Clara is a sustainability strategist and designer with an expertise in the social and environmental impacts of the fashion and textile industry.
Tell us about your experience in the fashion industry. What led you to start exploring the fashion system, and what has changed since you first began this journey?
I have had an unusual journey into this space. I initially trained in broadcast journalism in Australia during the mid-90s and wanted to get into costume or film production. I spent a year living and working in Darwin for a production company, and did some community arts work with Aboriginal communities. I then set off for London and tried to get work in film over there. Serendipitously, one day I walked into a fashion boutique owned by Australian fashion director Yasmin Sewell and she offered me a job as a shop girl.
I spent two years immersed in the fashion world learning about high-end retail, going to shows, and meeting incredible designers and artists like Susan Cianciolo, Carol Christian Poell, Imitation of Christ, and Paul Harden. All the graduates from London’s fashion colleges used to bring us their final collections to try and get sold in the shop. Looking at their work, I realised I wanted to train as a textile designer, so I did a Printed Textiles BA at Chelsea College of Art and Design. I learned the craft of dyeing, designing and printing fabric and, during my training, became interested in the environmental impacts of textiles. We would pour all these harsh chemicals down the sink and would have to wear full-on masks while we were preparing the dyes. At the time I was also doing my dissertation work on sustainability issues, reading reports by Greenpeace and ecology writers like Paul Hawken exploring the ‘true costs’ of our industrial, linear economic system that does not account for nature.
I then worked as a research assistant for Professor Rebecca Earley, who runs the pioneering Textiles Environment Design (TED) research group at Chelsea. This was the first research group to investigate design-led sustainability solutions to the fashion system. During that time I was part of the team that developed ‘The TEN’—a set of sustainable design strategies used by large and small fashion brands, and many design universities in UK and Europe. We developed the framework because—while there was an increasing amount of data on how bad the industry was, and a range of accreditation and measurement tools—there was nothing available to assist designers in understanding the issues around them and then imagine or create opportunities for better design.
I am equally passionate about fashion and textiles as I am about sustainability. My journey has essentially been to try and make sense of how these two concepts can coexist. Like most designers, I started out looking at materials and technical processes, and how they can be improved. After that, I became interested in the way designers can support people to live with garments for longer, as well as teaching upskilling as a way of reducing the consumption of new garments. My research and work has brought me to a point where I am interested in working to support deeper values and mindsets for all stakeholders in the fashion system, not just consumers. For example, my PhD research consisted of a workshop in a Chinese garment factory to try and open up a dialogue with workers about their work and life values. I have also developed a workshop called Sutra Stitching, where I teach meditation and hand–stitching. I have ended up ‘beyond the cloth’, exploring ways that designers and makers can contribute to change at a systemic level.
How have your personal values shaped your work?
I wasn’t really aware that my own values were driving my work until I did my PhD and read literature on values, and how they determine behaviour and actions! It sounds silly, but I hadn’t really considered other people’s values frameworks before, and how they might all differ. I could see that many other designers, and the design students I would teach, were not as interested in sustainability issues as I was, but I have always been so compelled to explore this enquiry further. I think it’s in part a result of not becoming a designer until my late 20s, and having been busy developing a creative practice since then. It’s only now that I see how profoundly my values have shaped my work.
"I am equally passionate about fashion and textiles as I am about sustainability. My journey has essentially been to try and make sense of how these two concepts can coexist."
What does the ‘Slow Fashion’ movement mean to you?
I am not that comfortable with the term ‘slow fashion’. I never use it in any of my writing or communication of my work. I can see it’s a useful term as an antidote to the ‘fast fashion’ system, and it’s easy for people to understand. Yet designers, manufacturers and brands never really use the term in the industry. I think I also associate it with an attitude that is perhaps anti-‘fast fashion’, and I don’t believe fast fashion will ever disappear; some of the most brilliant technical innovations and talented people are within that system. I am more interested in exploring what opportunities or solutions there are to working within the system to create change.
Intent is interested in the psychology of fashion and people’s relationships with clothing. How would you describe your own relationship with clothing; has it evolved over the years?
I grew up secondhand shopping at Vinnie’s in Australia. I was into fashion magazines in the late 80s and early 90s, but was never really into high fashion or the brands. I’m interested in exploring my own aesthetics and senses through clothes, but am much more drawn to textiles, colour, print, craft-making and texture than silhouette and shape. I guess that’s why I trained in textiles and not fashion. My style has always mixed vintage or secondhand with new. As I have come into my 40s I am much more focused on comfort—even more so now that I’m pregnant! I mostly buy from small, independent fashion labels who don’t necessarily claim to be ‘ethical’.
When looking at the current fashion system, what do you believe needs to change and why?
There are so many dualisms that exist at the moment in the fashion system: fast/slow; nature/industry; creative/technical; left brain/right brain, and so on. This is partly to do with the way we have developed an industrial supply chain that takes raw materials from the earth, and transforms them into materials, yarns, or garments. These are used, worn and cherished by people—and then they are thrown into landfill, primarily because people have ‘fallen out of love’ with the garment. This can be due to various reasons, including trends having moved on, or a garment no longer reflecting one’s evolving self-identity.
These dualisms mean there are many disconnected parts to the whole system, but what we really need is to start breaking them down and creating systemic, sustainable change. I believe this is starting to happen with circular/closed loop fashion ideas, a growing number of alternative business models (social enterprises, shared economies etc); and the focus on values-based fashion that supports the people involved in making our textiles and garments. I call this ‘Transitionary Fashion/Textiles’. We are in the middle of a phase that is transitioning away from an old way of doing things into something new. Although it is still unclear what the new way will look like, there are so many exciting examples emerging.
"The significant amount of environmental damage and misery caused through fashion’s business activity is a huge challenge to overcome, but I am even more convinced now that the answer lies in creativity, innovation and collaboration."
You are currently completing your PhD in sustainable textiles/fashion; how does this relate to ethics and what are you hoping to achieve through this research?
The original aim of the research was to investigate the role of a crafts-based textile designer as a ‘social innovator’ and activist to support production workers in the supply chain through collaborative design projects. This changed though, as I was funded by an industry-focused research project called MISTRA Future Fashion through the Swedish government. My craft-based practice evolved as I also became a design facilitator and trained professional designers in the Swedish industry in sustainability strategies.
During this period I was reading the literature on values and mindsets, and I developed a workshop tool that allowed the designers to dive deeper into their own personal value system and explore how they can bring it into the workplace. I then travelled to China to run a co-design project in a factory with workers, but that didn’t end up happening. Instead, I ran a workshop with workers in which we simply connected as human beings through a slow, mindful craft process.
The conclusion of the research was the making of a hand-quilted jacket called the ‘Inner/Outer Jacket’, which took me three weeks to make. It was during this time that I gained the synthesis for my research and the insights about transitions and textiles. I am hoping that my research can provide other textile and fashion designers with new tools and ways of thinking about creating sustainable change in this industry that we all love and find so inspiring.
The business model is such an important key to driving long term change in companies and the way that they operate. Through your work as a consultant, have you seen clients adopt any particularly exciting business models or ways of approaching sustainability?
The most interesting examples from my industry clients have stemmed from their eagerness to engage with sustainability concepts, and to genuinely involve their customer. They get so excited when they finally realise their customers really want them to step up and start improving the impact of their business activity on people and the planet. It may not necessarily come from an increase in direct sales, but they may build more trust with their existing customers. I’ve encountered some great examples of initiatives that engage communities or tribes in holding onto their garments for longer, returning them to the stores to be recycled, or organising regular meet-ups where people can swap garments with each other.
What have been the greatest lessons you have learned during your time working in this space?
That the issues are complex and there isn’t one single solution. The fashion industry employs millions of people around the world; it has brought several countries and developing economies out of poverty, and almost all people, regardless of their geographical location or culture, absolutely love fashion and clothes. The significant amount of environmental damage and misery caused through fashion’s business activity is a huge challenge to overcome, but I am even more convinced now that the answer lies in creativity, innovation and collaboration.
Photography Emma Byrnes
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Learn more about Clara's work