Fashion Report: Youth, Beauty and Politics at a Student Fashion Show in London

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Fashion Report: Youth, Beauty and Politics at a Student Fashion Show in London

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LONDON — As Britain headed to the polls on Thursday to vote in the general election, fashion industry stalwarts crammed into a Shoreditch warehouse on the eve of London Fashion Week Men’s. They had gathered to watch 48 students from the Royal College of Art present their final Master of Arts collections, which reflected a tense political moment.

Unlike the professional designers who will show their wares here in the next few days, the students were unfettered by commercial concerns. And so the clothes on display were, for the most part, less than practical.

The dramatic opening women’s wear presentation, by Zahra Sooty Hosseini, featured turbans and all-black gowns in draped technical fabrics gathered around a central figure, whose structured dress folds later fanned out as a mat on which models could congregate while going through the motions of the Islamic call to prayer.

The work of Louis Patric Alderson-Bythell suggested an ethereal meditation on alternative realities, with its futuristic skirts that undulated in rigid material hybrids. Ellie Rousseau, a men’s wear designer specializing in knitwear, offered up oversize retro streetwear staples emblazoned with emoji and current affairs slogans: to wit, the word “Manchester” next to a sad-face graphic.

All in all, it was a three-hour extravaganza of catwalk shows, performances, music and installations. The buoyant mood seemed a source of delight to the college’s firecracker head of fashion, Zowie Broach. Founder of the progressive British fashion house Boudicca, she took on the role in 2014 after teaching stints at a number of other fashion schools, including Parsons in New York and the London College of Fashion.

“It is fitting that this show is taking place right at the very moment when the U.K. decides on its future government,” Ms. Broach said last week from her airy office at the Royal College of Art’s South Kensington campus.

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On the other side of vaulted floor-to-ceiling glass walls, students could be seen ironing feverishly and making last-minute touches to their ensembles ahead of the final show.

“From the moment I arrived here, I made it clear that I want these students to feel equipped to ask urgent questions,” Ms. Broach added. “They need to feel a sense of ownership over their own cultures. They are the future, after all. It is my job is to make them feel empowered and confident enough to have strong, distinctive points of view.”

The arrival of Ms. Broach has resulted in an elevated profile for the Royal College of Art, a London art and design school that has arguably played second fiddle to Central Saint Martins in recent years when it comes to fashion. Despite having starry fashion alumni like Erdem, Christopher Bailey of Burberry and Clare Waight Keller of Givenchy, its reputation was largely bolstered on providing students with a mastery of the technical disciplines required of a designer, rather than as a conceptual launchpad visionaries. Ms. Broach appears on a mission to turn that on its head.

“All the schools are wonderful,” she said. “But perhaps historically we have been a little too quiet about just how wonderful we are. Lots of people inside the industry know that, of course. But we want those outside to know that, too.”

Aside from ramping up publicity and recruitment campaigns, another change has been a move away from the catwalk as the sole platform of choice for the final showcase. Ms. Broach tested alternatives with her first class of graduates from the two-year master’s program last year.

“I want students to feel able to show off their ideas in brave new ways,” she said.

Thirteen students chose installations over runway presentations, including Abbie Stirrup, whose high-energy models frolicked in the nude, save for a drizzling of a neon bonding agent, to the sounds of a didgeridoo. Jing Tan presented playful men’s wear millinery that included a giant apple unpacked to form a oversize red beret.

Certainly, while many students had serious ideas to convey through their designs, others kept proceedings euphorically light — see the space pandas, sports luxe and ’80s spandex of Xintong Wang, or brightly colored metallic jumpsuits, accessorized with flying fortune cookies, from Jennifer Koch.

Just hours before a British election, the overriding message as the students took a celebratory finale bow was one of optimism. The kids, it would seem, are all right.

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