UNHCR tent-fashion collaboration pitches up at the Queen's home

Artist and Designer Professor Helen Storey announced as Za'atari's first ever Artist in Residence at a royal reception. Helen's project 'Dress for Our Time,' supported by UNHCR, will continue to find ways to empower women and girls in Za'atari by nurturing entrepreneurship, creativity and independence through fashion and design.

The 'Dress for our Time' was designed by British social artist and designer Professor Helen Storey of London College of Fashion.  © London College of Fashion/David Betteridge

Tents from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, have become symbols of the humanitarian response in refugee crises and conflict zones around the world. But this month, a UNHCR tent appeared in an unexpected location: Buckingham Palace.

The tent was displayed in the Palace as part of the ‘Dress for our Time’ project by British social artist and designer Professor Helen Storey of London College of Fashion, at the University of the Arts London. In 2015, she created the world’s first couture dress made from a decommissioned UNHCR tent, which had been home to a Syrian refugee family living in Jordan’s Za’atari camp.

Inspired by the tent’s history, Storey travelled to Jordan to find out more about the Syrian refugees living in Za’atari. There, she was deeply moved by the stories of conflict and loss that the refugees shared with her, but above all by the spirit of resilience and ingenuity that flourished in the camp. She began using her design skills to work with girls in the camp on producing LOVECOATS – garments which transformed blankets into coats adorned with recycled materials, beads and ribbons, depicting the girls’ hopes for the future. Subsequent trips have expanded her work to supporting innovative artistic, cultural and livelihood projects.

This dress is made from a recycled refugee tent

In recognition of her commitment, UNHCR and the London College of Fashion announced Helen Storey as Za’atari camp’s first ‘Artist in Residence’ at a reception at Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s residence in London, hosted by the College’s patron, Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex. The reception celebrated the College’s ‘Better Lives’ agenda, which seeks to incorporate sustainability and social responsibility within the discipline of fashion.

Through the ‘Artist in Residence’ project, UNHCR and London College of Fashion are seeking innovative ways to bring together their specialist knowledge to provide practical direct action on the ground to refugees. Collaborating with scientists at the University of Sheffield, this has included a project to grow tomato plants in recycled mattresses, a micro laboratory producing soaps and perfumes, and with leading couturier Elie Saab and teams from the London College of Fashion, an embroidery workshop. Each of the projects being supported by Professor Storey and her team are designed in close creative consultation with the women and girls in Za’atari, to ensure that they nurture and develop the skills that they brought from Syria.

Za’atari Camp is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, hosting 80,000 refugees who fled the conflict in Syria. After her first trip to the camp, Storey said: “These are the experiences that make you question the purpose of your life. We have so much to learn from Za’atari, and design must find more creative ways to directly make life better there, because when you improve the environment, you improve someone’s well-being and their potential.”

“In a displaced life, everything changes, it summons the previously unimaginable out of people - forms of courage and creativity I have never witnessed before”

UNHCR’s camp manager, Irene Ormondi, said: “The collaboration with London College of Fashion, UAL, will explore every possible way to connect refugee women and girls in Za’atari, in the most efficient and effective means and through innovative projects to enhance their future opportunities.”

‘Dress for Our Time’ was originally illuminated with current and projected climate data from the UK’s Met Office – one of the world's leading authorities in providing weather and climate services –  to highlight an issue of growing concern for the UN Refugee Agency: the role of climate change as a major factor in human displacement. Since its inception, the tent dress has been modelled at the United Nations in Geneva, at London’s Science Museum, and worn on stage at the Glastonbury festival by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Rokia Traoré.

Over the course of 2019, Storey and her team will continue to find collaborative ways to empower women and girls in camp by nurturing entrepreneurship, creativity and financial independence through the lens of fashion.

“In a displaced life, everything changes, it summons the previously unimaginable out of people - forms of courage and creativity I have never witnessed before,” said Professor Storey. “We have so much to learn from Za’atari.”