If any single thing informs Helen Storey’s work, it is conflict. That and an absolute refusal to compromise. ‘I’ve always been attracted to things that are elusive, that need a lot from me to master. Perhaps that’s why I’ve ended up doing fashion in a country where it’s very difficult to get something off the ground. There’s something in the struggle that I’m drawn to.’
It is that struggle and the apparent conflicts in her work that give it such vitality, electrifying the familiar with the voltage of the new. In Storey’s hands the fluffy, sensual feather boa takes on a tough lyricism when made up in recycled rags; the sentimental romanticism of a ball gown is given a modern, urban edge when its floating skirts are manufactured from industrial bin-liner plastic.
Although not simply an evening wear designer, Helen Storey’s primary instinct is undoubtedly focused on glamour. As a child and young woman she trained in ballet, but while she was addicted to the grace and discipline of the form she found it difficult to reconcile those feeling with her anger about the way that women were supposed to look. ‘It brought home to me the inappropriateness of how I felt among girls wearing pink. ‘That inappropriateness still informs her work for while she remains attracted to the grace and drama of evening wear, her anger at conventional ideas about femininity and prettiness has resulted in some of the most exciting and modern evening wear created anywhere, certainly in this country.
Evening wear is a curiously uncharted area of fashion; while day wear has been endlessly reinvented and re-drawn, there have been very few experiments in glamour. It I almost as if all the advances of feminism have not touched that final stereotype; that strength and prettiness cannot co-exist. In Storey’s work they can, and they do. This is beauty in sneakers, glamour in DM’s. ‘If I design a ball gown, my instinct is always to match it up with a T-shirt.’
A gritty realism, an acute sympathy with the soles that women are forced to play and a heightened sense of the theatrical gives her work its caustic edge. She has, in the past, been accused of forcing women into sexual stereotypes, but that is to wilfully misunderstand her guiding principles. ‘I’m angry at the way women get treated and I’m disappointed at the games they have to play. But I have faith that they can dress in the way they want and still take control of themselves.’ That is why the fans of her clothes can be counted among some of the most provocatively modern women in the world; Madonna, Cher, Sandra Bernhard, Rosanna Arquette, Mica Paris and, if not a woman then certainly a vision of subversive glamour, Prince. The child of liberal, intellectual parents and the daughter of the playwright and novelist David Storey, one of the original angry young men of the late fifties, Helen Storey has inherited much of her father’s drive and passion. As a child she had no particular ambition, certainly not one to be a fashion designer. ‘I didn’t know what I wanted. I had a lot of unfocused anger which, in retrospect, has helped me because what I couldn’t articulate, I expressed through pen and cloth.’
After a rough and often contradictory education, a gentle, liberal home and a tough, reactionary comprehensive where she played skinhead by day and dancer by night, she emerged with no clear idea of her future. Her fierce intelligence was obscured by unsatisfactory exam results, her innate creativity crippled by an early encounter with an inflexible art education system. She came to believe that she was good at nothing until her father, recognising something in his daughter that she could not herself see, scooped up the drawings she worked on endlessly, returned them to her neatly reorganised in a bound portfolio, and encouraged her to go to art school.
She went to Kingston Polytechnic, where she began to experiment with sculpture and texture. ‘I felt like I’d found my home. I was completely centred when I was drawing and designing.’ She came under the tutorship of Richard Nott, now of Workers for Freedom, who gave her the confidence to push her ideas forward. Ironically, or perhaps typically, she ended up working at Valentino in Italy, ‘a place that was completely opposite to me. It was couture and money and perfume, and I wasn’t.’ She worked in the design studio and in publicity and marketing and while she felt an emotional distance from the work being done at Valentino, it taught her the value of professionalism and the speed at which things could be achieved. It also encouraged, most importantly, her interest in evening wear. ‘I had always been a little afraid of glamour because I didn’t feel glamorous myself.’ It was not, however, a vision of women with which she felt comfortable so, after a year working with Lancetti, she returned to England where she found a job with Belville Sassoon.
It was the early Eighties and a time when experimental British design was exploding onto the world stage. Storey, finding herself more and more drawn to the type of work she had been exploring at college, soon hooked up with Caroline Coates at Amalgamated Talent. In 1984 she launched her own label and in 1990 established a formal partnership with Coates, which exists to this day.
During those ten years Helen Storey has consistently experimented, both with her own vision of glamour and with her need to reflect women’s roles in society through her work. Her work has changed, as her view of both women and herself have changed. The birth of her son, Luke, was an important catalyst in cementing her ideas about women’s image; the culmination of which was best expressed in her 1990 collection, ‘Rage’. It was provoked, she says, ‘by this awful vision of woman where you’re supposed to be a nappy mother by morning, a shoulder-pad woman by day and a lover and sex goddess by night.’ The collection was a landmark in her career, provoking both outrage and empathy. It won her the British fashion industry’s award of Most Innovative Designer, brought her to the attention of a global audience and earned her the reputation of being one of Britain’s most provocative talents.
Certainly, there is nothing anodyne in Storey’s work; through it are expressed the complexities of her own personality. Her inarticulate, instinctive need to create colludes constantly with a fierce intelligence that rationalises that there are already enough clothes in the world. ‘Designers should be looking at why they want to be designers in a world that doesn’t need them.’ Well, the world does need designers, just as people need to express the primeval need for decoration and the assertion of their own differences and identities. What they don’t need any more of are clothes without thought, or fashion as a fail-safe. As The Guardian said of Storey back in 1990, ‘As thirty something safeness spreads throughout the high street, her designs promise to delay the moment when the fawn raincoat takes over the world.’
Helen Storey’s clothes are not easy; they are not fawn raincoats nor even safe cloaks of anonymity. And if they provoke it is because there is the rasp in them, always, of instinct against reason. They are thoughtful and sometimes, even, incoherent although the result is never anything but passionately original. Not everything that Storey designs succeeds; but that is part of the dynamic of her work and what marks her out as a constant and moving force in contemporary fashion. She experiments, she takes risks, she makes mistakes. She sits, as she says, ‘on the knife edge between good and bad taste.’
To make mistakes is anyway the mark of the true innovator for it is often the failures of the present that provide the material of the future. As The Daily Telegraph said of her in 1991; ‘she has the personal vision and risk taking of the artist,’ and it is that experimentation, that honest struggle for expression, that gives Storey’s work its modernism. Her honesty is sometimes daunting, often too daunting for a world that likes its fashion designers to come out with pretty, pat expressions of femininity but as she herself says, ‘To me, a Laura Ashley smock, which spells the subservient woman locked prettily in her place, is far more frightening than black plastic boobs.’
The last ten years have been a time of experimentation, a period that Helen Storey calls, ‘her learning decade.’ As she has changed and grown, so has her work. Through it she has resolved some of the conflicts and compromises faced by a young woman who finds herself in complex and often difficult times. In that, she reflects the mood of a generation. The conflicts are not entirely resolved and nor, perhaps, will they ever be. But there is, in her work, a new sense of purpose, a melding of instinct and reason. As she reaches the beginning of her second decade in business, the angry young woman of British fashion is feeling, as the title of her collection for Spring ’95 so eloquently describes, ‘Good Inside’.
Catalogue Essay, October 1994, p.5-12