Sarah’s List: Get to Know Ellen Fowles, The RCA Grad Radically Rethinking The Role of a Fashion Designer
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.
Ellen Fowles, class of 2020 Royal College of Art, is pictured here with her grandmother Marian; they’re both wearing the collection they “co-designed”. The clothes – cool, split-leg trackpants, a cape, a wrapped coat – are from Ellen’s master’s collection, a trailblazing example of a radical re-think of the role of fashion designer.“I want the stuff I make to be desirable, so it’s not like, ‘This is for you, and this is for you,’” says Ellen. Living with her grandparents while she studied, she saw how her chic grandmother, who had had a long career in TV and film production, was facing new challenges with getting dressed. “I want to make clothes that able-bodied and disabled people can enjoy equally. I’m currently able-bodied, and I’m not going to pretend I have the insight of someone who isn’t,” she says. “So, co-design is letting go of the idea that you’re the lone designer. It’s about thinking about the ethics of collaboration, properly designing with someone, for their needs.”
Marian has modern-minimalist tastes, and a wardrobe consisting of, she says, “jackets, long sweaters and cardigans, silk scarves, worn with very high heels. I always tried to buy items from Max Mara, Jaeger, Oska and Nicole Farhi, on sale, which lasted.” When Marian had a back operation, Ellen was horrified by the poor design and inadequacy of the hospital-issue clothes she was given. “There was the pink hospital shift they give to women. She had to ask for the men’s trousers because she was so cold.” From then on, she was asking questions about what her grandmother needed, studying the ergonomics and solving problems – with the aim of building dignity, great looks and completely thought-out functionality into her graduation presentation.
There are a lot of studies about whether wearing your own clothes or hospital clothing can improve or be detrimental to your recovery,” she says. “And a massive part is the fabric and what it can do. It needs to be able to be boil-washed in a hospital scenario. It has to be safe and comfortable – but it also needs to look good. I chose mainly cotton waffles and seersuckers that wash at really high temperatures and don’t crease. Which is a massive plus, because you still look like you’re fully put-together when you’re spending a lot of time sitting or lying down.”
What Ellen and Marian came up with – “To get her approval was quite hard,” says Ellen – was a wardrobe completely adapted to continuing and enhancing Marian’s life. “I analysed the dressing process. There are a lot of clothes she can’t get on. So it was looking at the different access points in what she already owned, what she could get into easily. I evolved systems for fastenings, trims, and used Fidlock zips and closures engineered to snap together magnetically. All the seams are turned out, so there can’t be any abrasion.” Marian’s favourites? “The things I most enjoy are the silky robe-coat and the cloak.”There’s a video on Ellen’s Instagram of Marian practically dancing around her bedroom trying them on.
The beauty of it, of course, is that the results are simply great-looking, effortlessly fashion-conscious clothes. Technically, the entire field is known as adaptivewear, which caters to “the purple pound” – the marketing-speak term for the reckoned £249 billion a year spending power of disabled households in the UK. “Adaptivewear is a very new concept, so it’s mainly emerging designers who are doing anything in it now,” Ellen says. “Tommy Hilfiger is the only commercial example I can think of. A lot of people I speak to haven’t heard about this type of design. But I’ve always believed that it’s very necessary – and not just because it makes a lot of business sense.”
She means, of course, that she envisions co-designing as having a radically socially beneficial impact on the structure of the fashion industry. “Ideally, I’d like to work with an established brand on creating an inclusive line, because all you’d do is just continue a brand’s aesthetic. But you can only do it properly if you actually have people with disabilities employed in these design teams.”
She knows what she’s talking about. Now hugely in demand for her specialist expertise, Ellen hasn’t stopped working since graduating in the middle of the pandemic summer of 2020. She’s completed a fellowship at Open Style Lab in New York – “[They] specialise in adaptive clothing for people with different disabilities. We partnered with the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America” – is teaching part-time at the London College of Fashion and collaborating on projects with therapists and industrial engineers. And she has lots more irons in her fire. Designers like Ellen Fowles are giving a whole new raison d’etre to wanting to be in fashion in the first place: who would have guessed a generation would come along that has a mission to actively improve the world?
Portrait by Jermaine Francis. Taken from Issue 66 of 10 Magazine – MY, HAPPY, PLACE – is out NOW. Order your copy here.