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University of Westminster's 2011 Fashion Graduates: Layering the Meanings of Confidence

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When it comes to revealing budding fashion talent, June is undoubtedly the kindest month. In many universities across the world, numerous graduates strive to finish collections and look books, and anxiously wait while their aptitudes are judged by academic examiners and professional designers or examined on runways by journalists and buyers.

If you follow World Man About Town, you must have noticed that we try hard to be unfalteringly inquisitive about fashion in all its guises. As such, when we received a kind invitation to the runway show for the 2011 graduates of the fashion course at the University of Westminster, we were honoured and delighted to accept. And so, on a windy and rainy London afternoon, we made our way to the cavernous and impressive Ambika P3 space (in the Marylebone campus of the University of Westminster) eager to find out more, alongside many other fashion journalists, buyers and designers representing brands such as Max Mara, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Burberry, and Selfridges.

Normally excluded from the list of 'top fashion schools' (generated by questionable criteria and information sources), the Fashion Design course at the University of Westminster has produced individual and creative designers capable of working within all levels of the fashion industry. Its alumni list includes designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Christopher Bailey, Michael Herz, Stuart Vevers, and Markus Lupfer.

The location of the University in central London allows for students to work during London Fashion Week with major designers. Over the years, students have honed their skills during fashion week for designers and brands such as Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh, Giles, Jonathan Saunders, Burberry, Christopher Kane, Mulberry, Todd Lynn, and Peter Jensen. In addition, many of this year's graduates have already had enviable work experience in the form of international internships with companies such as Christian Dior and Chanel in Paris and Marc Jacobs and American Vogue in New York.

This year, a number of graduates from the fashion course were selected by a panel of judges (that comprised Angela Buttolph from Grazia magazine, and fashion designers Markus Lupfer, Todd Lynn and Carrie Mundane) to show their collections on a runway show. As expected from talents yet to mature, this revealed many final designs hindered by a focus on experimentation that could have been avoided with stricter guidance from tutors. Amidst the graduation cohort, however, there were students who resolved this predicament very successfully and showed tremendous potential as they mastered the processes of influence, trialling, and creativity, thus completing a full circle in their fashion education. This evolving method was also evident in the student portfolios that went on public display after the show for a few days, a very welcome step for press and buyers wanting to find out more.

In menswear, Molly McCutcheon stood out with her confident summer collection seemingly inspired by Mediterranean seaside holidays, as well as oriental imagery and sartorial techniques. McCutcheon chose to work on challenging white fabrics of different textures and use pleating and layering as well as seductive paint-drip effects (evoking McQueen or Van Noten) to create an extremely pleasing collection and the only menswear range on the runway that appealed to World Man About Town.

In many ways similar to McCutcheon, Rachel Warmisham's womenswear collection showed the influence of the Far East in free-flowing trousers and long skirts and dresses adorned with drips of paint. If McCutcheon chose to display her painting effects in pastel variations layered in a sort of ombré effect, Warmisham's variations of colour were skilfully executed in cubist-like structures that deconstructed the shapes and functions of garments in a very successful and fluid manner.

Other young designers, such as Kate Wallis and Liam Freeman, seemed to take the mantra 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' rather literally and playfully. Wallis's collection, with a nod to recent designs by Miuccia Prada, was clearly aimed at a confident and brazen woman: feathers and furs abounded in elegant contrasts to large sequins and daring shapes such as accentuated cowl necks, angular shoulders and hot pants.

Equally displaying the inspiration and pastiche values of sartorial influences (in this case, by Montana and Mugler in the 1980s and by contemporary Stephane Rolland), Liam Freeman opted for a palette of black and blue to give shape to strong outerwear garments essentially made of leather and thick wool.

Catarina Holm's elegant shapes stood out in the way that they were supported by stylish hats and by woven belts that serpented elegantly through dresses and tops made up of layered fabrics. Holm's garments were conceived with the idea of movement restrained by the garment in mind, a notion that was also mirrored in the triumphant opposition of shades of orange and black. With such talent in evidence, it did not come as a surprise that Holm's collection became shortlisted for the British Fashion Council/Warehouse design competition.

Ross Whittred also orchestrated a very strong collection that mastered artificial fabrics used to craft garments with a flattering quality to benefit the female body. This was a collection that showed an appreciation for minimalism and, influenced by architecture, explored the potential of three-dimensional shapes to accentuate bodily curves in a sensual way. The fact that Whittred explored a comprehensive range of garments, including trousers, jackets, skirts and dresses, showed that this was the work of a confident young designer very much aware of sticking to his initial brief and commanding it, instead of letting experimentation take its potentially negative toll.

And finally, Emma Kingham's collection displayed how investigating the history of fashion and art can be allied to design experimentation to create a mature collection. Inspired by the 1920s and 30s and Art Deco architecture and design, Kingham applied geometric shapes to pattern cutting and fabric printing to engender an elegant range of dresses, tunics, leggings, shoes and sunglasses.

As the runway show ended, it became clear that the most accomplished graduates were those that used their first couple of years to experiment but that, under careful thinking and mentoring, toned down their experimentation to focus on detailing and mastering influences and originality. If this may be interpreted as an acquiescence of commercialism, it actually shows that, when it comes to fashion education, focusing on quality and wearability is perhaps the best lesson.

World Man About Town