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Royal College of Art, An Institutional Innovator

Alumni of the Royal College of Art’s Fashion Menswear MA programme represent some of the most rigorously creative designers working today. BoF investigates how the programme has paved the way for the emergence of menswear as a creative discipline.
Matthew Miller SS 2015 | Source: Matthew Miller
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — A respectful hush emanates from the red-brick mansion blocks that surround the Royal College of Art (RCA). The college is situated in the sedate, residential heart of South Kensington, a bastion of austere Victorian civic engineering, home to London's famous museum district and a stone's throw away from the Royal Albert Hall. It is perhaps the last place on earth one would imagine to be the home of creative innovation. Yet despite its venerable age of 177, the RCA is at the very forefront of modern menswear.

"I was determined that RCA Menswear was going to be a creative discipline, not a tailoring school or a finishing school," explained Ike Rust, the indubitable and incisive senior tutor of the MA programme in fashion menswear. "Establishing the designers that are now quite influential was something that I wanted to do when I came here. I wanted to own some of that land that traditionally belongs to Central Saint Martins: having the people that are out there doing their own thing."

“It's a number of different factors that have come together to create a perfect menswear storm, to be honest,” said designer and part-time RCA menswear tutor, Matthew Miller. “The Royal [College of Art] has been churning out really good designers for decades, which have been really good at feeding the industry at large. But it's only recently that the London Collections: Men (LC:M) platform has grown for them to become entities in themselves.”

Lorna Bilsborrow, Liam Hodges, Han Chul Lee | Source: RCA

Indeed, in much the same way that Central Saint Martins has been integral to the success of London’s womenswear fashion week, RCA graduates have been instrumental in driving LC:M’s success. The menswear week’s schedule is a testament to that success, reading like a college roll call: James Long, Katie Eary, Matthew Miller, Astrid Andersen, Alex Mullins and Liam Hodges all earned menswear MA degrees from the RCA.

“I think one of the things that the course has done has enabled that breadth of design seen at LC:M,” said Rust. “I encourage my students to take a lot of risk. In the early days people were really uncomfortable with that. The recruiters, industry people, even the Royal College said, ‘You don’t get it. You don’t know what we are about.’ I stuck to my guns and said, ‘Yes, I do,’ and it paid off, encouraging the students to take risk but also to have context and professionalism in their work. The students recognise that the kind of creativity that they want to work in has a place in LC:M alongside these incredibly established commercial companies.”

The creative impact the course has had undoubtedly owes much to its specialist nature. "The amazing thing about the course is that it is still a two-year MA," continued Rust. "It remains one of the only courses in the world where the student is able to study menswear as creative discipline, unlike [Central] Saint Martins where it is sort of lobbed onto the end of womenswear," However the tutor, whose professional career includes design positions at Calvin Klein, Claude Montana and Gian Marco Venturi in Milan, is adamant that the course's success stems not from its structure, but from its students.

“The strength of the course is always its students. I am looking for students with ideas; I want the students to inform me. That famous saying, ‘You can show a student where to look, but not what to see,’ is my underlying principle. The greatest difficulty is finding students with skills. A lot of their teaching on BA is quite cosmetic; there is a lot of tick-boxing. It is very outcome-based, so a student can very quickly learn that doing projects in a certain formula will get them a good result, but that is not necessarily about them and who they are.”

Astrid Andersen for Topman | Source: Topman

Finding out who the students are lies at the crux of the teaching method of Rust and his co-tutors, which include visiting professor and stylist Simon Foxton, the aforementioned James Long, Matthew Miller and Professor Peter Sidell, Frances Mossman, Brian Kirkby and Sean Moore.

“[Educators] can take student focus to the limit when they just put cotton wool around everything, but if you take that away and say, 'Actually what you are doing is learning about yourself, because you can't separate what you do and who you are,' that is something students really respond to. The MA course gives the students responsibility: you choose; you make your mind up. We will help you move the mountain but you tell us where you want it to go,” said Rust. “It's an incredible sense of freedom and liberation from the systematic control of all previous educational models, in touch with the reality of life,” added Miller.

The personal responsibility students are encouraged to develop requires significant personal investment in the course. “There was much more that was demanded of me,” explained Aitor Throup, one of the course’s most celebrated gradates. Throup is much lauded for his cerebral work and collaborations with Umbro and G-Star Raw, all of which are created following his ‘justified design philosophy.’

“Ike would be unimpressed unless the explanation behind my work made sense. So I started forcing myself more and more to justify everything about my work. He made me really devalue everything that was frivolous, or purely decorative. I became obsessed with that process and now, that is what my work is known for. He made me realise that that obsessive nature is part of me,” he continued.

“Certain students can approach education now as if they are buying a McDonald's or a Starbucks,” lamented Rust. “They want it like this, they want it like that, they want it with a fucking pickle. They want it in neat little boxes that they can complete and get the outcomes they want because that is what is in the handbook. It just makes me so furious because education at a certain level is chaotic and quite painful and very messy. What you want to do is enable the student to really question their thinking, and really look at who they are and what they are doing.”

An Aitor Throup sketch from his time at the RCA | Source: Aitor Throup

“If we make education a corporation, which in a way it is already, we are going to have thinkers that just are responding to project briefs, and that aren’t thinking outside their box, aren’t researching, aren’t creating new things, or new processes or new ideas. If your environment is safe, you are going to respond to that environment, the student is pretty fickle,” said Rust.

In order that students focus on discovering their personal motivation to design, the course’s assessments are not marked. “If a student has a focus which is a mark they will have many different reasons for doing their work. If you say you have got to respond to a certain outcome in a project where 10 percent is drawing, 5 percent is research and 20 percent is doing something else, that becomes the mindset. If their mindset is that they have just got to tick the boxes, that is what they will do. If their mindset is that they can really make a difference and they can really push the boundaries and challenge things, they will do that,” explained Rust.

As part of a multi-disciplinary institution, the RCA gives students access to other design departments and off-campus resources such as mills and specialist technicians. The plethora of resources helps students to truly push boundaries.

“It is a really interesting element of the RCA,” said Throup. “I ended up working with the vehicle design technicians, developing my first ever sculpture. There is practicality, where you are on the seventh floor and you think, I really want to make a sculpture of the human body, or whatever, there is always someone who will say, ‘Oh, you should speak to so and so on the fifth floor.’ Then you go down there and all of a sudden you are surrounded by all these different materials and you think, ‘What is this?!’ If you are that way inclined and inquisitive it is magical. I have become more aware of different processes now and I can only wish to be back there doing a Masters now.”

Crucially, the students' creative processes are not hermetically sealed within the artistic confines of an educational studio. "We work a lot with industry; we have a lot of sponsored projects. The development is about the student, but also, alongside that, it is about putting them into context with industry. Yes, a bespoke tailor might really struggle with a sportswear project from Umbro, but within that they will learn about teamwork and responding to professionals, about presentation, changing deadlines, success, failure, disappointments and that is a really big part of their learning." Umbro, Brioni, Manolo Blahnik, Copenhagen Fur, Burton, IFF and Bill Amberg have all run projects with the college, granting students tangible industry experience and blurring the psychological distinction between educational project and professional commission or endeavour.

However, Rust’s focus remains his students’ development, not their employment. “I recognise that that move from academia to industry is incredibly challenging. But in a way, I am not responsible for what they do once they leave here. What I do is create in my students the drive and motivation, which sets them up for success. It is based on their artistry, their understanding of what they want to do, their craft, ultimately their ability of actually being able to follow through with their designs with professionalism.”

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