Interviews

Wandering through drawing & around the body: In dialogue with Professor Helen Storey MBE

The following conversations took place at London College of Fashion, in October-November 2010, between the curators of the exhibition, Charlotte Hodes and Flavia Loscialpo, Helen Storey, Philip Delamore and Simon Thorogood.
C&F – How do you engage with drawing? Has its role changed through the years within your activity?

HS – I do a lot more than fashion now, so I often do not think about it in fashion terms. I believe that, since I have been working with scientists, I have had to reinvent how to think with drawing. I scribble more often than I do anything else. Drawing had to become part of how to explain what is in my head to people who do not work in the arts. It has taken on a different role, whereas before I sort of knew my audience. In order to work with a seemingly opposite discipline, like science, I had to develop a different way of using my hands and my head. I have often had an awkward relationship with drawing, because I see it in my head and I do not think my hands are as skilled as they need to be.

When I am working on something as 3D, whether it is a dress or any kind of art piece, it ends up being a sort of hybrid between hand gestures, conversations and drawings, and very often the drawings have the scribbles of three or four different people on them. There is no direct authorship, but rather a lot of ‘what do you mean this?’. Often what is beautiful about it is that you can stand back and then see something that has gone out of three or four people’s scribbles onto the same thing: it was not in any of your heads but somehow you have been scribbling it together. You have got something that none of you could have thought of.

C&F – What relevance has drawing for you at the very inception of an idea and, in particular, had in the early stages of Primitive Streak?

HS – As Primitive Streak is a science project, the first drawings were biological drawings. It would be my sister trying to get me understanding something really complex, but luckily she can draw really well. We would start off in her hands, and then I would take my understanding of what she has drawn and develop it around a female form. Part of that work would be directly into cloth, with no drawing at all, and other times it would be incessant drawing to convince myself of something. There is a kind of negotiation between the 3D object and drawing, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, until this thing I have got in my head is out.

My natural language is tactile, it comes through the touching of something, and I consider myself a poor illustrator or poor drawer. I am also so keen to solve certain things in the world that I will use whatever medium it takes. Drawing still remains part of that, but part of quite a complex language of methods of being able to talk to other people in the creation process, but then also of being able to communicate it to people when you are not there at all. It still has to carry a resonance, and it still has to show a process.

C&F – You have just mentioned the female figure. At the intersection of science and fashion we find the body. In Primitive Streak, a body is represented in formation. Has drawing been a medium, as well as a mediator, for you in representing the body?

HS – Drawing has had for me a role indeed as a mediator in representing the body. I think that, because I learned fashion drawing before I learned life drawing, I missed the whole opportunity to understand and study the female form, how it truly is rather than how it gets projected within the fashion world. Lots of my fashion drawings were often accused of being extraordinary, unrealistic to how the female body truly is. Idealized. I have never really understood where that drawing technique came about, how we managed to get to this place where they are so 14 unrepresentative of the female form, of the true people. But it is a kind of handwriting, and it is a short kind of handwriting. And you actually find that, when you have got a lot of fashion design ideas, you can work quite well just on a template because it is the ideas, not necessarily the female form, that you are drawing underneath. So that becomes a kind of formula or formulaic, whereas the creation of clothes that you are drawing on top becomes important.

C&F – In your work transformation is indeed a recurring motif (e.g. In Primitive Streak, Wonderland). How do you manage to represent or eventually perform transformation without fixing, crystallising it?

HS – I am on a sort of journey. If we go back to the beginning, which for me is Primitive Streak, I think I was quite literal as I was trying in different ways to show the first thousand hours of life. There is a work at different scales: I would dive at a cellular level and find way of representing that or I would zoom out on a structured level and show how the heart was forming, for instance. Or I would zoom out entirely at the finished recognizable form, as a sort of baby, if you like. I think that I was practicing at that stage, and what I have come to rely on now is nature.

In the dissolving dresses for Wonderland, for example, I am relying on a chemistry that I know will happen. What I am doing is manipulating it, positioning it and attaching it to something that has nothing to do with nature, as frocks and dresses, but using the essence of what that chemistry is absolutely destined to perform, to help me deliver something that is transformative.

C&F – The idea of transparency pervades Wonderland and, in a different way, Primitive Streak, in which the linear drawn elements onto the dresses articulate an exploration of the inside onto the outside. This linear quality emphasises the transparency that brings the viewer around the body, and imaginatively through, into the inside of the body. Could you say more about this?

HS – This actually mirrors how I experience life, or the process of living. I am far more fascinated by people’s interior world, than I am by their exterior world, which is at odds with working in fashion, to some degree and on an obvious level. But that dance between enormous and nano, the outside and inside, has an energy force that lays behind all my work. I tried to do it in a way that is not self- conscious, but there is so much yet to understand about how the human mind works and I am hoping that it never gets to a place where it becomes self-conscious.

For Primitive Streak, I was quite literal to begin with. I was really grappling with trying to understand: trying to understand biology, trying to understand what it means to produce clothes that probably none would wear or is meant to wear, trying to understand who is going to be interested, given that when it was done, 13 years ago, it was neither art nor fashion, and finally trying to work out what this language was, as it was emerging in the process of making the work. And allow myself to get lost, so in a way Primitive Streak is full of quite a lot of naïve marks. That was the only place to start really.

C&F – Did you take scientific drawings that already existed?

HS – Yes, one was an embroidery that was done by a Japanese girl. It was the first known drawing of implantation, that is, the moment in which the embryo embeds itself into the uterus walls. It had such an amazing quality to the line, irrespective of the bound that it was elucidating. Why it worked is that somehow, in the tremble of her hand, she kept that in the thread. That was one of many experiences we had. Everybody, consciously or unconsciously, worked at the collection because all were working at the edge of what they thought they knew, and all were working at something that was incredibly wondrous. In the end, we developed a kind of Tai Chi hand language because there were things we did not know how to describe. I rather liked those moments, because you are working on something so foreign that you have to invent a language for the different levels of understanding and appreciation in the project.

What I liked about Wonderland was the pain of the work going, knowing what it took to make it. I was trying to capture something that reflected the greatest sadness that people carry for the loss of anything and to make it material, but in order for that to go for circle it also had to destroy itself. And that was the beauty of working with the cloth that is destined to dissolve.