Zowie Broach on the RCA’s Graduate Show and Gazing Beyond the Runway

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LONDON — Zowie Broach is cofounder of the avant-garde label Boudicca and head of the fashion MA program at London’s Royal College of Art, the only pure postgraduate art and design university in the world, and alma mater of designers including Ossie Clark, Erdem Moralioglu, Christopher Bailey and Sophia Webster.

Like most of her peers, Broach and other principals at the Royal College had to think quickly — and creatively — about how to showcase graduates’ final projects and get their work under the noses of headhunters, brand managers and other industry professionals in the age of lockdown and social distancing.

Instead of filming the final shows or focusing on the runway, the college came up with the idea of a macro site, where fashion students could strut their creative stuff and showcase their ideas alongside other postgraduate candidates in subjects such as architecture, industrial, graphic and product design, textiles, curation and the fine arts. It is the first time in the RCA’s history that the graduates’ shows will take place entirely online.

Broach also took the opportunity to invite creative movers such as Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Gursky, Edward Enninful, Viktoria Modesta, Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl to curate the students’ work in fashion and across disciplines. The student projects and curated elements will appear on the RCA 2020 site, a “digital discovery” platform that opens to the public on Thursday.

Here, Broach, who oversees 51 fashion students in the two-year program, talks about the creative opportunities that lockdown has generated, the constant cross-fertilization of ideas at the Royal College and the power of collaboration and community in fashion and design.

WWD: Talk to me about the site, and how the Royal College came up with the idea.

Zowie Broach: The college had to move very fast. There was no time to gather thoughts and reflect. The college is responsible for 800 young designers, so it was done at speed — but not without debate around the removal of “the physical,” and all the uncertainties that would bring. The site is quite clean, efficient — and powerful. Visitors can tag and search by words like “femininity,” “sustainability,” or “gender,” so you may come across three fine artists and one fashion student in the journey. It is absolutely what the school should always have offered, and shows what technology can do, in a nanosecond. I think it’s going to have lots of ripples: If someone from a fashion label comes to me, I can just take them to the site, where they’ll have a snapshot of the young designers, their Instagram or their web site. The students will be able to build networks of people and solid connections at a time when we are unsure of what the next five years holds for all of us.

WWD: You’ve invited curators in, and given them freedom to look at fashion as well as the RCA’s other graduate work, too. Why?

Z.B.: This is an opportunity for me to show fashion in a design school, surrounded by all these other disciplines, practices and processes. I love that someone who might look at fashion could also see a common thread, or an answer to a bigger question in innovation, design or engineering.

WWD: What sort of guidance did you give your 51 fashion students, who’d normally be preparing their final year runway shows, about what to create for the web site?

Z.B.: You need to edit and curate, and I think these students have an instinct about what is right for them. What’s really important is never wanting to tell everything to the person you meet the first time. You want to hold back. But [your audience] also has to love you, and you have to find that thing that draws them in. Then you can tell more stories. But you’ve got to know what defines you, what your identity is. It’s the hardest thing to do, to be focused, edited, curated and to show your strengths rather than your weaknesses. I tell them that people need to be drawn into their narrative, their story and that they need to make [their message] very clear.

Equally, so many of these students are not trying to “join” the industry, they’re trying to change the industry and so I think they have to make sure that their question, demand or potential innovation is very identifiable — but also accessible. It can’t feel intimidating, or be hard to understand.

WWD: Did the unconventional format, and having to produce new work quickly, rattle your students at all? 

Z.B.: Fashion has always had these deadlines. Traditionally, there was a twice-a-year deadline — and it forces you to have output. It’s not like they can say, “Oh, I’ll do another album in five years.” I think that restriction is positive more than negative. We’ve had this kind of restriction and now, out of necessity, has come something that I feel is incredibly positive.

WWD: What sort of work have the students come up with?

Z.B.: Some of them made films, some made animations. Obviously, they had a body of work that was created in lockdown, and a lot of them taught themselves digital skills in the meantime. As they’ve slowly come out of lockdown in the last few weeks, they’ve begun to shoot pictures, too. Some of them are much more about process, without a final proposition. And it’s important [for brands and the industry] to see the process of a young designer, and what that can potentially weave into a company, how they drape and how their brains work.

WWD: You have long encouraged your students to think of “fashion outside of fashion,” and to look beyond the runway and the showroom when they design. What’s been the result of that?

Z.B.: To me, fashion is about much more than just a product, it is this very important social barometer. It can be political and it can be functional. You have to look at Nike based on the fact that, ultimately, the products are designed for sports people, yet they’ve become a part of our identity and design.

Right now, as we emerge from these last four months, we must not assume we are OK. We have to use every muscle in our body to understand we are still getting things deeply wrong on all sorts of levels. Going forward, I want to ask: “Who are you designing for? Do you really, truly understand that person?” So much also comes from students, and they can help you learn, too.

I also think we need to be more nonhierarchical in our creative worlds and understand that potential propositions are a rhythm, that we work in communities, and remember that fashion has always been about collaboration. Within the world of jazz, the musicians have a great trust of each other, bring great people together and they know what they’re doing, but it’s not like [one person is] controlling it. One person might play a bigger role and they might move back, and you come forward. This is not just within fashion, it’s also within the RCA as a whole. I think “team” is an important word going forward. It has to be.

WWD: How are your students thinking beyond the runway?

Z.B.: People look to fashion for beauty, emotionality and function, but I don’t think we’re necessarily using all of our skills the way we should. So some students have been working with their body, with their situation. One has made jumpers [sweaters] for builders, based on where their bodies overheat during the day. The idea is that clothes can protect, but can also look cool. There is the potential of using, in 2020, our knowledge around materiality, its science and what it can do. Right now, it’s not being used. What are we going to do when we move forward? I think fashion has a great energy, a great tenacity and it’s time for us to realize how we can step up and be part of, not just the fantasy, but the expression — although there is still a need for the magical.

WWD: What is the advantage to studying alongside students in other creative programs?

Z.B.: If I look at the tree in the field, what do I see? As a scientist? A biologist? A fashion designer? We all look at it differently. We look at the form, or the texture, the nano level or the quantum level. And I think this is so intriguing about our times, these new ways of working together and colliding our thinking. And I also think good fashion designers don’t look at fashion. They absorb the world around them.

We ran a project for around four weeks, with 400 students across design, textiles, fashion, innovation design, engineering, intelligent mobility and global innovation design. The students looked at the same project, but in a different way. They use different creative languages, but they’re all using Rhino [software for 3-D modeling] and very similar pieces of software. They listened and learned from each other.

WWD: What are your plans for the students going forward? Will there be any physical element to their presentations?

Z.B.: The college has put some money aside, and what that has allowed me to do is make a “sumo” magazine, about 70 or 80 centimeters by 60 centimeters, so it becomes a big time capsule of these guys’ work. I’m going to make maybe 50 of them and was thinking of sending them out internationally, to Shanghai, Sweden and Spain. I’ll look at where all my students live. Next February, where we would normally do a work-in-progress , the magazine will be a way to bring people into a physical space. I will collect all the assets, all the things in between — all the funny moments — as well as their work. I’m aiming for February. This was my instinct, and I’m really happy we’re doing it.

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