I’m loathe to use buzzwords.  Especially ones preceded by a hash sign #.  “Woke” is one of those dreaded words, not so much because of its meaning and intentions but more to do with the general implications of its usage.  Its very grammatical structure implies that somehow the people that aren’t crowing about their “wokeness” online are asleep, drugged by political and social lethargy.  And where it is used as a hashtag, one’s very acknowledgement of “wokeness” seems to dent the noble cause they purport to protest and fight for.

However, it is a useful bit of vernacular when looking at a new generation of designers, graduating from their embattled MA courses, from which they emerge into the world, saddled with an increased amount of debt and most probably riddled with uncertainty as to whether they can make it in an ever-tough industry.  Being “woke” is what will differentiate these designers from the ones that simply want to make pretty clothes.  In fact, aesthetically pleasing things may not be enough to entice a younger generation of consumers who prioritise experiences over stuff.

And so on the day the extraordinary election in the UK played out, 48 MA students from the Royal College of Art under the tutelage of Zowie Broach made their debut through a combination of performance, choreography and installation, in a stand-out graduate show that utilised both a traditional catwalk show structure as well as that of an art gallery.  “It is fitting that the show takes place at the very moment when the UK decides on its future Government,” said Broach in the introductory notes.  “Since the UK voted to leave the EU last June, students have been asking urgent questions about owning their own culture that haven’t been asked for generations.  They have been pushed to ask deeper questions about fashion within the current political climate and its power to effect change in this unsettling landscape.”

From the overtly political to personal identity issues to the questioning of gender archetypes and materials, this cohort of students had idealised ideas in spades.  And they ranged in their final resolution of commercial viability, from clothes you could see making their way onto a shop rail to more visually surreal results.  That’s how the show seemed to oscillate from the down-to-earth to the fantastical.  Zahra Hosseini kicked proceedings off with a sobering display of the Muslim call to prayer.  A leather-trimmed black chador robe, unfolded to form a prayer mat, like an origami fortune teller.  Downstairs in the basement Hosseini’s Iranian compatriot Maryam Navasaz also drew from her Islamic identity, with her exaggerated head pieces sitting zen in a verdant courtyard garden.  At a time when feelings of fear and anxiety have sadly once again been stoked up around extreme Islam, both Hosseini and Navasaz felt pertinent in their objectives.

Zahra Hosseini, Womenswear


Maryam Navasaz, Womenswear Millinery


More topical moments came when Bianca Saunders’ black men wandered out in clothes that sought to define “contemporary black masculinity”.  Bathed in a pink light, one central figure in a do-rag and little else was lifted up by the others like a baptism of sorts.  The references to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight were deliberate and were instantly felt.  Saunders hopes to start her own label soon.  Another voice that adds yet another dimension to black masculinity is certainly more than welcome.  Ellie Rousseau’s rave-inspired oversized knits and Manchester-proud garb came trooping out with signage that was bound to get an election night crowd going.  “Corbyn In, Tories Out”, “Save our Future” and “Peace for MCR” were met with vehement cheers.   Another menswear knitwear designer, Jennifer Koch chose to address her own personal gripes about Chinese identity with a blinged out sportswear collection, doused in fortune cookies and lucky red packets.  As a mother of a biracial “hafu”, the statement “You look more Asian today” was bound to resonate.

Bianca Saunders, Menswear


Ellie Rousseau, Menswear Knitwear


Jennifer Koch, Menswear Knitwear


Designers that chose to confront the real and the mundane also found their calling in knitwear (a particular strong suit of the RCA MA graduates).  Alison Hope Murray exploited the stretchy property of her monochromatic knits to express a state of extreme comfort – so much so that one model can feel comfortable in her own topless skin.  Pippa Harries‘ knitwear was more rigorous with its nods to traditional silhouettes but in peeling back a pair of checked trousers with ciggy in mouth and a leek in hand, it revealed a facet of odd domesticity that was intriguing.

Alison Hope Murray, Womenswear Knitwear


Pippa Harries, Womenswear Knitwear


When things took a more fantastical turn, they still held true to that personal quest for answers to questions consistently asked in culture at large.  Alternative ideas of female empowerment – another misused buzzword – were explored by Fabian Kis Juhasz, and his cartoonish horror film archetypes with daggers in their feet and blood drenched tulle.  Women as maximal flora/fauna was expressed in Rose Frances Danford-Phillips‘ joyous explosion of nature-driven embroidery and feathers.  And to flip that gender exploration, Sophie Condron‘s pastel-kitsch installation of pink satin, rhinestones and nan’s house soft furnishings, transposed onto her menswear collection made for heady viewing.

Fabian Kis-Juhhasz, Womenswear


Rose Frances Danford-Philips, Womenswear Knitwear


Sophie Condren, Menswear


Confronting a rocky future ahead hasn’t killed these designers’ ability to dream big.  There were a few that unashamedly tapped into the aesthetics of the futuristic convincingly.  Aubrey Wang is hoping to set up a collective of engineers, artists and tech heads – an ambition, which was reflected in her retro sci-fi cast of characters, welding giant mobiles and encased in Mars Attacks glass bubbles.  Han Kim pieced together plastic feathers of candy stripes and polka dots in a CMYK colour palette, in complex bird-like configurations on the body.  And Colin Horgan‘s woman stood on the precipice of danger, in draped bands of holographic and black patent, that elongate the body into female figures of strength such as Lightning from my own Saturday night childhood TV staple, Gladiators and Nina Williams from the video game Tekken.  For me, they were all a welcome dismissal of a pervasive minimalism that has dominated fashion MA shows of recent years.

Aubrey Wang, Womenswear


Han Kim, Womenswear


Colin Horgan, Womenswear


The most memorable of RCA grads have often surprised with their interpretation of materials or garment categories.  Their millinery pathway once again excelled with Jing Tan‘s surreal presentation of strange fruit and flower bouquet heads atop conservative looking suited men.  We got to experience the top of the world with Ting Ting Zhang‘s physical iCloud of computer-programmed knitted hats, which utilises the same technology as Nike’s FlyKnit.  She plans to set up her own label to bring her headfuls of knitted data to the world.  Why?  “Because they are slogans, they are full of spirits, they are forever on the top. And of course, they are indeed cute!”  Quite.

Jing Tan, Menswear Millinery


Tingting Zhang, Womenswear Millinery


In between the two runway shows, we were invited to explore the installations that also yielded new exploration into the possibilities of materials on the body.  Take Abbie Stirrup’s “tailored gunge”, which had models dripping in moulded neon silicone and realtime applied gunge.  Stirrup is proposing the idea that these second skins could perhaps enrich us spiritually or even one day nourish us physically.  It’s not too far off the mark if vitamin drip bags take on a wearable form.  Louis Anderson-Bythell seems set to open up a materials lab with his collection of self-shrinking, elastomer garments, moulded and cast into clothing that appears to be alive.  His work points to the fact that true exploration of the technologically new in mainstream fashion is still largely absent.  “Fashion is always quick to adopt an image, slower to adopt any new mechanism. Maybe this will change.”

Abbie Stirrup, Womenswear


Louis Patric Alderson-Bythell, Womenswear


Finally, you have Kira Goodey‘s intricate shoes that range from more ready-to-wear friendly leather specimens to a full-on slashed PVC bodysuit, printed with a blur of Into the Void-esque neon lights from her recent travels to Tokyo.  She like all her contemporaries, is hopeful for change.  “We are on the brink of a paradigm shift in terms of the way fashion is designed, manufactured and sold – one that will usurp the ready-to-wear mass produced culture currently in place.  This movement will be much more grassroots and empowering to smaller manufacturers.”

Collectively, this was a graduate showcase that left you with a sense of optimism for fashion’s future – woke and ready to wake this industry up with their ideas.  On Alison Hope Murray’s own website, her personal summary of the RCA show says it best.  “Just because we can’t buy a house. Doesn’t mean we won’t work something else out for ourselves.  Stay tuned, we’ll probably Facebook Live the whole thing.”  

Kira Goodey, Footwear

I challenge you to find someone who is more enthusiastic about tufts wool “tops” (the stuff that a sheep’s fleece is processed into before it gets spun into yarn) than Laura Lusuardi, the longtime global fashion director of Max Mara.  At the launch of Max Mara’s Woolmark collection at their Old Bond Street store a fortnight ago, Lusuardi thrusted a wad of super soft tops in my hands, urging me to feel it.  “There are 71 million sheep versus 21 million people!” she exclaimed.  “The ingredients of the wool is the lovely grass and the Australian sun – the sheep run free and it makes the wool super soft.”  Lusuardi of course knows a thing or two about a flock of sheep.  Max Mara is of course famed for their iconic camel coat but whether it’s camel, cashmere or Merino wool, Lusuardi’s wealth of knowledge of the various fibres, yarn weights and fabrication possibilities is vast.  And with that expertise, Max Mara have come up with a way of replicating the look of denim with its traditional 3/1 weave, but instead of cotton, they have used 100% Merino wool to showcase the lighter side to this natural fibre.

“Wool is a fibre that is most versatile,” said Lusuardi.  “You can have it light, medium and very heavy.  Wool is very easy to shape.  This wool-denim is new because it’s so fluid.”  Indeed, scrunch the fabric in your hands and it is far more malleable than traditional cotton denim and once released, it instantly returns to an unwrinkled state.  Lusuardi also pointed out the various examples of Max Mara that utilise wool – mixed with lycra or silk for instance – to create fabrics that feel like anything but wool, and are also suitable for the summer season with its breathable qualities.

On one of the hottest day of the year in London, I donned the double breasted jacket and matching trousers from the wool denim collection, into town (on the tube) and emerged remarkably perspiration-free.  And comfort aside, this also happens to be the first trouser suit in my wardrobe (yes, I triple checked just to be sure).  Max Mara’s ability to master wardrobe cornerstones makes the ensemble an easy one to wear and to mix in with some of my more adventurous pieces.  Lusuardi often photographs women wearing Max Mara on the street with her phone.  How does she envisage this collection being worn?  “With personality!  It’s exactly what I believe in it.  You can customise it as you wish.  Max Mara clothes aren’t overpowering and so you can wear it as you want.”  Don’t mind if I do…

Max Mara double breasted wool-denim jacket and trousers worn with Marques Almeida corset, Uniqlo shirt and Malone Souliers sandals

Max Mara x Woolmark wool-denim dress worn with Marques Almeida jeans, Coach shoes and Delada shirt

This post is sponsored by Max Mara

>> It could be the fact that I’ve spent more time at home, camped out on the sofa with Nico permanently attached to my chest and a roster of distractions on Apple TV.  I’ve somehow found myself reliving the decade of the Space Race by rewatching Mad Men (I like to shuffle play the episodes in non chronological order just to prove to myself that the writing of that show reigns supreme), binging on the documentary series The Kennedy Files, along with its declarations of “We choose to go to the Moon” and also catching the brilliant film Hidden Figures, about the role of African-American mathematicians at NASA, when I was flying to Los Angeles.  It’s not so much the intricate science of space but more the idea of getting there and unravelling the mystery of the skies beyond that makes that 1960s journey of reaching this new frontier so compelling.     Type “space collage” into Google Image and you’ll find a whole raft of Photoshopped imaginations of space that are also tinged with the era Kennedy vs. Khrushchev with a litany of dreamscapes, depicting galaxies colliding with retro pool scenes and cadillacs.  Irish artist Steven Quinn is a primary instigator of these weird but wonderful images that draw your eye into a world where outer space feels that bit more tangible.

It’s no wonder then that Americana dreamer Stuart Vevers chose to blast off into space for Coach, with a comprehensive collection of jackets, sweatshirts, tees, bags and trinkets that have been embellished with space age nostalgia.  Coach’s stable of shearling, varsity and leather jackets and Dinky and Saddle bags have been patched up with space motifs that might have lured the wide-eyed wannabe astronauts, watching the Moon landing in 1969.  “There’s something about the time of the Space Program that just gives this feeling of possibility,” says Vevers about the collection.  “The space references, rockets and planets are symbolic of a moment of ultimate American optimism and togetherness.”  Two things that seem woefully lacking right now, which is probably why the gung-ho patriotism and enthusiasm of those space missions feel somewhat comforting to watch.  And even more of a trip to wear.

 Coach Space sweatshirt and Gotham Tote worn with ShuShu Tong poloneck and Serena Bute tracksuit bottoms 

Coach Space varsity jacket and bad worn with Miu Miu skirt

Coach Space trucker jacket worn with ASOS shirt, SomewherexNowhere dress and Christopher Kane sunglasses

Coach Space sweatshirt and purse worn with Blue Roses by Ed Meadham sleeves and Jonathan Saunders slip 

Coach Space shearling jacket and Dylan bag worn with Balenciaga vest and MYOB trousers

All collages by Steven Quinn

This post is part of an on-going partnership with Coach

“I don’t like the word cruise,” declared Miuccia Prada after well, what was in fact, Prada’s first cruise show.  That sounds like a deliberately contrary thing to say when venturing into but I think what Miuccia really meant was that she these clothes that form a pre collection in between the two main ready to wear seasons aren’t just for the jet set cruising folk.  They’re clothes that spend the bulk of the year on a shop floor, hence why they’re given this mini schedule of experiential shows.

But even as Prada felt the commercial need to join the other biggie houses in showing their resort collection, they were never going to do so in a far-flung location.  Another reason why the word “cruise” feels inappropriate.  Instead we went to the historical heart of Prada.  Moments away from their 150+ year old historical store in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, is the Osservatorio, a new addition to the Fondazione Prada, which will play host to photography exhibitions.  You clamber up and industrial staircase and find yourself in what feels like a secret of a space, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the iron framed cupola of the Galleria.   For this particular showset, OMA/AMO deliberately designed a contrast between the grandiose curves of the central dome, conceived by Giuseppe Mengoni in the 19th century, with a surreal mirrored set and pink satin linear seating, flanked by photographic screens.  Miuccia was fixated on the transparency of this setting – the view of the cupola seen from the Osservatorio, the panes of glass that loom over the resplendent shopping arcade and the flood of light coming into the space itself.  It certainly felt wildly different to the Prada shows of norm, held in their headquarters in a windowless space.

The Osservatorio also happens to be a lot smaller than the normal Prada show space.  All the better to appreciate Prada’s first standalone resort outing.  The transparency in the venue prompted a delicate spread of Japanese organza-esque fabric worked into frothy lingerie layers, echoing the pastel hued cakes and confectionary of the Prada-owned iconic cafe Passticeria Marchesi 1824 downstairs, where we had lunch beforehand.  Those ultra feminine underpinnings were contrasted with puffed up sportswear, like an off-the-shoulder tracksuit jacket with billowing sleeves, worn with knee high striped socks and chunky trainers.  I love that there’s a hint of late Victoriana worked into the track tops.

“I wanted something contemporary – somehow sporty – and then for it to metamorphose into elegance and then vice versa,” said Miuccia.  “I really had in mind what this place means in history and the beauty and charm of that period.  There was a sensuality as well as an eccentricity.”  And so the girls with their single feather headbands, girlish plaits and layers that flickered from club sportif to Belle Epoque promenade walked to a similarly juxtaposed soundtrack, where Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, sampled by Malcom McLaren on a mash-up house track on his album Waltz Darling.

There was also an unabashed transparency about the way some of Prada’s greatest hits were recycled and remixed.  Miuccia talked about her love of see-through fabrics in the 90s and add to that, you can tick off familiar Prada territory such as knee-high socks, techy nylons, diamanté and feather trims.  But the most notable Prada archive resurrection was a repeat collaboration with the artist James Jean, who was responsible for the fluid Art Nouveau-ish lines of fairies and blossoms in the S/S 2008 collection.  His signature florid lines this time featured illustrations of a reworking of the Prada logo and rampant pink bunnies.  This time round, Jean’s illustrations were sensual rather than whimsical.  There are many Prada collections that have been seared into my memory but that I particularly remember the frenzy of love for this one.  It’s been a whole decade since that S/S08 collection and thus there’s enough distance for Miuccia to dip into her archives, reviving an artistic collaboration for a new generation of customers.  No doubt, those illustrated bunny bags will fly.  For the Prada faithful such as myself, that of course wasn’t the only cause for celebration in this collection.  Much like the rows of mini fruit tarts and iced mini treats at Marchesi, you’re tempted to say, “One of everything, please!”