Julian Roberts is an avid sustainability advocate, a fashion industry veteran, and the inventor of ‘Subtraction Cutting’ - an experimental approach to fashion design. Julian is set to visit Australia in March, bringing decades of experience with him as an honoured guest at the upcoming Bothwell International Highland SpinIN and Fibre Festival (BIHSIFF).
The event name may be a mouthful, but the concept is simple. Julian’s innovative techniques help to eliminate textile waste throughout the design, cut and make process; an issue that the fashion industry is grappling to solve worldwide.
In the midst of his busy schedule sharing his solution with students around the world and educating the public on the complexities of fashion waste, Julian found time to answer a few of our questions…
You’ve had a colourful fashion career with your own label, teaching, and showing at London Fashion Week. How did your journey in fashion start?
I started studying fashion at 16 following a period in the mid-80s where I was drawn to music and challenging convention through clothing. Punk, mods, skinheads, goths, new romantics, casuals, b-boys, new age hippies, grunge, acid house, drum and bass and hip hop fired my ears and my imagination for decades. First, I started dressing up myself and adapting second-hand clothes, wearing lots of make-up and scaring the locals in the conservative small English town I grew up in, and then I started making tailored jackets and coats. I then turned my focus to womenswear and other people’s bodies. I left home, ventured north to do my BA degree in Newcastle (UK), and became a geek lost in pattern making, film making and ambient music. I then moved to London to study an MA in Menswear at the prestigious Royal College of Art, where tailoring became my focus once again, but this time, I embarked on a much deeper and more mindful reflection in the traditional hand processes of stitching and sculpting cloth. I got some useful industry experience which gave me a taste for putting collections together to showcase. Then, I hid away for a short while at my parent’s house on the south coast of England, experimenting and inventing my own methodologies of pattern cutting and cooking up plans to release my own fashion label. It was in a small back bedroom of a Vicarage in 1998 that I happened upon some cool happy accidents in cloth. This, I what I later baptised, ‘Subtraction Cutting’.
Where does your interest in sustainability stem from?
From the hand, and its connection to the cloth, and my love of tactility, volume and drape. These immediate human sensations and material connections lead you to honour and respect those talented makers who construct cloth and work it with their limbs, and those who drive the machines, who cut and sew, and breathe life into a garment. In Couture, they are called ‘Les Petite Mains’, or more accurately, ‘the invisible hands’. These are my heroes, and when you feel that connection to the labour and manufacturing process, then, of course, you respect the workers’ rights and you realise that you too are one of them, and the value of the material - because you are physically connected to it. So ethical and sustainable design become a lived experience, not just a buzz word or marketing jargon. I love sustainable textiles and garment making because I feel a part of those things and value them. The beautiful people in fashion are the textile designers and garment makers, not the models and celebrities. I have no interest in them.
What is ‘Subtraction Pattern Cutting’ and how did you come up with it?
Subtraction Cutting is an experimental approach to fashion design through pattern cutting and sewing. Rather than starting with design drawings, you instead cut and manipulate cloth, and stitch and construct it into the design. This involves taking creative risks, encountering happy accidents and letting go of certainty. You come to trust the construction process and dynamics of the textile, its flexibility and fluidity, and the challenging effects of soft geometry and gravity. The design comes last, therefore, not first. It is discovered by chance at the end of the prototyping process, not at the beginning where it would be a limitation or precondition. So to me ‘designing’ is making, it’s not making a pretty picture and then passing it on for more skilful hands to realise and bring it to life; it’s about getting your hands ‘dirty’ and touching cloth, and letting the material teach you how it wishes to be cut. I use negative space (or holes) to explore new routes and pathways through textiles and explore how radical new shapes can be invented through the removal of empty space. When space is cut and removed, it then becomes a secondary problem to solve as to what to do with it. The trick is to ascertain how it can either be incorporated back into the garment to help complete or finish it or work out how it be used to make a completely separate garment or product. In this way, intelligently shaped debris becomes useful in some way and not discarded, and so Subtraction Cutting has the potential to become a ‘zero waste’ or ‘whole cloth’ approach to garment construction and design.
What is the 'Displacement Technique’ and how is it a sustainable pattern making method?
No technique of pattern cutting can claim to be necessarily ‘sustainable’ or ‘waste-less’; it depends entirely upon how it is applied, how you conduct your practice, how you find secondary uses for waste, and whether the end result looks good, is fit for purpose and good to wear. So prototyping is absolutely essential in minimising inappropriate and wasteful design. It is not wasteful to make many prototypes if they help work through and iron out problems which shouldn’t perpetuate into volume manufacture. So the ‘Displacement Technique’ is a highly experimental and playful methodology where you separate segments of the garment pattern which usually join tightly together (such as the back and the front of a garment pattern), and you place between them a shape which has within it a large hole big enough for the body to easily pass through. What happens next is textile gymnastics: the back pattern spins through the hole once or numerous times, and then joins onto the front pattern. In doing so, it twists up the textile very unpredictably and causes material distortion. Of course, this written explanation (like any diagrammatic explanation) tells you absolutely nothing about the end result, and might easily be misunderstood as an instruction or explanation, but that is the point of 'Subtraction Cutting'. You can’t know at the beginning of the process what the end effect might possibly be; you must instead experiment and see what happens. The ‘sustainability’ lies in the hands-on making process, and the textile designer-cutter-sewer being the originator of the garment design. It might all go wrong and not work, and so second or third or fourth or twenty-fifth attempts might be needed, but this is not wasteful if it saves bad design being replicated or mass manufactured. The process of 'Subtraction Cutting' in such an instance focuses the maker on exploring the unknown, while also involving them directly with the cloth and manufacture process, which has the benefit of making the fashion design and production process less fragmented and hierarchical. The labourer rules!
The fashion industry is notorious for secrecy, yet you want to share your knowledge and methods with as many designers as possible. Why?
Musicians often come together to jam and create new sounds and songs together, as do dancers who respond to each other's movements to choreograph new physical expressions and ways of storytelling with their bodies. Fashion designers are often more commercially territorial, thinking wrongly that when you reveal or share a technique that something is irretrievably lost. It is not. When you share techniques widely, you allow other people to test-drive them, and inevitably some will take them in entirely new and unexpected directions either by accident or design. This makes for far more interesting and varied results. The techniques then grow and evolve a life of their own, free of ownership. As the inventor or originator of 'Subtraction Cutting', it is very fulfilling to see other people around the world adopt and transform my ideas; it keeps me on my toes and forces me to find different or new approaches to feed interest and enthusiasm. Sharing garment making techniques shifts the purpose of design away from merely being a means to branding fashion for sale, to instead also being a means of educating, empowering and passing on craft knowledge.
You’ve travelled all around the world with your Subtraction Cutting Masterclass. What experience has been a significant highlight and why?
The world gets bigger the more you travel. You arrive in a city or town in a new country and discover there are lots of other places in other regions that need to be visited too. Rather than it being a bucket list you slowly tick off, travelling far and wide instead makes you realise how expansive and growing the world is, how different cultural traditions might be, and also how similar humans are everywhere. Most people wherever you go in the world are mostly getting on with their daily lives as best they can, working to put food on the table, looking after their families and loved ones, trying to find some sense of personal achievement, fun and enjoyment. I’m not very good at learning languages, but I am good at listening and watching people and trying to read them emotionally, and I am empathetic in my responses. So I find everywhere I go in the world has something interesting going on, something different from my normality, and I adapt my teaching accordingly.
On Page 01 of your ‘Free Cutting Guide’, you mention, “These are not step-by-step guides or lessons! I want you to trip up and make your own mistakes.” Why are making mistakes important in fashion?
I learned garment making over quite a long period of time, decades-long, and I made lots of mistakes along the way, some very frustrating at the time. But I learned from that experience, and it helped me better understand the tolerances. Now that I teach methodologies which require the student to sometimes trip up and go wrong (which perhaps improves the end design, or has more interesting results with inaccurate measurements as opposed to millimetre-perfect processes), as a teacher it becomes important to me to not rob the student of the lesson of learning through trial and error. Mistakes can often open brand new avenues of creative exploration and aesthetics. Accuracy and meticulousness are also important in refining design, but it mustn’t smother or limit the early creative potential during prototyping. So, having time to mess up and analyse the benefits of such mistakes makes for a more healthy work ethic. You can relax and see what happens, stress less and be more open to new possibilities that are not forced into being.
The fashion industry is soon to usurp oil as the world’s most polluting industry. Do you think we’ll be able to turn that around in our lifetime?
I’m afraid not. The current generations of old and young will only start to consume less and waste less when the problem becomes so acute that the entire system of purchase collapses. When the sources of fashion product and commerce dry up, and prices rise astronomically, people will be left having to absorb and transform their own waste material into something that resembles fashion, and to protect them from the elements. We can soften the blow by learning creative making skills to enjoy together in community, and pass on craft knowledge and making-skills to future generations to help them better deal with the practical problems they will inevitably face. Perhaps overall consumption will in time temper and new ingenious solutions will be found that ease or reverse some environmental impacts, and science and technology can re-engineer the landscape, but I think we will all be living with the dire consequences of fast fashion and needless consumer waste for a long time to come. We will change only when governments intervene, and laws prohibit wasteful over-production and consumption. We can all individually choose to slow down a bit, make better use of what we have, mend things, repurpose waste materials, and disrupt the fashion system in the meantime by not following it blindly. I stay hopeful.
What inspires you and why?
Running, yoga, people who dance, painting, sculpting, singing, playing instruments, devising rhythms and making films and music. I’m inspired mostly by my students and other teachers. I love the enthusiasm and excitement of learning, growing up, becoming wise, passing on knowledge, not stopping, staying active, not becoming cynical, and loving life despite losses and misery. All good things come to an end, and everything bad will eventually pass. The ideas that my life is finite inspires me too. I’d hate to live forever. This is our time, so let's make it really good and enjoy as much as we can before its over.
What advice you can give to our readers when it comes to fashion?
Don’t be dragged down by the problems. Enjoy what you do and make, and have fun sharing that buzz with those around you. Take your time and don’t be rushed unnecessarily, either into making or purchasing fashion. There is so much fashion that has not yet been discovered or made, far more fashion future than costume past, but it will take time to devise and recognise it. Believe in the possibility that making new things might not mean wasteful destruction of resources. It is possible to waste less, think harder, and be more cautious and clever. Believe in your skills and hands, robots won’t be replicating their moist warm empathetic grasp of creativity anytime soon. Fashion is a powerful thing, it’s right next to all of us and can make our day better. Fashion is a cause for joy.
How did you get involved with the Bothwell SpinIN event and how does the festival fit into your ethos?
I was invited to attend because there are not many fashion designers who travel the world nomadically teaching exciting making skills! I’m quite rare. The festival champions textile making skills and materials, respects traditions and is open to new ideas and inspirations. I hope to pass on my creative flame to those who attend and wish to make creative fires of their own.
Have you been to Tasmania before and are you looking forward to your visit?
I’ve visited eastern Australia to teach Subtraction Cutting on a number of occasions but never Tasmania. I have taught many people in Australia over the years though, and they've have recommended I visit Tasmania, so I’m intrigued and looking forward to venturing to a new place. It’s a very long way to come, and I’m sure it will be a memorable event for those who participate, and of course for me.
“Though it does not make me wealthy, there is more joy in making fashion than simply making money.” Julian Roberts.
Head to the Bothwell International Highland SpinIN and Fibre Festival (BIHSIFF) website for more event information or immerse yourself in Julian Roberts' methods here.
The Fashion Advocate x