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26 February 2016

Clothe yourself in love – and Louis Vuitton?

Clothe yourself in love – and Louis Vuitton?

Simon Ward is the chief operating officer for the British Fashion Council, but admits he has a "schizophrenic relationship with fashion". After 30 years in the industry, he's retiring to work with the Diocese of London, exploring 20 industries and asking the question: if God was in charge, how would He run things? Unsurprisingly, he's taking on fashion first. Before he clocked out of the BFC for good, he chatted to Amaris Cole about the challenges he's faced, classical music, and, of course, clothes. 

Did you always want to work in the fashion industry?

No, not at all – fashion found me. I was going to join the army, but that didn't work out. I trained as an officer, and it remains a disappointment. My old man was in the navy, and I was brought up in Portsmouth – we used to play soldiers at school. [Joining the military] seemed like the thing to do, but from the beginning I felt completely inadequate and they didn't want me. 

Back at school, I was really taken by Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In our music lesson at school they played a new record by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven, which I borrowed. But I scratched it, so my father said there's no way I could give it back. I had to buy a new one. I kept the old one, and thought it was really good. A year or so later I came up to London, to Goldsmith's College – which was nowhere near as cool as it is now – and I started going to the opera. I went 90 times in the first year. I used to pay £1 and sit on a deckchair up near the roof. 

I had an Italian girlfriend whose family were opera mad. She took me her house once and we all started singing. Her dad told me I had an amazing voice, but I'd only sung once or twice in the choir at school before that. They said I should train. I went to an audition in London with one of the teachers from the Royal College and they said the same thing, so I started training as an opera singer with the dream to do it professionally. I ended up singing in 26 major roles, including a workshop in the Royal Opera House. I was pretty good, but I never quite nailed it. I still do a bit of signing – I've written a book called Riding the Tide, which is about 50 Psalms – there's a song for each one. 

So how did you get into fashion, then? 

Fashion was to pay the bills. I got a job working in Selfridges in the menswear department. One Saturday afternoon Bruce Springsteen came in and I measured his inside leg! I suppose I got a bit of a love for the clothes. I then worked for an organisation that looks after the manufacturing industry. It was interesting – but my hope was the singing would come through. I left there to pursue it after a year or two, during which time I met the person who would become my wife. Her father said he didn't want his daughter marrying someone who didn't have a real job, so I wrote to the people I worked for previously and asked for a reference. They didn't give me a reference – they gave me my job back. They'd just taken over something called the British Fashion Council… I was still pursuing the singing – which I then dropped after a few years because I realised with kids and a wife it wasn't going to work.

Looking back, if there was someone there planning out what I would do, you can kind of see what He was up to – but I didn't have a Scooby at the time. Looking back, I can see how it came together, and that there was someone quite clever pulling the strings. 

For you to stay in the industry for 30 years, there must be some love for fashion, though? 

I've got a really, really strange relationship with fashion. I don't live and breathe it. I shall go to catwalk shows later today, and sitting in the front row people can almost feel the excitement. I really don't feel that. Music does that for me. I've been a worship leader at my church for the last 15 years – I come closest to God when I'm using my voice. 

Having said that, I love clothes. I have far, far too many clothes for my wardrobe – mostly high street, not designer – or I wouldn't be able to retire at this age. I can see the craftsmanship, the fabrics and the inspiration behind it. There's a funny disconnect. I've never understood it. 

As a Christian in the fashion industry in a position of leadership, do you feel you have a responsibility?

The Church is very good at drawing in – drawing talents and running its programmes and all that sort of stuff – but actually it's not very good at all at equipping people. It's a pit stop, not in the race. It's about getting people to see the importance of being in their everyday lives. It's not as cheap as: preach the gospel and if necessary use words, but it is the way you do stuff, understanding the issues, that's important, because if you've got something to say that underlines what you do on the back of that, people say: why are you so passionate about that? It includes the gay issue in fashion. 

Over the last year or so I've had some really interesting discussions. If you just say: I'm a Christian, others say you've got nothing to do with them. You've got to find a language, a vocabulary, love that goes beyond how things have looked. That doesn't mean we turn away from what the Bible says, because I'm pretty clear on that, but Jesus would probably be far more interested in speaking to people about their gifts, what they're doing, the fact their tax return wasn't done properly last year, these were probably things that came much higher up his list. We'll talk about salvation in a while, but let's get to know each other first.

What relationship should Christians have with fashion? Some might say we shouldn't concern ourselves with the superficial. 

It's absolute nonsense. In the beginning God created. Creativity is there from day one. When Adam and Eve decided to go their own way, God as a designer created the first clothes for them. If you look at when the priests were first introduced, in Exodus, there's a whole chapter set aside for the clothing of the priests. Every piece had a purpose to it. Imagery in the Old Testament uses clothes and fashion all over the place. The first Christian in Europe was Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, and even someone like Paul, who was the archetypal, tweed-jacketed academic, uses lots of images of clothing – "full armour of God" and "dress yourselves in compassion". Clothing is scattered throughout the Bible, and I think any suggestion that clothing/fashion/creativity and God doesn't mix is folly. Simple as that. 

The contention then is about the global fashion industry. One of the best ways to sum things up came from one of the senior designer managers of a high street retailer. She described it as this: "My real longing is that everybody involved with the production of clothing would be blessed by the role they play in it. From the farmer at one end who's farming the land – the cotton crop or the wool from the sheep, to the people involved in the production cycle, the preparation of the fabrics, the people who design, manufacturer, stitch. Everyone involved in that should be blessed by their part."

In reality, the vast majority of the benefit is at the top end – the consumer, the owners, the retailers. Whereas further down you have people working in sweat shops in Bangladesh, or people farming the land where people's livelihoods have been ruined because so much water has been used to grow the cotton. Wearing beautiful clothes enhances life, but the fact we're wrecking the planet by the amount of water, the amount of landfill, the amount of unwanted clothes we have, that needs to be addressed.

If God was in charge, those would be some of His key concerns. Look after the planet, He'd say. We're an extraordinarily selfish generation in terms of the amount of consumption we go through: it takes three years bath water to make one t-shirt. There are £31billion of unworn clothing in British woman's wardrobes. The average women has 19 pairs of unworn shoes.

So is fashion doing enough to make the industry fairer? 

It comes down to consumers being educated as to what actually goes on, and to be given options and choices that they can buy into. I was at a conference last year where Marks & Spencer spoke about their Plan A project, and [they] said we can't tell our consumers what to do, we can only give them choices. That's the reality of living in a modern, Western, capitalist consumer society. 

Although one would like to be a little more robust, all you can do is give options.

There are a growing number of initiatives, though, including Fashion Revolution, which is essentially trying to work with governments and producers to address the sweat shop problem, to make sure people are paid properly, to make sure work conditions are safe and to explore how you can check the provenances of the garments you're wearing: was the land exploited? Were the people exploited? I think we're at a point where there's a different view these days. I met a student who's working on a barcoding process with clothes, where you scan it on your phone and it tells you the story of your clothes. Things are changing. 

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