If your faith in the ethical side of fashion needs restoring, then look no further than Bethany Williams. The talented young designer has spent the last year completing LCF’s MA course, the outcome of which is her collection Breadline. Williams pays close attention to socioeconomic and political issues in her work, and for her MA collection chose to focus on the growing hunger crisis in the UK, which has seen a huge surge in the number of people making use of food banks. The designer worked with the Vauxhall Food Bank as well as Tesco to create a philanthropic system involving donations from the supermarket chain and making practical use of the waste packaging to craft a truly unique collection. Our Features Editor Peta Clark caught up with Williams to discuss how sustainable fashion can be achieved and what’s next for the designer.
The relationship between fashion and sustainability is, unfortunately, often perceived as a concept rather than a reality. When did you first become aware of the need for sustainability and decide to promote it through your work? I believed in the importance of sustainability from an early age; I was raised that way. My family are very creative, caring and concerned about people and the environment, which has had a massive influence on my practice and how I view the world. Their views and beliefs have provided the foundations that my work is built upon.
Your BA wasn’t directly a fashion degree. Did you find it easy to integrate fashion into your work? Before LCF, I studied BA Critical Fine Art Practice at Brighton University, which was amazing. The course started my interest in critical theory, which is the backbone of my work. I’ve always been interested in fashion and art but as a student I found it very difficult to combine both disciplines. I chose a degree in Fine Art but always felt I had to justify the use of garments within my practice. Through the creation of my BA project ROOFLESS I was able to combine all my interests and I know this is what I want to do with my life. Help people, create art and design clothes.
My BA course also introduced me to the way art practices provide alternative systems for today’s social structures and services, and can attempt to go against globalisation’s homogenising tendencies – this led me to the idea of altering the production and selling process, and I hope consumers will question the existing process of commerce and see the potential for an alternative system. Throughout and after my degree I worked at Garage magazine which was an amazing experience. The publication is dedicated to the collaboration between art and fashion and very conceptually lead. The experience was invaluable and really helped my conceptual development.
I’m interested in the designer providing their own system and to evoke change within a community, rather than using the established ones.
Can you remember the exact moment/experience that sparked your interest in fashion? Helping my Mum make mine and my brother’s clothes as children and learning to knit with my Nan. I was intrigued with how yarn and fabric comes together to create a garment.
What has been the most rewarding experience during your MA project? I found the development of the concepts for the collection most enjoyable aspect of the course and being able to collaborate with so many amazing craftsmen and women within the UK, as they have really pushed my collection to the limits. However it has also been so rewarding to engage with the practical elements of the course. My BA was very theoretical and I’ve really relished being able to push myself and develop my technical skills. Coming from a fine art background, I found this the most challenging aspect. The technical support has been incredible; there are so many amazing people within London College of Fashion who are always willing to support and guide you which was great when it came to developing new textiles and materials. I wouldn’t have taken my work to the next level without that assistance.
Tell us about the process of developing the materials that were used in your garments? The current collection ‘Breadline’ particularly aims to highlight and help find solutions to the hidden hunger in the UK, specifically working alongside the Vauxhall Food Bank and Tesco to achieve this. I negotiated a donation of fresh fruit and vegetables from Tesco in exchange for waste items from the food bank users. I developed a collection using these waste materials, plus recycled cardboard and ‘Tesco everyday value’ branded organic prints (all donated by Tesco). We will be donating 30% of profits to The Vauxhall Food Bank, to continue the cycle of exchange. Every one of our garments is 100% sustainable and made in the UK. By working so closely with the Vauxhall Food Bank and with Tesco I have seen all the waste that comes with food consumption. I really wanted to re-purpose this waste and make it beautiful.
I started with waste cardboard. I really loved the existing branded prints on the surface and wanted to incorporate that within my collection. Through experimentation and research I ended up separating the layers of cardboard by soaking it in water before then fusing these layers to organic cotton. This material was eventually laser-cut into frames. The cardboard then has to be basket-woven, and, to create the garments, I devised a way of making them without seams through a weaving process. The pattern-cutting technique also allows for the use of the entire cardboard box, further reducing waste. The new fabric feels like leather and is actually surprisingly soft to touch.
What was the most challenging aspect of this? The materials all being hand made, the most challenging aspect was producing them in time for the garments to be ready when it came to the show. I created a technique for the woven cardboard so that the seams would weave together – constructing the cardboard jackets was very time consuming!
What changes would you like to see in the fashion industry to make it a more ethical environment? I would like to see an increase in paid internships here in the UK. I understand if smaller brands don’t have the funds to offer that, and if people believe in them and want to help them get on their feet then that’s one thing – but larger brands which are able to support students should offer paid internships. Lots of brands are keeping their production within the EU now which I think is brilliant, and I would like to see more of this to support craftsmen and women to prevent their craft from being lost. When researching basket weaving for the collection I discovered someone here in the UK who specialises in creating extremely long basketry for fishing, but due to the decrease in demand for this now specialist skill he hasn’t been able to find anybody interested in learning the technique and isn’t therefore able to pass it on and keep it alive.
Are there any other particular social/political issues you would like to explore in your work in the future? My current practice reflects the concepts of positive critique and alternative systems. I’m interested in the designer providing their own system and to evoke change within a community, rather than using the established ones. The current system of fashion could look to the likes of the work of art collectives such as Superflex for inspiration. Superflex is a company based in Copenhagen which consists of a group of freelance artist–designer–activists committed to social and economic change. Art itself is used as tool for direct social empowerment, not just contemplation or aesthetic experimentation. The freedom of the art world allows Superflex to work with initial ideas in their unrefined state as a starting point. These ideas develop in socially engaged projects, by utilising the locations, financial resources and collaborators that the art world has to offer, leaving the projects in the hands of others. The current system of fashion could look to the likes of art collectives such as Superflex for inspiration. By providing an alternative system for today’s social structures and services, our enormous fashion industry could be used to create social change rather than exploitation.
You had experience of working in a broad range of areas in fashion before coming to design (i.e. styling, art direction, production). What made you choose design for your MA? I felt that with creating your own brand you are still able to oversee the styling and art direction aspects. When I was working in areas such as styling, I really missed the act of physically creating and developing garments and textiles.
How has your focus on sustainability influenced what brands you personally wear? A lot of the time I buy second hand clothing, not least because doing an MA and creating a collection has been very costly (it took years of saving), so being able to purchase my own garments hasn’t been affordable. I really love Faustine Steinmetz’s denim creations; so much work goes into the garments and you know where they come from – truly an amazing brand!
Do you have a personal manifesto that you stick to? I’ve asked myself the question of ‘how deep does one need to go into one’s concept?’ many times. I wanted, ultimately, to create more employment opportunities in the UK, specifically for those who practice hand-craft techniques. The materials have been completely free, but the cost of production is with the labour. I very much want to help keep traditional techniques like this alive. I wanted the collection to reflect my concept, even down to the lookbook, which is why I cast Mustapha, a food bank user who had been struggling with the search for employment. This was his first paid job in eight months. I’ve been volunteering in shelters and for charities for quite a few years and wanted to find and forge a connection between charity and my work in fashion. By encouraging a cycle of exchange within a closed end system – by donating profits back to the food bank – I hope I can achieve this.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received? I would say be true to yourself, don’t feel that you should have to mould your work to fit a discipline or industry, the most interesting part of creativity is the cross over.
What’s in the pipelines? I’ve always dreamed of running my own brand which can help people and the environment, which is why I came to LCF. I’m hoping I will be given the platform to do this after show and gain funding to progress. In the meantime I’ve been invited to show at Vancouver Fashion Week in March which is a very exciting opportunity!