Representing the creative future

RCA grad Richard Szuman proposes a new take on sustainability

The recent graduate spoke about his struggles on the MA, the inspiration behind his final collection, and showing at Helsinki Fashion Week.

The minimalist piano music of Yann Tiersen accompanied the graduation show of Richard Szuman, RCA MA Menswear Fashion graduate, who personally performed the French composer’s Pern live on the piano. During our interview Richard noted that the colour and mood of his knitted garments were characterised by the song he used as soundtrack. Just like Tiersen’s music, Richard’s clothes are breathing and look alive. He is fanatic about details, allowing his designs to be determined by the techniques and materials he adopts. Thinking about sustainability, he believes that luxury today is not defined by hot trends, ideal forms and execution, but on the contrary – it can determine itself as incomplete and imperfect, a valuing of craftsmanship, practicality and comfort. Richard is interested in things that are old, in things that look like they have come from a previous time and the stories or meanings they connote. “The structures and techniques I used in my MA collection were all derivative from my late Grandmother’s sweater by St.Michael’s for M&S. It’s basically rotting: laddered, moth-eaten and in constant need of repair but it’s probably one of the few things I own that has sentimental value to me,” Richard said. No wonder that craftsmanship, sustainability and historical perspective are at the core of the debut collection of womenswear label SZUTAN, a collaborative project between Richard Szuman and Nina Tanskala, CSM Womenswear Fashion graduate. Despite the challenge of finishing his MA while working on the SZUTAN collection, Richard and Nina presented their first collection at the Helsinki Fashion Week in July, and in Shanghai this month. Looking forward, they’ll be working on the business end of establishing their own independent fashion brand.

Richard, why knitwear from the beginning?

When I started my BA in Textile Design at CSM, I began the course thinking I was going to be a print specialist. But as I tried other pathways I found knit more challenging and endearing. I had also recently inherited two domestic knitting machines from my Grandmother. There is something about making a fabric from scratch, you are in complete control of the design, colour, handle and texture. Changing stitch or swapping/combining yarns, you begin to realize that the physical form of what you are making can be integrally defined by the materials and techniques you adopt to create it. I find it really authentic.

What was your biggest challenge while studying the MA at RCA?

My biggest struggle was coming from Textile Design BA into a Fashion Design MA. In my first year at the RCA I felt like a fish out of water and was too embarrassed about my lack of ability in cutting/draping to ask for help. I had a solid grounding in knit technique and knowledge of fibres and materials but whenever I tried to create a 3D form it looked so contrived. In the end I realized that I had to play to my strengths and work within what I knew, which was creating imaginative fabrics with unusual finishings and details and build everything up from there.

What music did you listen to while creating your graduation collection?

Machine knitting requires full concentration so putting your headphones on to block out any external factors really helps. I was generally listening to instrumental music which I find more ambient, helping me find my flow: Robert Glasper, Burial, Miles Davis, Cinematic Orchestra, Badu, Bonobo.

Which materials and techniques did you focus on in your graduation collection?

I developed a dropped-stitch technique that allowed me to engineer shapes into panels without actually fashioning the stitches. I similarly used a combination of dropping and inlay to create a surface weft on the knits which I later darned to create pocket bags and sleeves. Using paper and organic cotton yarns, I made a couple of pairs of trousers, one of which had a completely distorted structure due to combination and manipulation of materials. As I was tinting the paper in a dye-bath it became soft and started to snap but the way I had knitted it meant it remained intact. I tore the paper and ended up with a weathered snake-skin/tree bark look. All the techniques I chose referenced fault, damage or repair, however I used the choices in technique/fibre to engineer form or to define what garment that textile would become.

Would you say that imperfections, hand-worked defects and one-offs provide a contemporary definition of luxury?

Absolutely. My dissertation was a body of research into the definition and value of craft within contemporary fashion. I began by plotting the craftsperson through history and it was the turning point of the Industrial Revolution that stuck with me. To the Victorians, luxury fashion was defined by precision, perfection and uniformity in production, informed by their new Modernist methods of technology that allowed this. My argument is that today the opposite is true. I mixed demotic garment shapes, techniques that provided a combination of hand/machine work and humble materials to develop the collection.

Can you name a few designers whose work inspires you?

Noughties Raf Simons, Dries van Noten, Phoebe English, Westwood.  I am also inspired by the work of Faustine Steinmetz. She has selected one material and every time I see her new collection it has been mixed and reconfigured unexpectedly. It’s powerful to find a signature within a restricted palette. This approach resonates with mine: finding what inspires you, holding on to it and using it to define your practice.

In July you debuted SZUTAN with a presentation at Helsinki Fashion Week. What are the designs of SZUTAN about? What problem does it solve?

All through my final MA year I worked closely with my friend Nina Tanskala on her BA collection which developed into the first collection for our women’s wear brand SZUTAN. We’re currently building from a foundation ethos that has stemmed from the Finnish national costume – a personal theme very close to Nina’s roots. To us, the costume represents a mode of dress that is unaltered by time and trend, designed to be comfortable and practical from handcrafted fabrics. The details, styling and cuts vary from region to region and all this information formed the basis of the collection we debuted at Helsinki Fashion Week. We aim to maintain this combination of craft, utility and romance but re-imagine it for women today. A lot of what we have designed so far has stemmed from designing/making efficiently, within limitations of time and with materials and machines we could access readily. Throughout the year, Nina and I worked together every Sunday – I would knit panels for her collection while she cut patterns for mine. We played to our strengths and realized our way of working is complementary and dynamic.

Why did you choose Amos Anderson Fine Art Museum for your presentation during Helsinki Fashion Week? What was the challenge of this experience?

The first time that Nina and I met Evelyn Moradzadeh, the director of Helsinki Fashion Week, she suggested Amos Anderson as the venue for our debut presentation. The romance and classicism of the 1800’s artwork and furniture really complemented our collection – there was amazing light that day and even striped chairs. The experience was a blast, from what I remember we spent most of our time laughing. I think the biggest challenge preceded the presentation: finishing my MA and then continuing working with Nina for the next six weeks was exhausting.

What particularly defines the sustainability of the Helsinki Fashion Week? Were there any rules for its participants related to this?

As a city, Helsinki has a really admirable scene in sustainable fashion. There are so many stores that stock exclusively eco-friendly brands and this mindset was echoed in the brands showing during the fashion week. There weren’t any rules, but we saw designers working entirely from deadstock or from certified sustainable materials.

If we talk about the sustainable side of your brand – how is it expressed in your production?

Sustainability is something we are still working on. Our cottons are organic, our knits are fully-fashioned meaning they produce no waste and the skirts are designed in a way that they require minimal time and energy when produced.  It can be hard to access sustainable materials so we are working on creating our own yarn – working in collaboration with a Finnish technology company who are creating the first man made natural recycled fibre, alongside some English spinners.  For now our production is based in the UK and although this is a more expensive option, we believe that tapping into the history and revival of Britain as a destination for manufacturing is a marketable feature of our label.

In the description of your brand there is a phrase that SZUTAN is creating a product which is outside of fashion trend systems. But how is it possible in today’s Fashion system?  
The main thing that we want to do is create an identifiable core product range through collections that don’t change too much from season to season. We’re aiming for something slower and more succinct, derivative from historical modes of dress and carefully crafted for today.

On what will you base the commercial part of your label?

Not projecting too many different ideas and confusing people with what we are designing. SZUTAN is about creating a product that is practical and covetable, while retaining a level of luxury. Nina and I want to be in creative control of our careers, so it is important to us that we consider the marketability of our product. The business end of establishing an independent fashion brand isn’t something you’re taught on a design course but it’s a fresh challenge that we enjoy facing.