Representing the creative future

RCA FASHION 2022: Reimagining materiality

Discover the process and creative worlds of this year’s RCA fashion class

When in doubt, create. When in desperation, have faith. When in education, dream. Creative education is fuelled by dreams and heaps of inspiration, slowly translated into art objects. For the RCA class of 2022 the material has a special significance as the students explored how does it feel, when a brand new garment hugs the contours of our bodies?

This year’s RCA graduate showroom exhibited little worlds, each and every one of them opening the scope to a new sphere. Set in a scene with individual installations, every student had the chance to showcase their identity in a few square meters. Julia Santilli invites us into an exploration of what it means to make and wear garments as a woman, Soo Sim explores the dark side of his generation and Kelsey Kasom is healing through making. All the RCA students select a pathway to commit to. The digital pathway stood out this year, with the students creating an array of VR games and experiences, weaving meaningful messages into carefully curated metaverses.

What is that makes the RCA special in a town like London, where all the world’s leading fashion schools gather? Contrary to others, the Royal College of Art actively pushes its students towards innovation. This year’s graduates think outside the box- marrying fashion with sculpture, painting and performance. These designers don’t just make clothes, they build worlds. Worlds that bridge the gap between the unmarried and build bridges between the unlikely. Fashion is not just fashion. This way of teaching works miracles for the creatives who have the conceptual at the core of their work but may be detrimental for the ones who wish to pursue ready-to-wear over couture. One thing is for sure: encouraging your mind to think further from the borders of the industry is a forming learning experience.

Coming out of the Battersea studios, right next to the headquarter of punk icon Vivienne Westwood, the class of 2022 made the first step in stepping out of the fantasy and right into their vision. Exploring the cerebral married with the grotesque, this class lets us into their inner world, full of threads, holding different fragments of the materials together.


Bing Xiong’s graduate collection does not only celebrate her own experience and journey but stands for a collective trauma that a lot of people are going through. “I grew from a size small to a size extra-large. It was a special experience because when I was very slim, everything seemed to look so good on me. But when I gained weight, I was told that everything looked ugly on me. I stopped wearing sleeveless clothing, I started to wear black all the time since it made me look slim. Black made me look indifferent,” she says. In that period of time, the designer lost her confidence in herself and her body. “In China, we are very strict with women’s bodies. Fat is not seen as aesthetic.” Eventually, a few months later, her flatmate took an image of her lying on the sofa. “He showed me the picture. For the first time, I saw my body in a beautiful light. It looked so cinematic. I liked the extra layers of flesh around the waist. The curves looked beautiful and sexy.” This image made her transition from hiding to showing. The designer wanted to celebrate her body in a way she never did before. Her clothing is the synchronisation of flesh and fabrics, highlighting the most beautiful parts. “I tried to find the moment in my life where I could expose my body. The moment I wanted to capture is the act of taking one’s clothes off. The process of undressing is a moment where you expose every part of your body. Every flaw, every imperfection is visible. I wanted to show this in my design.”


Dedicating her final collection to the act of dressing, Julia Santilli is inspired by the way women wear and make clothing. “It’s about the private and public aspects of dressing and how people respond to you in different ways, based on what you wear and how the clothing feels on the body. I think the private aspects of dressing is something that has been divorced from the public discourse,” she says. With constant exposure to imagery of all kinds, we are living vicariously through the screens. “The actual experience of wearing something is an emotion we have forgotten. Our understanding of materials is pretty limited these days. The way that our skin interacts with wool, silk or synthetics is something that we don’t really understand much.” It’s about the emotion, how a piece of a clothing makes you feel and the politics behind it. It’s about being a woman right now- transcendentally existing in times of inequality, unfairness and sexualisation. “I used the colour red a lot, which is historically connotated to labour unions and protests. Moreover, it is connected to the symbolism of the tomato- in the past, the tomato was erroneously labelled as the wolf’s peach, it was a poisonous fruit. It was related to the deadly nightshade, which was used in poisons, made my witches.” It was also seen as the love apple, an aphrodisiac, she adds. “There is a link there, to the fear of female power and sexuality. It’s also about the embodiment and disembodiment of garments and the way they react with a physical space- not only on the body.” When we undress, clothing is dominated by gravity and drops on the floor or a chair. In the process of falling, it almost becomes a sculpture, merging into other objects around the house. Housework is traditionally connotated to the female figure, touching domestic tools sometimes almost feels like a betrayal of independence and feminism. “There is a certain erasure of female labour and craft. There is a consistent view of fashion as a frivolous discipline that is devalued. I have been using a lot of domestic tools to revalue the potential for more subversive textile practises.”


“I was never raised in a house where I was being sold a Disney channel fairy tale fantasy. It was the complete opposite. I feel like I found joy and pleasure through pushing possibilities through making in my imagination,” says American RCA designer Kelsey Kasom about the influence of her upbringing on her collection. She used the things that were right in front of her- from wood to paper. Having a fine art background, the designer ties all kinds of artistic techniques into her work, by using woodwork, metalwork and then painting to give the creation the final touch. “I manipulate the fabric and patterning as my education grew with it. The work itself is about the material relationship and the process of healing through making.” When Kelsey was a child, she loved being in complete touch with her material, getting her hands dirty of it- it was her way of navigating her way through the universe, she says. “I was raised in a conservative household. It was a very different upbringing. It contains a lot of things that I don’t necessarily associate myself with today. Some people go through life picturing who they’d like to be. I went the opposite way- I saw what I didn’t want to be.” Now, more than ever we need art to express, understand, and just like Kelsey said; heal. The wounds may deeper than the surface level suggest, but through the magical process of making, the designer redefines herself and who she wants to be. “I skipped the walls of my home and found my freedom within nature. Nature became my guardian, my home, my teacher, my classroom and my anchor of safety. My understanding of the world revolves solely around my environment. I climbed the tallest of trees, where I sat from a bird’s eye view, observing the behaviour of wildlife and admiring its material makeup. There was always a direct correlation between the tension of fighting back for my freedom in the desire to control throughout my adolescence that stems into my work. I realised that the materials that make up my environment create the playground for exploration.” Kelsey’s creations are sculptural works of art, drawing the spectator in like an endless spiral. Between heaps of breath and a loss of control, one eventually finds themselves at the core of art and creation, lost in the endless world of materials.


Kaelan’s collection “The Butterfly effect” is a visual manifesto of her rather unorthodox journey into fashion education. “I’m from Texas, and I went to business school for my undergraduate degree. I knew that the smart thing would be to go to business school first. From then on, I knew that I had to prove myself creatively in order to get into fashion school,” the designer says. After she finished her undergraduate degree, she moved past her dreams and pursued a career in business, which left her in a state of unhappiness. “I taught myself how to sew. Three months later I was accepted into the Royal College of Art.” Life has its ways, and despite the acceptance, Kaelan wasn’t able to do the course for a year. Before she made her debut at the RCA, she moved on to become a menswear tailor. She first completed the graduate diploma course before she moved on to the highly sought-after RCA MA degree. “I call it the butterfly effect since everything in this collection was telling the story of my journey. It is more of a backwards route into fashion since I had to prove myself over and over again. The collection is a celebration of the tiny connections that brought me to where I am now,” she says. The collection intertwines references from her past and her present. From towel skirts to cowgirl dresses, Kaelan created a manifesto that communicates where she stands and where she wants to go.


The garden is a paradise. Between green grass, rays of the sun and home-grown food, one eventually finds happiness. “This collection is not a traditional fashion collection. I spent this whole year exploring my instincts. I dug into my childhood memories a lot. I lived with my parents and we had a garden in the middle of the city,” says Chunchen Liu. The Chinese native developed a deep connection with nature at that time. When he moved to a different, more urban place, he noticed his disconnect from nature. “I missed that feeling”- the feeling of longing and grief, which eventually led him to his final collection. “The starting point of the collection is that garden from my childhood. It’s in the middle of the city, surrounded by traditional Chinese architecture. Visually, it looked like a yellow forest.” This inspired him to reconnect with nature and go back to his roots. “In my imagination, this collection is a magical forest. In the installation, I incorporated elements that I collected from my life in London. I wanted to bring it all together.”


Computers make everything so accessible. What was intimate once, equals the mechanics of machinery. Counter to this, the designer Hye Cho was inspired by handcraft for her final collection. “I believe that hands embody emotion, care and souls. I control what I create with my hand and everything is made with close care. I am a designer who works sensitively alone. I naturally repeat my patterns, until I find something new to test out,” she says. In her work process, she worships the material. She feels it, she incorporates it, and she brings it to life. “While I am working, I allow the material and physical properties of it to become my interpretation of it. My process starts with the material experience. I always aim to explore as many materials as possible for my collection.” It is about repetition and practice, weaving the material into the visual. “When I make something, I weave my material into it, constantly revisiting my imagination. It’s a comprehensive series. With this collection, I wanted to translate the weaving system in a different dimension into my own language. Therefore, I decided to contrast two worlds- the world of handcraft and the world of digital.


Explaining the story of her collection, Ciccy Lyu’s story goes way back. “My starting point is my obsession with dimensions of the physical and non-physical. I am more interested in the non-physical dimensions this time. I am intrigued by time, the magnetic field, and I was thinking about how this could be manifested through materiality.” To find this out, Ciccy sent herself on a journey of discovery and experimentation. “I started by material experiments such as using rustic dye and metal frames. I used the metal frames since they metaphorically give time to the structure. That was basically my starting point.” The designers’ creations are not just clothes- they are works of art. Seeing herself and her art more on the sculptural side, she wanted to push herself more to this degree and focus on the wearability of her garments. The designer worships art in its purest form, juxtaposing sculpture, performance, and materials with the pursuit of fashion.


“I always wanted to show some of the dark sides and the raw energy of my generation”, says the Korean designer Soo Sim. The designer dedicated his MA collection to the uncertainty that everyone in his generation faces. “Through my process, I thought that uncertainty is duplicity, paradox and chaos. To symbolise this, I wanted to shape three-dimensional characters who are exhausted yet angry, fragile and strong at the same time, whilst they are wandering the path of adolescence.” The designer’s inspirations are layered, a juxtaposition of personal experiences, the modern techno scene, philosophy and his Korean heritage. “I recorded sounds in techno clubs, went through voice memos I recorded during conversations with friends, I read philosophy”, he says. Moreover, he felt particularly inspired by a Korean Photographer who captured Korean teenagers wearing their uniforms in the early 2000s. With this collection, Soo Sim wants to express not only clothing- but he also wants to invite us into his sacred place, his inner world.

Discover all this year’s RCA graduates here