Catalytic Clothing

lightboxA different version of this article appeared in the inaugural issue of Disegno magazine in 2011.

Helen Storey would probably rather be reading this article in Vogue magazine. The professor and designer from the Centre of Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion has been promoting her latest collaboration with leading chemist Tony Ryan from the University of Sheffield and in doing so has noticed a distinct trend in the reactions of journalists. ‘Anyone product-related or those who came from architectural design had no problem with it whatsoever…but anyone to do with fashion couldn’t get a handle on it at all.’ An article in the likes of Vogue magazine would signify acceptance by the fashion industry at large of the ends to which Storey is currently putting her skills as a fashion designer.

The project in question is called Catalytic Clothing and involves the addition of a photocatalyst sometimes found in cement and other urban applications, such as self-cleaning glass, to the composition of washing powder. In a similar way, Catalytic Clothing re-imagines the function of fashion by using the surface area of clothing to purify the air. The catalyst in the powder makes the electrons in fabric more reactive and able to break down air-borne pollutants into non-harmful chemicals. The powder draws on nanotechnology, the area of science concerned with the manipulation of matter on a molecular scale. As such it is a prime example of the burgeoning opportunities for designers in the dissemination of science. Yet the form of Catalytic Clothing and the prospect of its success point to some of the challenges which arise when trying to reconcile the potential of science and technology with the culture of the fashion industry.

From spray-on bikinis to lapels which can turn on the lights and jacquards which can emit sound, open the graduate catalogue from most fashion schools these days and you will most likely find any number of designs which with the help of up-to-date technology and scientific knowledge propose new purposes for the things we wear. Nor is the world of haute-couture a stranger to such developments. Hussein Chalayan has experimented with everything from shape-changing memory alloys to light-emitting diodides on the catwalk. Martin Margiela has flirted with microbiology and bacteria-affected cotton; while Viktor and Rolf have used bluescreening to propose the garment as digital display.

Yet away from the rarefied contexts of the academy and the catwalk, gaining mainstream traction for these propositions is notoriously difficult. Styles may change like the wind but put flights of fancy to the service of anything but escapism, status, self-expression and the creation of identity and the juggernaut that is the fashion industry is resistant and inert. Alternative functions for fashion may be conceivable but in everyday reality those motivated by self-interest and individuality seem to trump all.

Add to this the fact we live in an era when both the validity of science and the desirability of its applications are debatable, how then do you take a product which is amorphous, the benefits of which are impalpable and sell it in a cultural arena which is not known for its claims to authenticity or for altruistic and collective gestures?

Storey acknowledges the challenge of working with ‘something you can’t see, you can’t smell and you can’t touch’. Yet in order for Catalytic Clothing to be enduring and widely applicable, she was determined to avoid the fickleness of style. She realised ‘quite quickly it shouldn’t be the case where you have to wear a particular sports brand. What you’d have to do is piggy back it onto human behaviour.’ The everyday activities of washing and walking presented themselves as good solutions. This strategy, however, threw up its own challenges. Without an object other than powder to materialise it, which itself is not visible when in operation and the benefits of which are not immediately discernible or palpable, she needed a way to disseminate the project to the public.

She is adamant the journey from scientific discovery to its implementation in everyday life is made via cultural intervention: ‘Science moves very slowly; because it deals with life and death it has to. Culture changes every three seconds. However for science to be of value to society it needs to have a much bigger conversation with culture.’ According to her, turning the washing powder into a cultural product should also enable people to discriminate between the authenticity of Catalytic Clothing and the spurious scientific claims of other products on our supermarket shelves.

Catalytic Clothing has therefore been incarnated as a highly-considered cultural campaign. It has seen a number of iterations which depending on how you look at them form a rich, genre-busting tapestry of allusion and symbolism or a communications nightmare. It began with the design of a ‘couture textile sculpture,’ a gradated chiffon dress with a textile pattern of human lungs the inside of which is splashed with pearls of concrete. The concrete references the pre-existing technology in urban applications. This and other tangible design decisions were made to be conversation starters about various aspects of the project. Enigmatically entitled ‘Herself’ and redolent with metaphor and symbolism, the dress was toured as a conversation piece to a Sheffield pub and then to cities such as Moscow, Dubai and Singapore. It was then taken viral in a highly stylised video campaign with an ambient soundtrack by Radiohead and art-direction by experimental fashion filmmaker and contributor to SHOWstudio, Adam Mufti. In the video, model Erin O’Connor stands statuesquely clad in ‘Herself’ amidst light-projections of calculations, computer code and scientific imagery. Catalytic Clothing has also involved an installation of numerous pairs of denim jeans, which had been treated with the catalyst, standing in a field like torso-less scarecrows.

Storey claims ‘The idea of using…pop culture is to be able to have a conversation with the world about a technology that is yet to come.’ Whether or not Catalytic Clothing can be classified as pop culture is debatable. Storey is nevertheless a strong believer in the communicative power of fashion: ‘No one’s afraid of a frock.’ By her own admission she works ‘in the uncomfortable ground between Joe Public and the world of science…’ In this she shares the aims of critical design as articulated by interactions designers, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Critical Design uses design as a medium for discussion about the social and cultural implications of science and technology. It therefore offers the general public an opportunity to reflect and comment before such implications are instituted or set in stone.

Whereas Critical Design confines itself to a gallery context, perhaps belying an awareness of the limits of communication, Storey has broader aspirations for Catalytic Clothing: ‘The dream end of the project is that the catalyst we’ve come up with becomes what’s known as a threshold product so it’s a bit like fluoride in water. It becomes accepted that you don’t produce cleaning stuff unless this stuff is in it.’ With this aim, Storey and Ryan are working with project partner and cleaning fluid manufacturer, Ecover, to bring the product to supermarkets in two years.

The success of Catalytic Clothing entails a belief in change affected by collective action rather than by top-down institutionalisation or legislation. An estimate of the required level of uptake to affect a significant reduction in the level of air borne pollutants in a large city could only be achieved if for every metre of pavement width, 30 people wearing Catalytic Clothes walked past each minute. In order for it to have any noticeable effect then, a lot of us need to make washing with it part of our routine.

Storey’s own trajectory from designing shock frocks to washing powder is not as unexpected as it may seem. After working for Valentino, she had her own label in the 1980s. This hung in stores alongside those of her contemporaries Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett and came with the requisite attitude. Then she was driven by feminist critique. In many ways her political concerns have moved with the times. Fifteen years ago she discovered the wonders of science when her sister, a developmental biologist suggested they work together. The result was an installation called ‘Primitive Streak’ which translated the first thousand hours of human life into dresses. After reading about quantum mechanics in her spare time, she had a fantasy about an environmentally-smart plastic bottle which could disappear when empty. She approached Tony Ryan with it after hearing him on Radio 4. Their first project together, entitled Wonderland, involved a dissolvable dress intended as a medium for discussion about waste. Shifting her concerns from style to sustainability entailed a reassessment of her own authorship. She insists ‘in a sense I’m a designer last in the process…I’ve got an instinct for fabric and cloth and I have an instinct for the human body in it so at some stage that comes into it but it comes into it in service to science and not the other way round.’

Whether a fashion-oriented sculpture, an art installation and an experimental film distributed via social media can fulfil the mass aspirations Storey has for Catalytic Clothing remains to be seen. There is certainly no science to communication or to persuading people to re-purpose what they wear. Storey is determined that there must be ‘a good balance between…being able to be understood…(and) some kind of mystery…because often the mystery attracts people.’ Her next project with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion is an exploration of the psychology behind our desire for clothes: ‘We’re working with neuroscientists to map the wanting of stuff in your mind…of what it means to be a consumer and not express the addictive part of ourselves through our shopping habits.’ Perhaps she should have embarked on this project first.

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