Helen launched a fashion label in 1984 and in 1990 was awarded 'Most Innovative Designer' and 'Best Design Exporter'. She was nominated for British Designer of the Year in 1990 and 1991, exporting to 24 countries with celebrity clients including Cher, Madonna and Liz Hurley and she enjoyed a high media profile. The trading arm of Helen Storey closed in June 1995.
In September 1996, Helen launched her autobiography, Fighting Fashion. She contributed to the Designer Fact File, written by business partner, Caroline Coates and commissioned by the UK's Department of Trade & Industry and the British Fashion Council.
Her many successful projects include:
- Primitive Streak - a ground breaking Sci/Art project she undertook with her sister, biologist, Dr Kate Storey, for which they received the Wellcome Sci/Art Prize. This project brought together the worlds of science and fashion through the creation of a fashion collection that explained the first 1000 hours of human life.
- Mental – an art/science project involving mixed media work exploring creativity.
- Wonderland – a collaboration with Professor Tony Ryan of Sheffield University exploring how new materials can make consumer products less damaging to the planet.
- Ideas that Can Change the World – a project which enables young people to define the world they would like to live in and gives them the knowledge they need to imagine and generate creative and ethical solutions to our global challenges.
- Free Radicals – a project which brings together the Universities of The Arts, London, Sheffield, Ulster and Westminster and mirrors the cross-university and cross-disciplinary approach in Wonderland.
In an interview for Creativity & Human Development, Helen talks about the early and the most recent influences on her work, the benefits of working creatively across disciplines, how she sees the creative process in science and the arts, her views on personal development and education, and what drives her now.
I met with Helen in London in a rooftop cafe, across the road from the University of the Arts, where she is Professor of Fashion & Science. I wanted to find out what made this prolific creator so successful and what had influenced her decision to work across the disciplines of Fashion and Science.
Asked what encouraged and discouraged her creativity when she was growing up, Helen explained, 'I grew up with a writer as a Dad (playwright & novelist David Storey) who worked at home and there were four of us – I don't know how he worked with that racket going on. I think I had an excellent start in terms of the chances of whatever I was being creative at, becoming something, but I think mine went the wrong way the minute I went to school. I was at what nowadays you'd call a failing school without knowing it was and many of us left with no qualifications at all and so my experience of the learning process was that it was something that I could never make sense of. I didn't experience myself as somebody who could learn'.
'I certainly never found my way into an art room, which may have been the thing that might have saved me'. Her real education, she says, began at the age of 19 when her father encouraged her to apply for an Art Foundation course, 'That was the year that saved my creative life I think. I met lots of other people who didn't know what the hell they were doing, but I found an amazing energy towards life that manifested itself differently in each of them. For the first time, I wasn't lonely. So, coming together with a group of other people who were lost and trying to find a way of making sense and expressing through some medium of art was the best place I could have possibly ended up.'
Despite this course being held in a ramshackle ex-garage, 'the experience was perhaps everything that my school years should have been – and everything took off from there.'
But Helen still wasn't sure what she was going to end up doing. 'At one point I thought it was going to be sculpture, but then I found a very strong instinct for the female form that may have come from doing ballet rather early in life. So I thought it's probably clothes and sculpture, so it's probably something around theatre design, theatre costumes.' However, a visit to her class from Daphne Brooker meant that she was one of three students chosen to pursue a degree in fashion at Kingston.
'There's never been a plan; I've never had a particular drive towards something other than trying to make sense of my inner world and eventually that's the thing that gets called the artist. Although I was quite theatrical and over the top and clearly wasn't going to have a solid job and be paid well. I kept batting up against the wall of not really fitting'.
At Kingston, a marvellous teacher, Richard Nott, 'saw something in me, and I think that by the end of my 3rd Year I was starting to get the confidence that not fitting in was something that I could bring to it all.'
The benefits of working creatively across disciplines
It was Primitive Streak, a collaborative project funded by the Wellcome Trust, which gave Helen the opportunity to work across the arts/science boundaries. Encouraged by her business partner, Caroline Coates, Helen decided to collaborate with her sister, Dr Kate Storey, a Developmental Biologist. This gave her the opportunity to use her skills to try something new. ' In some ways I found it frightening because I knew my sister was an expert in the area and I knew absolutely nothing, but it ended up being a piece of work and a journey that changed my life forever.'
Helen Storey & Kate Storey by John Lawrence
Asked whether working across disciplines affects her thinking, Helen replies that it's more to do with finding other human minds, very different from hers, who exhibit 'a generosity of spirit' and 'motivation for how we do things which has great parallels. I'm not really interested in what already exists, but I'm extremely interested in how a thought becomes an idea that becomes a reality, and equally interested in the atrophy of life - when life starts to disappear - because again there's another unknown. I'm interested by nature and the unknowns. So that would mean that across the sciences an awful lot of my appetite for that gets satisfied, because it's full of unknowns! I also like the risky nature of the scientists that I work with. But by no means are they all risk-takers, and that's where it goes back to the human element, finding the right person to collaborate with seems to make all the difference on both sides.
'What I learned with Primitive Streak was how easy it is for the artist to take up the role of simply illustrating the other's world – and that's fair enough, but anybody can do that. I think what's much more meaningful is the degree to which you can impact each others' worlds so that both of you are coming up with work that neither of you would have on your own. There's something about that intelligent collision, that fertilisation, that ability to not worry if you come across as a complete nutter. Ask – because they know things in their world that you know nothing of, but also vice versa. And one of the things I've found with science is an increasing need for anybody to be able to understand it. Unless we understand the world and how it comes to be and the nature of us, we can't really have a comment on the world. That's so fundamental - and so the more languages and ways that we can bring science into people's everyday lives, because it's there in any case, the better for all of us I think.'
The creative process in science and in the arts
Asked what creativity means to her, Helen replies,' That's a trick question isn't it? I hate the word creativity; I think it's as useless as the word pretty. I've never been asked to come up with a better one though. If by creativity you mean the creative process, for me it's an experience of both knowing oneself very well and forgetting oneself entirely. And the best things that I've ever done have come to mind when I've forgotten myself entirely - and in that sense I'm not convinced they've anything to do with me at all really!'
She cites the Beatles song All you need is Love. 'It's keying into what's probably available to everybody – without getting too mystical. Sometimes it's dragged out of you as a response to something that's held you back or disadvantaged you; at other times, it's a celebration of you, because everything you need around you is there. But most often for me now the thing that gets it out of me is "Is this something that needs solving?" and my creativity at the moment seems to be attracted to solving things that have meaning, so I couldn't just do a pretty frock anymore no matter who wore it and how many pictures she had taken of herself. It's not because I think that glamour and the power of famous people is something to be looked down on – it's just meaningless'.
'My experience of art is that it's, on the whole, very specific and artists are promoted as film stars. It's personality art as opposed to what they produce, and that seemed to happen 10 or 15 years ago where the artist was as important as what they produce. In the process, creativity is in some way lost to the money they could get for that piece of art. I suppose it's an inevitable development of the way we've gone forward as a capitalist society.'
'Every time I've been to an art gallery, I have a sense of loss because the bit I wanted to see was the bit I wasn't allowed to be there for, which was how this thing came into existence. That to me is the enormous specialness. The end result is when they've finished and they've gone home. And I want to be there as the thing's being born. So art galleries in that sense are cemeteries. Their life has already happened and some people find that a rather depressing way to view some of the greatest works that men and women have ever produced. But it's just an instinctive response that I've always had which is to want to be there when it's being born.'
'I grew up with a Dad who was a playwright who never went to the theatre, and in some ways, it's about what one inherits automatically. I'm an artist who never goes to art galleries and I don't read art books and I don't read magazines. Most of the work I do is either shown in the street or the shopping mall or in very unglamorous places that aren't called galleries – and the danger of doing that of course is that you're not considered then by the art fraternity as an artist. So I'm not, but equally I'm not considered as a designer by the fashion industry because I'm not selling them anything. What I seem to do is hover between these two worlds. But what I do know is that it engages individual minds really effectively and does seem to tangibly move things forward in terms of what's possible in science.'
On the similarities and differences between science & art
'The trial and error is very, very similar; the commitment to letting multiple things fail is very similar. And a sense of instinct is, I think, found in both places; openness to unexpectedness, the guts to follow something that you're not quite sure where it's going but something's telling you it's worth going down that way; and the narcissism of claiming the result is pretty similar.'
'Evidence, I guess, is the biggest difference – the need for it in the science sector – that someone on the other side of the world can reproduce your experiment - very, very different to the experience of art where each of us is supposed to bring something which is unique to us.'
'I've had quite deep conversations with my sister now and again because I think we are very different as people – so that made the Primitive Streak project really interesting. We came from the same womb and turned out very differently. She would say things to me like, "how do you know when you're right?" or "How do you know when you've finished?" and I'd just know. Well that's not good enough is it, because you've got to come up with a list that you can tick off and say "I know I'm right because I've done that, that and that, and it's telling me this." So it's the contrast between objectivity and subjectivity.'
'Also the arts tend to be more public - the results are publicly celebrated or denied; whereas in the world of science you can stay quiet for ever if you want to. And almost everything that you do of meaning is behind closed doors, and then occasionally you say "I've finished!" and it ends up being a pill in a bottle or a new process. And I guess a scientist is lucky if in their lifetime they get to work on something that has an impact on a lot of people in a positive way; whereas an artist, and for sure a fashion designer, is supposed to be spectacular every six months and everyone's got to know about it! So it's the difference between the public and the private side as much as between the objective and the subjective.'
Asked what would help young people to be able to cross discipline boundaries in the way that she had, she replies 'It's the other way round; I think they work across boundaries very naturally and we're the ones that put things in their way to narrow them down: we measure too early and, in our collective economic nervousness, we try to plan what this little person is going to do, and whether they're going to do well. Without wanting to be sexist, I think this nervousness comes more from men than from women. My experience of working with really young kids is that in those early years there are no boundaries at all'.
Helen recognises the importance of the very first bonding between mother and child and the value of young children's early experiences of love at home and parental feelings of self-worth or lack of it, their experience of pre-school and primary education. Helen describes how her very early failure has served her well later in life - which was lucky - but she sees that as rare. More commonly many young people who have had bad experiences at home or in education never have the opportunity to 'find out what they are passionate about' and this can have a devastating effect on their lives. Asked what we can do to help, she thinks that 'There are things we can do every day as individuals and maybe they are the only things we should concentrate on' such as 'behaving in a mindful, loving and extraordinarily intelligent way moment to moment, everywhere'. It's not something one can legislate for, she observes.
But if we want to adjust what happens to children as they go on 'up the ladder' then we do have to work with government since this has to happen at scale 'but within that it's often where the best intentions get lost'. In her experience, making improvements to education through government (regardless of which government is in office) was difficult because of issues of accountability 'to even ask the questions'. This she finds both extraordinary and disheartening.
On early failure leading to future success
'Often in the most spectacular of people, early failure has happened at some stage or some sort of schism in their early life has been extremely hard to reconcile and the need to recreate oneself away from that can be an incredibly motivating factor. Which is wonderful for those people, but I still think that for the majority of young people, they're put in a position where they're not allowed to realise who it is they are and what they have to offer. It's not just the stigma but the economic ramifications of that which follows them for the rest of their lives'.
Asked whether she thinks that the 'All our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education' report has had a positive impact in education, she replies, 'Whenever I go into school and I chat to teachers and I get to see their top drawer, Ken's book is always in there. It's like this Bible which no-one can admit to reading because it's so at odds with what they're allowed to do on a daily level, but it's almost acted as a book of spiritual guidance, I think, to some of the best teachers in the land. Creative Partnerships came out of that and it did a lot of good, but once again it was funding and government change that meant it went into another guise. You can see traces of that report still having an impact and even if you look at Ken's Twitter following, you'll find an awful lot of people around the world who are still trying to deliver to the work that came out of that period of time.'
'I'm not involved in schools at a daily level so I couldn't say from the coalface the degree to which work has arisen around that, but I see the potential in every young person I come across, so I know the things that it spoke to and what they were trying to do was absolutely right.'
What about in Higher Education?
'Depends which university you go to. I'm employed by a university; I still feel inside the system and outside the system somehow. There are good things about it – I've had tremendous support in getting things I thought were worthwhile funded in terms of their research and getting out there.'
'I'm still at odds with knowledge for knowledge's sake and certain parts of the university system are still very supportive of that. I guess what I try to do is to make the best of both worlds. I try to make the walls of wherever I'm working quite osmotic so the outside is coming in and the skill base is going out – providing it's something worth solving, in some ways it doesn't really matter where you are as long as you can get it done. I feel very bad for the students I have contact with at some level in that I see their enthusiasm and their openness, and during recent years I worry about what their lives are going to be like after they've left. And as more and more generations come through with higher and higher expectations of there being a link between what they're taught and earning a living, I wonder about that schism and what might become of those people. Whether we end up attracting the types of students who aren't going to be risk-taking by nature because they're going to need to get that loan paid off. And you might end up with those who are most creative not being able to afford to be attracted to the very places that might enhance their creativity and turn it into something. Sometimes that's a good thing – it's when the outside world then reinforms what the word "art" means, but it's also a sad thing because it means that they'll have an uphill struggle to do it.'
Are there things we should be doing to help them?
'To me there needs to be much more of a process where industry and education are working together from the word go; which isn't to say, going back to my early days at Kingston, that you start designing what M&S want on Day One, but that the nature of the type of designer or artist you become is developed hand in hand with those most likely to be able to work with you when you leave. So in a way I think education should take place in a number of places not just in this building called a university.'
What currently influences her work and drives her now
'I tend to like a problem to solve and as I've gotten older they do have to be worth solving, something that's worth spending time on that can be of benefit beyond any artistic satisfaction. I think I probably overdo the bit about my cynicism about the art and often say that now art for me has to have a purpose. I think that perhaps the truth that's hidden under that is because of my early education still coming into my life now, which is that I don't believe I am an artist, because I was never told I was one. I never did things that I could point out that said I was going to be one and so I can't stake claim to the thing that I've become so that's part of the issue, I imagine, but also because of the way of the world and how it appears to us now. We're on a clock and we don't have time to faff around.'
'Fashion, which is the area I came from, needs to slow down and science needs to speed up, because there are things that need solving far more quickly than they've ever needed solving before! We've burnt through our heritage of oil. There's a huge disparity around the world about who can afford to live and who can't afford to live, but fundamentally we made the mess so we are capable of getting ourselves out of it. So the role of the artist, the designer, the engineer, or whatever, is all skills to the same pump – and we have to do it as quickly, as intelligently and as compassionately as possible.'
'Although recycling is a good way to get the individual to connect with the problem that needs solving, the amount we recycle doesn't actually change our destiny that much. It's good to take your plastic bag back to Sainsbury's [supermarket] and all the rest of it, but I think that the big-scale problems are going to have to be rolled out at scale and very, very intelligently and very quickly and that's going to take collaboration from around the world.'
'It still saddens me that part of our pre-condition as humans is this notion of being territorial. I don't know why there isn't a crack science team that exists in the way that the UN exists so you get the best minds in China, the best minds in the UK, the best minds in America and we're all in it together to solve the problems for all of us. But the way funding works, the way government works is that we're accountable to the piece of land we happen to be educated in and knowledge is not shared in that way. So we aren't living in emergency times in our heads, but we are living in emergency times in terms of our planet. But we're not behaving as if that's the case. That's our problem again. It's so obvious; I don't know why we're not doing it.'
You've obviously achieved a great deal, is there some goal that you haven't yet fulfilled?
'It's always the goal of the moment; I haven't got a long term one. It's been serendipity. At the moment I'm very keen on a project I'm working on with Professor Tony Ryan which will end up as a product in the marketplace, Catalytic Clothing, and that's the ability to purify air through our clothes. I'm working with Ecover – a laundry product, so we can deliver it democratically and as widely as possible so that anybody who washes their clothes in a washing machine and walks in a city that's got pollution can do something about it.'
The new CatClo product has recently been launched. When washed into clothing, and activated by sunlight, the titanium dioxide particles react with nitrogen oxides in the air, oxidising them into the fabric. These are both odourless and harmless, and are removed safely when the item of clothing is next washed. One person wearing clothes treated with CatClo would be able to remove around 5g of nitrogen oxides from the air in the course of an average day – roughly equivalent to the amount produced each day by the average family car. Nitrogen oxides produced by road vehicle exhausts are a major source of ground-level air pollution in towns and cities, aggravating asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The research, including a 'Field of Jeans' installation, was featured as part of the Manchester Science Festival (27th October – 9th December 2012). CatClo works particularly well on denim and there are more jeans on the planet than people. So even if CatClo is only used on this one item of clothing from our wardrobe, it could make a significant difference to air quality. Find out more on the Catalytic Clothing website.