Following the hit exhibition NUDE at the Lethaby Gallery last year, which staged a body of work by the MA Fashion graduates of 2015, the annual unveiling makes a return in a similar ritual. Curated by Alistair O’Neill, this year’s exhibition aims to provoke a more intimate dialogue between the clothes and its audience, in what is commonly deemed to be an exclusive arena.

1 Granary: Can you give us a little introduction to the exhibition?

Alistair O’Neill: This is the second exhibition that MA Fashion has staged here at the Lethaby Gallery at Central Saint Martins. It’s a continuation from last year’s ‘NUDE’, which was the first time we’ve really attempted to show the work of the MA Fashion graduating students to the public. The MA Fashion show is something that is industry oriented, and even the static portfolio presentations that we do are also for industry and professionals.

What was really exciting this season, is that the CSM show was the most looked at London show on Vogue.com in the week that it took place. It shows that there is really a great appetite for finding out about it. But I’ve always found it really important that you don’t just give the public that information digitally, but you can also allow the public to see these things in the flesh. There is something really fundamental about that, because as much as they’re innovative in their design, they are professionally made and they’ve used really interesting fabrics and unusual material. So the chance to be able to get close to that makes a difference.

And what about its title — Separates?

The title of the exhibition is an old, antiquated term for talking about clothing, not as a full outfit but a series of individual garments, which funnily enough has come back around. A lot of the reviews around Milan Fashion Week were talking about the return of separates as opposed to the full look. But we wanted to play on the work; all of the designers are separate as individuals.

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Apart from allowing the public to see the clothes in the flesh, what kind of a dialogue, do you feel, exhibiting the collection in this fashion creates with a public audience?

If you look at some of the presentations that went on in the most recent London Fashion Week — Claire Barrow, Phoebe English — they’re small scale set pieces, they’re not catwalk shows. They are thinking about their collection in a manner that is not dissimilar to this exhibition. So, I do actually think there is an increasing relevance to presenting fashion in this way, commercially or culturally, because it can be more modest, it can be less expensive…

I’m sure the increasing privatisation of spaces creates this feeling within people, where although they’re engaged with fashion (perhaps most commonly in a commercial sense), they continue to feel distanced from it, thinking of it as an exclusive realm?

Yeah. There was a comment on one of the posts asking how they could access the exhibition, saying “do I have to pay?” And we replied to that saying: no, it’s free, please come down! So that’s a really good example of how people still feel this is something that’s been shut off, and we’re just trying to break that down.

The same thing happens with art galleries, where people are put off from attending openings and make similar comments by asking where they can access tickets. When really, you’re at liberty to just walk in.

I think fashion is a little bit more hardcore, as a kind of discipline. I always found it fantastic that if you wanted to go to a Gilbert & George private view, you could go and gain entry and they would be standing there and you could go and talk to them. Fashion doesn’t work like that. So this is a really nice exercise in trying to be more open.

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Seeing as this is technically a group exhibition, was there any thematic execution behind the curation of the show

I suppose the theme that we were dealing with in this show was trying to create a kind of selling space within the gallery. It looks at the kind of architecture of a boutique.

Like a Dover Street Market?

*Laughs* It’s funny you should say that, because we weren’t thinking about it, but lots of people have mentioned that. We’ve got like escalators, changing rooms, we’ve got a makeup counter. We were kind of interested in making this place seem really approachable, so that it wasn’t trying to say: “This is fashion in an art gallery,” what we’re trying to say is: “This is fashion, yeah it’s in an art gallery, but it also looks like a shop.”  We’re just trying to use that as a device to make people feel a little comfortable by engaging with it.

There’s a very strong sense of wearability around the clothing in these collections, and I really want to hone in on that. So I made a really conscious decision to try and merchandise the exhibition – putting an outfit on a rail. How is it going to look good? How is it going to appeal? How is it going to hang as a series of textures and a range of garments?

There’s definitely a feeling that more and more stores are creating narratives using that technique.

Yes. Of course, Dover Street Market opening in the old Burberry building is a great contemporary example of that.

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How do you think an exhibition as such could encourage young creatives to apply to art and design school, taking into consideration escalating tuition fees and cuts in grants?

Well, it’s most certainly a way of selling the course and what it offers. Once again, people think it’s a closed shop and this makes it seem a little more open. I think it’s really good in terms of distinguishing the difference between levels. BA students who are studying here, as well as other institutions, can come and they can see very clearly what Masters level fashion design means. With the MA course and its fashion show, you get very easily fooled into thinking it’s about other things, whereas I think an appreciation for fashion design is very palpable with this exhibition. I’ve had an army of helpers helping me install, and they have not been fashion design students. They’ve been from the Fashion Communication and Promotion course, as well as Fashion History and Theory, and Fashion Journalism. It’s a really good demonstration of how we all collaborate, and that’s a really great community that we are building here at Central Saint Martins. This project then is a result of that, which I think is really exciting.

“Separates” is open free to the public at the The Lethaby Gallery, 1 Granary Square, N1C 4AA

13 April – 28 April 2016 | 11 am to 6 pm on Tuesday – Friday, 12 pm to 5 pm on Saturday 

Words by Alysha Lee

Photography by Oliver Vanes

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