Hello to the dreamers and freaks. To singular vision, lawless ‘taste’ and committed, distilled design. For everyone in the room who was once a fashion student, this show probably took them back to that time. I know it did me. It’s difficult to comment beyond the point that something about much of the work in this show felt like the work of students with unbridled creativity and devotion to their ideas – almost religious in its nature – and that was what made it moving. It’s then that I realised what sometimes is lost in the rigour, perfection, slickness and ‘professional’ outcome of some student collections.
I thought about how sometimes dramatic, oversized swampy shapes perfectly pattern cut can pass without impression, washing over us pleasantly enough but leaving no impression behind. These collections had a rawness that left a lovely aesthetic and creative grit in their wake. Enjoy the religious offerings of the MA Fashion Central Saint Martins students, 2017. As judge Iain R. Webb, Fashion Features Editor-at-Large at Rollacoaster magazine and Professor of Fashion and Design at Kingston School of Art said in his closing remarks before announcing the winners of the L’Oreal Preofessional Creative award, which went to Stefan Cooke and Gabriele Skucas, “these are clothes created by individuals, for individuals”. Fashion is about self-expression and we all want to be heard.
Students in the MA Fashion Central Saint Martins Show, 2017:
Markus Wernitzig, Robert Wallace, Emma Chopova/Laura Lowena, Li Gong, Johannes Boehl Cronau, Amir Khorasany, Stefan Cooke, Peter Movrin, Joshua Walters, Gabriella Sardeña, Qiying Fang, Gabriele Skucas, Oliver Thame, Tim Guy, Robert Sanders and Joshua Beaty.
Who doesn’t want to be spoilt? Drawing on inspiration from Traveller culture and a fascination with DIY objects and applications, the Spoilt team crafted an illustrated story of colourful and textured characters. The collection included a pink paint print oversized duvet coat and and over dyed geometric printed puffa jacket. The accessories included lace-up denim cuffs embellished with dangling multi-coloured acrylic nails. Total embellishment abandon and a whole lot of fun.
The Spoilt team: Including Jodi Feddon (far right) illustrator and designer
Spoilt were one of a number of teams of Ravensbourne students working on a live brief for VF Corporation, owner of a number of lifestyle brands including Lee, Vans and Wrangler. The teams, comprising of BA (Hons) Fashion, BA (Hons) Fashion Buying and Brand Management and BA (Hons) Fashion Accessory Design and Prototyping students working in collaboration, were charged with interpreting a design brief set around the concept of the Lee ‘BODY OPTIX’ range which “combines visual science and design to enhance certain body shapes”.
In pulling together this article, I researched the BODY OPTIX range on the Lee website and was horrified to find this borderline racist, body shaming language used:
“Scientifically designed by vision scientists and Denim designers, BODY OPTIXTMcombines the power of VISUAL SCIENCE and design to create jeans that flatters, enhances and shapes the Asian body. The application of geodesic shaping and precise laser anatomy warping gives you perkier backside and strikingly long legs, granting you a more feminine figure that is ideally proportional and attractive.”
This branding language, product and imagery (which I will not include here, but is on their website) merits a far deeper discussion around western influence on fashion and feminism, but in the scope of this article, I really want to keep the focus on what the Ravensbourne students created and how they succeeded in reinterpreting the brief towards utilising graphics, embellishments and downright visual distractions (acrylic nail fringing) whilst developing the textural interest and surface effects of the denim to elevate the humble jean – none of which were fitted or body contoured. In fact many were oversized and unisex. The Ravensbourne students showed incredible creativity and design integrity, which makes the Lee branding and campaign seem even more dated and uninspired.
Foe took a darker stance than Spoilt, looking to Japanese Samurai and armoury to incorporate rivets and other hardware to hinge together accessories and clothing. In their brand literature they state that Foe aims to attract a different type of consumer to the VF corporation by taking the female physique and using different silhouettes and style to bring diversity to the company.
The Foe Team: Zahra Khan, Katy Andoh, Polly Tamalia and Mary-Louise Fischer
Oneness lashed at their denim with latex and paint and created clothing and accessories with a craft/skate/patchwork theme.
Bag (and hand) by Toya Mehmet accessories design student
Deflect played with organdie and denim, creating illusionary false and hidden pockets with contrasting bleached denim.
Team Deflect are: Ciara Kelly and Holly Lovey (Fashion Buying and Branding), Denisa Mehmeti and Kyra Chang (Fashion Design) and Anna Sabe (Fashion Accessory Design)
Uniq 2 was represented firstly by a Korean duo who described soju (a kind of ‘Korean Sake’) as a cultural slang term meaning the desire to go wild and rebel as the starting point for the collection. The design picked up on the current Korean trend for wearing oversized wind-proof protective layers and used the silhouette and seaming details of a traditional denim jacket in the windproof material, adding their own logo branding – quite a literal and believable interpretation not far removed from the way designs are translated quickly on the high street, albeit with less fun and flavour.
Gyal Dem looked to Grime, the music sub-genre drawing on multiple influences including drum and bass and UK Garage, made famous by Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, for stylistic and brand references, adopting a unisex sportswear aesthetic to appeal to their target audience. A specific target market and design point-of-view led to on-point branding and a strong website including the brand story, look book and a behind the scenes look at how the products were designed and made.
The Gyal Dem team are: Celine Polidori and Alexia Amaning (Fashion Design), Raji Bagary, Laura Holloway and Katie Vincent (Fashion Buying and Brand Management)
Analogy created the first luxury brand to utilise biodegradable materials throughout the collection. They used Algix, an algae and PLA composite 3D printing filament that biodegrades after 50 years, replacing the 100% PLA and ABS alternatives which biodegrade after several hundred years, not unlike the pleather and plastic-based fabrics made as leather alternatives, raising questions over the true sustainability and environmental impact of these alternative materials. Analogy are posing interesting questions by using this composite filament and replaced a full collection of sample garments with a mixture of life-size printed garment cut-outs alongside denim samples. Their resin and denim swatches and experimentation with subtracting warp threads leaving weft ‘floats’ as a denim detail added interest to the denim. With impressive branding and use of Algix sourced (and physically collected) from the US, these students could pass for a professional outfit, pardon the pun.
The Analogy team: India Martin (Accessories Design), Eleanor Maylin (Fashion Design) and Elle Morlang and Nicole Keitch (Fashion Buying and Branding)
SoNNE presented an altogether different proposition to all the other teams, using subtle variations in sublimation print to create painterly designs on denim canvases, exploring the colours and textures conjured up by varying their printing technique. The colours brought a sophisticated palette and softened the denim foundation, until they were subverted again into big, bold, unisex boiler suits. I’ve got my eye on one and am ready place an order. I’m not alone, so it looks like fashion design students Isabel Hibbert and Grace Flood have a busy Christmas ahead.
The exhibition serves as a reminder of the diversity and cultural richness design, buying and branding students in London have. They are tapping a broad range of cultures, languages, subcultures, art movements and belief systems. Sadly I couldn’t cover the work of all of the teams in this article, but the integrity and creativity of the students featured spanned the other teams too, leaving no doubt in my mind that the ‘Rave’ students have enriched and enlightened the VF Corporation teams they worked with on this collaboration.
A recent visit to Ravensbourne has catalysed a shift in my opinion of ‘fashion tech’ as a discipline and led to an animated discussion around the reasons for the aesthetic gulf between fashion design and technology. The reason for my visit was the European Space Agency initiative, ‘Couture in Orbit’ – a fashion show at the Science Museum in May, featuring the work of five fashion colleges in Europe: ESMOD Paris, ESMOD Berlin, Fashion Design Akademiet Copenhagen, Politecnico di Milano and Ravensbourne London, which set about planting creative seeds for what will become a necessity – fashion in space. The colleges worked to a brief set by the ESA to present ideas and prototypes for fashion and accessories in the coming age of space travel. In response to a number of nasty and aggressive comments on their YouTube page in response to a video of this initiative, the ESA wrote this:
Couture in Orbit is a student outreach project. The students are using materials and technology in their designs that are a spin-off from the space industry. Each school had a theme linked to an astronaut’s mission, such as environment, health, sustainability, and their final designs had to have practical benefits for life on Earth. No funds were exchanged and material and technical support was provided by Tech startups.
Yes, the designs could be seen as somewhat ‘amateurish’ and ‘costumey’ in their concept and presentation and describing them as ‘couture’ and ‘fashion’ is not strictly accurate, however the idea here is key. Fashion’s robust approach to design and creation of cohesive, refined collections does not allow for this kind of playful theatrics, but if fashion and tech are to advance there has to be some latitude where the end result is concerned. It makes no sense to judge this by the same standards as a show at London Fashion Week, for example, which exists for an entirely different purpose and is part of a totally different creative and commercial conversation. The YouTube comments demonstrate an attitude that demeans the validity and power of fashion that I have seen previously hinder cooperation between fashion, science and tech sectors, but we will forge forward regardless.
‘Couture in Orbit’ designs
‘It is inevitable’, said Ravensbourne students Farid Bin Karim and Sam Martin-Harper of the fusion of fashion and technology in clothing to come. Their view was the same of space travel – we know for certain there will be inhabitation of other planets and commercial journeys to space, so we need to design clothing fit for space life. The brief provided to the students by the ESA included an array of materials for them to use in their garments and accessories, including Sympatex, woven fabrics by Bionic Yarn and 37.5. Being presented with a fixed set of materials is challenging from a design perspective, as fashion design often begins with selection of a fabrics to complement an aesthetic or theme held by the designer. Removing this from the designer’s creative point of view throws up further challenges and provides experimental opportunities. Karim leads me into a discussion about Design Fiction, a framework based on critical design which is the foundation of his speculative design approach on the Wearables MA course at Ravensbourne. The modelling of future scenarios using design fiction provides a robust outline for predicting what fashion design could be in an age of commercial space travel, for example. Karim selects three modes of technology – one that exists but he can’t access, one that exists that he can access and one that we can reasonably deduce will exist in the future – with which to begin to form a fashion tech product design scenario. This Design Fiction framework and critical design, attributed to Julian Bleecker and Dunne and Raby respectively, and adopted widely in London as a modelling tool, begins to give me insight into how design for a future that we can’t yet imagine is conceivable and believable.
Farid explains that his self-closing helmet and kilt are inspired by sojourners travelling to space and creating their own exoplanet. His concept hinged on the sojourners creating protective barriers around themselves that responded to atmospheric changes to give visual notifications allowing them to react and adapt. His self-closing helmet is powered by muscle wires and his kilt, printed in collaboration with print designer and MA fashion student Laura Perry, has heat responsive ink which disappears at certain temperatures – a useful visual notification when things are hotting up. Farid also used a UV responsive pigment – another useful visual alert. Karim’s work is inspired by an array of creatives including artist Lucy McRae, writer HG Wells and movement artist and coder Nicola Plant.
Heat applied by the palm of the hand causes the ink to temporarily disappear
UV source applied to printed fabric
Visual alert to excessive UV rays
Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and reactive ink kilt, in collaboration with Laura Perry
Sam Martin-Harper presented an altogether more nostalgic proposition in which she expressed her belief (and hope) that we will always remain rooted to earth. Her love of biology and particular interest in the techniques for growing plants on the International Space Station, including the work of astronaut Tim Peake, drove her to create a 3D printed neck piece containing plant life. Admitting this is a conceptual piece, Sam explained how she used inspiration from the ingenious folding joint sections of space suits to inform the shapes and details of her design. Sam is completing her BA and is still exploring career options. One thing is for sure, she cannot see a future of fashion without the integration of tech.
Sam Martin-Harper’s 3D printed plant-filled neckpiece at ‘Couture in Orbit”
A discussion on the future work of Farid centres on his passion for data as a tool for creating responsive and adaptive design. He has been learning coding and electronics as part of his Wearables MA and sees future fashion as an extension of the individual – as ‘body centric’. On graduation, Karim is hoping to work with a multi-disciplinary research facility to conduct collaborative research and design. When I ask if he would consider a traditional design job (he is a fashion graduate, after all) he reflects on how he has had to unlearn and relearn aspects of his design approach through his Wearable MA training in order to realise his part industrial, part fashion creations. It’s clear he’s happier in unchartered territory.
The discussion turned to couture and obsolescence. Karim is curious about the possible inclusion of technology in couture techniques in order to aid their survival, but this is completely at odds with the fact that couture means made by hand. This meaning of couture would therefore need to change for this to happen. I ponder a possible alternative in the form of technologies so specialised, rare and unique that they create a techno-couture instead. Here we begin to think about fashion and design being driven by technology, rather than the other way around.
In these discussions, as Alexa Pollmann, Course Leader of the MA Wearable Futures course, points out, it is important to consider the designs of Sam, Farid and the other students from Ravensbourne as proposals and prototypes – not final ‘fashion products’ per se. Ask any fashion designer working in the industry today their opinion of fashion tech and they will overwhelmingly tell you that it is gimmicky, ugly and not desirable. Herein lies the chasm between tech and fashion. Looks really count, and so does magic. Fashion designers bring an ephemeral quality to their creations, says Alexa. Fashion designers dream up and articulate experiences better than any other design discipline. They create magic in a way that is often so difficult to define it just feels ‘right’. Fashion is entirely subjective and indisputably powerful. For these reasons, Clive Van Heerden, co-founder of vHM Design Futures studio in London, which develops materials and technologies for a host of Wearable Electronic business propositions in the areas of electronic apparel, conductive textiles, physical gaming, medical monitoring and entertainment, insists on having a fashion designer in his creative team on all projects.
Designs by students from Politecnico di Milano
Designs by students from Ravensbourne
But why are fashion designers resistant to incorporating tech into their designs and what is slowing down the advancement of the fashion tech fusion? One factor is that the development of tech-enabled/collaborative products takes considerable research and development, and therefore time. It requires dedication to solving specific problems related to firstly a single concept or product, which is at odds with designing, sampling and creating whole fashion collections which are visually cohesive within a strict time frame (weeks or months at most), which then have a finite sales period before the next collection is created (making the current one obsolete, for want of a better word) and the cycle continues. The traditional cycle of two main collections per year for high end fashion labels has switched to four in recent years, meaning there is even less time for research and development. Knowing this, it is easy to see why the work of fashion designers is at odds with the research and development required to incorporate tech, and vice versa. In a previous interview with designers Fyodor Golan, they pointed out that fashion tech collaborations often have a required fixed outcome within a tight time frame, limiting the amount of integration possible. This goes some way to explaining why sometimes fashion tech looks more ‘stuck on’ than cohesively and meaningfully designed and produced.
Read more about the technologies involved in the Couture in Orbit project here
Header image: Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and adaptable ink kilt at ‘Couture in Orbit’