the gentlewoman

The Reader

Professor Dilys Williams is ethical fashion’s most glamorous crusader, leading the charge as director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL (CSF). Dilys’s environmental awakening came during her 10 years as womenswear director for Katharine Hamnett, when the British brand was pioneering socially conscious practice in the 1990s. Witnessing the wider industry’s voracious consumption habits during that heyday of “masstige” and “massculsivity” had shocked Dilys into action, and in 2008 she finally established the centre to show fashion the error of its ways. CSF celebrates 10 years of changing the industry’s hearts and minds this year and hosts What’s Going On – Global Fashion Conference later this month. “We can only advise, not dictate,” says Dilys, but the Mr Pinaults of this world sure seem to be heeding her counsel.

Dilys Williams

Richard: I can recall a time in the early 2000s when the idea of “environmentally conscious fashion” was balked at. In those days football players boasted about wearing a pair of trainers once and then throwing them away.

Dilys: Since 2008 we’ve seen a huge rise in people’s awareness across all sectors, not just fashion, of the way we buy and dispose of things. People are now connecting the different issues at play: from sustainability to workers rights, climate change to economics. And organisations such as ASOS and Kering want to be part of the solution. Someone like Francois-Henri Pinault knows that his legacy can either be creating more shit to contribute to climate change or about pioneering a change in the way fashion is produced and sold. And there’s still a lot to do. We’re consuming and disposing of more than ever before. The trajectory of what the fashion industry is expected to produce by 2030 is bonkers – it’s something like 102 million tonnes of clothing.

R: So how do you reconcile those two realities?

D: We do it by stealth, by working inside the system. We’re not scientists, we’re not techies – we’re designers, who through discussions and innovative product ideas, help visualise what it means to live well in fashion. For example, the Centre worked with the Selfridges buying team on creating a better buying guide so they have a checklist of sustainability-centred questions to ask new designers. We’re also part of London College of Fashion, so education is crucial: we can no longer send graduates into a world where they are contributing to the problem.

R: Can luxury fashion ever be sustainable?

D: Absolutely. If you think about what luxury stands for, it’s about rarity and authenticity. It refers to a product that honours the value of its materials and craftsmanship. So in its purest form, luxury is inherently sustainable. The problem is our current interpretation of luxury is so closely related to selling. We need to remember that fashion doesn’t need to be just about buying new stuff.

R: Is there a book on this that you’d recommend?

D: I would start with Kate Fletcher’s The Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion. It’s not exactly a beach read, but it’s both detailed and digestible. The non-profit organisation Fashion Revolution also makes great zines, such as Money Fashion Power and Loved Clothes Last.

R: And how do you dispose of your unwanted clothes responsibly?

D: I have an 18-year-old daughter who seems to do that for me, whether they’re unwanted or not. She then sells them on Depop!

R: Does that mean there’s loads of great Katharine Hamnett on Depop?

D: No, I’ve hidden all of that from her. But usually I’d take clothes to charity shops.

R: Having raised sustainability to the top of the fashion agenda, what’s the game plan for CSF’s next 10 years?

D: Our intention is still the same: to transform the fashion system and be bolder about it. All these businesses know the current model is broken so it’s about getting people to think of fashion in an ecological context, not just economic.

Interview by Richard O’Mahony, September 2018. Portrait courtesy of Dilys Williams. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!