Body Politic

A recent project set by Robert Sollis of Europa and Fraser Muggeridge saw the second year BA Graphic Design students at Camberwell College of Arts create garments using a graphic design methodology, with seriously impressive and thought-provoking results...

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Primary-coloured plastic lettering on a garment by Gene Kulkosa. Photograph by Thomas Adank.

Whichever creative field you happen to work in, it can be both challenging and intimidating to step outside of your comfort zone and engage with an unfamiliar medium. However, as many who have made the leap will tell you, doing so can often bring about unexpected, thought-provoking and original results, and encourage you to consider your own practice in a completely different way. Second year students on Camberwell College of Art’s BA Graphic Design course gained some first-hand experience of that process this autumn, with a fashion-focused project set for them by Robert Sollis of Europa and Fraser Muggeridge that prompted an accomplished and diverse range of responses, and also resulted in a sell-out fashion show.

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On the catwalk at the Mock-Up fashion show.

Sollis and Muggeridge work together each year to develop a project for the second year students, and enjoy using these as an opportunity to explore a variety of different mediums; previous projects include creating GIFs based on the archive of Radio 4’s In Our Time programme; designing a single record cover for two different musical genres at the same time; and creating repeat patterns with which to wallpaper their temporary studio space. This year, the group were set the task of making an item of clothing using a graphic design methodology, and then to plan and hold a group fashion show. “We wanted the project to be about identity,” Sollis explains. “We were interested in how individuals are in control of shaping their own identity by changing the way that they dress. Clothing is our own personal interface with society. Clothes are signs, and whilst we may not be able to choose the signs that surround us in public, we are able to choose what we wear, and we can use this as a space to comment on the world that we live in.”

“Fraser and I had been talking about asking the students to design clothes for some time,” he continues, “but it wasn’t until Fraser suggested that we have a fashion show that the idea started to make sense. The show gave the project a focus and I like to find public applications for the work that we ask the students to do.” In order to put the fashion show together, the year group was split into small teams to tackle everything from hair and makeup to set and sound design, creating an identity and campaign for the show, and filming a trailer.

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The resulting show, titled Mock-Up, was held on 9 November and was a resounding success, with over 300 people attending and over fifty items of clothing on display. The garments themselves explore a remarkably diverse range of ideas and themes, with many of the students using the project as an opportunity to express a deeply personal and political point of view. Sollis was understandably impressed: “The voices that came through in the work were so strong,” he tells us. “From a garment that talked about the privatisation of the NHS to another which expressed how it is to live as a muslim woman in London – the students are so confident and articulate in what they want to say. In the past I have set projects which directly ask for a political response, and we have had to work quite hard to break down what it can mean to be political as an individual, but this project really took off from a very different starting point.”

For the creation of the clothes themselves, the students' challenge was twofold: to conceive and articulate an idea in garment form, and to navigate the complexities of structure and construction posed by working with textiles in three dimensions. “Working conceptually with fabric was the biggest eye-opener for me on this project,” explains student Harry Ross-Masson, whose garment made a satirical commentary on the privatisation of the NHS. “I have screen-printed my designs on to T-shirts in the past, using clothing as the canvas on which to display my work. However, actually taking a piece of fabric and using it as the medium to convey a particular message was a new technique for me, and one that I believe will inform my practice in the future.”

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Harry Ross-Masson's garments on the catwalk.

Organising the entire operation was no mean feat, as student and general coordinator Iso Newman tells us: “The hardest part was always going to be making sure 55 people in our class were fulfilled. Collaborating as a year group does come as a big challenge. I overcame it by trying to listen to everyone as much as possible. Collaborating always pays off, but it's a hard task. The key thing I've learnt is to back off, and let the people take control of what they're good at. Our course has a vast set of skills, and tapping into what everyone enjoys doing and does so well was the trick to the collaboration and the success of the show.”

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Garment design by Adela Campbell, who explains "“I decided to focus on online shopping, and the imperative and commanding language that is used to persuade us to buy more. I wanted my garment to communicate this idea very clearly, so I thought removing these slogans from their context and printing them on to the garment in a minimal fashion would give a direct and effective message…At the same time this also objectifies the human body, making it a product itself.” Photograph by Thomas Adank.

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A morphsuit designed by Charles Calvey using scans of his own face. Photograph by Thomas Adank.

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Tanguy Bertocchi's garments, featuring illustrated factory imagery. Photograph by Thomas Adank.

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Beatriz Moura's interactive emoji-based clothing. “I wanted to create a language to allow people to understand what they are feeling in the precise moment that they decide to get dressed,” she explains. “I chose to do so by using emojis, but through the use of this universal language, the concept became corrupted. The garment began to reflect the distance between real feelings and these images which are designed to demonstrate how we feel – a distraction of effective communication.” Photograph by Thomas Adank.

The experience of working on Mock-Up has had a tangible impact upon the way in which many of the students think about their own practice as graphic designers – something Sollis and Muggeridge were keen to encourage from the start. “I’m a believer in developing a working methodology which is transferrable between disciplines,” Sollis explains. “That’s not to say I don’t believe strongly in the craft of a discipline – for example I run a strict typeface design course alongside this one – but it can be surprising when a practitioner jumps from one discipline to another, as there is the increased potential for them to bring something new across in the process.”

For the students themselves, the project has also emphasised the value of developing skills not normally associated with graphic design. “Knowing about more than just printmaking and Adobe software has become quite a concern for me as a creative and graphic practitioner,” Gene Kulkosa tells us. “I think it is great for us to experiment with different processes and mediums; to bring 2D to life by giving it shape and volume,” says Adela Campbell. “It adds another way of seeing and executing an idea. Since this project I have now actually begun to use fabric in my own creative processes and I expect to continue this practice in the future.”

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Myrthe Pieniakowski's garment, created from baggage tickets collected from people in an airport. Photograph by Thomas Adank.

Having held a very successful fashion show, the students have now turned their attention to the ways in which they can translate their three-dimensional designs back into two-dimensional form. “Since the show, we’ve had the photographer Thomas Adank in to work with the students on photographing their work,” Sollis tells us. “As graphic designers, many of us are used to spending the majority of our time working in fairly flat mediums. So now, with these 3D garments, we are having some really interesting conversations about the ways in which we can turn these back into flat photographic sequences, and how we can create photographs which really activate the ideas and the narrative within the garments. To conclude the project, students will then be compiling this photographic material into their own lookbooks – bringing the project full circle back into a more classic graphic design medium.”  

Striking the right balance between discipline-specific craft and interdisciplinary practice is a key challenge within design education, and projects such as Mock-Up offer an invaluable opportunity for students to experiment and develop as designers—we're seriously impressed with the results, and it's clear that the project has prompted the students to think differently about what it means to be a graphic designer. We'll leave the last word to student Beatriz Moura, whose comment on her own experience of the project sums this up beautifully. “Fundamentally we are all developing our way of interpreting the world around us,” she says. “I don’t think we should stop playing with different mediums because they don’t come with the ‘graphic design’ label. Challenging yourself in new territories may not only have an impact on your normal practice, but may also open new worlds of potential progress. After this project, I no longer follow the preconceived idea that a graphic designer should only design typefaces or dedicate their life to branding, when there are endless possibilities within the role of the graphic designer.”