An interview with MA fashion graduate, Andrew Bell which took place during his final year at the Royal College of Art.
What do you study and where are you studying?
I’m currently studying an MA in Fashion at the Royal College of Art, specialising in womenswear design. The college is in the heart of London, overlooking Hyde Park and Kensington gardens. It’s the world’s leading post graduate art and design institution, and it is an absolute privilege to study here. The university itself is defined by the Darwin Building; a brutalist block that stands like a stern calculator judging the ornamental surroundings of SW7. Looking back at the original images from the 1960s it also looks like a stack of cardboard egg boxes; graphic, rough, blunt and functional. There is an energy to the space, which is constantly in flux.
How did you come to study there?
It really was by chance that I ended up at the RCA. I moved to London over two years ago and was flitting between freelance design work, permanent job applications and a part-time job in a cafe. Feeling positive and proactive with New Year’s resolutions I decided to attend the RCA open day in January 2017. After chatting with some of the students I was curious as to whether I would even be offered a place. I wasn’t in a financial position to be able to consider taking up the place, and so it wasn’t really something that I overthought at the time. I had briefly researched the potential cost of the MA, and it was miles outside the stratosphere of my financial reach.
A few weeks later I was called for an interview, and halfway through presenting my portfolio the course leader Zowie Broach asked me if I had ever heard of Kildare Village. At first I thought she was going to say that she had relatives living there, but I quickly realised she was talking about Kildare Village Shopping Centre, part of the Value Retail Group. She explained that they were in the final stages of securing a scholarship with Kildare, and asked if I would be interested in applying for it, and of course I said yes! Fast forward 6 months and I received an email from the bursary’s department to say that I had been chosen from the final round of the shortlist, and so I was able to accept my place on the course. I remember re-reading the email multiple times before it finally sank in, it really was one of those life changing moments.
Tell us about your journey to this point – past university courses, internships etc.
Pre-London I lived and studied in Dublin. As a student at the National College of Art and Design I benefited from small class numbers and an excellent education in garment cut and construction. It was a 4 year BA back then, and in my summers I interned in London, undertaking stints at JW Anderson and Antipodium London. Those summers were my first taste of the fashion industry. I particularly remember the summer of the London Olympics, we lived East and the city was buzzing with opportunity and creativity. It was also that really exciting period for emerging British designers like Christopher Kane, Richard Nichol, Jonathan Saunders, Mary Katrantzou and Roksanda Ilincic. We were all interning for these brands and working towards the Spring Summer shows in September.
Within a fortnight of finishing at NCAD, I joined the womenswear design team at Dunnes Stores. It was a total culture shock from what I was used to, and a very different design process to what we engaged with as students at NCAD. With the company I gained my first insight into overseas manufacturing, the relationship between buying and designing and the rigorous processes involved in testing a design before committing to volume manufacture.
Following this experience, I decided that I wanted to work on something more creative; I was ready to return to the hands-on experience of developing my own patterns and cutting my own cloth again. With this focus, I began working on a collaborative fashion and multimedia project with my friend Paul Moran who had graduated from the product design course at NCAD along with videographers Kate Dolan, Philip Blake and sound designer Robert Mirolo. The result was an installation at Steambox Gallery near Thomas Street which was part crowd funded.
I was working in retail at the same time and very much wheeling and dealing to cover the material and production costs. It was ambitious and challenging, but it felt great to materialise something from nothing, and to work with others towards it. My friends and family thought I was crazy. I was always aiming at the impossible; converting the kitchen table into a pattern table and relegating Mum to cooking around me.
After the project I knew I wanted to work outside of Ireland again. I was looking for a design assistant position in Paris or London and started knocking on doors. Then out of the blue I landed the scholarship at the Royal College of Art.
When did your interest in fashion develop?
Looking back I was always making and building things as a kid. I loved lego and Knexx and was obsessed with understanding how things were put together or assembled. This is still something that very much characterises my work today. In my foundation year at NCAD I did a week long area experience in the Fashion Department, and there I had my first introduction to creative pattern cutting. I loved the process of 2D-3D realisation, the skill and knowledge that it demanded and the creativity that it allowed within that understanding.
Pre-NCAD I studied technical graphics at School and loved it, and for years I was sure that I would study architecture at University. However a weeks work experience at a local Architects office felt a little stifling to my teenage self. In comparison with fashion the projects seemed longer and more distant, the process flatter and more digital.
In contrast, fashion offered me the opportunity to realise my designs in a process that was fast-paced and responsive; where ideas and emotions could be materialised rapidly, and with my own two hands. I also loved the raw energy of the fashion studio; there were fabric scraps on the floor and half materialised ideas on every hook, hanger and rail. After that first week at NCAD I was hooked.
You frequently reference architecture when discussing your work. When did your interest in architecture develop and how does it inform your creative process?
Architecture is something that rarely escapes my consciousness. I sometimes experience agoraphobia and so I am hyper in-tune with the nuances of space that surround me. Like fashion, architecture is one of those frameworks or languages that we bend and shape our existence and experiences through and around. I can’t imagine ever not being informed by it in my work. I used to think about the relationship between fashion and architecture in comparative terms; seeing fashion as implicitly concerned with shapes ‘on’ bodies in motion, and architecture being about bodies moving ‘inside’, ‘outside’ and ‘around’ shapes that were static. I’ve since come to realise the narrow scope of this comparison, which is often shared in those cringeworthy mood boards that crop up everywhere from foundation year studios to commercial ‘trend’ reports: Typically featuring a de-contextualised image of a Zaha Hadid building next to an Issey Miyake dress! As I see it, the overlaps between fashion and architecture transcend the material, aesthetic and spacial dimensions of their practices alone. Both disciplines are equally related to the organisation and communication of people and societies.
My BA dissertation explored this overlap, focusing on Elileen Gray’s bedroom boudoir de Monte Carlo, which she presented at the Paris Salon D’Automne (1922). Featuring lacquered wood, rough textured rugs and velum lampshades Grays work rubbed against the grain of the traditional ‘boudoir’ setting; a space that was seen and ‘female’ and typically materialised as ‘light’, ‘bright’ and ‘airy’. Similar to the work of avant grade fashion designers of the time, Gray’s boudoir shattered the gender binaries that gripped not only the materiality but also the social structures that framed 20th century space. The boudoir is also seen as Gray’s bridge towards her later achievements in architecture. The pursuit of which also challenged what was an exclusively patriarchal practice at the time.
Focusing less on the context of Gray’s work and more on the ingenuity of her designs I am currently fixated by the folding brick screens and pivoting drawers that are her legacy. Referencing the ingenuity of single-use products like bin bags and hoover bags alongside that of Eileen Gray’s innovations, my work establishes a new language of luxury that re-evaluates the luxury and the lo-fi. Utilising sonic welding technology my work also departs from traditional tailoring techniques. My MA dissertation titled ‘The elasticity of luxury, luxury in an age of ubiquity’ forms the foundation for this work, which considers the erosion of the traditional hallmarks of luxury in an increasingly digital and de-materialised spectrum of consumption.
In the wake of de-localised labour and consumption, physical retail spaces have become increasingly redundant in favour of warehouses and home delivery systems. This uncoupling of the traditional framework/relationship between materiality, value and space is reflected in the unexpected collapsibility of the clothing I am developing.
This lateral or ‘side-on’ perspective on the contemporary context is also mirrored in the construction of my design, which are cut from side profile. Frustratingly a lot of contemporary fashion resists positive material responses to the demands of globalisation.
Focusing on this grey area Zowie Broach once put it that architecture and fashion need to exchange their value systems. Architecture stepping back from the construction of monolithic structures that resist flexibility and adaptation. And fashion stepping up to the production of clothing that has provenance and lasts; values that have become lost and sidestepped by the fast fashion paradigm.
On research – what or where is your first port of call when it comes to seeking inspiration?
In terms of research and motivation my work is both intuitive and tactile, and is fuelled by an ongoing process of attraction and documentation of everyday design objects I encounter. These objects are typically characterised by mass production and many are single-use in their design, and therefore rendered ‘cheap’ or ‘low grade’ in the contemporary framework of material values. My process considers the ingenuity of these products, such as the collapsible hoover bag or the rubber bath plug. This obsession with the ordinary, the ephemeral and the banal in combination with a desire to evoke beauty, desire and aspiration is the knife-edge on which my process is balanced. I enjoy the tension between these jarring worlds of aesthetic value; the rough and the smooth, the luxurious and the low-grade.
Do you have a favourite building or space? Can you describe it for us?
As opposed to naming one aesthetic beacon or other I am drawn to share my thoughts on visiting Kettles Yard in Cambridge for the first time this year. Cambridge is one of those cities with a pocket sized centre; densely populated with esoteric landmarks and all of the hallmarks of intellect and architectural filigree that you would expect. Kettle’s Yard lies on the edge if this pocket square, and was the former home of Artists Jim and Helen Ede. The space is made up of three adjoining cottages that the Ede’s purchased 1956, and the house and its contents remain completely preserved as the couple left them 1976.
The interior reflects the couples uniquely curated lifestyle, with works by Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson sitting side-by-side with their own. Complimented by collected furniture by unknown craftspeople, found objects, carved stones, plants and even fruit. From the creaky floorboards to the hand painted patterns on the irregularly glazed windows, the place heaves and sighs with evidence of life.
There is a simplicity to the space that is refreshing, and yet it is far from naive. Before moving to Cambridge Ede had chalked up 15 years worth of experience as a curator at the Tate Britain. With Kettle’s Yard the Ede’s broke from the formality of the narrative-driven gallery format, cultivating dialogue between people, material and space. Original thank you letters from visitors can be seen in the adjoining gallery building, to which Jim responded ‘Do come in as often as you like – the place is only alive when used’.
Even today visitors are invited to sit on the seats and sofas and wander through the space at their own leisure. The space also completely free of annotations or signage. There is a humble tone to the layout that is rare in the art and design world, I think this is what draws me to it most. Every aspect of the space is rendered with the opportunity of appreciation. For the light switches Ede replaced the plastic covers with plate glass, making visible the wiring and the rough hewn out plaster that is normally hidden. This re-evaluation of the banal captures the essence of Kettles Yard; a reminder to look for depth and beauty in even the most ordinary and overlooked of places.
Lookbook Photography: Philip White
Studio Photography: Concrete Collar