Fashion at the Royal College of Art: Own Labels and Household Names (1989-98)

Royal College of Art

Under Professor John Miles, a new era of individual expression arose, resulting in extraordinary early success for visionary students, including Philip Treacy, Christopher Bailey and Julien Macdonald

Own Labels and Household Names: Professor John Miles (1989-98)
Textiles designer John Miles was appointed in 1989 as the first joint Professor of Textiles and Fashion by Rector Jocelyn Stevens when Joanne Brogden retired. At the time of Miles’s appointment, the work of the Fashion School had been received with decreasing enthusiasm and press criticism of the apparently ‘safe’ designs and preponderance of projects with British companies. Stevens’s plan to amalgamate Fashion and Textiles at the College was intended to encourage an interdependence already evident in the fashion business, and allow a more holistic approach to emerging technologies, such as intelligent fabrics. Under Miles, individual expression was nurtured and a new emphasis on personal research and unique approaches gained traction against the more levelling demands of industry. In an echo of the 1960s enthusiasm for boutiques, the College produced a new wave of ‘own label’ designers. By the end of the decade the merger remained an unhappy marriage, and the two courses were again separated. The Miles era has important legacies, however, including the establishment of pathways to specialise in footwear and accessories, and a household-name list of alumni, including Philip Treacy, Julien Macdonald and Christopher Bailey.
Own Labels and Household Names (1989-98): The Students
During a period in which the Fashion programme was trying to work out the future of its relationship with industry, and with sponsorship being withdrawn in straitened times, the quality and success level of graduates was remarkable. Alan Couldridge’s new millinery course scored an immediate hit with Philip Treacy’s audacious and exuberant final show (1990). On graduation, Christopher Bailey (1994) moved to Donna Karan and Tom Ford, before becoming CEO of Burberry. Julien Macdonald was taken under mentor Isabella Blow’s wing to become one of the more successful own-label launches of the period, along with Brian Kirkby, who would go on to form Boudicca with Zowie Broach (later appointed head of Fashion at the College). Important alumni from the period also include Justin Oh (1990), Jane Whitfield (1994) and Lou Dalton (1998).
Own Labels and Household Names (1989-98): The Place
The merger of Fashion and Textiles at the College was intended to allow better sharing of space and equipment, but it was a short-lived arrangement. The Gala fashion shows, meanwhile, found new London backdrops away from the College, including the Roundhouse in Camden (where Julien Macdonald's graduate show took place in 1996), the Banqueting House in Whitehall and the Porchester Centre in Bayswater.
Own Labels and Household Names (1989-98): The Time
John Miles had been greatly influenced by the success of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano from Central Saint Martins, and wanted to recruit students who might set up their own high-profile businesses rather than simply be absorbed into commerce. The enthusiasm for star names extended even to the visiting lecturer programme, with Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen among the many who delivered standing-room-only lectures or led oversubscribed special projects. By the late 1980s, the globalisation of fashion was complete and international travel was essential to the industry. For the College, this meant that it was firmly on the radar of major American designers, who would fly in to recruit young talent. The computer revolution began to take hold and for a time the School produced graduate portfolios in the short-lived CD-ROM format (pictured).

This Fashion Show programme includes a cloth label stitched with fluorescent thread to form the College crest.

Explore more of the history of Fashion at the Royal College of Art:

1948-56: Paris, Kensington
1956-68: Swinging London
1968-88: The World Comes Calling
1989-98: Own Labels and Household Names
1998- : Time for Reality

Find out more about Special Collections at the Royal College of Art

Credits: Story

Text and selection:
Neil Parkinson, Archives & Collections Manager, Royal College of Art
Royal College of Art Special Collections

Project assistant:
Sara Jamshidi
Special thanks:
Nick Frayling, Henrietta Goodden, Virginia Ironside, Cathy Johns, Octavia Reeve, Simon Taylor
Cohen, Lisa, ‘Velvet is Very Important’, in: All We Know: Three Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012).
Frayling, Christopher, The Royal College of Art: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Art and Design (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1987).
Handley, Susannah. ‘Home Furnishers, Fashion Makers and Image Creators’, in: Christopher Frayling and Clare Catterall (eds.) Design of the Times: One Hundred Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Richard Dennis Publications/Royal College of Art, 1996).
McDowell, Colin, ‘Material Differences at the RCA’, in Octavia Reeve (ed.), The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Royal College of Art, 2012).

Credits: All media
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