CCA Fashion Designers Take Local Wisdom to London College of Fashion

Textiles instructor Sasha Duerr (center) and Local Wisdom students (photo: Jim Norrena)

This spring, CCA Fashion Design students addressed questions about garment use while participating in Local Wisdom, an ongoing international fashion research project that examines how we use, share, and engage with our clothes.

Several student projects selected as finalists will be featured in spring 2014 in a participatory symposium and exhibition in London, along with work from six other international design schools.

About Local Wisdom

Local Wisdom, originated in 2009 by Dr. Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, offers a vision of a new type of prosperity in fashion that extends beyond buying and selling more garments; it highlights strengthening emotional bonds between garments and their owners.

The studio work at CCA (and other participating colleges) involves integrating these ethnographic methods into the fashion and textile design process. Specifically, participating student designers use the images and stories gathered from the general public at community photo shoots around the world to inspire design ideas.

Craft of Use

The concept of “craft of use” is central to the Local Wisdom project. The website explains: “Most people are familiar with -- and highly prize -- the craft or expert skill of making things like garments. What is valued is an expert’s touch, honed over years of training and a process of constant refinement of technique necessary to create superior pieces.

"We think that similarly skillful, cultivated, and ingenious practices also exist associated with the tending and using of garments. We call them the ‘craft of use.’”

Fletcher explains Local Wisdom is about improving people’s experience of fashion qualitatively, as opposed to growing the industry quantitatively.

The project gathers stories from the volunteer public across the world through community photo shoots. Participating colleges then integrate this research into the curricula of studio courses.

After learning about the ways in which individuals use and connect with their favorite items of clothing, the task of the design students is to devise alternative ways to create, wear, and think about fashion -- ways that are sensitive and appropriate for an interdependent world with limited resources.

Local Wisdom and CCA

Seven participating schools, including CCA, Parsons, and London College of Fashion are partnering on the photo shoots. Fashion Design faculty member Lynda Grose, who is the lead investigator for Local Wisdom at CCA, coauthored Fashion and Responsibility: Design for Change (Laurence and King Publishers, 2012) with Fletcher.

“CCA is an ideal platform for Local Wisdom because the values the project explores sit right within our mission,” says Grose. “Both Local Wisdom and CCA foster an active engagement to influence cultural change.

"Bringing the project into the studio setting demands interdisciplinary work, requires students to think critically and holistically about what they do, and builds awareness of the cultural context in which we designers and artists practice.”

Unique Stories of Everyday Clothes

The images from the community photo shoots show typical, everyday garments, and the accompanying stories from the wearers really bring them to life. CCA alumna Nicole Markoff (MFA 2012) shares her story: “I had a clothing line and was doing production in Thailand . . . and was helped by a Japanese designer. . . . We created a kinship.

"This is one of the dresses that she designed . . . It’s my favorite dress and I wear it every other day, three times a week. It’s a lot of wearing, I’ve worn the hell out of this. . . . 100 wears a year.”

Paired with this is a brief overview of “intensive use,” one of the garment use categories that Local Wisdom identifies: “Some garments are worn almost daily. They become both a backdrop to -- and practical facilitator of -- our lives, and reflect true resourcefulness. Their features speak of an ethic of extended, iterative use.”

Such definitions help designers articulate use patterns and instigate new conversations about the future of design.

Bringing Local Wisdom into the Classroom

Local Wisdom has been integrated into several CCA courses. In fall 2012, Grose taught a Fashion and Sustainability course, from which several students were selected as finalists for the London exhibition. These students then worked in spring 2013 with Fashion Design chair Amy Williams, refining their concepts and preparing exhibition ready pieces in the Fashion Competition course.

Also this spring, Sasha Duerr integrated Local Wisdom into two of her Textiles courses: Soil to Studio and Spring Gleaning -- Color at the Margins of Weed + Waste.

Grose incorporated Local Wisdom into Fashion Design 3: Sustainability Studio, a junior-level course required of all CCA Fashion Design students. She also invited fellow faculty members Michael Swaine (Ceramics Program) and Ignacio Valero (Graduate Program in Design) as guest lecturers.

Students were tasked with looking at the Local Wisdom research as an inspirational starting point, with the goal of amplifying the described use behaviors. This presented a significant challenge for all.

“Embracing the practices as the central motivation/purpose for design challenges the usual methodologies we employ, instructors and students alike had to constantly remind themselves that the desired outcome was to influence the iterative use of clothing,” said Grose. “It forced us to think way beyond the physical product.”

Classroom Challenges

For Duerr’s course, in addition to asking students to design from within a new framework and think about the wearer’s engagement with a garment, the project also required them to create their garments with materials that described a sense of place.

“There is a lot of difficulty in working with local materials,” observes student Laurin Guthrie (Fashion Design 2015), who says she transferred to CCA from Rhode Island School of Design because of CCA’s focus on sustainability. “I got quite an education in the challenges related to natural dyeing.”

See images of natural dyeing in the making »

Another difficulty for Guthrie was narrowing down her focus. “There are so many potential paths to follow with a project like this! I had to learn how to edit.”

Guthrie’s final piece for Duerr’s undergraduate class is a sweater dyed with lavender, which has stress-relieving properties. The sweater’s use of a natural dye to create an emotional and personal connection to the wearer and her environment makes it, according to Duerr, a prime example of a Local Wisdom-inspired “artifact.”

Guthrie creates further connections between sweater and wearer through an online interactive element and a proposed ritual redyeing process that would take place each spring. “By strengthening our bonds with our garments and allowing them to change and evolve with us, we are more likely to keep them and care for them instead of discarding them at the end of the season."

See images of student projects »

Local Wisdom's Impact

“Using Local Wisdom research to inspire a new garment presents expansive and generative opportunities,” explains Grose. “The goal is not met in a static product, but rather through the behavior that the product enables. By understanding the meaning and importance of clothing, we can better understand how to design and construct clothes that inspire an evolving relationship between the garment and the wearer.

“By gathering stories from people across the world, Local Wisdom identifies existing use practices that are within the reach and abilities of everyday people. These explorations into the ‘craft of use’ and the tests being run in CCA studio classes create new knowledge that can inform the design process, and hopefully influence commercial practice.”

Fashion Design Chair Amy Williams echoes, “At CCA, we train thinkers. We’re asking people to think about fashion design. About product development. About the methods and the practice of using that work. So Local Wisdom is a perfect project because it’s all about 'how we can repose the question of what fashion design should be?' It's not going to change the world tomorrow. But a little bit. And that will make a big difference.”