“There was so much love, you could feel the heart and soul of the students and the faculty in the work,” said Simone Rocha about this year’s Antwerp show. Backstage there was a real feeling of family; everybody running around to help each other — getting dressed, undressed, chasing a model with forgotten shoes. The three-hour long show saw the 1st years’ skirt, dress and experimental projects, the collections, historical and ethnical costumes of 2nd and 3rd years, and the final collections of the Masters, who were judged by a panel made up of no less than Mimma Viglezio, Colin McDowell, Oliver Theyskens, Simone Rocha, Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennenkom, among other esteemed industry professionals. At the cocktail reception, where 20 awards were given to a crop of talented students, we spoke with the judges to hear what really impressed them, what advice they would give this year’s graduates and what the do’s and don’ts for creating a final collection are.

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Takuya Sasaki

Mimma Viglezio

“Sometimes people have too many ideas and they’re not able to edit. Whereas when they’re given an assignment, such as make a skirt using cotton, or make a colourful dress, the results are incredible.”

How different is it for you to experience a 3 hour long student show as opposed to a 15 minute fashion week show?

Yeah, professional shows are normally 12 minutes, but an hour of waiting outside [laughs].

I don’t think we can compare. I think what’s exciting, is to see these very young people; what they can do with no means and with their own hands. I had mentioned yesterday that the most amazing thing for me were the first year students. What made them the best, was that they had a precise assignment, and they had to just apply their skills using what they had learned in 9 months. I was discussing this morning with my fellow jury members, that sometimes people have too many ideas and they’re not able to edit. Whereas when they’re given an assignment, such as make a skirt using cotton, or make a colourful dress, the results are incredible.

What excites you in student work?

The freshness. I think for this show especially, nobody was trying to copy anybody else. I mean, there was a lot of Craig Green around, but you know, it’s normal. As young as they are, he’s such a genius and probably what they aspire to be, and I don’t blame them. I was expecting to see more of Demna Gvasalia — but I didn’t see that. I don’t mind if they feel inspired, because we live in this world and of course we are inspired, but nobody really did any copying. In the masters, they were very much individualistic and conveyed their own personalities. That was very exciting for me, because they expressed who they are, and they were honest. They were very cohesive. They’re very close to their professors and to each other, and that’s so beautiful to see.

Could you give an example of something that really impressed you from this year’s show?

The fact that the production was all done internally. Everything you saw came from the academy: choreography, set design, music. It was very democratic, but it also gave every student of the Royal Academy a possibility to do something.

What main pieces of advice would you give to this year’s graduates?

Don’t stop believing. Find a way. Be who you are. We had a chat with them just now and they were saying “Oh, maybe we stay here in Antwerp, or we go to Paris or Milan.” and I asked “Why not London? You guys are so creative,” and they say, “It’s sooo expensive.” I think it’s such a pity that you’re not allowed to go to a place that’s probably the most creative city in Europe at the moment… They are so good, we need them. They are the future and, having seen the quality of the collections, I’m not surprised that some of the best designers come from here!

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Stefan Kartchev

Olivier Theyskens

“It’s important not to be too strategic, because you have to go step by step in the fashion world to get to the place you really want to end up being.”

Can you tell us about your experience of a 3 hour long show, like that of the Academy, compared to a short commercial show?

I’ve seen the Antwerp Academy show several times, so I know what to expect. I think that the graduate show has a lot of consistencies every year, because it goes step-by-step. You have the first years, the white cotton projects, then the work in colours, the ethnic costumes. This time, even though it was long, the collections were passing by very quickly. 

What were some of your criteria while evaluating the students’ works?

I know that we are in an art academy here, and that the academy expects their students to deliver their best in terms of artistry, identity, and creativity. It’s really for people who have no inhibitions when it comes to opening up their guts, and that’s what you have to do here.

But at the same time, when I see it, because of my work and my experience, I’m also trying to see the potential in their ability to be professional. How do some of these students design and launch their brand, or how can we integrate them into a studio and let them participate in teamwork? That matters for me. How they can enter the fashion world and somehow leave the art world a little bit, but still use it as a reference from what is really their point of view?

Do you sense a balance between the two from the students? Of having fun but also having an element of professionalism?

They have to go a bit crazy, they have to try the wild things, they have to go for the extreme choices a little bit. I think it would be a mark of strong character if I see someone who is rigorous and stays minimalistic. I know that when you are in that environment, it can also have an influence on you. There are a lot of people who are not necessarily like that by nature, so I like it when some of them try to be more commercial, or try to stay more reserved.

What is it about student work that excites you?

To see the way they put things together. I have a feeling that there is not necessarily so much work that focuses on the silhouette — it’s more work on associations and weird mixes, and a lot comes from concepts that run through their drawings and their research.

What would you advise these young graduates?

Look at the shows, look back at what you did and just think about what you really want. Look at what was weaker in your work, look at what was strong. What is your appeal? Think about what you can bring to fashion and what you want to correct and adjust. Then you have to make clever choices, because it’s important not to be too strategic, because you have to go step by step in the fashion world to get to the place you really want to end up being. If you want to be a designer, sure, you can start right away. Why not? But be cautious and think if you are really ready or not. If you are not ready because you have no one to work with you, try to meet people and start working somewhere and create connections. If you are not very good in cutting and sewing, just try to solve that. Work in a place where you’re going to learn a big deal of it. So, all of that really. Don’t hesitate to look back at your old work and be more self-critical.

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Rushemy Botter, Nikolai Artemev ,Yanis Berrewaerts

Simone Rocha

“There was so much love, you could feel the heart and soul of the students and the faculty in the work, and I thought that was really something special.”

How different is it for you to experience a 3 hour long student show as opposed to a 15 minute fashion week show?

It was a very different experience. I was really sensitive to all the students, I felt like I was putting myself in their shoes. All the emotions actually came flooding back. With this show in particular, I thought the first years were incredible. It was really focused, and I loved that a lot of the students were modeling their own clothes. They made it personal and evocative, and I found that mindblowing. And then I could tell that the second and third years were very much in undergoing development. I think that’s the time you should be able to play around. The masters was definitely the most refined of the collections. It was a much longer experience… My shows are ten minutes, so it was a lot to process.

Did you get exhausted at any point?

A little bit. And then I had this really weird feeling when we took the break and queued to get back inside — it felt like I was at Sonar. Like waiting to get back into the festival…

I understand that the students have a lot to say, so that’s why it’s so long. It’s a good opportunity. I did my BA in Ireland and you got to show in second and third year, which I thought was nice.

What were you actually judging on?

We were a collective jury that judged the Masters. Each student could get a maximum of 20 points, and it was left to our discretion how we would give the points. Me personally, I found it a little overwhelming. I actually split it into four groups of five. So I did first impression / installation (my immediate gut reaction) then the show, make and illustration/portfolio.

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Timo Zündorf

What impressed you most during the show?

The free thinking I thought was really exciting. I thought there was so much love, you could feel the heart and soul of the students and the faculty in the work, and I thought that was something special. Especially today in fashion, some things can be really cold, so I was interested in the fact that many collections came from personal experiences. I admired that.

They seem almost like a family.

Totally, and there are only six MA students — they could be brothers and sisters.

If you could ask the students one question, what would it be?

Why are they doing it? Do they feel like they have something to say that is original today in the fashion landscape? It is a tough thing to ask someone who has poured their heart and soul into seven looks, but it’s the truth, and I think that is very important.

And how would you answer that question yourself?

For sure. Yeah, it’s my blood, sweat and tears. It was then, and it still is now. I felt like I couldn’t do anything else, this is what I needed to do. I said to Timo [Zündorf] earlier: “If you believe in it, then people will believe it too.” And hopefully the work is good enough to back it up.

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Rushemy Botter, Sanan Gasanov, Heegu Yang

Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom (founders of Fantastic Man)

“When you’re in art school, you’re not in the industry. You should do whatever you think is the right thing to do. I get annoyed when things get a little too wearable, smart or fashionable.”

Were there any conversations with the students about their collections before the show? Did you meet them?

Jop: They introduced their collections, and then we went through their clothes, books, inspirations, research and everything else.

Gert: We were talking about it this morning. What’s really interesting is that you do need to see the collection both on the runway and for real. It is also good to talk to the students about it. Weirdly enough, some collections can be really good but they might not work on the runway. There are fashion designers who are amazing directors, like Raf Simons or Tom Ford, who is a film director anyway. His shows for Gucci were always well-directed. When he left, the team stayed and the clothes were relatively the same, but the whole magic around the show was gone. Directing a show is quite different from designing clothes.

Was this the first time you’ve been on a panel?

Gert: On this one, for sure. I’ve been to the Hyeres Festival once, which worked in kind of the same way. You talk extensively with the contestants the day before the show. It also makes you realise that the study of fashion design is so diverse. It’s not just about the making, but it is also about the story you’re telling. It’s literally a PR pitch. It is also important to think about press and what kind of press you would like for your collection.

We have been talking extensively with students here, and back in London. From the stories they’re telling, it seems there’s a struggle between designing for the industry and pushing their own design language. Do you think a graduate collection should showcase what a student can do to an extreme or should it respond to what the industry is looking for at the moment?

Jop: The fact is when you’re in art school, you’re not in the industry. You should do whatever you think is the right thing to do. I get annoyed when things get a little too wearable, smart or fashionable. I like it when there’s a touch of improvisation or when something is not sorted out completely yet. I think that makes things more exciting. I find it boring when things are shoppable. I find clumsiness to have a lot of passion sometimes.

Gert: I’m sure there are a lot of compromises to be made in the industry, but I don’t think you should compromise when you are graduating. This morning, I was talking to Olivier Theyskens about it. He said this school is not about industry to him. It felt like a lot of the collections were personal. He compared it to another school in Paris. Those students might not be so interesting design-wise, but they know about spreadsheets. It isn’t to say that this approach is more interesting to a designer who is looking to employ designers for his studio, compared to a student who is interested in laying a huge creative egg.

What has stood out for you so far?

Jop: I absolutely loved the historical costumes. In terms of education, it is such a good idea to rethink garments from a completely different angle in regards to construction.

Where do you think this school and city stands in the global fashion system? What does Antwerp bring to the cultural conversation?

Gert: There is a feeling for traditional clothing and for how things are actually made. You see that a lot in Belgian designers. We didn’t think the show yesterday was extremely ‘fashion’. Apart from quite a few Craig Green references, it didn’t feel like everybody was extremely focussed on the latest fashion trends or trying to do Celine in some form.

Jop: I think they are deliberately discouraged. Maybe it’s got to do with the fact that it’s Antwerp, not London, so you are outside of a big city.

Are there any do’s and don’ts that designers should observe when it comes to their graduate collection?

Gert: I believe in absolute freedom.

Jop: You have to kill your preoccupations, in a way. I believe the best collections yesterday were the ones that were autonomous from everything thing else.

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Rushemy Botter, Shayli Harrison, Nastasia Fine

Colin McDowell

“Remember, from student to grave, it’s a long road and you can take whatever turns you want.”

What was your experience of the show?

I have to say I had things to do so I did not see the entire 3 hour show. I’m very sorry I didn’t because apparently the first lot were fabulous. I love judging, because you get to see all the latest work and talk to highly intelligent young people. As a journalist, I’m a reactor, so I’m in great awe when I look at creators, particularly young creators who are bold and don’t give a damn about what other people think. They do it because they know it’s right for them. That’s really what creativity is all about. In all creativity, there is a divine madness, which is unstoppable and that excites me enormously.

Have you spoken to the students or had any contact with them?

Not this time, because it has been just in and out. I mentor students for the Woolmark Company Prize. It is really fascinating because I’m not young and it’s incredibly valuable to me to hear what young people are thinking. I’m old enough to be their grandfather. If you know grandfathers, they might be very nice but they are not exactly in the know of what’s happening in the world.

Let’s talk about the Antwerp students. It seems like there’s a struggle between designing according to industry demands and pushing their own design language. What’s your opinion?

My opinion is that the industry does not demand anything. The industry is not expecting an Alexander McQueen. They were probably frightened when they first saw him. They weren’t expecting someone like Vivienne Westwood, but they immediately adapted. Because in all endeavours, somehow we almost know, in our hearts, what is right. I don’t think it matters if you’re doing commercial or very avante-garde stuff. What I love about Antwerp and this college, is that extraordinary things are allowed and encouraged to happen. Out of these extraordinary things will come good commercial designers. At this stage, they are allowed to do what they want, and that is be the way it should be.

Do you have any advice for designers who are presenting their graduate collections? Are there any do’s or don’ts?

Do not be afraid. If you don’t do as well as you think you should, just get down to it and make sure you do better. Remember, from student to grave, it’s a long road and you can take whatever turns you want.  

Words by Alysha Lee, Aravin Sandran and Jorinde Croese

Photography by Pablo Di Prima

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