Rory Longdon by Rachel Wilkinson

The best fashion tugs at your memories yet possesses something you have not seen before. It offers a heady mix of the nostalgic and the new. In Rory Longdon’s designs I see images of the future and a memory of strength. It’s a specific sort of strength, one I first saw at Prada’s A/W09 show. The thigh-high waders were summed up in my mind by Tim Blanks’ utterance: ‘gladiatorial.’

These were powerful warrior women attired in boiled wool dresses with sequin detail. When Longdon’s women stalked the Graduate Fashion Week catwalk in June 2011, they declared themselves of the same tribe, the same blood. In their futuristic black dresses with silver trims, they evoked a potent image of female strength.

For his vision and technical ability, Rory Longdon picked up the George Gold Award at Graduate Fashion Week. On the same night Wonjee Chung scooped the Stuart Peters Visionary Knitwear Award. Both are Nottingham Trent University knitwear graduates and together they shone a light on design talent in the Midlands. We’re pleased to feature them alongside two fellow equally talented Trent graduates, Kristabel Plummer and Gemma Cooper.

Knitwear demands that designers make both the fabric for their garment and the garment itself. It offers freedom in the form of a challenge, one that Longdon, Chung, Plummer and Cooper have each more than risen to. There is a sensitivity in the way they discuss their creations. It is poetic. Some have openly shared their dreams whilst others have let us in on their personal obsessions. With starting points ranging from time travel to transhumanism (I’ll leave Longdon to explain the latter), these four graduates have produced very different, yet equally striking collections, as the illustrations and photos commissioned for this series will show.

With London Fashion Week just gone, I am reminded of a criticism British fashion graduates often face: they lack business acumen. I don’t buy this. These graduates are smart. Chung demonstrates the commercial awareness and professionalism that they share: “We have to know exactly which point can be changed in the knitting and make-up process, as sometimes a small design modification can cause a big price difference.”

Perhaps it is because the course at Trent is unique in allowing its students to focus solely on fashion knitwear from the first week of term. Maybe it is due to the year in industry that each of them took. Longdon even went as far afield as Hong Kong, later sourcing the trims for his garments from an area he used to visit weekly in his role as an Assistant Junior Designer.

Talking to these graduates, I get a sense they felt they had much to prove. Cooper perhaps summed it up best when she told me, “We don’t see knitwear as just a big woolly jumper anymore. I think my year were determined to demonstrate diversity and show all the different things you can create as a knitwear designer.” If that was their ambition, they have more than achieved it.

Rory Longdon

Volt Café: First of all, congratulations on winning the George Gold Award! How are you feeling four months on from Graduate Fashion Week?

Rory Longdon: It has finally sunk in now. It has been great to hear such lovely feedback about my collection and I really appreciate everyone’s kind words.

VC: The Awards panel praised your ‘bold, yet simple’ collection. What was the inspiration behind it?

RL: My inspiration evolved from research of the topic Transhumanism, a scientific movement that involves the alteration of the human body by enhancing capabilities through the utilisation of technology. I began looking at X-ray photographs of the insides of electronic devices, which heavily influenced my black and silver palette and fabrication. The whole collection was designed to portray futuristic warrior women. I used armour-like fabrics, contrasting matt and shine finishes, with zips and buckles to give a tough edge to a wearable, luxurious knitwear collection.

VC: Until I spoke to you, I had never heard of Transhumanism – your collection introduced me to a new concept. What power do you think fashion holds to inform and provoke its audience?

RL:  Fashion has the power to educate and inspire on so many different levels. Whether it’s reading – as you did – about what has influenced someone’s work, hearing the music used in a show, seeing the technique to apply a sequin or the way an outfit is composed, subconsciously we’re always absorbing something from fashion.

VC: When people look at your knitwear, do you feel it’s important for them to understand the concepts behind your work?

RL: Not at all. The concepts behind my work are really there just for me to draw on – they are needed to inspire the knitwear I create, but I want people to enjoy my work for its aesthetics.

VC: There is a confidence and cohesion to your designs that evokes Christopher Kane’s collections – it’s like you’ve been working at a professional and commercial level for years. What is your design process?

RL: My process always starts with thorough research; I like to take time trawl to through reference books to find inspiring images and writings. The mood usually develops from this and in turn that often ignites ideas for fabrication. I then like to select my yarns and begin working on fabrics until I have a large collection of different samples from which I can select and delete as I feel appropriate. Then I spend time sketching and working with the fabrics on a stand and continue developing my ideas from there.

VC: “Feeling lost is part of the creative process – you can’t achieve anything good without getting lost in ideas first.” Would you agree? If you get lost in the design process, how do you find your way out?

RL: Couldn’t agree more. There was a significant point in developing my collection where things weren’t feeling right and I became very confused. I dealt with this by stepping back, returning to my research and spending days just sketching and developing new fabrics. When I felt comfortable with the direction my new development was going in, I returned to my collection to retune what I had and work on the next stage.

VC: What are your aspirations beyond your MA Fashion Womenswear at the RCA?

RL: Over the summer things have changed… I have been offered a job in Italy which I’m going to take, so my RCA place has been deferred for one year and I will see if I want to return in a year’s time. My aspirations beyond the course were to eventually work in Italy; it’s always been a dream, so now that I have been offered the chance, I’m going to take it while I can.

VC: Congratulations! Can you tell me anything about your new job? How will you fulfill your Italian dream whilst you’re out there?

RL: Thank you, I’m so excited about it! Unfortunately I can’t tell you who I’m working for, but I can tell you I will be working as a women’s knitwear designer for a highly respected Italian fashion house. I’m looking forward to great food, style and coffee!

Rory Longdon by Rachel Wilkinson

Wonjee Chung, tights American Apparel

Wonjee Chung

Volt Café: Well done for winning the Stuart Peters Visionary Knitwear Award! What impact has the win had on you since Graduate Fashion Week?

Wonjee Chung: It has affected me a lot. Before, the many talented people in this country intimidated me. The award has blown away my worries and helped my confidence, because established knitwear designers gave me such positive attention. It’s still difficult to see where the right place for me is though; I guess overseas students will understand this feeling better. But feeling closer to my secret dream is definitely as much of a reward as the prize. I really appreciate the support from GFW and Stuart Peters.

VC: Your collection had a sharp, graphic appeal. What were you thinking about when you designed it?

WC: My inspiration stems from the regret and dissatisfaction in life that has dragged me down many times. We choose one thing in life and give up many opportunities. Some regrets remain inside us from wrong or irresistible choices. A lot of us live in the past and it makes the present blue. Fashion comforts me and gives me the strength to overcome the past by creating powerful images.

My garments explore potentiality and how we can enhance this to unleash freedom in life. The collection’s title, ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’, is the first step towards this idea. Travelling to a parallel universe enables people to be mobile and customise their own life; I see clothes as devices to boost people’s minds. In my collection, time machines become a power suit that allows you to travel to a parallel universe.

VC: It sounds like you drew on many ideas whilst developing your collection. Was it a challenge to narrow these down for your final designs?

WC: Yes, it was a difficult process, but I enjoyed it very much. Six outfits are not enough to illustrate the whole story I had in my mind and I had to give up many ideas. Those decisions were painful but it was a thrilling process at the same time.

Sometimes I feel more comfortable with the visual language of design than the verbal language we speak with. I had final designs in my head, but it took time for them to materialise. It was more difficult to explain my conceptual theme verbally than it was to make the collection. Some people did not understand my theme and were even sceptical of it and my designs. It made me feel alone and insecure about my beliefs sometimes.

VC: Which powerful fashion images do you have in mind when you design? Are there particular photographers, stylists and designers whose aesthetics influence your work?

WC: I am a huge graphics fan, perhaps more interested in graphics than fashion. My ideal image is not really fashionable; it is more like a comics character or illustration. I like scientific, unrealistic and supernatural stories with monsters, ghosts, robots, humanoids and psychics.

I created my own story for my graduate collection. It’s based on research and studies into the fields of escapism, neurology, socialism and psychology; I like related studies, movies, animations, novels and documentary films. I love the bold and creative approaches in films from the 60’s and 80’s, such as those in ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Alien’. Since I can remember, I have read numerable Japanese graphics and animations. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ gave great visual inspiration for the collection. Scientific studies gave me a more realistic base, such as ‘Parallel Universe’ by Michio Kaku.

I use fashion to materialise these concepts in the real world. I believe these subjects best reveal human desire through science. For example, there was news about a successful experiment with an invisibility cloak, so soon it will not only be in Harry Potter. People may not want to wear it but it could be used in designs to hide fat hips! I strongly believe those days will come and science will drive them. I would like to join this movement. From this point of view, I love Hussein Chalayan’s robotic garments, Issey Miyake’s transforming dresses and Rei Kawakubo’s postmodern style and Gareth Pugh’s futuristic aesthetic.

VC: You talk of your secret dream – can I ask what this is?

WC: My collection was about a wearable time machine, so wearable technology. Some people use technology within clothes as an accessory whilst others use it to computerise clothes; my idea is closer to the latter one. I don’t know how practical it is, I merely have a strong belief that garments could become the ultimate device in human life. It is an idea of advanced smart clothes or a power suit, like Batman’s one, within a modern art movement. It should be more fashionable, wearable and enjoyable. Wouldn’t it be cool if people could wear an advanced machine designed by Prada, manufactured by Honda and with a blockbuster movie to advertise it? I want to prepare for that moment and meet people who have similar thoughts as mine. Maybe it is too wild. Many of my friends think that I am joking. I feel embarrassed to talk about it sometimes, however, I am really serious about it.

Kristabel Plummer, body chain TopShop, necklace Urban Outfitters

Kristabel Plummer

Volt Café: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind your collection?

Kristabel Plummer: With my collection, ‘Archive Assembly’, I wanted to explore the idea of collections, the way multiple objects relate to each other and the different sources they originate from. I took my colour inspiration from the eclectic palette seen at car boot sales. I wanted to get across this obsession, the sheer scale of amassed objects and how unexpected elements are united together.

I am fascinated by the way people share photos and content online, creating their own personal space full of elements picked from elsewhere and taken from their original context. I looked at how things can be physically stored and noticed linear themes within bookcases, which I then translated into knitted textures and garment shapes.

Each piece is meant to be a collection in itself, yet somehow relate to the next through colour, shape and technique. I fused contrasting yarns together by plaiting, creating pockets within the fabric to conceal and reveal the patterns that lay beneath. I used the theory of my collection to inspire its construction; by knitting pieces individually and joining them together with linked trims, I created garments that, when worn, are transformed from flat angular shapes.

VC: I love how you describe each piece as a collection in itself. Do you have a favourite piece from the collection?

KP: It’s quite difficult to choose as each piece is the result of challenges I had to face and ideas I brought together. I really like the asymmetric shoulder pocket dress as I referenced a Japanese pattern cutting technique and wasn’t sure how it would turn out. I’m also very proud of the stitch structure in the slightly chunkier jumper dress, achieved by tucking various groups of stitches on the domestic machine and changing colour. Although time-consuming, I love how each pattern is different and how the colours blur into each other.

VC: Your inspiration groups together a number of things that I have never thought share similarities. Were you surprised or taken aback by the starting points of any of your peers on the course?

KP: It’s always interesting to view a collection with no expectations or knowledge of the particular concept and to form your own assumptions. I was intrigued by Wonjee Chung’s collection and why she chose to use certain materials in a particular way.

VC: What are your personal obsessions?

KP: I have always loved collecting things. I began saving postcards as a child and now it can be anything, from useless things such as old travel cards and exhibition tickets, to books, jewellery and clothing. Ever since I started visiting flea markets at home in London and during travels to New York and Paris, I have been interested in how assorted items can be arranged in an artful way. It may seem like clutter to some but I love the mix of colour, texture and structure.

VC: How would you describe your design journey?

KP: I wouldn’t say it was a particularly linear process, as I was working on several elements simultaneously before knowing how everything would fit together. My concept was always clear but it took some time to figure out how to best realise it and most of the decisions I made were spontaneous.

VC: What do you think has contributed to the course’s strength this year?

KP: I think it is down to the individuals themselves, the experience they’ve gained through previous projects or placements and the technical skills they’ve developed. Everyone has worked hard to produce something meaningful and relevant to them, using stitches and structure to express this. The garments are unique because people have created inspiring fabrics and pushed the properties of knit, whilst never forgetting that at the end of the day their garments are meant to be worn and need to be practical.

VC: What you just said reminds me of when Alexander McQueen said, “For me, what I do is an artistic expression which is channeled through me. Fashion is just the medium.” Where do you draw the line between fashion and art?

KP: I think that most designer fashion can be considered art and each collection can be seen as part of a bigger story. There’s a reason why catwalk collections can differ from what is later seen in stores – a great show presents a complete concept within the music, styling and order of each outfit. I think that Viktor and Rolf and Hussein Chalayan are perfect examples of this. Some of their past work has caused me to think and question things in the same way I would viewing displays in a gallery.

Kristabel Plummer by Rachel Wilkinson

Gemma Cooper, sunglasses TopShop

Gemma Cooper

Volt Café: What was the inspiration behind your graduate collection, ‘Clocks, Baroque and Lady Frocks’?

Gemma Cooper: My thoughts began with a quote I found: “Love is not a clock. You cannot take it apart just to see what makes it tick, and even if you could, you could probably never get it back together again.” Well, my great uncle used to do the exact opposite – he loved to fix broken clocks. It was his passion. He is now 86 years old and has a massive clock collection; this is where most of my ideas came from.

Baroque paintings informed my strong colour palette. My garments are feminine and have quite a romantic feel. Not only do my garments use cord that I knitted myself, some are also embellished with actual clock dials I knitted into them. One of my dresses has over 300 clocks knitted into the top of the dress!

VC: That’s a beautifully poetic starting point. What did your great uncle make of your collection?

GC: My uncle Len really liked it. I think he loved the idea that his old hobby inspired my whole collection. He admired how I tried to reuse the clock pieces in my own way. He has spent years adding to his clock collection, so I think it put a smile on his face to know that his years of collecting went to good use! I know he was pleased to see me taking an interest in what he treasures so much.

VC: How long did it take to knit all those pieces into your dress? Was it difficult to source that many clocks?

GC: The one with the most clock faces took me about four days to plan and knit. It was quite intricate so I found it difficult to do. Whilst my uncle’s collection was good for me to draw inspiration from and provided the clock parts for my initial ideas, the trouble I faced was that I seriously underestimated the number of clock faces I would need for my designs and the techniques I wanted to use.

I started by collecting the clock parts as my uncle used to by going to car boot sales and charity shops, but this proved to be quite expensive and time consuming. It was also hard to find many clock faces of a similar size. I figured that to gather the amount I needed, and find ones that were of a similar shape and size, I would have to go to a wholesaler. After finding a guy who understood exactly what I was looking for, I bought them in bulk from him. It was a lot easier that way and more cost effective.

VC: Your collection must have involved much intricate work and patience. Were there ever times you wished you’d opted for a different design direction?

GC: Yeah definitely, in fact that was probably one of the most testing parts of my collection. It was a big learning curve for me. For the fringing and tassels, I used cording that I had knitted myself and it was quite challenging trying to fix the ends of the cord without it fraying much. It’s funny how some mistakes can be a blessing in disguise though. After seeing the effect that the fraying cord had on my dresses, I decided I quite liked how it gave them a romantic fragility.

To limit the fraying I had to knot the end of every cord I used on my garments. As you can imagine, it was somewhat time consuming because I used the cord in every garment! The knotting was a temporary solution. In most of my garments the fringing is really long and it was frustrating trying to prevent the cords from fraying and getting tangled together, especially on the catwalk and on location for photo shoots.

Even though it was challenging for me I wouldn’t have changed my collection for the world. I stayed true to the original idea and myself. My collection was everything that I wanted it to be.

VC: What do you most enjoy about working with knitwear as a medium?

GC: I love the idea of making every element of your garment; when designing knitwear you don’t only have to create a garment but the material too! I feel this gives you more freedom as a designer. I also like the challenges that knitting threw at me. I like experimenting with trying to make knitwear do things that it doesn’t normally do. It’s fun playing around with stitches, colour and techniques. There is so much you can do. It’s an amazing specialism to get into.

Words by Julia O’Doherty
Illustrations by Rachel Wilkinson
Photographer Natasha Mann
Stylist Sarah Felicity Bell
Make Up Louise O’Neill
Assistant Rebecca Ruby Jackson
Models Kimberly Ann, Helena @ Select


alexander mcqueen, Christopher Kane, Gareth Pugh, Gemma Cooper, Honda, Hussein Chalayan, Kristabel Plummer, Michio Kaku, Nottingham Trent University, Prada, Rei Kawakubo, Rory Longdon, Viktor and Rolf, Wonjee Chung,