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Notes on Pulp It: an exhibit at the V&A

24 April 2018 by Kay Politowicz in Fashion, Features, Sponsors, Judges & Champions, Textile Insights

Kay Politowicz, at the Fashioned from Nature exhibition

Kay Politowicz, a truly inspiring champion of textile education and for many years a council member of TexSelect, has worked on the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ground-breaking fashion exhibition Fashioned from Nature. Here, she explains her involvement with a concept garment.

It was with great enthusiasm that we accepted an invitation to contribute a concept garment to the innovation section of the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the V&A (which opened in April and runs until February 2019). The work is an example of the wearable paper we have been developing with our colleagues at Research Institutes of Sweden. (www.ri.se)

The ‘we’ in this case is the textile research group at the Centre for Circular Design, University of the Arts London. Key research goals for us are to retain material resources and energy through design. As textile designers, we are fascinated by the properties of materials and processes, including how to ‘undo’ them after use. We also seek to understand what motivates people to love fashion and what meaning it has in their lives, which helps us to navigate the implications of material consumption for sustainable design.

In 2010, the Swedish Environmental Research Agency, Mistra, decided to focus resources on the fashion industry to become a leader in sustainability, inspiring systemic change throughout society. The Agency invited our UAL team to participate by contributing design research within a multi-disciplinary consortium. (www.mistrafuturefashion.com)

The complexity surrounding environmental problems can be hugely discouraging for a hands-on designer, but we believe that materials are best seen as nutrients in a ‘Cradle to Cradle’ technical–social future, representing the most logical basis for sustainability. Designers can only integrate the components they believe are necessary for improvements, while making key trade-offs in search of better design solutions. In the end, we should design objects and systems through ‘reverse engineering’ an imagined, sustainable future.

To do this, individual design researchers within our CCD group propose experimental products, which range across the whole spectrum of longevity. Design researchers propose a range of life-cycle scenarios. Some projects connect materials, processes and services, such as lease or repair, extending their lives as long as possible. There are also design developments of deliberately short lifespans for a more sustainable obsolescence linked to subscription and material recovery.

In doing so, we aim to challenge perceptions of designing for fashion. Any proposal to change current systems needs not just the enthusiasm of designers and manufacturers, but also consumers, so that a ‘new normal’ approach to fashion has a chance of genuinely catching on. The desire for change that characterises much of fashion consumption needs to be part of the solution for sustainability.

Regarding product sustainability, great emphasis is placed on longevity. The example of the luxury sector, placing an emphasis on the consumer ‘buying less and better’, has become the prevailing focus, seen as the bestway to avoid damage and exploitation.

For short-lived, inexpensive, mass production, we need more, not less, good design. In making parallels between product lifespans and natural ecosystems, it clearly takes both long and short-lived organisms to sustain the natural world. Exploration of design for circularity needs to include design for speed use so that the waste becomes a raw material again, as in nature.

For a long time, my work within the group has been concerned with materials and processes to make an intentionally short-lifespan fashion product beautiful and desirable. This may, initially, seem a counter-intuitive response to ‘fast fashion’. But if the processes of production and the end-of-life treatments retain material for further, frequent production and have minimal negative impact on the environment, then I believe it may be a much-needed practical match of material to product lifespan.

A prototype helps to experience the reality of the concept, to make the idea much more powerful and persuasive. It becomes a tool to refine a model and communicate the idea to others, from collaborators to end-users. Of course, it’s only when the life-cycle of a design prototype is evaluated that it becomes clear whether it contributes a credible improvement to the current system of fast fashion. But in a classic design approach, the evaluation of its performance, physical and aesthetic, provides the information for further, revised prototypes.

As prototypes for the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, we’ve created a garment and some samples of our latest collaborations to produce a new kind of material. It’s a nonwoven combination of cellulosics, using wood pulp and corn starch fibres.

We are fully aware that there was a short-lived attempt to promote paper dresses in the 1960s – and that has tended to cloud our perceptions. But what if today’s paper feels flexible and comfortable to wear, is coloured with strong, natural dyes and yet has no chemical additions anywhere in production? What’s more, it can be waterproof, resist tearing, with no mordants in the dye process, including surface patterning and construction using laser and ultra-sound. And the whole can be industrially composted for further manufacture.

The intention is part of a radical rethink of the kind of products we want and need, with some examples of the environmental benefits of thinking faster and lighter than current practice. Do visit this exhibition and consider how we can work together on materials – to make the kind of future we all want to share. (www.circulardesign.org.uk)

Fashioned from Nature highlights the history of fabrics and fashion materials, the fashion industry, the dedicated campaigners fighting against fashion’s environmental impact, and contemporary designs that merge high fashion and sustainability. On now, until 27 January 2019.

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