these big questions, but also understand that we can’t answer them on our own in fashion. We need to work with engineers, philosophers, economists, product designers - and that’s where being at the Royal is so rich. The Royal is not just a fashion school. It gives access to other brilliant minds across art and design, and through our connection with Imperial College, to scientists as well. The rest of the world might be imploding, but here in this space, through cross-discipline conversations, we can begin to analyse how the industry needs to change.

When people think ‘fashion designer’ they think of someone sketching a collection of outfits. I sense that is not what you are doing at the RCA?

Of course we sketch and we make. The work of the human hand in design is important. But we also have to understand the structures around us. Last week we had a group of students looking at economic structures and potential future business systems. At the same time another group were examining the impact of the digital space, and a third group were looking at materiality vis-à-vis subversion within the political sphere.

Ultimately what we do here is to create a space that asks what the future could be and how all the systems that inform fashion connect. Until this kind of thinking goes out to change the world, we will be held by the same systems we were ever snared in.

At its greatest, fashion is a phenomenal part of our being, as powerful as a great piece of music, a great work of art

What kind of fashion system are we snared in?

A self-failing system. A lot of people like the way that fashion is ever-changing. But it’s not sustainable, it’s not elegant, it’s not respectful to what fashion truly is, i.e. creating a new space for us to aspire to.

Is sustainability something you are looking at?

In the past what fashion students did was to build a collection through making more and more outfits. But that’s not always necessary. Most of the time you get what they are saying after three outfits.

We are asking the students to create fewer outfits while digging deeper to more fully understand the beauty of an idea and its thinking; to refine every single molecule of that moment, every line of its aesthetic, every detail connected to its moving, its stillness, its research, its materiality, and then its potentiality beyond the initial idea.

Hone back. I always refer to that Barthes phrase about the punctum that pricks you. If you can find that punctum, that piercing moment that is really deep and rich, that is much more important than making a set number of outfits for a collection.

So when you refer to sustainability - I don’t think it’s just about understanding how you design, you have to understand yourself. What’s your connection to society, to self, to your dream, to your geographical location?

Once the students understand this universe of self more intensively, it becomes something with the potency to enable them to build what we all require: which is a better understanding of what we want our future to be, and how fashion and identity relate to that.

If you can find that punctum, that piercing moment that is really deep and rich, that’s more important than making a set number of outfits for a collection

What’s the worst that could happen for fashion?

For it to continue as it is now without the system being challenged.

Add in the new tools of data-mining, and what you get is a globally-connected world that instead of liberating us as individuals, reduces individualism. I’m thinking here of the lack of growth for small companies, which are forced to close down as technology is purposefully focused towards entrenching those with more power. That has a direct knock-on effect on aesthetics, because it reduces the potential for individuals to form and project their own voice.

That addictive quality is created by the capitalist system and all consumerist industries suffer from it

The worst is also that we continue to consume more and more. Fashion brands are dealing with this problem in one of two ways. One type of brand isn’t talking about the problem. They are focused on creating new systems to create bigger appetites. The second type talk a lot about how much they care about our future, but generally are subtly creating systems which allow them also to become more powerful.

Our future evolution will definitely be created through technology. But we need to ensure that it’s a technology that is not forgetful of our very humanity. We need less. Not more. This is a pure fundamental truth about our health, our mental state, and our materiality.

But isn’t fashion defined by excess consumption? We want fashion’s incarnation of the now, and the next now and the next now, like an addiction.

It’s important not to isolate fashion. That addictive quality is created by the capitalist system and all consumerist industries in this society suffer from it.

We have to fight for fashion’s beauty and relevance to identity and self. You can connect to the world through what you wear, the feeling of that material against your skin, the cinematic image you create of yourself that protects you, that can raise you up, and emanate beauty. At its greatest, fashion is a phenomenal part of our being, as powerful as a great piece of music, a great work of art.

But I fear we have lost some of that.

What would be a positive future for fashion?

There’s a great story that J G Ballard wrote about bio-materials back in the 1970s. He imagined a dress with a décolleté that would change depending on whether your bank manager or your lover was coming towards you.

Imagine clothes that are dynamic and sensitive to temperature change, sensitive to the changing form of your body, even to your reveries about who you can be.

And some of the technologies that can embody this come from nature. They are not about zeros and ones, they are about designing a fabric based on the pine cone for example. A pine cone has a structure that knows when to open to allow seeds to disperse and when to close to keep the seeds protected. That’s a phenomenal piece of design.

The racks of gowns itched and quivered, their colours running into blurred pools. One drawback of bio fabrics is their extreme sensitivity. Bred originally from the gene stocks of delicate wisterias and mimosas, the woven yarns have brought with them something of the vines’ remarkable response to atmosphere and touch. The sudden movement of someone nearby, let alone of the wearer, brings an immediate reply from the nerve-like tissues. A dress can change colour and texture in a few seconds, becoming more décolleté at the approach of an eager admirer, more formal at a chance meeting with a bank manager.
J G Ballard Say Goodbye to the Wind, 1970

At the moment we are disconnected from nature. But the more we understand about nature, then the more chance we have to be respectful of it, and connected to our world.

So we could become more connected to nature through technology, not less?

That would be amazing. It comes back to how forests think1, and tribes who have moved slower in some respects but have also remained truer in their relationship to their world. They are still connected to that space where the dream state and the real state blur and co-exist. Whereas our world is removing those connections at an exponential rate.

1.How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human, by Eduardo Kohn, 2013.

Ultimately what we do here is to create a space that asks what the future could be

We had a fantastic biotech expert, Natsai Audrey, who came to talk to the students. She spoke about how nature doesn’t produce objects like, say, a Charles Eames chair. Mathematical perfection does exist in nature - the Giant’s Causeway for example - but nature enables us to think about how imperfection creates beauty.

So when a plant grows, it’s not shaped like the plant as we might draw it. It’s not ‘accurate’. The shape of a particular plant depends on its confluence with everything that interacts with it in that moment, that month, that year.

Nature moves and responds and that’s interesting to me because if we build that into our thinking we will have to change our relationship to aesthetics. That would be an interesting paradigm shift. We would have to accept not being in control. It takes me back to Iris van Herpen, where we see a lot of the micro levels of nature’s patterns reconstructed mathematically through the machine. They are very ordered and unquestionably beautiful. But my question is, what if we could embody a more disordered beauty?

For Zowie’s future-forward reading and watching list, click here.



Interview
Susan Irvine

Images
Susannah Baker-Smith