Sarah’s List: The Fashion School is Birthing the Next Generation of Designers Using Fabric Donated by British Brands

Can fashion be an agent for creating good? Over the past year, I’ve honestly felt the beginnings of a tumultuous sea change coming: that the only way that any fashion business will be able to justify its existence in the future is by weaving social responsibility into everything it does. Considering people before profit. Embodying social justice. Regarding the gift of creativity as a resource whose only moral use is its power to do good. Is this really too much to expect?

“Fashion should be about more than just clothes” sounds like a good mantra for our times – but then again, when has it not been? Every fibre of everything we wear, how it’s made, who it’s made by – and even how we think about it – is embedded in the very structure of every society. If we’ve been paying any attention, doing any reading, scrolling through fine print and checking any facts in the past year, we can’t avoid knowing this any more. In the light of what manufacturing extracts from nature, of the Black Lives Matter movement, of learning how every single systemic aspect is interlinked with perpetuating global inequality, it’s impossible to avoid the overwhelming feeling that the fashion industry is now faced with a single human choice: either we carry on denying or we join in a seismic conversion to bringing about change.

Having a mission to change things means automatically building social responsibility into the entire reason for a company’s existence. That means something much deeper and more holistic than producing charity slogan T-shirts in response to a crisis or a political cause. It means something more than, as so many large corporations do, regarding their “corporate social responsibility” policies as a matter of sponsoring charities that are far away and disconnected from their actual businesses. That doesn’t affect any structural change internally, or in the world around us. And don’t get me started on “carbon offsetting” as a covering excuse for a brand carrying on with its same old polluting activities. External distractions.

The real paradigm shifts in thinking – the places where we can reimagine what’s even possible in fashion – are coming from the ground up. In my experience of scanning fashion’s horizons, change always comes in forms that don’t fit norms, from the “outside”, from beneath, from the accumulation of small things. And just one of them is taking on the idea that socially progressive design isn’t about a single creative genius working on their own. I’ve explored three inspiring examples of people who are actively expanding the limits of fashion in everything they do.

When that time arrives, the industry of clothes-making will either have reformed itself, or have been forced to do so by legislation. But if it wants to get a head start, the mighty establishment should humbly look around, support and learn from everyone who’s putting social good at the heart of what they do. Because they, not the titans, are the leaders now.

The Fashion School

“In my experience, the majority of people underestimate children.” Here is Caroline Gration, with some of the 10 to 16-year-olds who take part in the after-school, weekend and holiday classes taught by the extraordinary Fashion School. Gathered together in London, just before the second lockdown, the children are wearing the clothes they’ve designed, pattern-cut, draped and sewn from leftover and deadstock fabric donated by British designers. If you want an astonishing preview of what Generation Alpha – the one born after 2010 – is capable of, well, could this be better? “I’ve got so much respect for them,” says Gration. “When you’re a child or a teenager, you’re just a younger version of who you are as a grown-up. They’re the future, and it’s coming up fast.”

The Fashion School was set up by the inspirational Gration in 2012. It’s much more than a hobby-craft play session to keep kids occupied: Gration – a former fashion professional and university teacher – is practically providing a foundation course in making and thinking sustainably. As the school’s motivational call-out on the website reads: “We hate mass produced fast fashion and the mess it’s making of our world. We want to teach you fashion, fabrics and the big wonderful picture… You are our fashion future, and we want to equip you with life skills to support your inspiration!”

I discovered The Fashion School via its Instagram page two years ago and was completely taken aback when I visited one of its summer schools: children’s drawings of Comme des Garçons pinned up all over the walls; 10-year-olds zipping away on sewing machines and completely absorbed in draping shapes on mannequins. This small but visionary model of creative education occupies two physical sites – a studio in Brighton and a shop on the King’s Road in London. (Classes have now switched to Zoom sessions in small groups, led by Gration’s qualified staff.) Michael Halpern is one of the designers, along with Chopova Lowena, Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, Richard Quinn and Julie Brøgger, who have happily donated ends of rolls to them, but didn’t expect what would happen next. “It came back to me that a 12-year-old was doing a whole, fully illustrated and written project on me and my company!” Halpern says incredulously.

But Gration thinks that’s just normal. “We start off with research. We’ve visited a sustainable factory so they can get an idea about manufacturing, we’ve been to the V&A for inspiration – all before Covid, of course. We get the children pattern-cutting and draping. And there’s no waste. When someone has used what they want, everything goes into a fabric bag and is passed on,” she says. “But one thing I will never do is set tests or give marks.”

The Fashion School is in fact one woman’s pushback against what’s been happening in the increasingly restrictive English education over the past 20 years: the narrowing of the state-school options, the fall in numbers of pupils taking art, design and textiles GCSEs, and the incessant testing of children from nursery onwards, which dominates young minds. Mid-career, as a senior visiting lecturer, Gration saw that narrowness funnelling right up to degree level. “I found I didn’t believe in the assessment criteria. I found it disabling of creativity, and I was moaning about it for ages,” she remembers. “Then I had this idea to do something for children and teenagers that gives room for freedom of expression. It’s no good just to teach them to pass exams.” Without any funds, she followed her instincts, sold her flat in Brighton, “and I used the proceeds to do it. At first, I asked friends if I could borrow a space in an arts centre. Then it really took off.”

A northerner with a constantly smiling, indomitable sense of can-do purpose, Gration is proud to state that her parents “came from the same Wythenshawe estate as Marcus Rashford, so I grew up being aware of what it’s like to be poor”. The range of classes she has built with her team (including bespoke one-offs, like fashion birthday parties) come with fees – she has always needed to run The Fashion School to be able to pay its costs and staff – and a quarter of after-school places are devoted to children who are referred by social services, or families recommended from links with local church communities. “They’re always so positive and eager,” she says, “even though it’s so difficult for some of them, whose lives may be chaotic. I’ve got so much respect for them.”

Part of The Fashion School is now registered as a Community Interest Company, giving it freedom to raise more funds and keep going: “We’ve had our income halved since Covid, I’m afraid.” She and her team have found ways to continue the good work of taking young minds off the strain and isolation of lockdown, while also giving them a proper educational framework of skills – several teenagers who came as children have gone on to study fashion at university. What does Gration see in the character of this generation – the kids who were already conscious of the climate emergency and are now hit by the consequences of nearly a year without school? Long term, she totally believes in the power of young people’s creative self-reliance. They want to make things, find solutions and are growing up way more aware of the environment than older Millennials. “There’s a big, big change coming from them,” she says. “Children have so much hope. Deciding to do this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Portrait by Jermaine Francis. Taken from Issue 66 of 10 Magazine – MY, HAPPY, PLACE – is out NOW. Order your copy here.