The University of Westminster is only a 25-minute tube ride away from Central London, but as you step onto its leafy campus in Harrow, it seems like you are somewhere in midlands. The halls are quiet. “It is the calm before the storm,” smiles Andrew Groves, the BA Fashion Design course director. He is taking me to the studios to meet the eleven designers whose creations are walking during London Fashion Week. There is a lot of pressure.
Showing during London Fashion Week is beneficial, but according to Groves it does not translate into an immediate career launch. “It is very easy to think that because you got a bit of press you got a business. But actually, in what way does your product differentiate from products buyers already have? Who are they going to take off the rail in Selfridges to make room for your garments?”
His pragmatism is reassuring and refreshing. The industry that praises young talent and encourages endless creativity seems to frequently pick up recent graduates and drop them after the novelty has worn off. Groves is cautious of that: “You do not need to be a hundred percent creative. There needs to be a balance.” His tutoring approach is a delicious mix of commerciality and preserving the craft. We talk at length about the problems of a perfect image. “An Instagram generation has grown up that just wants an image – so if the image is fabulous, the garment doesn’t matter.” But his students are rebelling against it. “It is the most punk thing you can do now – an overload of creating. Those garments are so full of detail and embellishment.”
Words Kristina Ezhova Images Andrew Nuding
Megan Williams wanted to study mechanical engineering and work for Formula 1. “I don’t know what happened, but I got to 17 and just went: Fashion.” Clothing to Williams is an extension of her interest in science – designing garments for her is clothing engineering. The designer’s graduate collection is inspired by the book Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection, found on Broadway Market. The functionality of the collection refers to the NASA spacesuits – their protective outerwear and tight knitted under layers. There are oversized trousers and jackets made out of crunchy silver fabric. “These clothes have a reason to exist. I would rather solve a problem than create more stuff.”
Suzi Lee’s collection is personal. “It means a lot to me – my grandmother passed away recently. She had been a farmer since she was 18 and her industry is dying in Korea.” The collection is inspired by the Haenyeo Divers of Jeju Island in South Korea, who dive for shellfish for a living. The growing Asian economy has made it an unwanted job for their children, and Lee sees a problem in that mentality. “I wanted to bring popularity back into a struggling industry.” The collection is inspired by scuba gear: Lee bought vintage diving masks online that established the colour scheme (think pale peach, ocean green and blush pink.) Everything feels round and soft. The silhouettes reference the female divers, supported by fabrics like heavy scuba, jersey patent leather and nylon.
A shirt is made out of a World War I flag that still has blood on it. Chipchase’s collection imagines the world years after civilization as we know it has collapsed – yet it is not apocalyptic. She insists. “Why now? The world has sort of gone tits up, hasn’t it? It feels like it is just going to happen.” Taking it far from the usual interpretation of brown hues, Chipchase reinterpreted tailoring for her dystopian world. Inspired by William Burroughs’ Wild Boys, the designer imagines how that new society would interpret the remnants we would leave behind. Tailoring is a part of the establishment, representing uniformity and power. “But these Wild Boys probably don’t see business in it and put it inside out.” The collection started from a styling shoot on anarchic way of dressing – putting jackets on as pants established the shape of a lot of trousers in the collection. Her boys are a statement of rebellious sartorialism.
Savannah Avery’s collection comes with a lot of sound – there are jingle bells on her hand-knitted dresses and tap shoes for a more immersive dive into her world. It is a celebration of movement and sound, and depicts our planet as a futuristic desert. The garments are made out of plant fibres, such as bamboo, banana and Tencel. “I think fashion is too serious. We need to actually enjoy what we do, which is why I am very hands-on. I like to make it satirical. It is nice to look at something and laugh, and I want positive feelings to emerge out of my work.”
Joshua Crabtree’s menswear collection is based on the underbelly of modern society, its corruption and the bad news one hears daily. “Good news doesn’t sell newspapers,” he mentions about his dark garments, but it is wrong to assume that the collection is without hope. “There is power in acceptance of the bad things that are happening in the world. In acceptance we can work together to overcome them and move past.” Crabtree wanted to take the garments out of their usual context (a trench coat paired with grubby shoes, business silhouettes with ripped outer seams), to question how much context determines the garment. The subversion of business attire represents his personal rebellion against the establishment. In a world of scaremongering and over-sharing, Crabtree emphasizes the importance of having an individuality.
Looking at Greek mythology to create characters that inspire the designs, Dill-Russell’s debut collection explores the language of gender identity and clothing. “I am trying to confuse that and explore how it may translate into a new type of dressing.” As a non-binary designer, they create pieces that encase the body, yet fall apart, without making sense. “This collection is an unfortunate fairy-tale of a trans woman,” they mention. Theatrical at times, the looks morph and obscure the body of its wearer – something that Dill-Russell feels passionately about. “Buying something for twenty pounds can be a substitute for getting something more important for a trans person, like getting a laser. It is about engaging with the community and trying to inform at the same time.”
The designer’s collection is inspired by the social change in the North of England during the 1970s and early 80s. The era of Northern Soul, its juxtaposition against the home lives of many Northerners is a personal thing for Priestley. As industry towns began their decline, the designer’s family was affected. “Where I am from, the town, it is built on the industry. My dad worked down the pit and was affected by it. My grandpa worked in steel.” The Northern Soul was the end of ‘industry’, and rebellion against everyday life eventually translated into picketing and protests against something bigger. Priestley’s shirts have original images of those pickets printed on them – along with photos of her home town, and her father. Wittingly screen printing original 70s home decor onto contemporary designs, Priestley maintains the past, yet looks towards the future.
The highly personal collection is a celebration of Wilson’s late mother, about being overwhelmed but trying to hold on to those fleeting memories and fragments of the person lost. “I didn’t want the collection to be a sad thing – it is a celebration of this person’s life.” Her late mother’s wardrobe has been scanned into a computer and delicately distorted, gently patched together. “It is ghostly sometimes, with all these layers of things,” Wilson smiles. Her transparent love for her mother translated into a collection saturated with emotion. “When I showed it to my sister, she was like – oh my god that is her dress, I remember her wearing that! It makes it a very big celebration.”
The colourful and playful collection is inspired by drag racing. “I went to drag racing events – and it is a very eclectic group of people there. Young girls driving cars rather than middle-aged men.” The shapes nod to protective wear of the drivers, and flowing dresses feature layers of fabric that help imitate the spray paint of racecars. The car’s complex construction and the contrasts between the inner and outer structures are referenced throughout – in the foam squares trapped between the two layers of spandex fabric and on the inside of metallic oversized jackets.
The collection ‘The Boy You Stole’ is Paolo Carzana’s personal and emotional statement against the abuse of power. “I was working towards making this protest against negativity, and then I realized that everyone goes through bad experiences. That is when I created this group of protectors for a different injustice in the world.” There are nods to traditional outerwear and craftsmanship – in the vintage work boxes and craft tools hanging from the necks of the models. The oversized silhouettes and enormous shapes are not “intimidating – they are someone to look up to.” The collection is about hope – and the new awareness shown through the designer’s rejection of animal products. Corzana used materials like antique linen, waxed soy bed sheets, pineapple leather and calico amongst others to create the utopian world. “There are things I don’t believe in, but there are also things that everyone else doesn’t believe in. It is about how we can be hopeful about the future.”
Taking influences from Lil Kim and Paris Hilton, Lauren Audrey praises the noughties and focuses on empowering the woman wearing her garments. “It is not about sex – it is about putting on something funky and feeling fabulous in it.” The garments are pink, furry, embellished and unashamed of their richness. There are multi-coloured furs, glitter dresses and silver knee-highs that would make any girl feel special. “If you can put something on and have a disco, that is my mission accomplished.”