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AN INTERVIEW WITH SANDY BLACK



London College of Fashion, University of Arts London is pioneering in its efforts toward nuturing a better future for fashion in terms of Sustainability. In fact, the University is complete with its own Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), educating not only its students about sustainable practises, but working toward global environmental awareness. A leader of this inspiring team is Sandy Black, Professor of Fashion & Textile Design & Technology at LCF, who started her career somewhat atypically as a maths student before delving into the Arts. After building her own knitwear label in the 70s, Sandy Black Original Knits, later to teach her craft, she now focuses on research projects predominantly regarding Sustainability and how fashion can be the catalyst for change.  With books, journals, and successful projects (past and ongoing) already stacked on the shelf, Black’s wealth of knowledge on Sustainability is an essential presence stirring the fashion industry, making us rethink our values as consumers and inspiring a new generation of Sustainably-driven, Eco-Chic fashion.

 
Tell us about your background and who you started in the Fashion Industry, to your role now as Professor of Fashion & Textile Design & Technology at London College of Fashion? 
I had a rather unconventional route into fashion via a maths degree – I was always interested in both arts and science subjects and maths was a bridge.  Having learnt to knit and crochet at home as a child, this interest was rekindled at university – I would doodle on my graph paper and knit my drawings. I started experimenting with knitwear ideas, bought a domestic knitting machine and soon launched my own Sandy Black Original Knits label selling my fashion knitwear and knitting yarn kits to prestigious stores internationally in the USA, Japan, Germany, Italy and Australia. Having always taken interns from colleges I started teaching knitwear, and later went into full time lecturing, then directed courses, first at University of Brighton, then London College of Fashion, UAL where I developed and ran the MA Fashion Studies programme for its first 8 years.  I now focus on developing research projects, supervising PhD students, writing and editing books and the academic journal Fashion Practice: Design, Creative Process and the Fashion Industry
 
You have published numerous journals and books regarding Sustainability. Where did you first start to see this as an important issue that needed to be addressed within the Fashion Industry?  
I’ve always hated waste of all kinds.  When I had my own business, making the most of every resource was vital to make funds go as far as possible. Having your own fashion business also means you have an overview of the entire process of production, marketing and selling, from the design concept to decisions on materials and the means of making finished products and also engaging with buyers and consumers.  As a cottage industry working mainly with craft-based production, I developed direct relationships with my producers. Within larger scale operations this intimate knowledge is dissipated and lost. I have always brought a holistic thinking to the issues of sustainability. Business practices over the latter part of the 20th C changed the fashion industry into an endemically wasteful system, exacerbated at the end of the century by the relaxation of trading tariffs, globalization and the ‘race to the bottom’ of sourcing cheaper and cheaper production around the world. The new millennium was an opportunity for major rethinking of the way fashion operates, and building towards fundamental and radical change, with growing awareness of global environmental limitations and ethical issues. One of my first funded research projects in 2004 was a network called Interrogating Fashion: New paradigms for fashion design in the 21st Century. which debated an agenda for future fashion. One of the key strands was called The Fashion Paradox: Transience and Sustainability, which gave rise to my book Eco Chic the Fashion Paradox. 



We live in an era of ‘Fast fashion’, which has made the fashion industry one of the most lucrative, but also environmentally damaging industries. How can Fashion help change this present culture of overproduction and overconsumption? What are the harbouring factors and challenges which stand against the fashion industry in adopting a more sustainable way of producing fashion? 
I believe that the universal power of fashion can be harnessed as a catalyst for change.  The consumer society has grown over many decades, and fashion overconsumption and overproduction has become the norm as prices have tumbled.  True value needs to be restored by recreating connections and awareness of the craft basis of fashion and the value of its materials and skilled labour.  Prices will have to gradually increase as production volumes must decrease, which is a difficult message to sell to an industry focused on growth.  Take back schemes and materials reuse must become mainstream, so infrastructures have to be developed and mindsets gradually changed, without condemning fashion itself, which provides many livelihoods and much cultural value.  Responsibility for change must be spread and shared across society, industry and legislatures; education and collaborative initiatives are beginning to accelerate this change within this surprisingly ‘old-fashioned’ industry.
 
Your research focuses on fusing craft, design and technology in the context of Sustainability. How can technology provide a helping hand in enabling considerate design? 
My Considerate Design project experimented with different methods to create personalized fashion products that are geared to individual preferences and fit rather than generic size. This is based on the idea that if the end user is engaged in the development of their fashion products, these will be used and cherished for longer, reducing the need to replace.  The use of technologies can be implemented at many different stages of design and production. For example: body scan technology can provide highly accurate personal measurements, but still needs to integrate into other production processes in order to be valuable;  Interactive AR systems can provide visualization of fit and style for online and offline purchasing;  VR and simulation can reduce the need for multiple prototyping in the development of products.  We are still in the digital middle ages! 
 
You have collaborated with many advocates of Sustainability Fashion, particularly shown within The Sustainable Fashion Handbook. Is there anyone in particular who stands out from the crowd in their creativity and eco-ethos?
 Apart from my colleagues of course in the Centre for Sustainable Fashion here at London College of Fashion, there are a few who stand out as pioneers in sustainable fashion. As a small business, Christopher Raeburn stands out in terms of consistent values, an early exponent of upcycling materials and local production where possible. He has now been in business for 10 years and has a mixed portfolio of products and manufacturing routes, and is now engaging and educating his customers more and more.  Orsola de Castro started by upcycling knitwear and factory waste materials, developed the Estethica showcase at London Fashion Week and 5 years ago co-founded the Fashion Revolution campaign, with Carry Somers of Pachacuti, an ethical brand producing hats in Ecuador.  Their message is now global.



How are you exploring new, innovative ways of improving sustainability at LCF - how do these ideas transcend to your students? 
At London College of Fashion, UAL we take a broad overview of sustainability and better lives and have a number of projects using fashion in diverse ways with a social enterprise focus e.g. ‘Making for Change,’ which was set up within a UK prison, to increase well-being and reduce reoffending rates amongst female offenders by equipping them with professional skills and qualifications within a supportive environment. My fellow researcher Professor Helen Storey is currently working on a project called Dress for our Times which works with Syrian refugees in one of the world’s largest refugee camps alongside the UNHCR. Students are engaged at all levels, but the MA Fashion Futures course, in particular, which was set up by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion 10 years ago, was the first course worldwide to focus on sustainability issues from both practical and theoretical perspectives. Sustainability underpins all the work we do, gradually integrating across all areas of study. We encourage our students to ask fundamental questions, take nothing for granted and apply fashion thinking and methods to create new concepts for ways to do fashion differently.  A whole system and product lifecycle approach is the only way to develop a more sustainable future for fashion whilst still celebrating delight and self-expression. However the agenda is large and can be intimidating, and we encourage a positive approach to empower individuals and businesses. My own recent work in the FIREup projects (Fashion, Innovation, Research and Enterprise) has focused on analyzing and supporting the creativity and potential of micro and small fashion businesses – many graduates of UAL and UK fashion courses – and their ability to innovative and experiment with new ways of doing sustainable fashion that the wider industry can learn from.
 
You are celebrating the 10th Anniversary of LCF’s Centre of Sustainable Fashion - What have you achieved in this time and how do you hope to progress in the future? 
Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), at London College of Fashion, led by Professor Dilys Williams, has been a pioneering voice for change in the fashion industry, working across three key areas of education and curriculum, research, and industry-facing projects and collaborations.  2008 was an auspicious year for sustainability initiatives and key publications from myself and Professor Kate Fletcher were also published.  It was also the year I founded Fashion Practice which has now been published for 10 years, with a strong focus on sustainability and the voices of practitioners and researchers working to drive change in the industry. Our messages have continued to spread more and more widely, for example through key involvement in the new V&A exhibition Fashioned from Nature, and the launch of the first online course in sustainable luxury fashion, in collaboration with Kering group. 
 
Any more exciting projects you can tell us about?! 
We have just received Arts and Humanities Research Council funding for a new project: Rethinking Fashion Design Entrepreneurship: Fostering Sustainable Practices.  This continues the CSF and FIREup work with small fashion businesses, so we can create a business support for sustainable fashion toolkit that many other companies can benefit from. Watch this space…
 
Fashioned From Nature exhibition, V&A - , Until 27th January 2019, Tickets £12
 
Publications by Sandy Black
Author:  The Sustainable Fashion Handbook  (Thames & Hudson 2012)
             Eco Chic: the Fashion Paradox  (Black Dog Publishing  2008 & 2011)
             Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft  (V&A Publishing 2012)
             Knitwear in Fashion  (Thames & Hudson 2002 & 2005)
 
Co-editor:  The Handbook of Fashion Studies  (Bloomsbury 2013 & 2017)
Founder and co-editor:  Fashion Practice: Design, Creative Process and the Fashion Industry (Routledge Journals)
 

Interview by Jade McSorley

Portraits by Curtis Gibson