This is a new one for me, interviewing rather than being interviewed. But with former fashion star Helen Storey, it is different – we have a lot in common. We both set up fashion companies in the early 1980s, although with the little difference that she went bust and I sold Red or Dead. One thing we both share is a healthy mistrust and distaste for much of the fashion industry and a joy at having been fortunate enough to have made a stimulating, creative life out of it.
Throughout her career, Storey has been tipped for the kind of fashion media fawning that the likes of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano have had over the past few years, yet she didn’t play the game. She chose marriage, a child and design U-turns, rather than sycophantic partying and design formulas. Like most of her contemporaries, Storey went through a constant struggle to find sponsors for the London Fashion Week shows and to persuade suppliers to wait for their money. It was an era before the likes of Givenchy, Dior and Gucci had the will and confidence to step in and back British maverick designers. When the inevitable happened in 1995 and the receivers came in, Storey fought to carry on. She rang me to ask how I had managed to sell my company and for possible contacts. She spent months meeting unsuitable “suits” and then returned to the bravery that she has shown in all her projects, and finally said no.
WH: How did you feel in the weeks after the receivers came in?
HS: I was drowning, I don’t think I really wanted to carry on with fashion, but there was that terrible feeling of someone telling you that you can’t carry on doing something that you are quite good at, someone was cutting a lifeline. But after seeing 40 “suits”, I realised I had lost something and I didn’t want to climb on someone else’s hamster wheel. When I realised that I didn’t have to make frocks any more, I got a kick out of it.
WH: Have you missed the fashion industry?
HS: I have been asked, “Do I still see my friends from the fashion industry?”. But I can count them on three fingers.
WH: It is a strange thing. In theory, the kind of events thrown in the fashion industry are fantastic and a real treat, but I gave up going early on because the atmosphere always seemed to be hideous, full of jealousy and inflated egos. With the new work Gerardine [Hemingway] and I are doing in architecture, interiors and product design, we’ve been invited to a new set of events and it’s a joy to behold.
HS: Yes, you can have a conversation and meet someone’s eyes. Something you couldn’t do in fashion. Even though everyone has the same challenges and problems, there is no camaraderie [in fashion].
We carried on talking for a while, patting each other on the back for getting off the treadmill of designing, showing, feeling down for a week, and designing again. Both realising we still love fashion and that it isn’t a totally frivolous thing.
Storey has always been an honest designer and used fashion exactly as it should be used, as an external expression of what’s going on inside. If we want escapism we can get on an Airtours charter to Brazil, but the clothes we wear can be a key to relationships and human interaction, two aspects that scream out from Storey’s new life as an artist.
Hang on there, artists make money via people like White Cube founder Jay Jopling don’t they? Yet Storey has set up the non-profit Helen Storey Foundation and this is where we differ, because in her new exhibition, Mental at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, I can see many commercial opportunities.
HS: Don’t say that. I have had enough problems getting round the funding problem of being seen as a fashion designer and therefore a commercial entity rather than an artist.
Storey still works with her long-term business partner, Caroline Coates, one of the brightest people I ever met in the fashion industry and another brave escapee. For Mental, they have found funding of around £200 000 from Pfizer, The Wellcome Trust Sci/ Art Consortium, Lever FabergÃ©, The Head Trust, The Vivienne Duffield Foundation and that heady mix of Design, Medical Research and British Councils. Storey insists that the project couldn’t have existed without her collaboration with The London Institute and, in particular, Chelsea College of Art & Design.
WH: Everything about your status and everything in this exhibition sends dollar signs spinning round my eyes. If I were a fashion Svengali, I would be looking at a designer who has the respect of the industry, who has been away and can still command front pages of The Times Magazine, someone who hasn’t seen their star fade out. Everything I see in Mental is one big entrepreneurial opportunity.
HS: I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I am not sure where I fit exactly. I don’t really feel that I am an artist or a designer, but somewhere in between the two. I can’t forget my design training. In the same way as I couldn’t just do a pretty frock, I can’t do art for art’s sake, I have got some kind of social conscience that forces my work to have a tangible use.
This is exactly why everything in Mental has so much value. This is art that has a tangible use and it does exactly what I imagine the sponsors would hope for, it engages the public. All Storey’s work outside fashion has had a scientific angle and I find her a rare creative with the analytical and inquisitive mind of a scientist.
Mental builds on her first exhibition, Primitive Streak in 1997, collaboration with her sister Kate, a developmental biologist, which translated the development of the human embryo into dress designs. This latest exhibition contains fewer dresses and contains real, tangible, entertaining scientific experiments.
My favourite is Whisper, an installation brilliantly executed by AMX, which allows individuals to impart their views on human life and its meaning on to the computer. The results are projected through a pool of honey, I didn’t ask her why, and I am assuming this is the artist in her. The result is a kind of interactive therapy and emotional release.
“It’s emotional graffiti, that means so much more to me than an order from the Barneys store in New York. This is what I swapped fashion for,” she says. You can imagine the show’s value to the likes of Coca-Cola, Nike and the big pharmaceutical companies when it comes back from its worldwide tour having gathered so much information. Other installations include a Petri dish experiment, which produces patterns and a series of frocks, which are a “visualisation of death”.
WH: You could sell the result of each Petri dish experiment as a Helen Storey bespoke scientific print. Imagine being able to buy an HS Science cushion in Habitat?
HS: Maybe you should be my agent.
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t. This is a designer who can see the bigger picture, who admits to desiring a more comfortable financial status, but for whom it will come without the cushions. Storey is a designer with creative skills that lie somewhere between art and science, her work can help us all to better understand human behaviour.
Helen Storey and AMX president Malcolm Garrett met at an Institute of Contemporary Arts teaching project in Beijing in 1999. For Storey, Garrett was the ‘ideal mind mate’ to collaborate with on the interactive side of Mental.
The main concept is a game based on a fictional character called Whisper, a morphing female figure that bears a striking resemblance to Storey. According to the game, her inventor has died and left her alone and she needs the user’s contribution to come to life through a question and answer session that will help define her essence.
‘We thought a lot about which questions to ask, and how they should be asked. We didn’t want them to feel intrusive since they are quite personal,’ Garrett says. The exact number of questions became an issue, and they finally settled for seven, ‘a magical number’, asserts Garrett. The set of questions is aimed at two age groups: one set for adults and another for children. They explore human feelings such as fear, love, lust and anger.
While the game is to be played on a series of iMacs, the collected information is filtered to a server which creates an average ‘image’ based on new and existing data. The new image is then projected through a Perspex structure of golden acacia honey, designed by Sonia Baka and Liam Dunn. ‘It will look like a hologram,’ says Storey. ‘It’s symbolic of memory and identity.’
On a scientific level, all of the data will be forwarded to Dr John McLachlan, director of the Peninsular Medical School, to analyse. Yet Storey is adamant that this information resource will not be used for commercial reasons. ‘It won’t be sold to Nike or Coca-Cola,’ she says. ‘This project is about filtering human knowledge, we have a goldmine here, both in terms of answers and the way in which we obtained them.’ And she intends to hold on tight to it.
Garrett compares Whisper to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research project, a place where technology is often linked to play and discovery. For Storey and Garrett, it is an ongoing affair to update constantly as it tours worldwide.
Mental: A walk through one woman’s mind is at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 from 7-20 July