Twenty years ago the name Helen Storey was a fashionable one to drop. It was displayed outside the designer’s three shops and sewn into her garments, which hung in swish department stores alongside those of her contemporaries Westwood, Hamnett and Galliano. Worn by the likes of Madonna and Cher, it stood for a particularly angry kind of 1980s fashion – shock-frocks printed with the image of a foetus or sliced up the back to reveal a bare buttock. In both 1990 and 1991 Storey was nominated for British Designer Of The Year. But by 1995 she’d gone bust, her name a whispered byword for the sorry state of the British Fashion Industry. Twenty years on when I tell someone I’m off to meet Helen Storey they draw a blank. ‘Who’s she?’ they ask.
Stitched into this ex fashion designer’s tale are the threads of a rag-trade tragedy – not only the end of a business but also cancer, divorce, the dole – ‘most of the biggies,’ as Storey languidly puts it. In the bright London flat she shares with her 21-year-old son, Luke, Storey talks about her fashion past not with bitterness or regret but as thought it was a slightly foolish adolescent indulgence, like wearing loon pants (or bottomless dresses), a thing that happened a long time ago and that she can’t quite believe involved her. She may be wearing an original Helen Storey skirt and sitting beneath a set of her own fashion sketches, but today her professional concerns are a long way from what to do about next season, the length of hemlines or the cost of silk. Currently, for example, she’s pondering ‘the world’s biggest problems, pretending they’re not big and trying to find solutions for them.’ That’s the kind of thing Professor Helen Storey occupies her days with now.
In the past nine years Storey has clocked up not one but four professorships – the most recent from the University of Sheffield, which last year bestowed the grand title of Visiting Professor of Material Chemistry. She is the first to acknowledge that this does ‘seem absurd’. Not just because she used to be a furious young designer who showed collections with names like ‘Rage’ in places like Tube tunnels, but because she failed to get anything much at all out of Hampstead Comprehensive, not least science O-levels. Yet now she works alongside eminent scientists to find solutions to the global conundrums of water shortage, inefficient use of solar energy and our throwaway society. This autumn, in collaboration with the leading chemist Tony Ryan, she will demonstrate her response to plastic pollution with an exhibition of the world’s first dissolvable dress. And it won’t be shown on a catwalk.
At 48, Storey, ballerina-slim with a silver curtain of hair, still looks like someone who belongs in an atelier, but it is the ‘strange mid-world’ where art meets science in which she now feels at home. Unlike her former occupation this one may be tricky to pin a label to, but it has given her a sense of purpose that she never knew before. ‘I think if you get to experience yourself doing more than you ever thought you could, then it does resonate a kind of happiness in you – that money and frocks don’t,’ she says. She still loves fashion but no longer feels as though she needs it ‘to be at ease with myself’. Although she can afford to buy the clothes she wants, she’s started walking away from them. ‘I can be quite practised at that on some days. I can know that something exists and is absolutely beautiful, but I don’t have to own it.’ Besides, turning up to discuss the Polymer Centre in the latest prêt-a-porter might not do her any favours. ‘You want to neutralise all that out of the way, so you can get on and focus on the thing that’s really exciting rather than the person who’s saying it. It’s the opposite of fashion, which is all about, “I’ve arrived! I’m in the room! What d’you reckon?”’
It seems like a volte-face for the ‘little diva girl, infatuated with handbags and make-up and clothing’ who stepped straight out of Kingston Polytechnic in 1981 and into a coveted job at the house of Valentino, before going on to launch her own label. But actually Storey always has a ‘straight-down-the-middle, love-hate relationship’ with fashion. The daughter of the radical northern playwright and novelist David Storey, she was ever ready to challenge and be challenged. At Kingston she was thought of as ‘unemployable’ and surprised everyone by landing the Valentino gig. Once there, she reacted badly to the world of high fashion. ‘I found myself shocked at the female psyche when it came to clothes – just what women would be prepared to do in order to feel lovable or look good,’ she says. ‘You could tell that they felt nothing until they had that label in the back of their neck.’
The creation of the Helen Storey label in 1989 – with her long-term business partner, Caroline Coates – was her response. At the time she explained her need to design as ‘a way of expressing anger about witnessing what women are going through’. She was almost instantly a star. Her final collection – the one with bottoms – created such a stir that the zoologist Desmond Morris was drafted on to news programmes to come up with an explanation, and a political cartoon portrayed John Major airing his behind in like style.
The compulsion to change and do something ‘more than fashion’ arose through the worst possible circumstances. In 1993 Ron Brinkers, her husband and the company finance director, was diagnosed with cancer. Storey nursed him through it, while designing and trying to keep the business afloat. She failed, and within a year of the company going into receivership she split from Brinkers and found herself on the dole. Unsurprisingly, she also found herself in crisis. My attitude to life changed considerably,’ she says. ‘there was a sort of urgency to how I spent my time because I had seen what it was like when your time is threatened. I had to do things that had a purpose attached to them. I couldn’t do something that was beautiful just because it was beautiful. I had to look for meaning and I couldn’t find enough of it in fashion.’
She wrote an autobiography, Fighting Fashion, but was then at a loss until one day her sister, Kate Storey, a developmental biologist, sent her a leaflet about a Wellcome Trust science-and-art initiative, with a yellow Post-it note attached bearing a question mark. Storey’s answer was a collaboration with her sister – an installation called ‘Primitive Streak’, which translated the first 1,000 hours of human life into dresses. It toured Britain and six other countries and was seen by three million people. The fashion industry, however, were nonplussed. ‘You couldn’t buy it, you couldn’t sell it, so what was it for?’ Storey shrugs. ‘It was only six years later when it went to China as a backdrop for Tony Blair’s first visit there, that Vogue decided to do a piece on it.’
In 1999 she set up the Helen Storey Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation promoting creativity and innovation. She has since toured ‘Mental’, an exhibition exploring creativity, and has worked with schools on projects about emotions, energy and the creative process. She enjoys communicating with children in a way she feels she would have benefited from herself. She still feels cheated by her poor education but there is some comfort in her string of professorships. ‘I remember when I got the first one being absolutely chuffed. I thought “Where’s that teacher?”’ she says, laughing. ‘But they’re not accolades. Being called Professor of Material Chemistry isn’t because I’m hot at chemistry; it’s a title that allows me to knock on the door of physicists or chemists and have a conversation.’
Her current work with Ryan at Sheffield comes under the umbrella project ‘Wonderland’, through which new inventions such as dissolvable dresses are being developed. The dresses – knitted from the sort of polymer used in washing-powder sachets – are almost an advert for the science, a way of drawing in an audience to think about the problems of waste, rather than a genuine proposal for post-millenial dressing (although she will now work towards making an environmentally smart plastic bottle a commercial reality). During the forthcoming exhibition the garments will be lowered into tanks and left to liquefy. By the end of the show they will have entirely vanished. One could translate this into a spooky metaphor for Helen Storey’s previous career. This time, however, solid science will be left behind.
Originally published in The Sunday Telegraph, 20 May 2007, p.32-36