LONDON, United Kingdom — A sombre parade gathered last week on the campus of art and design school Central Saint Martins in London’s King’s Cross. Under a marquee — erected to protect attendees from the steady grey drizzle outside — members of the fashion press and well-wishers had gathered for the school’s showcase of 40 of this year’s BA fashion graduates.
The show was dedicated to the memory of professor Louise Wilson of the school’s MA fashion programme, who passed away suddenly three weeks ago. Former student Matthew Harding of shirting label Palmer Harding gave a heartfelt tribute to his former teacher, as did professor Jeremy Till, the head of Central Saint Martins and the evening’s master of ceremonies.
Despite the lingering melancholy, the daring ensembles that walked (and, at turns, jogged, sauntered, and even danced) down the runway were evidence that the kind of fearless creative spirit that Louise Wilson would have applauded was very much alive and well at Saint Martins. In the end, when designers Peter Jensen and Craig Green, both alumni of the school, awarded L’Oréal Professionnel prizes to Fiona O’Neill, Asai Andrew Ta and Grace Wales Bonner, the crowd erupted in cheers.
The collections differed wildly, from Richard Malone’s ‘Hogwarts-meets-Sixties Alice in Wonderland’ dresses to Lisandro Olmos’ space-age monochrome suits that Agent Smith from The Matrix might have worn. However, menswear and genderbending emerged as common themes throughout.
“There [were] more than [the] usual menswear collections this year — 13 collections out of 40, with a further three featuring both mens and womenswear,” Willie Walters, Saint Martins' BA fashion programme director, told BoF. “As [with] last year, there continues [to be] development with materials and textures: elaborate weaving, shredding, sackcloth and straw, and painted canvas. There are also cool monotone commercially viable collections.”
Meet the six graduate designers whose intriguing and cohesive collections make them ones to watch.
Daniele Toneatti — Menswear
A preoccupation with space-age futurism and graphic art informed Italian designer Daniele Toneatti’s approach to his graduate collection. As a high schooler growing up in a small village outside Venice, Toneatti aspired to become a graphic designer; his first application to Central Saint Martins was actually for a BA in graphic design.
It wasn’t until he took a private pattern-cutting course taught by a local professional that the fashion bug bit him. “I started appreciating the craftsmanship aspect of it, I started making my own shirts and that kind of thing,” he recalled. “I just thought, what a great thing to be in fashion because I can have graphic design and get inspired by everywhere.”
For his graduate collection, Toneatti took inspiration from the otherworldly eeriness of Japanese graphic designer Tadanori Tokoo’s cosmic posters and the strong palette of electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra (“like a Japanese version of Kraftwerk”). Rendered in a striking, “Russian constructivist” palette of mainly white, red, and black, his tailored shorts suits were adorned with patches of sinister cats and smiling music notes across the chest. For an added retro-futurist flourish, he used techno fabrics and took details from Sixties’ flight attendant uniforms.
In his placement year, the LVMH Grand Prix Scholar worked for Henrik Vibskov in Copenhagen and Raf Simons’ men’s brand in Antwerp. “I was really surprised to see how Raf worked because we worked really close and in the kind of level of fashion where he is, I thought he was more of a kind of outsider, especially his mainline brand. He was really close to the product, he actually designed it, with his hands very close[ly],” he said. “For me what I learned more than actual technical side of things, it was his approach – first and foremost, trying to push the boundaries a little bit.”
His own boundary-pushing label is in the distant future, said Toneatti, but first he hopes to gain more practical experience at established menswear brands.
Kiko Kostadinov — Fashion Design with Marketing
Having emigrated from Bulgaria with his parents at the age of 16, Kiko Kostadinov completed a three-year IT degree at college before turning to his first love — fashion. “By the time it was time to apply to university, I thought, I didn’t want to spend all my time in an office,” he told BoF. “The only thing I liked was clothes. Always. My uncle used to live here and he used to send us clothes in Bulgaria. So I would always be the first to wear new and interesting clothes.”
But his path to CSM took multiple detours. He initially tried the foundation course at London College of Fashion and felt it didn’t quite suit. After assisting a friend at Saint Martins’ old campus, then still near Charing Cross, he realised CSM was where he wanted to go, but was not admitted. He then assisted a bevy of menswear designers and stylists: Nicola Formichetti, now at Diesel; Aitor Throup, newly-hired artistic director of G-Star Raw; and Stephen Mann, stylist for brands such as Missoni.
“The most important thing I learned is just hard work, there is no easy way,” he recalled. The drive to push beyond his comfort zone determined the direction for his graduate collection. “I tried to challenge myself with something I don’t have a clue about in my final year, which was weaving.” He even constructed an assortment of handmade looms, made with frames of varying sizes with dozens of nails hammered into opposite sides.
Taking references from master weaver Sheila Hicks and the French abstract painter Genevieve Asse, Kostadinov created a collection of monastic men’s robes, overlaid with shredded – almost decayed – cloth, in sedated blue tones. The increasing disconnect between real life and “hyper-reality”, or our online lives, also inspired him to create garments that looked like they were “taking over you… in a very organic way.”
For the future, Kostadinov has his sight firmly set on the school’s acclaimed MA fashion programme. “I was supposed to have an interview with Louise [Wilson] last week,” he sighed, but remained optimistic. “But it could be a good atmosphere… something nice might come out of it all. I’m looking forward to it.”
Mascha Rotermund — Knitwear
Growing up with two architect parents in Germany, Mascha Rotermund was always drawn to art. “I’ve always been creative, always drawing, painting, building things. I made my own clothes when I was younger. My family were always taking me to art exhibitions,” she told BoF. But the German education system, she felt, lacked rigour in the creative arts that she so desired. “So I changed my school system to the English one,” the soft-spoken Rotermund said.
Without ever having visited the country, she packed her bags for Canada to attend a boarding school almost an hour outside Montréal. “I wanted to go to Canada because of the beautiful nature and atmosphere and [wanted] to try out something new,” she said. The untouched Canadian wilderness also inspired her to paint the rural flora and fauna.
Painting remains her first love and is still an important process in her design work. “I wrote my dissertation about painting and capturing a moment, [using] painting rather than photography, the idea of digital and analog,” she said. “I personally love contrast – it makes things really interesting. Like the contrast between something really structured like a digital image made up of millions of little squares to the contrast of an Impressionist painting.”
Rotermund’s graduate collection was a study in tension and contrast. She combined the looseness of chunky knits with ultra-embellished acrylic flowers – baked in the oven from tiny plastic beads in moulds – and netting for an intriguing textural mash-up. Feminine and bold, her dresses also took inspiration from 1960s silhouettes and artist Gerhard Richter’s blurred ‘photo-paintings’ from that era.
Having spent time at self-started brands Thakoon and Erdem in her placement year, Rotermund wants to launch her own label eventually, but would focus for now on learning and optimising her craft. “I love making [things] and the process of it – making something and you look back and you can make the next one better.”
Ayaka Sakurai — Print
“I didn’t really intend to study fashion until three, four years ago. And that’s just partly because I thought fashion was for people who really loved the glamorous side of fashion,” confessed Ayaka Sakurai. The LVMH Grand Prix Scholar was born and raised in Tokyo, but spontaneously moved to Britain at age 13 to attend boarding school.
“I didn’t make up my mind until a month before I actually departed,” she laughed. “And the original plan was to stay here for a year just for the experience and language.” One year turned into GCSEs, then A-levels, and eventually Sakurai earned an architecture degree at a university in Cardiff.
Craving the buzz of a major metropolis and daunted by the impersonal scale of architecture projects, Sakurai moved to London and took the foundation course at Central Saint Martins. “I thought fashion was more down to earth in terms of scale and I could actually make products myself. I was attracted by how it was so hands-on and more of a direct process,” she said of her decision to change course.
Sakurai’s starting point for her graduate collection was glitch music, a “quite geeky, nerdy” genre of electronic music. “I wanted to approach this digital idea in a really analog way,” she explained. The resulting ensembles, which contrast traditional fabrics such as pinstripes with a reflective material comprised of square sequins. Through manipulation of the fabrics – pleating, heat-treating, and printing – Sakurai hoped to create a sense of retro-futurism. “It’s still so analog that the fabrics are really in a way old-school sci-fi rather than being actually digital and minimal.”
She kept the silhouettes and accessories sporty rather than tailored to avoid weighing everything down. This innate instinct for balance, as Sakurai acknowledges, likely has to do with her upbringing and cultural identity.
With two degrees to her name, Sakurai is looking ahead. “I’m now getting out of this educational utopia but I haven’t got any solid plans yet. I specialised here in fashion print but I don’t want to be a textile designer, I want to do both. I’m quite flexible, I do like textile fabrications but that’s not the end of the story.”
Grace Wales Bonner — Fashion Design with Marketing
“I was really shocked,” said Grace Wales Bonner of winning the top L’Oréal Professionnel prize at the end of the evening. “The whole thing was a really weird whirlwind because the lights were so bright. It was like a weird flashback or something because I couldn’t really see anything… And then when it came to the point where they called me, I just kind of embraced the moment and that feeling, walking out really elated.”
Bonner walked out with her all-black cast of male models, clad in fitted high-waisted takes on classic suiting. “A lot of what I do now has been informed by my heritage. My dad’s Jamaican and my mom’s English so I’ve been interested by my mixed heritage. Although since I grew up in England I have experienced the Jamaican side of myself through research and old photos of family and I was trying to compensate in some way for that absence of that side of my family.”
A constant theme that Bonner has explored through her work, both in fashion and collage, is the idea of black culture, including notions of identity and male sexuality. “I was trying to translate the mood of breaking free from restrictions, taking ownership of how you are perceived and what you are, of these ideas of what you can be,” she explained. Sporty fabric bands held across her models’ torsos, represented a take on tribal markings, while the soft, natural materials – burlap, rope, and denim – hearkened back to her island roots.
The gender-bending elements of her collection, all fitted suits punctuated by jewellery and embellishment, is a reflection of Bonner’s belief that “doing something feminine on a man is more interesting than doing it on a woman.” “I find women quite intimidating in terms of saying what they should wear,” she said. “But I’ve had women who really like it and want to like it so for me it’s really not about if it’s for men or women, if you like it then that’s great.”
Bonner has also styled for independent photoshoots and her collage work (her main medium) has been featured in art-meets-fashion tome Garage but for the moment, she is weighing her options. “I’ve come out of this really intense period and can really think about things clearly and what I’ve done. I want to do my own thing but I’m not sure if I’m ready for that yet.”
Sang Yoon — Womenswear
“There aren’t new shapes for us now, in this generation,” observed Korean-born Sang Yoon, who has lived in Britain since the age of 10. “For me, it’s more about – if there’s something new, it’s going to be about textiles and creating with textiles these new shapes.” Indeed, mixed materials form a core component of his hyper futuristic eveningwear collection, which closed the BA graduate show.
“I can handle plastics, metals, and wood and so I’ve always been interested in creating not only fabric, [but] something unusual and sophisticated. For me it’s more about execution of craftsmanship,” Yoon explained. Inspired by film noir actress Lauren Bacall and the cosmic properties of geometry, his tubular gowns feature hand-woven patent cuffs, belts, and even a trouser leg. Despite the collection’s clear sci-fi leanings and monochrome palette of black, white, and nude, the various lattice-work evoked a feeling of tribal armour and protection.
“The title of this collection is ‘Quadrivium’, which is about numbers and geometry. It’s all about protection,” Yoon confirmed. “I have this obsession with numbers and geometry, which offers protection.” Sculptural elements also factor heavily into his work; many of his gowns’ shoulders and waists are padded with foam inserts. Areas that appear ruched from afar are actually made with many elastic tubes wrapped into the fabric and hand-stitched individually.
In addition to naming his collection, Yoon had also prepared a paragraph-long introduction, much like a press release. “I’ve been always interested in markets – I don’t want to say commercial so much but I quite like to create a dialogue between consumers. I want women to feel like they want to wear my pieces. It’s about finding the right balance between my creativity and what a woman desires,” said Yoon, who hopes to move onto the MA fashion course post-graduation.