Photography Hanna Moon. Image courtesy of Yufei Lau (Fey Fey)

These RCA graduate designers are taking fashion far beyond clothes

From speculative cyborg humanoids to intentionally awkward inflatables, these ten students are pushing fashion into the future.

by Mahoro Seward
|
08 July 2021, 2:27pm

Photography Hanna Moon. Image courtesy of Yufei Lau (Fey Fey)

What does the term ‘fashion’ mean to you? That’s the question we asked some of this year’s Royal College of Art MA Fashion graduates . Usually, you’d expect their answers to focus on how physical garments express and articulate our internal realities; or how clothes mediate our relationships — physical, emotional, mental or otherwise — with the outside world.

In the case of this year’s cohort, though, you’ll see that their perspectives on fashion are remarkably emancipated from the strictures of physical cloth — perhaps more so than any graduate cohort we’ve ever spoken to. For Fey Fey, whose inflatable, sculptural piece challenge ideas around the rights of women to take up space, fashion simply “reflects the current moment of my mindset”. And for Linxi Zhu, one of the many graduates this year to have foregone making physical work to create what she calls a “digital accessories lab”, “fashion is a fantasy concept. It is both innovative and limitless, which brings you to an emotional climax without any explanations.”

A rarity among fashion schools, the scope of this year group’s adventurous creativity has been formally accommodated by the RCA itself. This year, you’ll still find work that can be categorised in line with the pathways you’re likely familiar with — Menswear, Womenswear, Knitwear… Beyond those, though, you’ll also find graduates in Humanwear, Bio-Wear Activism, Digital Mysticism, No-Wear. The range of approaches exhibited by RCA’s MA Fashion’s graduating class is a testament to the trans-disciplinary reality of fashion creation post-pandemic — more than that, though, it offers hopeful insight into the many potential directions that fashion could take over the years to come.

Before you head to the London school’s official graduate platform, read on to hear 10 of the class’s most exciting graduates discuss the thought processes behind their mind-warping work.

a woman walking through london wearing an inflatable dress by Fey Fey
Photography Hanna Moon. Image courtesy of Yufei Lau (Fey Fey)
a woman walking through london wearing an inflatable dress by RCA MA Fashion graduate Fey Fey
Photography Hanna Moon. Image courtesy of Yufei Lau (Fey Fey)
a woman riding the tude wearing an inflatable dress by RCA MA Fashion graduate Fey Fey
Photography Hanna Moon. Image courtesy of Yufei Lau (Fey Fey)

Fey Fey (Yufei Liu)

How would you introduce your graduate project?
My project is a statement against the pressure that society places on women regarding what they ‘should’ wear. Contemporary women are expected to dress in ‘proper’ clothes for different occasions, and carry the weight of how female bodies are treated by society. In a struggle to be respected, they dress to be elegant, sexy, tender; they also dress to be seen as wise, virtuous, skilled, professional -- to be seen as equally capable to men. Personally, I am disturbed by how I always inevitably ‘choose’ to dress up to be taken seriously by others; the ‘proper’, ‘professional’ clothes make people be nicer to me, but I ultimately feel smaller.

So I have decided to take up space. Women not only laugh at jokes but they make jokes, too. I am serious about being unserious; about being rude to those who make me feel small -- it’s about my presence now. My pieces start out looking like understated everyday clothes in familiar fabrics for women, and then they inflate into giant weird shapes. The bigger the clothes inflates, the greater the space I occupy. It was always my space, but now they are aware and they move aside.

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
Fashion has always been political throughout history. My favorite example is the ‘citizen’s uniform’ (an early version of the dressing-down trend!) that was seen during the French Revolution. It was a symbol of freedom that reduced the visible distinctions between social classes.

I think my position is similar. I aim to take to provide a better environment and greater freedom for women of all ages, all races and all classes. I don’t make anything fancy -- rather, I work with the neglected and casual objects. The muse and consumer are the same --  they are contemporary women who shoulder the burden of stressful daily issues from life, work and society. I would like to provide them an alternative option of wearing something fun, that also offers a sense of security.

What do you hope people take away from your work?
My purpose is to provide an alternative option for today’s fashion customers. Maybe we don’t need everything to be the perfect cut and flatter the body. I hope people can start feeling that it’s okay or even cute to wear something funny and awkward.

A humanoid robot from Abi Sheng's RCA MA Fashion Graduate project
Courtesy of Abi Sheng
A humanoid robot from Abi Sheng's RCA MA Fashion Graduate project
Courtesy of Abi Sheng
A humanoid robot from Abi Sheng's RCA MA Fashion Graduate project
Courtesy of Abi Sheng

Abi Sheng

How would you introduce your graduate project?

I want my work to be seen as a blueprint for transcending the future of humans. I founded Sapiens Collective, a speculative robotics and engineering lab. Our centres of interest are the notion of re-hosting consciousness in the context of climate crises, potential pandemics, and exoplanet migration. Our goal is to redesign, improve and augment bodies.

The humanoid Eka, meaning ‘Number One’ in Sanskrit, is our firstborn. Eka is a speculative, mechanically chimeric humanoid that envisions fully efficient bodies that blend biomaterials and synthetic actuation. Eka is created to feel, to love, to sense, and to develop emotional intelligence — one day we hope it can be the vessel for the moving spirit and soul.

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
As an identity engineer whose work is devoted to rebuilding the identity system and constructing a utopia for equality by offering a system for customizable, transformative physical appearances and body modifications.

As for ethics, I imagine our humanoid Eka will face a lot of ethical questions. We do envision in the far future, humanoids made by “Sapiens Collective” will present the same properties as the human body with artificial senses -- it will be a vessel for the spirit and soul. By then, we will be able to achieve consciousness transferal and immortality to some extent. This is radical and speculative, but it's a big question about human evolution that we don't have the answer to yet.

How has the past year shaped your understanding of fashion’s purpose?
At the beginning of lockdown, I was panicked, shocked, bored, excited, paranoid, confused, over and over again in a loop. I realised that I was having mental health issues, just like a lot of people during that period. But then I started trying different spiritual healing methods like meditation and yoga. I was more curious about the invisible, untouchable side of us as humans. I looked into quantum gravity, unified physics theories, and also hyperbolic geometries, and higher dimensions. Coming out of the dark times was a beautiful experience. It’s been a relief for me, and also for the industry, to rethink why we need to use physical cloth and why we keep designing new things? Fashion’s purpose is not only about ‘garments’, or looking good in a certain way anymore. It has the power to inspire what's within us and connect us.

A soft red digitally rendered knit sculpture from Linxi Zhu's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Linxi Zhu
A orange digitally rendered knit sculpture from Linxi Zhu's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Linxi Zhu
A blue digitally rendered knit sculpture from Linxi Zhu's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Linxi Zhu

Linxi Zhu

How would you introduce your graduate project?
For my graduate project, I collaborated with Panny Yu. Together, we founded Formless, a virtual fashion accessories laboratory and design house that curates events and shifts fashion experience with immersive technologies.

Formless focuses on the relationship between body, objects and the virtual world, and how it shapes the creation of new tools, materials and networks. Through creating virtual fantasies, Formless presents a niche concept by creating new 'wearable' materials that will reassess the idea of goods valuation, properties and ownership. It challenges how a digital-only item could be 'worn'.

What does ‘fashion’ mean to you?
To me, fashion is a fantasy concept. It is both innovative and limitless, which brings you to an emotional climax without any explanations.

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
My work translates fashion into the digital world. From research, sampling, production to presentation, all steps were made using digital methods, reducing the carbon footprint as an outcome. I am also working with a diverse team ranging from designers, engineers, and programmers to AI specialists. I enjoy the moments where we all discuss and debate openly while treating each other as equals. 

Stills from Zongbo Jiang RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Stills from Zongbo Jiang RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Stills from Zongbo Jiang RCA MA Fashion graduate project

Zongbo Jiang

How would you introduce your graduate project?
My graduate project is titled Dilemmas for Earthlings. It presents a digital campaign within a virtual world exploring different issues that are faced on our planet. The piece includes three layers focused on social issues, animal rights and environmental issues. Through the use of digital characters and spaces the work offers alternative representations of these dilemmas, proffering the hope of change while looking to open a conversation about how we can improve the way we all live on this planet as earthlings.

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
I consider the work I make to be visual activism, therefore a lot of these issues are what my work is in response to. I want to use my work to continue the conversations in these areas, especially ones centered around ecology. I endeavour to continue the exploration of issues that affect the inhabitants of our planet and hope to offer insight through the use of the digital characters and virtual worlds I create.

How has the past year shaped your understanding of fashion’s purpose?The past year has reshaped how we create and experience fashion. The rise of ‘the digital’ has played a big role in the changes that we have seen.I believe that these changes have highlighted how certain areas of the fashion industry are completely unsustainable, therefore encouraging us as designers to consider how we can create and explore sustainably.

A model wearing a full look from Seungmin Koh's RCA MA graduate collection
A model wearing a full look from Seungmin Koh's RCA MA graduate collection
A model wearing a full look from Seungmin Koh's RCA MA graduate collection

Seungmin Koh

How would you introduce your graduate project?
My graduation project is about documenting our complex and undefinable emotional history through material development. I think the most distinctive feeling that surrounds the world now is fear. Fear of pandemics and hate crimes is gripping everyone. I wanted to capture this uncertain and unprecedented time through my collection as a scar design detail to communicate and empathise with people!

What does ‘fashion’ mean to you?
Fashion is an evolving record of human emotional and physical experiences. Also, fashion is a contact point between human beings and is a medium that represents one's personality. We can choose 'yesterday's me,' 'today's me' and 'tomorrow's me' through fashion. We can express ourselves better through fashion than through our tone of voice or appearance. 

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
I believe it is crucial to practice sustainability and maintain ethics within the community around me. Preserving the skills and status of artisans and paying them a respectful price when collaborating with them is my utmost priority. Their skills must be protected and reinvented by applying new technologies through collaboration with young designers with new ideas. As such, I have been working as a co-director of a small atelier in Seoul, contemplating how to develop and preserve traditional Korean methods with the craftspeople. 

Stills from Kijeong Choi's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Kijeong Choi
Stills from Kijeong Choi's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Kijeong Choi
Stills from Kijeong Choi's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Kijeong Choi

Kijeong Choi

How would you introduce your graduate project? 
How I Perceive an Umbrella is a digital fashion curation project. This project is based on my dissertation paper which was about Cubism and fashion. I was interested in how individuals perceive an object and situation differently, so I decided to narrate how I perceive an umbrella. There are countless rooms in our perceptions, and each room is filled with various previous memories and even regenerated imaginations. Based on this idea, I curated three rooms and filled them with fashion objects.

What first sparked your interest in fashion?
It was when I was a middle school student. My painting class teacher showed us Alexander McQueen’s SS99, and it was a huge shock to me. More than how innovative it was, it was the harmony of the beautiful white dresses, the painting robot, and the model's graceful movement totally took my attention. The teacher wanted to show us that a flat white canvas is not the only way to paint, but I was more obsessed with seeing a model perform on a white stage in a white dress that had been painted randomly by a robot. At that moment, I realised that a fashion designer is a director of lots of elements; cloth, stage, and movement.

What do you hope people take away from your work?
Firstly, I hope my works provides inspiration. Someone once told me that the term 'empathy' was used to explain the feelings of viewers when they look at art. I really love the term, and I hope people are able to feel empathy through my work. Also, I hope people can feel that fashion is limitless and see the relationship between my sculptural pieces and their background. 

A model in a heather-y heath wearing a full look from Anna Deller-Yee's RCA MA graduate collection
Courtesy of Anna Deller-Yee
A model on a rocky beach wearing a full look from Anna Deller-Yee's RCA MA graduate collection
Courtesy of Anna Deller-Yee
A model wearing a full look from Anna Deller-Yee's RCA MA graduate collection
Courtesy of Anna Deller-Yee

Anna Deller-Yee

How would you introduce your graduate project?
My ongoing work The Symphony of Self is a project analysing, reclaiming, manifesting and celebrating strength in fragility and what it means to be a woman through individual/collaborative work and tangible artistic outputs.

For the first ‘Act’ of The Symphony of Self named KAKUSHIBORI (Japanese: “hidden carving”), I collaborated with typographer Nicolas Bernklau to create an interrogation, dialogue, and ultimately a common shape pool from which we both generate designs. This shape pool is rooted in performances I have conducted with my body and objects.

What does ‘fashion’ mean to you?
F
ashion for me is a melting pot of all human sense, where boundaries can blur, morph and clash and reshuffle. Fashion is not just simply what you wear. It’s everything you consume and that surrounds you..

Fashion tastes sweet, sour and peppery. It smells of citrus, cigarette smoke, whisky and of wet asphalt after a heavy summer storm. It feels like needles puncturing the skin and a sticky kiss on the forehead. It sounds like lightning striking a tree and the howling of a train going at full speed approaching from a near distance. It looks like the light shining through the cracks of an eggshell at dawn.

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
I have come to realise that one thing I’d like to see valued and appreciated more (in terms of ethics, identity and ecology) is the human hand/touch. I’d like to see it considered and valued more across all levels of supply chains from how interns and factory workers are treated all the way up to the mere excitement and enjoyment for handcrafted technique. I have come to enjoy and appreciate the slow and tedious process that flows into the creation of something unique, through beading, painting, or hand sewing, for example. I don’t think this can be replaced at all through fast fashion or pixels on a screen.

A model wearing a moulded leather look from Bea Brücker's RCA MA Fashion graduate collection
Courtesy of Bea Brücker
A model wearing a moulded leather look from Bea Brücker's RCA MA Fashion graduate collection
Courtesy of Bea Brücker
A model wearing a moulded leather look from Bea Brücker's RCA MA Fashion graduate collection
Courtesy of Bea Brücker

Bea Brücker

How would you introduce your graduate project? 
My project “Morphogenesis” is then set in a speculative reality characterised by pandemics, social injustice and ecological dead zones. In this world, biohackers and designers band together to use bio-fashion as a political design movement, one that empowers through the creation of tools, brings together diverse communities and liberates them from existing neoliberal economic models. Using mathematically generated patterns and self-bred algae leather, a new design practice is being built that could lead to new ways of making and unleashes new modes of creativity. 

It revolves around the following questions: What could a future look like where we live in partnership with nature instead of exploiting it? How can new technologies and bio-design help us find alternatives to capitalist systems of exploitation and pave the way for new ways of making, working and living together in social communities?

What first sparked your interest in fashion?
Actually, I always wanted to be a painter, fashion never really interested me that much. At some point, I wanted to bring the viewer closer to my art so they could interact with it instead rather than just look at my paintings. So I started painting on clothes and creating very sculptural pieces, putting them on friends and walking around downtown with them. People started discussions about my outfits on the spot. I didn't expect such a big reaction, but I started to look more into the meaning of clothes and designers who use fashion as activism. I think that made me see fashion in a different light for the first time.

How has the past year and a half shaped your understanding of fashion’s purpose?
I see it as my responsibility as a fashion designer to question current power structures and to not only create a more eco-friendly fashion industry, but also a more equitable society and environment. I think that over lockdown, more and more people have asked themselves how much clothing they really need, what value certain items of clothing have for them, and how they are made. Fashion must actively participate in social, ecological and political discourse and empower people to make a difference.

The urgency of the climate catastrophe demands that we find disruptive solutions and build a more ethically, socially and environmentally sustainable system. We can only do this by working together and sharing research and resources. We need to learn to work collaboratively instead of seeing each other as competitors.

Image from Rika Kim's RCA MA FAshion graduate project
Courtesy of Rika Kim
Image from Rika Kim's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Rika Kim
Image from Rika Kim's RCA MA Fashion graduate project
Courtesy of Rika Kim

Rika Kim

How would you introduce your graduate project? 
My collection revolves around how I have embodied my own femininity - which is still undefinable for me. Whenever I’ve heard people say ‘you are feminine’ or ‘you are pretty’, I don’t take it as praise. Rather, it confines me. I felt like I need to act or pretend to be ‘feminine’ or ‘pretty’ to be accepted as a decent woman in society. I don’t want my femininity to be specified in a certain realm. I want to translate my own embodiment of tentacular femininity into a visual language through my collection. 

What first sparked your interest in fashion?
Rei Kawakubo said “I make clothes for a woman who is not swayed by what her husband thinks”. This magical, empowering sentence has encouraged me to be defiant in the face of repressive, stuffy stereotypes of women, and to materialise my own femininity in my designs. 

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
My collection is about visual defiance against the oppressive fixations on femininity. I am into witchcraft, as I believe witchcraft has a strong female-centred ethos -- it shows venomous yet sexy figures of women -- and I believe that my personal concerns can be political. 

In terms of textiles, leather is the key fabric in my collection, and I’ve tried to build my own approach for working with leather sustainably throughout the collection. I aimed to use the whole hide without making any waste. I am really into the savaged, irregular feeling of the marginal parts of the leather and the leftover scraps, and I tried to combine my intrinsic style with this approach. For instance, I personally love animal pattern clothing, so I thought it would be fun to create a fake animal pattern by reconfiguring leather offcuts. It led me to make a mock zebra pattern leather skirt. 

A model wearing a full look from Rachel Wu's RCA MA Fashion Graduate collection
Courtesy of Rachel Wu
A model wearing a full look from Rachel Wu's RCA MA Fashion Graduate collection
Courtesy of Rachel Wu
A model wearing a full look from Rachel Wu's RCA MA Fashion Graduate collection
Courtesy of Rachel Wu

Rachel Wu

How would you introduce your graduate project? 
It’s a reflection of the pandemic year through lockdown and quarantine. The scope of our existing activities have been restricted, and we’ve been thinking about the association of space and human beings. I was touched by Cornelia Parker’s The Maybe -- for me, it conjured feelings and emotions of claustrophobia. Also, when looking at Erwin Wurm’s Urinal, I really resonated with what said about trying to “[make] up bodies and then [start] to demolish them, or deconstruct them, or change forms.” Claustrophobia has encouraged me to break out of it and be a stronger person. Under the influence of human fear, I have done deep research to interpret my inner claustrophobia through yarn to create 3D wearable sculpture. 

What does ‘fashion’ mean to you?
I think fashion is not just what you wear in everyday life -- it can be many different ways of identifying yourself. For me, I used to not be very good at communicating with others, and liked creating my own universe through drawing. Fashion has been a way for me to visualise all aspects of my life, and translate 2D blurs and smudges to 3D. Ultimately, though, neither fashion or art fundamentally expresses who I am and who I want to be. 

You’re graduating at a time when conversations around issues of ecology, identity, and ethics have never been more prominent in fashion. How do you position your work with respect to these conversations?
As a millennial fashion designer, I see myself as a post-modernist observing the extreme simplification of consumerism and the expression of personality. In the current stage of China’s development, aesthetics are increasingly differentiated in line with class distinctions. The upper classes determine the trends, while ordinary consumer groups follow them. The consumption characteristics of post-modernism manifest in a shift towards buying fewer garments and a  focus on the abundant expression of personality through them, which ultimately improves their emotional longevity for the wearer. In my work, I wish to express this through draping, structure, and monochrome colours.

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Royal College of Art
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