Representing the creative future

Learning from legends: The IFM students design for Alexander McQueen

The MA Knitwear students at IFM had the opportunity to design for the iconic fashion house of Alexander McQueen

“He is my favourite designer!” That is how most of the students at the Knitwear Design MA at IFM in Paris described Alexander McQueen. Understandably so, the designer managed to create collections that were both critically and commercially successful while imbuing his work with an unmatched poetic vulnerability, a legacy that only continued to grow under the direction of Sarah Burton.

Confronted with a design exercise for the house, however, that inherent fandom didn’t facilitate the process, to the contrary! With a heritage so iconic and legendary, many felt overwhelmed. “It was very hard to create something exciting and new, keeping it modern while referencing all these pasts inspirations,” explained student Justine Janot. “It’s also complicated to find the balance between the brand’s identity and your personal identity, which is the most important and what people want to see.”

That is what makes the exercise so important. As the students are preparing their final collection, they get a taste of what it might mean to work in-house. “It’s a crucial lesson,” says Adam Jones, head of the menswear department. “The students get to meet the design team in London, and they are taught how the team goes about developing a collection, from research to development.” At this point in the MA, most of them have their personal methodology figured out, they know what they want to say, but working in a big team is a different ballgame.

With a creative brief around biodiversity, which explained the ecological implications of the sustainability issue, the students were free to interpret the topic – as long as it fitted within the brand identity. “I’m always very wary of brand projects, because an MA is very short, and the whole point is teaching them hard skills,” continued Adam. “I don’t want projects to impede that. How can you do a project where the brand doesn’t impose its vision on you? In this project, there was scope for the students to express their own voice.”

Each student interpreted the exercise differently, with research covering different facets of biodiversity, but one thing remained consistent: they had to challenge their own identity as a designer and construct new working methods. Have a look below to discover how they did it!

Chaewon Song
Eun Pyo Hong
Ju Bao
Juhee Park
Justine Janot
Mathis Bonhomme
Po Chieh Chiu
Salomé Bodin
Shanon Poupard
Tim Ruhl

Hong Eun Pyo

To Hong Eun Pyo, it was important not to interpret the brief too literally, focusing on the philosophy of the brand, rather than the visual references. “In my understanding, the work of Alexander McQueen is about ‘archiving reflections, emotions and moments.’ So instead of directly approaching biodiversity and bee extinction, I wanted to narrate the reflection of what we humans have done to the environment.” Thinking about the impact of humanity on its environment, Hong looked at religious references, finding a narrative hook in the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and melted his wings. This was then linked to the image of birds dying in the ocean because of oil spills. Working with a TPU yarn (a cotton yarn covered with silicone), the student recreated an oily effect. After knitting with TPU yarn, the pieces were pinned and heat-pressed. Knitting with TPU allows for cutting without unravelling, so I the edges of the knits could be cut to make them look like traditional lace. “I was inspired to become a fashion designer after seeing McQueen’s shows in the past, so the aesthetics had already influenced me a lot without realizing it, even before we got the collaboration project.”

“I tried not to expose myself to their collections during the research process to avoid creating something they already made. I pushed myself to interpret their philosophies and methods instead of the design elements and details.” One technical decision that helped Hong differentiate her work from the McQueen tradition was the use of non-traditional yarns and making a dress entirely out of knit. Keeping in line with the craft heritage of the house, she included detail-oriented techniques, such as hand stitching Elizabethan ruffles.

Shanon Poupard

Inspiration came from one specific archival piece for Shanon Poupard: a bustier from the Spring/Summer 1999 collection. Fascinated by historical silhouettes, “the way they associated mesh and embroidery was absolutely stunning to me.” The look was updated to be “modern and wearable”. Addressing climate change came naturally to Shanon, especially within the context of Alexander McQueen’s heritage: “I believe Alexander Mcqueen has this ability to always have this beauty that hides darkness.” She wanted to fully take on the challenge of sustainability without compromising her creativity. “I believe It can be far easier to be sustainable while being a knitwear designer.” Further inspiration came from the student’s upbringing in Chile, where she had a chance to travel in the desert as a child. “My dream was to go while the desert blooms with flowers after it rains, it’s called El Desierto Florido.”

Designing for a heritage brand wasn’t easy. On the cusp of designing her own collection, Shanon found it challenging to marry her personality with that of the brand. “It honestly all came together as I had to push myself to go farther than I have ever been before as a designer. Seeing me through this brand was absolutely eye-opening because it led me to grow and learn so much about myself. This has been the most rewarding project so far for me and I cannot wait to see what comes next.”

Salomé Bodin

With everything she learned about Alexander McQueen during this project, there was one sentence Salomé Bodin couldn’t get out of her head: “Beauty can come from the strangest and most disgusting place in life.” That is why the student wasn’t afraid to talk about extinction with her design, “For me, the objective of this project was to shock and then seduce and, as a result, raise awareness.” Salomé worked within a tight framework, using only discarded wool, no plastic, no reinforcement, and no yarn assembly of another material. “It was a challenge.” As inspiration for the knit structure, she looked at the modular architecture of the 70’s, which in its turn had been inspired by honeycombs.

“Seeking to combine tucks and racking, I managed to obtain herringbone-shaped strips whose angles and lengths I could manage. These bands connected to each other by the linking technique, which allowed me to realize a zero waste tailor. All the bending of the jacket, for example goes, through the assembling of the angles between them. This was crucial to Salomé, as she wanted to honour the tailoring heritage of McQueen and reinterpret it through knitting. A brief with the McQueen team taught her about dramatic tailoring, “a very wearable silhouette with really accessible proportions but with this little twist in the cut that makes it suddenly very wow.”

Chaewon Song

Researching bee extinction, Chaewon Song asked two questions: Why do bees keep disappearing? And why do they get lost on their way back to the hive? When he found out bees locate themselves using the earth’s magnetic field as a compass, the student became fascinated with the idea of an abstract language in nature. “It is something inherently poetic I n its abstraction, which we tend to see as random and disconcerting. Their flight patterns are very abstract and express the mystery of shape.” His design then was developed to represent this natural communication and confusion. “As a whole, repetitive positive space symbolizes standard bee path, and negative space represent injured bee flight paths.”

The most important, however, was the concept of the Queen Bee, the leader. Alexander McQueen’s FW03 collection, titled ‘Armour’, helped inspire techniques to incorporate metallic elements. “I prefer to express poetic and sensitive properties through metallic materials. I enjoy combining two very contrasting materials that seem not to get along. For the first layer, I hand knitted using the domestic machine, inserting the metal manually. I could easily manipulate balance and scale to control the contrast within the piece. I added stiffness with the metallic details to underline the silhouette and build up certain areas. I wanted to add an imposing and authoritative touch to the female figure.”

Tim Rühl

What really interested Tim Rühl, as he was researching biodiversity, was the concept of interconnectedness. The extinction of one species implies the loss of another, tomatoes can’t survive without bees, for example. This got the student thinking about an end-of-time scenario, where the world as we knew it would change forever. “I thought about what would people do in this scenario and how will it affect humans themselves and their environment. One thing the people will do is scientific research on extinct species because knowledge is power.”

Multiple scientific methods and elements made into the visual reference board. Microscopic pictures of cell structures, for example, were translated into knitted lace. The concept of X-rays became the starting point of the final jacquard. Of course, sustainability remained crucial: “The whole project is created with only GOTS certified yarns. I used a biodegradable chitosan treatment to generate the stiffness of the ruffles, lock the stitches, and strengthen the knit itself. The dress’s buttons are made from sweetwater shells, and the button loops are crocheted by hand.”

“In the beginning, it is always challenging to get a brand’s identity and how to work with it. But once you start researching, you understand the brand and its visual identity, and you can adapt to it. Of course, leaving your own visual identity is always a bit stressful, but in the end, there are many possibilities to learn from that and get a new view. Also, it is good practice for the future.”

Bao Ju

To capture the complex topic of biodiversity, Bao Ju decided to work with a specific case study. He focused on the fritillaria delavayi, a type of plant that is facing extinction in the alpine zone. Of high value to the local community and with powerful healing properties, the plant is facing extinction in recent years. Interestingly, the plant has started to adapt: “The plant gradually starts to camouflage itself into the environment. They fade from their once highly saturated yellow to a rocky brown or grey, or even black. It really makes me feel its vitality and hope is its behavior in the face of extinction.” Hope became the main theme of Bao’s work, with the colour and texture of the plant becoming the base visual reference.

Incorporating those references into the heritage of Alexander McQueen came easy. “I love Alexander McQueen so much, my designs are almost entirely built around the McQueen that I have integrated into my head. We went to explore McQueen’s work, both Sarah’s and Lee’s, which helped me clearly understand the core of McQueen: a kind of love and beauty that burst from morbid brokenness.”

The only difficulty then was assuring that the designs felt modern when so many of the references came from archive shows. “My solution is to keep experimenting, keep changing my idea, keep finding a balance between silhouette and texture.”

Juhee Park

Metamorphosis became a key concept for Juhee Park early on in his research. Why? It allowed him to create a connection between sustainability, technical functionality and the world of Alexander McQueen. “The transformative scene spoke to me as a way to combine McQueen’s avant-garde works and my ability to distort the technical apparatus.”

To execute his idea, Juhee had to make multiple of experimental toiles with paper origami and develop the structure into knitting, using colour to reference the transformation of insect metamorphosis. “I added zig-zag patterns and colour variations to the origami knitting which helped to distort and exaggerate the three-dimensional shape of transformation.”

Working on finding the right approach, Juhee kept feeling overwhelmed. “Lee has always been my favourite fashion designer, so in the beginning, I kept being inspired by too many things. So I was a bit stressed and distracted, full of inspiration but overthinking.”

Paradoxically, the anxiety calmed down when the student decided to focus on a different design first, distracting his mind from the task at hand. “I made a personal garment without any critical thinking, design intuitively. It was also about metamorphosis but technically, it was different, an erotic red knit dress with tubular ladder knitting. After I was satisfied with it, I decided to take the next challenge: origami knitting.”

“Personally, I need to move intuitively to empty my mind and move on.”

Mathis Bonhomme

Trying to stay true to McQueen’s vision, Mathis Bonhomme learned a great deal about his own visual identity too: “At the start of the project, I thought McQueen’s vision was very far from mine. But as I dug into it, I realized that a lot of things coincided, in the obvious sense that we were looking for an emotion or a feeling. I would say that I incorporated McQueen more than myself in this project.”

Challenged with adding something new to the brand, the student reinvented himself. It wasn’t easy to add something new to a brand, so defined, so powerful. But it was hard in a good way. I had to face and move forward at all costs. The challenge was more in my head than in reality.

The starting point of this discovery was an SS20 look, fitted at the top with a marked waist and a wider bottom. “The look has something very light and soft.” It was Mathis’ first womenswear look, which added an additional challenge.

Chiu Po-Chien

Faced with the topic of biodiversity loss, Chiu Po-Chien immediately knew what she wanted to do. A Taiwan native, she wanted to address the urgent issue of coral reef bleaching due to pollution. As she was researching the issue through local news sources, she discovered the coral reefs have a way of communicating with humans: “From what I understand is that when the corals are bleached, it does not mean they are totally dead yet. It is their way of asking human beings for help. There is still hope and “ Hope” is the message that I want to convey from my final outcome.” Another element that caught her eye was the visual shape of the coral reefs: “During the research, I also found that some corals looked like human body parts such as brains, skeletons, lungs,  and hands. It reminded me human beings are part of nature and we have to protect them as it is protecting us.”

But the final discovery that influenced her design approach was the growing patterns of the corals: “they tend to wind around objects, which reminded me of the properties of ropes. This lead me to a technique called partial knitting. I created panels with lots of long loose tubes and then braided those together – recreating the growth of the coral.” With coral reef bleaching as a point of inspiration, colour was crucial. The entire look could show only white or blue. “It actually makes the braids even more stereoscopic. A little touch of gradient navy blue stripe shorts fit in both the brand and my design universe.”

Justine Janot

To Justine Janot, sustainability is a must. Keeping the practice at the core of her concept, from research to sampling and while executing the final silhouette, the student is aware that precision is key. “Sustainability has many definitions and the term is so overused today that it loses its meaning. For me, it is really important to go plastic free as much as possible, except if it’s upcycled or recycled, but the difficulty today, even more as a knitwear designer, is to create materials and surfaces that equal a product that benefits from technical qualities that only synthetic materials can offer in terms of quality and robustness, and to create something that will last or that will not be too altered with time.”

Her aim during this project, and her design approach in general, was to achieve that exciting outcome using only natural, environmentally-friendly materials. “I always loved the appearance of fur and since Kering announced that their brands will stop using it in 2022 I focused on developing an alternative to fake fur which is always synthetic, unfortunately, and therefore not a durable solution to fill the gap in the market.”

Justine started researching techniques to mimic animal skin with stitches using only natural fibres, such as mohair mesh to create fur and silk for snake skin. This then inspired her visual research into taxidermy: “I really took inspiration from the AW2009 show that pushed forward the idea of consumerism associated with fashion. I looked at the use of animal fur and feathers in the collection and started to mimic them with natural fibres.”

“As a knitwear designer, it is easier to be personal because we create our own textile, which helps a lot to bring a twist even when staying in a specific aesthetic or refereeing a past silhouette.”