LONDON, United Kingdom — Last Tuesday, the grand entrance hall at London's Central Saint Martins art school was transformed into a makeshift catwalk, complete with a throng of photographers clustered around the bright lights set up at the end of the runway and black-suited bouncers ushering guests to their seats. From British Vogue fashion editors to notable alumni, it seemed London’s entire fashion crowd had turned out for CSM's BA Fashion show, an annual showcase of the best and brightest talents from a school known for a distinguished undergraduate fashion design course that has produced notable designers including Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton and Giles Deacon, who acted as the evening’s master of ceremonies.
“There is a lot of exuberant colour this year, as well as the use of unusual textiles,” course director Willie Walters told BoF. “The feeling is quite urban and still fairly sporty, as in easy rather than performance!”
Indeed, vibrant colours, from Cassandra Verity Green’s aqua pastels to Natasha Somerville’s Pepto Bismol pink, and sportswear influences featured heavily in the 40-odd mini-collections shown on the runway, each set to a different soundtrack. Androgyny and gender bending, as well, were running themes throughout the show, most obviously seen on Edward Marler’s irreverent, 'Marie Antoinette-meets-drag queen’ ensembles.
Womenswear graduate Mao Usami came away with the L’Oréal Professionnel Young Design Talent Award, presented by celebrated alumnus Phoebe Philo, creative director of Céline. But there were six designers that, in particular, lit up the BoF radar with clothes that awed, delighted and made us think.
Nathaniel Lyles – Knitwear
“Quite a bit of it is about coming of age and a lot about sexuality and breaking free from traditions of masculinity and femininity,” said knitwear designer Nathaniel Lyles of his graduate collection. The graphic, kaleidoscopically colourful affair was knitted from enameled copper wire, a technique that the LVMH Grand Prix Scholarship recipient developed in his second year at Saint Martins while experimenting with three-dimensional knitwear.
In his compact but impeccably tidy studio in Tottenham, north London, the 22 year-old Yorkshire native offered us cups of tea and told BoF of his “very normal” upbringing. Creative talent runs in his family – both of his parents earned degrees in fashion design and textile production, and his cousin is a handbag designer who outfitted Lyles’ models with the boxy bags seen on the runway.
“I was always drawing and painting. It grew into more textile work, and I started involving my fabrics in my drawings,” said Lyles, who had been drawn to knitwear as an extension of his love for creating his own fabrics and being able to “be a bit of a perfectionist about things and a bit possessive as well”.
Lyles cited Dawn Wiener, the gawky star of 1995 American coming-of-age comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse, as his muse for his collection, which touches on the tension and awkwardness of adolescence. To that end, he employed a playful colour scheme heavy on candy shades of aqua and fuchsia. “I wanted to use colours that were actually pretty gross on their own and shouldn’t work together but they actually kind of do,” Lyles explained. To balance the overtly feminine palette, Lyles kitted his models with masculine brogues and kept the shapes “quite butch”.
With placements at luxury mega-brand Christian Dior and contemporary label Proenza Schouler under his belt, Lyles confessed that he was torn between continuing his education, working at an established label (with a few job interviews lined up already), and striking it out on his own. “I think I could do more with this technique,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting somewhere where it actually looks good, because [for] about six months where it looked horrific.”
Roni Ilan – Menswear
“I think in menswear you have a lot of rules and I like to break rules, in a way,” Roni Ilan playfully explained. Originally from Israel, Ilan is a somewhat rare example of a female designer doing menswear. Diminutive in stature yet quietly self-assured, she happened upon fashion design after a degree in finance failed to inspire. Ilan rebounded quickly. “Really quickly,” she told BoF, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “In one second, I decided I was going to do fashion.”
It was an unconventional path to steer her career, but following her instinct has served Ilan well. The starting point for her graduate collection, a series of monochrome, minimal suits worn with curvilinear aluminum sculptures, was inspired by the late Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose organic stone forms with hollow centres immediately caught Ilan’s eye. “I felt so connected to what he was doing that I had to use it,” she recalled.
Ilan sought to project a strong, hyper-masculine identity in her designs. Jackets were made subtly wider in the back than in the front, to echo the cape that a superhero might don. Using an unwoven compressed material commercially traded as Alcantara, which resists fraying when cut, allowed her to stop “faffing around with hems” and to maintain a uniformly clean aesthetic.
The same philosophy informed the way she matched her sculptures with a proportional ensemble – the long, paper clip-like neckpiece for the long monastic coat, and the round fishbowl helmet for a shorter jacket and trousers. “The main thing was for them to look different from every angle, from the front, side and back. It was very interconnected, [with] many subtle decisions. I guess you just feel it rather than see it,” she mused.
Having already worked with modern dandy Thom Browne and experimental uniform enthusiast William Richard Green, Ilan is open with regards to what’s next, but will always have a soft spot for her own take on wearable sculptures: “I want to be able to do this, and in order to do this you need to have your own label.”
Min Nan Hui – Fashion Print
Growing up in Xi’an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi in central China, Min Nan Hui was encouraged by a high school drawing teacher to pursue the arts, but was torn between the disciplines of fashion and architecture. “In the end, I finally chose fashion because I felt that I could put architectural [elements] in fashion design,” the affable 22 year-old told BoF. Hui had originally come to London to attend London College of Fashion on the strength of the school’s reputation in her native China, but made the leap to Saint Martins after her foundation degree.
Her graduate collection – voluminous flamenco-like dresses topped with spindly, sculptural headpieces – embodied her fashion-meets-architecture philosophy. Fluid, polished, and unabashedly pretty, Hui’s dresses appeared elaborately ruffled and layered, but were inspired by a deceptively uncomplicated type of construction. On a trip to the Yunnan province in southwestern China last summer, Hui stumbled upon the traditional dress of the Huayao Dai, a local ethnic tribe known for their lavish festivals and ornately decorated yet technically simple costumes.
“When people see national clothing, they [think] it’s really old and not ‘fashion’. But [Huayao Dai] clothes are so different. They’ve got really short tops and they’re all layered, layered, layered. All their clothes are made with triangles and squares,” she enthused. Hui adapted that technique and incorporated elements from interior design (specifically, floral wallpapers) to produce her bold, vivid prints, punctuated with inky strokes that echo the work of performance artist Zhang Huan, who is known for having his face painted over with calligraphy until completely black.
Would she stay her in adopted city? She carefully rejected long-term residency, citing her wish to return home, but also acknowledged the need to develop her aesthetic further. One factor that has made the decision more difficult is London’s abundance of resources for fledgling designers who want to start their own labels, unlike the fashion landscape in China.
“If you’re really young, you’re not able to do anything by yourself. Here, it’s so different.”
Yuki Hagino – Knitwear
“I usually do very colourful stuff, so this time around I wanted to challenge myself with just white, because it can be very strong,” knitwear graduate Yuki Hagino told BoF. The petite, soft-spoken designer hails from Osaka, an important industrial and commercial hub in Japan. Inspired by her childhood love of origami, the art of folding paper, and informed by her first BA degree in architecture, Hagino’s graduate collection comprised sculptural white column dresses with intricate accordion pleats and knitted embellishments.
What drew her to fashion design – and ultimately, Central Saint Martins – was the degree of freedom with which she could hone her craft. “The Saint Martins style of education is finding not the designer, [but] the artist. The tutor never gives us pressure or limitations.” Furthermore, the grand, imposing size of buildings and the business of designing them felt impersonal and restrictive to Hagino, who craved “a more human scale”.
The knitwear pathway, as well, allowed Hagino the liberty of creating her own fabrics and shapes. “We can knit anything, like steel or plastic, not only wool or nylon,” said Hagino, who displayed the versatility of her technical skills with complex pleating, which lent her statuesque dresses pop-off-the-page dimensionality.
To create visual uniformity whilst preserving the sculptural quality of the pleats, Hagino folded a stiff vinyl material and bonded it to white cotton fabric. “I wanted to show the original softness of the fabric compared to the hardness of plastic,” she explained.
As for the future, Hagino shyly admitted that although the “final dream” is creating her own brand, she still needed to build her experience and connections within the extensive Japanese fashion industry. Which Japanese designer would she love to emulate? “My favourite designer is Rei Kawakubo,” she said. “Her philosophy changed me to study fashion rather than architecture. She designs atmosphere – it’s hard to explain, but she always challenges new things in fashion.”
Charles Jeffrey – Fashion design and marketing
The furry, vibrantly colour-blocked sportswear that fashion graduate Charles Jeffrey sent down the runway were in part inspired by a surprisingly political source: the Scottish independence referendum to be held late 2014, when the Scottish electorate will vote on whether or not the region would remain part of the United Kingdom. Another reference was ‘Neds’, short for ‘non-educated delinquents’, a cultural subgroup known for displaying immense Scottish pride. “Basically, Scottish chavs,” the Glasgow native explained cheekily.
How did Jeffrey combine these two concepts into a playful, irreverent whole? “I thought if Scotland were to be an independent country, how these two groups would create the national dress of this new place … this idea of super, uber Scottish, almost over the top,” the amiable designer told BoF. Drawing influences from the top-heavy silhouettes of traditional highland dress, elaborately draped kilts worn with fitted ‘Prince Charlie’ doublets, Jeffrey conceived an energetic, vaguely tribal sports-luxe collection.
A sponsorship from Danish company Saga Furs inspired him to rework many of his jackets in fur. “I really attached myself to that idea of working with fur and using it in a really sporty way,” said Jeffrey, who traveled to Denmark to familiarise himself with the material. “I went to see what you can do with fur, minus the judgments that you can have with it, but just seeing it as a raw material.”
Additional fur-and-feather accents on caps and Caterpillar-donated work boots lent lending his pieces a playful, whimsical touch. Jeffrey favoured primary colours for their boldness, and colour-blocked patches in his jackets to mimic the tartan patterns on kilts.
While there were stumbling blocks along the way (an entire look had to be scrapped when coffee was spilt over the key fabric) Jeffrey has already received press requests to photograph his clothes and is eager to embark on the highly acclaimed MA Fashion course in the autumn. Ultimately, he hopes to establish his own brand (although he self-deprecatingly calls the ambition “cheesy”), having already interned at luxury fashion brand Dior in Paris.
“What I’d want is to be the person who has the final say,” he said confidently. “That’s the goal, anyway.”
Giacomo Cavallari – Menswear
“It was a nice surprise!” said menswear designer Giacomo Cavallari of his second runner-up place in the L’Oréal Professionnel Young Design Talent Award, presented to him by Giles Deacon immediately after the runway show. Venice-born Cavallari, who didn’t develop an interest in fashion until he was 20 years old, was initially part of a theatre troupe in his native Italy when he grew fascinated with set design and costumery. He set off for London to pursue a foundation degree, which cemented his decision to study fashion design.
Drawing inspiration from Neo-modernism, the 20th-century movement that informed multiple disciplines such as art, philosophy, and architecture, Cavallari crafted a streamlined collection of sportswear-influenced separates. “I’m really into the idea of looking at space and creating space by blocking areas,” the warm designer explained of the faded neon colour-blocking seen on jackets and coats.
The concept of creating and manipulating space also carried over to the collection’s Doc Martens-sponsored shoes, which Cavallari customised with cutouts, giving the work wear staple boots a sporty, modern touch. “In terms of silhouettes and everything, [I] also keep in mind the way the artists work – simplicity, linearity, square shapes.” To maintain the collection’s sleekness and modernity, Cavallari bonded organic textiles like cotton denim to more rigid, plastic-like PVC.
Having completed placements with novel menswear designer Bernhard Willhelm and revitalised Parisian brand Kenzo, Cavallari is open to the idea of launching his own label in the future, but tends to go with the flow. Neither is he particularly concerned with overly planned design decisions, preferring to rely on instinct. “When you do your research you see so many images, you have to respond to what you see that you like. It’s nothing really brainy.”