Representing the creative future

The RCA Class of 2020 is not trying to join the industry

Famous for doing things differently and questioning the industry, the RCA 's head of fashion and students talk about the pros and the cons of an online show, and how they won't join a flawed system

‘The end of any journey is not the exciting bit,’ Zowie Broach, head of the fashion program at London’s Royal College of Art reflects, the day before the school launched their online platform to mark graduation 2020. Out of context, this statement may seem strange, but Zowie is explaining her perception of the importance of a physical fashion show for students at the end of the course and the weight that’s put on it – particularly when hosting one isn’t possible.

Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Royal College of Art Class of 2020

Marie Isacsson

Marie Isacsson

‘The bit in the middle is when it’s powerful,’ Zowie continues, explaining that she feels there’s often too much weight attributed to the final show. Nonetheless, long before the lockdown was announced by the UK government, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zowie began conversations with her students about their options. The RCA, like many fashion universities across the world, were faced with the issue of how to provide their graduating cohort with a replacement for the exposure – and celebration – that comes with a physical show.

It is the first time in the history of the school that the graduates’ shows have taken place entirely online. Zowie doesn’t feel these students have missed out from this shift. ‘I know I’m being all ultra-positive,’ she told me on the phone. ‘But I feel like I cannot say that I feel that they are the year that lost out. I just can’t. I feel like they gained in ways that in previous years they wouldn’t.’ According to students – the popularity of this opinion is mixed. Some of them appear less convinced. In an interview via email, Mariana Malta, a designer and visual artist who describes her work as ‘a therapeutic space to embrace and live this experience, symbiotic in nature and a catalyst for sensuality and truthfulness,’ expressed her concerns.

‘I don’t believe the RCA has been able to provide a successful alternative for us,’ Mariana wrote. Initial conversations with tutors, she said, raised ideas of ‘virtual reality, augmented reality, interactive 360 3D, amongst others’, but the budget cuts meant that the final concept was restricted to a website. ‘The RCA took the show budget away from Zowie and she said, “Now, I am operating with zero budget,”’ Mariana explained. ‘The RCA told us that all this money was being diverted towards creating a “digital discovery platform” that is basically a website.’

Last Thursday, RCA2020, the aforementioned ‘digital discovery platform’, hosting the work of graduates from the schools of Architecture, Arts & Humanities, Communication and Design launched. The site sees the Fashion Design MA students’ work divided into segments including, ‘Knitwear’, ‘Menswear’, ‘Womenswear’ as well as the less conventional categories, ‘Uselesswear’ and ‘Humanwear’. As a user of the site, one is able to jump easily from student to student and search their work with relevant tags.

Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Ellen Fowles, Adaptivewear
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Royal College of Art Class of 2020

Danielle Elsener has developed a complete zero-waste design system to solve industry problems through communication.

Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Danielle Elsener
Royal College of Art Class of 2020

Crucially, a viewer is able to explore the process of the students’ work on the site, rather than simply the final product. This is significant especially for students of the RCA, given the relevance of concept and approach to their work, as opposed to a product. ‘Some of them are much more about process, without a final proposition. And it’s important to see the process of a young designer […] how they drape and how their brains work,’ says Zowie. RCA2020 operates as a series of portfolios, inviting headhunters, brand managers, journalists, and other industry professionals to engage with the final projects, at their own pace. As Zowie explained, ‘If someone from a fashion label comes to me, I can just take them to the site, where they’ll have a snapshot of the young designers, their Instagram or their website.’ Marie Isacsson, a designer whose practice is primarily about the relationship between the physical and digital space, added, ‘my physical work has been stuck inside the school since it closed anyway. Having it online also makes the work accessible for a wider audience.’ There’s no doubt of the accessibility of the site – in researching for this piece, it was incredibly useful to refer back over and over to – that gives all 51 members of the MA a space for their work.

However, for those who work with performance, like Mariana, the atmosphere inherent in the work they would want to present is lacking online. ‘The idea[s] of subversion, uncomfortableness, and bittersweetness depends a great deal on live performance, so for me having an IRL show was really crucial,’ she said. ‘I personally feel my work is not properly represented.’

Jing Liu, another womenswear graduate from the Fashion Design cohort, acknowledges the restrictions the RCA faced and sees other potential benefits of the new approach. ‘The online show’s feature is that it does not need to limit the number of people, which greatly gives the audience more freedom,’ she wrote. ‘It may reduce the experience of touch to the audience, but because of the current situation, this is a compromise we have to make.’

“We aimed for the same level of thinking about their innovation and their ability to be self-critical and analyse their position in the industry – and their vision and their opinion.” – Zowie Broach

Compromise in the time of Coronavirus seems inevitable, and for the RCA, also occurred in terms of marking and final assessment. ‘You had [the same] learning outcomes, the assessable outcomes […] but we would also caveat depending on your situation,’ explained Zowie. ‘Everything was done with empathy, a balance between empathy and rigor. It still has to have rigor, because it is a qualification. We aimed for the same level of thinking about their innovation and their ability to be self-critical and analyse their position in the industry – and their vision and their opinion. They still have to talk about that, really elegantly and eloquently.’

Such empathy and rigor also took Zowie to create a day event she calls ‘the Summer Solstice’. Reaching out to the RCA’s international alumni network, she organised a Zoom-focused festival of sorts, held on the longest day of the year to create a social scenario to make acquaintances. ‘The day was filled with presentations and talks where tutors had invited many interesting people,’ Marie told me. ‘Hearing from my peers it was a successful day.’ Jing concurred, ‘Both psychologically and professionally, Zowie and other tutors do their best to give us help. [Summer Solstice] makes me feel that although we are in [a] different place now, we still exist as a community.’

Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Mariana Malta re-appropriates areas and imagery of the body which would traditionally be deemed taboo.
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Mariana Malta
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Henry Yijie Song, deconstruction of basic styles, and the re-organisation of their components to find new order in menswear
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Henry Yijie Song
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Royal College of Art Class of 2020

Zowie also invited a series of experts to look through the work, to curate them on the site. Ostensibly, the likes of Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Gursky, Edward Enninful, and Gareth Pugh had the opportunity to curate the students’ work in fashion and across other disciplines. Mariana also acknowledged this experience, saying, ‘That should be a great opportunity. However, due to complications with the uploading on the website, our work was not ready on time, and since the curators had been scheduled way beforehand, they ended up looking at the website when the collections were not ready and some students missed opportunities to properly showcase their work.’

It seems too obvious to say in hindsight that that time is of the essence when planning an alternative to physical fashion presentation. Even with the best of intentions, no-one could have expected to be showing their final work within a pandemic. But looking to the future, it’s clear that with more time, more preparation, and the benefit of understanding the limitations of online reach, a digital approach can be tailored and improved. Rather, the benefits can be mined. Networking opportunities like the Summer Solstice and a desire to share a greater understanding of the journeys the students have taken will be utilised for future years too, Zowie tells me.

‘These students are not trying to “join” the industry, they’re trying to change the industry.’ – Zowie Broach

An imperfect experience nonetheless is one that provides true education. ‘I want us all to remember that when they [the students] leave an MA they are not perfect and nor are we, even with time and experience, but they are pure, passionate and driven,’ said Zowie. ‘These skills and these people, these young designers must be given time to bring our world to a place that is relevant.’

And how should we, as press, and other industry insiders consider graduate work at this time? What do we need to know? ‘Now is not the time for hyper-criticality,’ Zowie urges. She argues there should be less put on the students to outwardly excel and more inverted change that needs to happen to industry attitudes now. ‘These students are not trying to “join” the industry,’ Zowie explains. ‘They’re trying to change the industry.’

Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Eleana Burrows
Eleana Burrows
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Fi Grew worked on a less wasteful approach to a design process
Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Fi Grew
Fi Grew
Shuai Zeng Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Shuai Zeng
Shuai Zeng Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Shuai Zeng Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Shuai Zeng Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Shuai Zeng Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Shuai Zeng Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Erica So Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Erica So
Erica So Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Erica So Royal College of Art Class of 2020
Erica So Royal College of Art Class of 2020

Mariana confirms this; ‘A few weeks back, I was talking with a classmate about an opportunity that came in and I said, “You know what? It just doesn’t feel right that I spent two years developing such strong ideals about fashion, society, and the body, to try and develop a practice that I feel proud of, to now forget all about it and go to a fashion house that does things the way it has been done for the past 50 years.”’

Marie also added, ‘I think people apply to the RCA with the approach and the ambition to change the industry regardless of the sizes of what the changes might be. I mean, fashion is overall all about change and in today’s climate it’s more important than ever to have the ambition and drive to make a change for the better for everyone involved.’

And after all this, how will Zowie herself look back on the RCA Class of 2020? ‘Another adventure, set of challenges we all completed and a hell of an experience,’ she says. ‘Without, we are less and in these times we can learn or close down… Oh my, how we learnt!’

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