The Cloud x British Council
Alison Welsh was a regular in the front row of London Fashion Week.
In the eighties, she was one of the Knights of the Long Table, predicting the colours of the forthcoming fashion season two years ahead.
She collected photos from fashion shows as quickly as possible, to gain inspiration and learn about the influence of culture on British fashion, and compiled a book of the latest trends, newest colours and designs and sold them all over the world.
She was a fashion consultant for many big fashion companies producing jeans or sportswear. She gave them information and reassured them they were on the right track.
Fashion was fast, but Alison was faster. She knew which colours designers would use, or saw the shirt collar before they even sketched it.
All of that happened more than 30 years ago when Alison was fully immersed in the fashion business. When she decided to start a family, Alison moved away from London to work as a fashion design instructor at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Nowadays she travels all around the world. One of her tasks for the British Council is to teach young Thai designers and develop handwoven textiles in the Nan Province.
The day we met in the Pua District, Nan Province, Alison wasn’t wearing anything ultra-modern. On the contrary, she wore a handwoven Indian cotton dress which she got 10 years ago, and was very proud of.
The Head of Fashion Research at MMU hasn’t turned her back on pretty clothes, but she is so certain that the fashion business which is the second dirtiest industry in the world next to Big Oil will eventually lead to craft and become environmentally responsible.
“The fashion world will slow down — this is our only path since we don’t have another planet to spare.”
Before working here, I’ve heard that your previous job was great fun.
I was working in fashion trend prediction. I was not quite comfortable with the word “prediction” because it sounds like a mystical thing. Actually, my work was based on facts, gathering information and making decisions.
In the early eighties, Jean-Paul Gaultier was a big influence. His fashion show was a theatrical extravaganza but still very trendy. When I was younger, I would sit in the front row and take photographs of fashion shows. I would absorb and digest that information. My predictions were quite accurate, especially for menswear since the change is quite small. It’s easy to say next year the colour is going to change from a subtle grey to a warmer grey, the collar will get smaller or suits will be double-breasted.
I worked closely with big companies. They would come and talk to me every season. I would do presentations 18 months ahead of the season, or two years for colour. I never knew what year it was because my brain was always a few years ahead.
Why did you have to start work so early prior to the season?
Colour is the first thing in the season and the most interesting because when you choose the colour, you give it to the textile mills, and they then weave the clothes. The textile mills need at least six months to weave.
How did you predict fashion?
I always had an eye for designers introducing new works, influential films, exhibitions, music or even poetry. I would be looking at a broad range of influences on fashion and colours. In England, I used to go to a colour group meeting with people who worked in the textile industry. We would meet and decide twice a year what colour to use in the next season.
I was probably the youngest person at the meeting. The day before I would collect information; I would buy books on painting, or anything else that inspired me because we had no internet. I would refer to an exhibition I saw in Paris or Florence.
We would sit around a long table and wait for our turn to explain our thinking to the others. When we sat down, the first person expresses their thoughts, and then the next, and so on. By the time six people had taken their turn, it became very interesting because there would be similarities between them. Some might say warm grey and a touch of brown and the next person would say they had grey too. I’ve been looking at concrete and hard surfaces and urban landscape. Somebody else would say they had been looking at architecture and white and grey.
Although our own research was conducted instinctively, by the time all those very knowledgeable people had come together, the result was very interesting. After the meeting, the group would collect all the information and publish a British colour card, and that went into an international group where all the different countries matched. The Japanese, British, Italian and French would all meet and do the same thing. From there, the international colour card would be published and sold at Premier Vision — a big textile fair in Paris.
Do these countries still have a colour group meeting?
They still do it nowadays but there is no longer a trend book. A lot of people kept those expensive books. They’re full of design ideas. I would draw ideas and publish images, details, technical information and trend pages. Companies in Japan, America, Australia and England used to buy them.
Now we live in a completely different world. Everything is on the internet instantly. Burberry did livestream years ago.
Can we predict fashion now?
I don’t think we can do it anymore. Silhouettes, shapes and skirt lengths belong to the past. Now anything goes and people can wear whatever they like — something from 10 years, 20 years or 30 years ago and nobody cares.
What is the current fashion trend?
People are looking at different things now. Fast fashion is cheap and affordable, especially for young people. In England at the moment, online companies are doing very well. Very often young kids will buy six outfits, and have them delivered to the house the next day. Kids can try six things on, choose which one they want to keep and send the rest back.
A lot of companies are looking at methods of dissuading customers from sending so much back. If it fits the body really well, customers are unlikely to send it back because they look great in it. Many companies invest a great deal in making garments fit properly. They measure hundreds of size 8 women — it’s both difficult and interesting.
The problem is there are those who want to buy something really cheap from a store. They can wear it that night and never again because it looks good on Instagram or for a particular occasion.
I can understand that. When I was young I made my own clothes. I understand the need for instantaneous change and the excitement of wearing something new all the time. Most people get bored with their wardrobe or what they are wearing — I used to, but don’t anymore.
If you keep something for longer you go through a barrier whereby you become less bored with it. You start to love it again. I got this dress 10 years ago and I’m happy to wear it today, even more than I was 10 years ago because I kept it and looked after it.
The research on why people keep garments in their wardrobes is fascinating. It could influence the next design that comes along. People have garments in their wardrobes that they love and never throw away, we keep them for a reason. It might be sentimental, practical, might just fit really well or might be great for every occasion.
In the past, we were embarrassed to keep things for a long time. Now we can start to be proud of them and happy to be able to still wear them.
If we wear only old clothes then fashion is not predictable anymore. What does the future hold for the fashion business?
The big companies around the world have a department to take care of social responsibility. They’re looking at the future of the fashion business. People are finding a way to reduce the amount of waste. H&M has sustainable projects. They have a big competition on sustainability, and people who are not in the fashion world can apply. They support projects so they can move on. That’s a very clear statement.
Some designers have started to appreciate that and want to produce something to pass on to the next generation with a life beyond the weaver; made slowly, carefully and hand stitched. You can see the love that goes into it. You can feel the spirit of the maker in the items. An exquisite handmade skirt is something you will never throw away. You just know from the minute you look at it that it will pass on from one generation to another.
I was always afraid to wear something made of organic cotton with massive hand stitches but that had to stop. If you have something, you have to wear it. The handwoven natural dyed clothes will fade gently and softly. They are getting better as time goes by, and look better after 10 years — like a pair of jeans.
How do you know that Slow Fashion is a coming trend?
Years ago, if you went to buy a loaf of bread in Paris, you would just see a smart, pristine bakery but now the oven is in the centre of the shop, and you can see the man making the bread. You can smell the bread, look at the baker, shake his hand and talk about how he made the bread, the flour he used, even the time he got up in the morning.
The craft of food is really obvious now. Not everywhere, but there is an understanding of where the ham came from, or which mill produced the flour in Italy. It is on the label and we can see it.
I think the clothing and fashion industry are not far away from that. People are waking up and beginning to realise the potential of buying handmade or handcrafted items. The food industry is probably 10 years ahead of the fashion industry. We can learn from their achievements. We can absorb their methods. Food has not suddenly become organic or ethical. It’s about every person making an effort to be organic. A move to become responsible in farming. If everybody does a little bit, we move on.
We just need people who really make a difference. Part of that is working directly with makers or cutting down waste. These fabrics are handwoven. It’s a crime to cut them off.
One of the young designers is trying to make a dress without cutting it at all. That is just one small example in Thailand. I have no doubt there are a lot of similar examples all around the world, where people are looking at how to stop wasting fabric and throwing things away because there has to be a future. It has to work that way.
How do you develop the Pua District’s handwoven cotton?
The fabric we have there has potential. Some of it has been used to make a lovely lightweight coat. It is quite light because it is handwoven and quite warm too.
Now we are working with natural dyes because it is part of the heritage of the region. The countryside in the Pua District has been used for natural dyes or weaving fabric. Ginger fibre or banana bark can turn into fibre for use in bags or clothes. They are organic and wearable. There is knowledge about using trees, and each tree has a value. The rambutan bush can be used for dyeing; banana trees for weaving.
Gradually we are growing used to natural dyes here because they’re slipping away. I’ve been discussing with local artisans about colours that hurt the eyes and colours that are gentle. Chemical dye is easy, affordable and doesn’t run. It gives a strong colour, whereas natural dyes are soft and gentle to the eyes.
Natural colours are so gentle, even the brightest pink obtained from plants is still gentle. You hardly have to make a colour card because natural colours have something in common. It’s quite easy to make it work. They’re already matched.
What made you come back to Thailand to help these communities?
It’s fantastic to work internationally and I like working with young designers. Part of my job here is to encourage young people to get involved in heritage and tradition. The weavers here are getting older and older — their skills are highly developed, really technical and very sophisticated.
If we turn our backs on heritage and traditions, they will disappear. I don’t want to be too nostalgic because in Britain we lost our handcrafting skills a hundred years ago through the industrial revolution. The whole of Manchester was full of cotton mills before beautiful apartments replaced them.
Dynamic women are running the business here and the community revolves around them. I’m thriving in many ways and it’s fantastic to be here. It’s a real joy to work on a project like this. You can see people really benefiting.
Crafting Futures supports the future of craft around the globe. This British Council programme strengthens economic, social and cultural development through learning and access. The Crafting Futures project supports practices and people, through research, collaboration and education. For more information, Click here
Here is the list of all the local brands Alison gave her design lessons.