When London College of Fashion (LCF) turned 100 years old in 2007, it planned a celebration with the tagline "Fashioning the future." But its vision of the future at that time didn't include any major plans to address sustainability. To Dilys Williams — then a designer for Katharine Hamnett, who was teaching a few classes at LCF — that was a glaring problem.
"If I think back on it now, I don't know how I managed to be quite so bold," she says. "But I asked to go and see the head of college, and said, 'If you're fashioning the future, then you've got to completely change the curriculum... You've got to do research and understand the environmental and the ethical implications of fashion.'"
Much to her surprise, then-head of college Frances Corner responded, "You’re right. We should. Why don't you set something up?" And thus, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) was born.
In the 13 years since then, the Centre has gone from an off-the-cuff idea to a trailblazing institution at the forefront of sustainability education. It's helped shape influential figures like Claire Bergkamp (former head of sustainability at Stella McCartney), Christopher Raeburn (current global creative director at Timberland) and a host of fashion academics. It's worked with major industry players like Kering, Nike and Condé Nast and advised the British government on fashion-related policy (even if, as Williams wryly points out, elected officials haven't always heeded the advice they're given). And it's produced research on everything from denim's air-purifying potential to how clothing is used and repaired.
But its beginnings were humble. When Williams first spoke to Corner, it wasn't with any grand proposal in mind. Having been told that she had a year to come up with an idea and make it viable, Williams and a colleague she recruited had to find students, come up with a curriculum and find funding to fill the gaps in a remarkably short time.
"I literally put together an idea for an MA in Fashion and Environment in I think two or three months," Williams says. "And it was the first MA in fashion and sustainability out there."
Bergkamp, now the chief operating officer at Textile Exchange, remembers looking for a place to study fashion with a strong focus on the environment when she was headed to grad school 12 years ago. She couldn't find a school in the U.S. that fit the bill, so she headed to London, lured by the then-new Centre for Sustainable Fashion. "They were and are one of the preeminent research hubs for sustainability in fashion," she says. "They were certainly one of the first major academic institutions dedicated to that topic."
The Symbiotic Relationship Between Fashion Schools and Brands Heats Up
It's Time To Stop Looking To Brands To Save Us
Covid-19 Pushes Fashion Design Schools Into an Increasingly Digital Future
That's not to say that the Centre invented environmentally-conscious fashion education. Williams is careful to point out that the discourse around fashion and sustainability in academic spaces has long been dominated by Western voices. While that could have to do with the fact that Western nations are "where the seed of the problem is," she also says that "there are lots of different cultures and languages that probably write about a way of designing that is much more ecologically centered that we don't even necessarily recognize or have conversation with."
Even within dominantly English-speaking nations, there have been other fashion schools promoting sustainability within their curriculum for a long time. According to Lynda Grose, the chair of fashion design at California College of the Arts, her school started teaching about fashion and sustainability in undergrad classes as early as 1999. Still, she saw the creation of the Centre as significant.
"When the Centre for Sustainable Fashion was founded, it was an indicator to us that sustainability was becoming institutionalized and formalized in fashion education and that it would continue to grow," Grose says. She adds that the Centre was the first institution to offer a PhD in fashion and sustainability, which "provides a means for empirical research to be generated to counterbalance and complement what has been an industry-led movement, with an industry-led narrative and claims."
Part of what made the Centre special from the beginning was simply the fact that it started working deeply on sustainability before that was a widespread priority in fashion education. But it also relied on a unique three-pronged model: It conducted original research, shaped curriculum and pursued partnerships with industry players.
"There tends to be sort of a hierarchy between industry being powerful and calling the shots on things, and research informing curriculum," says Williams. "Whereas I wanted each of those things to inform each other."
While building curriculum and directing research are more straightforward, Williams admits that navigating lines with brands isn't always easy. Part of how the Centre approaches partnerships with big brands that might have less-than-stellar sustainability reputations is to look for long term relationships rather than one-off collaborations, and a willingness from brands to acknowledge their role in creating problems. Williams also sees working with design teams — rather than just communicating or marketing teams — as crucial to actually changing how businesses work.
To date, the Centre has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, from media companies to massive conglomerates to designer labels. It has collaborated with Condé Nast on the influential publisher's Sustainable Fashion Glossary and worked with Nike on an app that's supposed to make it easier for designers to pick earth-friendly materials. A five-year partnership with Kering resulted in a co-created curriculum and awards program designed to encourage and reward sustainability-centric innovation. One researcher from the Centre worked with Elie Saab to create embroidery education for residents of the Zaatari refugee camp. The Centre is rolling out new projects all the time, too, including an upcoming collaboration with Asos.
A designer at heart, Williams believes that good design that has sustainability baked in is part of what will shift the culture enough for real change to happen. She's also a big believer in the small businesses that can more nimbly adopt sustainable practices and prove the value of doing so to the rest of the industry. She points to Bethany Williams (no relation), a buzzy London-based menswear designer who graduated from LCF in 2016, as a great example of this.
Bethany, whose work involves upcycling and partnering with charities every season, says that though her approach is now lauded across the British fashion industry, she didn't feel like many other schools had the programs and staff in place to support her vision when she was first starting out.
"I had interviews at other universities and I didn't feel like they really did anything with sustainability or that they understood what I was trying to do," she says. "Whereas when I did my interviews at London College of Fashion, with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion having been there for about 11 years at that point, I felt that they really understood where I was taking my practice."
In the years since Professor Williams first helped kickstart the Centre, she's seen plenty in the sustainability space change. Clothing that centers ethical production is more "design-led" (read: cool-looking) now. The relationship between decarbonizing and decolonizing fashion is more widely recognized. And there's a more cohesive movement and group of people pushing for sustainability than there was before. But there's "still a load of bullshit" that needs fixing, she says, from corporate greenwashing to our society's tendency to value profit over planet.
For that reason, the Centre's work feels more vital than ever. Though Williams remarks that her original intention was to "make herself redundant" with her work there, it's become clear that the industry has a long way to go before that day arrives. Until then, she's committed to staying the course.
"Changing a whole belief system and culture is massive and takes a long time," she says. "We continue to want to change cultural acceptability and cultural norms through design."