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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”