Helen Storey has built a career uniting fashion with science to shape a better world. Now she’s found the blueprint for the future in a Syrian refugee camp.
By Anna Chapman.
From sequins in the sea to rivers polluted with the color of the season, fashion’s crimes against the environment have been well-documented in recent years. Brands are slowly be- ginning to hold themselves account- able by sourcing responsibly, recycling, and innovating with ethical materials, but Professor Helen Storey has been doing this for decades. More global activist than seasonal catwalk designer, she’s been using the power of fashion to provoke engagement with the issues that will become headline news since the 1980s.
Storey’s résumé is relentlessly impressive. In 1990 she was named Britain’s Most Innovative Designer. In 1994, her Second Life collection started the upcycling trend.
In 2009, the Queen awarded her an MBE for Services to the Arts. Along the way, she’s picked up several honorary professorships and doctorates from British universities. And now her attention is on Za’atari, the most famous refugee camp in Jordan, which is temporarily home to more than 83,000 Syrians. “We are species forcibly on the move,” she tells me when we meet for coffee in the Groucho Club in London’s Soho.
Dressed simply in jeans and a long-sleeve pink sweater, Storey is living a transitory life herself right now, visiting Za’atari every other month this year. In trademark style, her work there doesn’t have a name yet, but it will. Sitting somewhere between the nongovernmental organizations and the refugees, it’s a gap that needs filling. No one expected the camps to last so long: “The NGO sector is struggling with a model that was initially built on catering for emergencies,” Storey says. While many governments aren’t engaging with the crisis, Storey and a handful of global brands including Unilever, IKEA, and Lego are stepping into this space. Unlike the NGOs, Storey doesn’t have to remain impartial, and she’s developed friendships in camp. Her work there responds to refugees’ needs and is initiated by the refugees themselves. But there are many challenges. “We need to change how we fund projects like this and what actions we take,” she says. “These ‘disasters’ are going to keep happening. At what point do they just become a state of being?”
While many of us shy away from seemingly insurmountable problems like air pollution, Storey is driven to tackle them—even if the answer isn’t immediately forthcoming. “Every single project, I end up with a whole new set of questions I don’t have answers for yet,” she says.
Since 1997, she’s been fusing knowledge from fashion and science, and in 2005, she started working with Professor Tony Ryan, a chemist from Sheffield University in England. Their project Wonderland examines innovative ways to give plastic a second life, while Catalytic Clothing is a nanotechnology capable of purifying our air. “Everyone I’ve ever met who has heard about Catalytic Clothing says, ‘I want it now. Can I buy it please?’” says Storey. Unfortunately, getting it to market isn’t easy and needs the support of a brand and the government. But brands are put off because CatClo destroys perfume too, and we like to wear scent. “The problem is us and what we’re prepared to live with. It’s not that we can’t find solutions, it’s whether we’ll take them up or not. If nitrogen oxide was red, we’d have sorted it by now.”
A collaboration with the MET Office (the U.K.’s national weather service) planted the seed for her latest work with refugees. Ahead of COP 21—the 2015 United Na- tions Climate Change Conference in Paris—fashion and music had been earmarked as ways to engage people with the subject, and Storey was looking for an idea. Early one morning, she was in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport and the resettlement of Syrians in Jordan was playing out on 15 television screens around her. “I saw UN Refugee agency tents by the thousand, and I looked at them and thought, That’s it; that’s the answer! The cloth already had humanity woven into it through authentic experience.” So she emailed the head of the United Nations communications with the idea of making a dress from the tents and they answered before her plane took off. “And we started the journey of getting a tent to come backward to the U.K.” Storey says. “Za’atari was on the cusp of changing from a tented city to one with caravans, so they parceled one up, and I made the dress over the summer holiday.”
Storey describes the outcome, Dress for Our Time, as a human flag, and it became involved in all sorts of activities. Malian singer Rokia Traoré —a former refugee—wore it on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. It was positioned at St Pancras International station in London as a gateway piece so diplomats and politicians attending the conference would have to pass this dress as they boarded their train to Paris. Crucially, it was also exhibited at London’s Science Museum in an effort to humanize the data.
The dress is more than an art statement showing how we are a species on the move. It brings to life the current the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) data showing how many people around the globe are fleeing for life. In 2016, there were 65.6 million displaced people in the world, which was almost double the total for 1997. “People don’t make the simple connection between refugees and climate change,” she says. “Where are those people going to go when we have less landmass to live on? And geography is unkind. Most of the areas that are affected [by climate change] are where the poorest people live.”
“One of the reasons we don’t make the link is that the information is indigestible. We have trouble understanding big numbers. Also, you can’t engage people by making them feel guilty. You need to use joy, humor, and wonder to make it psychically easier to do the right thing.” “People don’t make the simple connection between refugees and climate change.”
On Storey’s dress, the 65.6 million people are visualized as light, and the result is beautiful. “There was just so much light; in effect it was like a map of human kindness be- cause it finally showed those countries that had opened their borders and allowed people in,” Storey says. The Science Museum has a big family audience, and she found that it was children who asked her questions she couldn’t answer: “‘Who lived in this tent?’ they asked.
I knew it was a family of six who had walked from Syria to Jordan. But I had no idea of the detail, and I realized that that sort of detail helps people relate to climate change and the migration crisis.”
She asked UNHCR for the answers, but they said she’d have to go to Za’atari and find out. Since then, she’s been there seven times. “It’s given my research a fresh purpose,” Storey says. “What they can teach us is quite extraordinary.
It doesn’t work if you go in with Western ideas. It’s about the art of listening to truly understand what it means to flee for your life. What the consequences are of living in a home that’s not a home. Every priority there is urgent, everything you do in a day absolutely matters. You can improve a life in an hour.”
As a driving force of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion and a professor of Fashion and Science at London College of Fashion, Storey’s keen to bring her ideas to the next generation. “I’ve tried to connect design with what the world wants while being very aware that the world doesn’t need more stuff. That’s a real dilemma for creative people.”
She set a brief for LCF students on the M.A. Fashion Futures course. “We’re able to engage students in a situation that is frontline and help them with responses that are valid for what’s actually happening in the world,” she says. She’s taken their ideas back to camp and shared them. “The ones that are going to take off have a synergy with the trajectory of the camp.” One project uses the natural environment to create an informal community space (respite from the barbed wire that surrounds everything).
But what are the priorities for refugees? Surely aesthetics is the last thing on their minds? Initially people queried Storey on the relevance or appropriate- ness of bringing fashion into the camp. “But then I came to realize the potency of glamour, prettiness, beauty, and bling; they are celebratory and full of joy,” she says. “That matters even more here.” Storey’s also been struck by the refugees’ utter resilience and imagination. A shopping street, the Champs- Élysée, has seemingly sprung up out of nowhere in the camp—3,500 pop-up shops of pure entrepreneurial spirit. She’s witnessed how creativity and making can calm the mind and help ease trauma.
One group she’s been working with are the self-formed TIGER girls (These Inspiring Girls Enjoy Reading). Aged 9 to 18, they gather after school to be mentored by TIGER coaches—older women who have skills to pass on. “They want to be scientists, engineers, architects,” Storey explains. “It’s an amazing attempt to save themselves psychically, realize their potential, and be all they can be in extraordinary circumstances.” In July 2017, she worked with 24 girls on a project called Love Coats (which arose after they shared how they loved fashion, were scared of being cold in winter, and wanted making skills so they could gift to others). A co-created project will be repeated this July with last year’s TIGERs taking on the role of coaches.
While refugee camps might not appear to be inspiring places, Storey sees an opportunity for humanity to learn anew together. In the future, she’s planning to work with urban refugees who live outside of camps.
She has found that you can’t plan in a traditional way: “This is training for the future. The life skills we need are how to go from surviving to flourishing in a place of constant and dramatic change. I have the same feeling in my belly now as I did in the late 1980s, when I was working on what became upcycling. We didn’t have the language then. Once you do find the right words, people say, ‘Now I get it, can I join the tribe?’”
Portrait of Helen Story by John Ross.
Photo of Helen Storey and Louise MacDaddy by David Betteridge.