Following our invitation to attend the Istituto Marangoni 2019 catwalk show, we had the extreme pleasure to talk to the Program Leader for all MA, PhD, PGCert and FHEA courses, Kirsten Scott. From working as an haute-couture and ready to wear fashion and accessories designer, seeing her work on the runway in all the major fashion capitals to completing a PhD in Constructed Textiles, it’s safe to say Scott is well-versed when it comes to the fashion industry having an extensive background spanning over 30 years.
"I became deeply concerned about ethical issues and the potential for fashion to be a conduit for good"
Her path started at London College of Fashion, where she studied fashion design, only to set up her own accessories studio where she went on to sell her own collection to leading stories in the UK as well as private clients. “During that period I freelanced for top international brands - ready to wear and haute couture - and it was an incredible experience to see my work on the runways of London, Paris and Milan fashion weeks for many years – probably something I took for granted too much at the time.”
However, when the recession hit, that business folded and she went on to set up a small company specialised in designing and producing ready-to-wear accessories for UK designer brands. In 2012 she completed a PhD in Constructed Textiles at the Royal College of Art, which steered her thinking about fashion in a different direction, “I became deeply concerned about ethical issues and the potential for fashion to be a conduit for good. These days my work is focused on developing alternative fashion design models."
"There are a great many challenges facing the fashion industry at the moment and challenges give birth to creativity.”
While she was establishing herself in the fashion industry, she taught part-time at LCF and RCA for a number of years.
“I have always found teaching incredibly rewarding and inspiring and love to see my students’ work progress with their thinking about fashion. During my PhD study, I fell in love with research and my own practice has become very much more research led - this forms a great dynamic with teaching because it helps me to think about not just what industry is doing now but what it needs to do in the future, to develop ideas for how design might respond to this. There are a great many challenges facing the fashion industry at the moment and challenges give birth to creativity.”
"It is really important for students to develop a personal ‘voice’ as designers"
Considering you have been teaching since 2001, how have you seen graduates develop from then to now? Are there any noticeable differences?
KS: "I have seen quite a big change over the years. The impact of the internet, trend forecasting websites and particularly social media has been enormous. Some of it good, but it can lead to a lot of similar, homogenous design work with endless regurgitation of trends and the perpetuation of fast fashion fads. It is really important for students to develop a personal ‘voice’ as designers, then to refine this into clothing that they can actually sell – that people will buy and value. As art, design and textiles are being taught less in school and less encouraged at home, we see some skills gaps too. It is great to see students’ minds open up on our programmes and they develop skills in creative, design thinking, learning to engage with materials and techniques. In more recent years I notice that our students are becoming a bit more conscious of what is happening in the world, in politics and society, and willing to take more ethical positions."
Being the programme leader at Istituto Marangoni, how has the experience been overseeing different disciplines within an MA in Fashion? What is your vision when it comes to teaching, what would you like to add. Is it resolving issues concerning sustainability, overconsumption, too much waste,… ?
KS: "Increasingly, we need to be able to work in cross-disciplinary ways to find solutions to the challenges we face in relation to fashion and sustainability, so fashion designers may need to collaborate with people in technology or science. I am passionately committed to promoting values-based design with my students. It is not an option to carry on as usual and the fashion industry has proved unable to effectively police itself. Future fashion designers must stand for something, take an activist stance and work pro-actively to heal our industry; they also must be able to design clothes that people actually want to wear, want to keep wearing, to cherish, to repair, to pass down to others; they must explore new technologies, new disciplines, new materials, techniques and processes; they must help to preserve heritage – helping to sensitively modernise tradition – through neocraft approaches; they need to develop new models for fashion design and production – systems change; they must think outside the current echo chamber of fashion: we need visionaries! they need to design clothes that have value and lasting relevance – I don’t want any of my students’ collections ending up in landfill."
"I don’t want any of my students’ collections ending up in landfill."
Your own work is heavily based around heritage craft, sustainable fashion and cultural appropriation. Why are these topics important to you, and are these things you pass on to your students?
KS: "My work is about modernising heritage textiles and techniques that use natural, plant fibres – I am passionate about the handmade, the ways in which handmade things can connect us their maker and to the environment. I am not interested in reproducing the past but rather in learning from it: there has to be modernity in order to keep heritage skills and knowledge alive. I like intricate work, rich surface texture and sculptural forms. As I have worked a lot in Uganda developing materials from local resources and techniques, and my current research uses a cultural textile (barkcloth) from Uganda, I continue to navigate issues around cultural appropriation, identity and ownership – these are big concerns in contemporary fashion design too, as designers smash and grab the cultural property of others with relative impunity. It is important for our students to be conscious of these issues, so they are definitely subjects we place emphasis on in our MA teaching at IM through lectures, workshops and trips – we have a great elective subject called Neocraft – as well as helping our students manage these issues in their design choices."
Lastly, what’s the best piece of advice you can pass on to future and current graduates?
KS: "In addition to continuing to develop and perfect their knowledge of design, ethical sourcing, sampling, sustainable garment production and business, graduates are faced with other urgent considerations today: the fashion industry cannot continue in its current form and must change. Graduates have to be able to think outside the box and to challenge the status quo - grounding their practice in strong, ethical considerations - to form a personal voice as designers of the future with something to offer people and planet rather than the shareholders of large corporations. They need to be conscious of the implications of any choices they make as designers. This is a challenge but also an opportunity for graduates: creativity flourishes in times of difficulty. This is a positive thing and I am excited to see what our future graduates do."
"Graduates have to be able to think outside the box and to challenge the status quo - grounding their practice in strong, ethical considerations"
Words by Lupe Baeyens & Kristen Scott