A new government using a global recession as an excuse to sweep funding for arts education not just under the rug but out the back door; political uprising in the Middle East; and, closer to home – enabled by unprecedented global communication and social networking – a year in which the occasionally fractious world of fashion has been picked apart by commentators who don't know any better.
This is the landscape in which the latest round of fashion graduates found themselves presenting their final collections as Graduate Fashion Week rolled into town once again. Instead of sticking to fashion basics and proving pure commercial appeal, the savviest graduates revelled in the creativity that afforded them a place on over-subscribed courses in the first place.
These adverse events may ricochet through the bottom lines of companies the world over, as well as providing a field day for certain media commentators, but as Willie Walters, BA course director at Central Saint Martins (CSM) explains, bursting bubbles don't affect the students. "Students who make it this far with us are obviously technically skilled, but they are also incredibly focussed on the career they have chosen. There is so much to learn and master during their time with us, they don't stop and think of how their reputation could be tarnished were they to become a household name. They are prepared to sacrifice their private life in return for their passion."
Such dedication in the face of adversity is surely to be applauded and the links with industry that colleges have strived to create over the last decade are a sign that graduates are being equipped with commercial expertise as well as the requisite skills in research, pattern cutting and design.
Womenswear courses are perennial favourites, with 38 UCAS applications for every available place on the course at CSM. The fierce competition for all places results in extreme competence from those who make the cut. Imran Amed, founder and editor of influential fashion blog The Business of Fashion, agrees: "Overall, this was a very strong set of collections, in particular, those from the knitwear and print students, each of whom presented distinctive design voices. Holly Skousbo's inventive use of colour and unique fabric development made for great viewing. I wanted to lean forward and touch and feel the fabrics."
Print is a discipline that is having a British fashion moment, thanks to the work of Royal College of Art graduates Erdem and Holly Fulton, and CSM alumna Mary Katrantzou, so it is fitting that this year's winner of the L'Oréal Professionnel Award was print graduate Flaminia Saccucci. Saccucci's bold experiments with tyre-marks and floral prints on latex came together as a beautifully modern womenswear collection – think Liberty prints on speed. The graduate told me her starting point was researching tyres, as she was attracted by the duality of their texture, "the smoothness but hardness they have", which in turn led to the use of rubber for the collection. Saccucci aimed to "produce an unexpected use" of the material, one that was "not expressly sexy". Her gamble certainly paid off, with a meeting with the buyers of a "great London store" planned and interest from magazines and scouting agencies.
Shirana Chavda of De Montfort University showed her print collection at the Graduate Fashion Week Gala show, combining wearability with blown-up tropical prints inspired by exotica – chameleons, peacocks and feathers. Annabel Luton of CSM used bold feather and leaf prints, strong use of colour and sumptuous textures of velvet, silk and chiffon to create a wearable collection with a soft silhouette.
At the London College of Fashion, texture was used to great effect – perhaps inspired by the Barnett Lawson award for Best Use of Trimmings. Award winner Charlotte Barry's ornate golden collection, inspired by Pompeii and Herculaneum, was embellished with pleated chiffon, fringing and intricate patterns in piping. Ya Chiae (Rexy) Sung created a balanced silhouette weighing boxy handcrafted work of pleating, beading and detailing against softly draped chiffon. Winner of the Collection of the Year, Nova Chiu, sent eye-catching pieces inspired by her Chinese heritage down the catwalk. The Surface Textiles graduate used Chinese inks to dye faux-fur, which she then built into silhouettes inspired by Chinese architecture and hand-stitched ethnic bells and beads on each piece.
Texture in knitwear is by no means a new phenomenon, but this year designs ran the gauntlet between oversized and chunky, and the finest of mesh. Knitted masks were used to great effect by Kim Traeger of Central Saint Martins, who created woven leather bionic bunny faces and ears; Yingzhi Lo Chi Chi of London College of Fashion's Aztec-inspired pure-white wool masks were a punctuation point in a sea of colourful creations. At the RCA MA graduate show, Hannah Taylor accessorised chunky menswear knits with masks ranging from animal-inspired to balaclava, while Central Saint Martins' Ryohei Kawanishi created a bird's nest of political references, with 21st-century iconography from that most modern of religions, social networks, woven into Middle Eastern flags and a jumble of shoes.
Another knitwear graduate of note was Rory Langdon of Nottingham Trent University, whose ribbed, textured and embellished all-black collection won him the Gold Award, with a £20,000 bursary courtesy of the event's title sponsors, George. The figure-hugging silhouette was further sexed up with subtle hints of the accoutrements of bondage, with harnesses and zips.
Laser-cutting was used to strong effect by RCA graduates – Fah Chakshuvej created intricate oversized cuffs and collars while Sarah Seaton-Burridge sent black latex cut-out creations down the catwalk.
Wearable menswear collections from Ivan Curia Nunes of Central and Felix Chabluk Smith of the Edinburgh College of Art picked up on the contrast panelling that is a strong trend for autumn/winter, while sombre tailoring from RCA graduate Stefá* Orschel-Read showed versatility from a designer who has reached that pinnacle of modern design – dressing Lady Gaga.
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