Fashion at the Royal College of Art: The World Comes Calling (1968-88)

Royal College of Art

Professor Joanne Brogden steered the Fashion School through two challenging decades, developing international links and navigating technological advances. The introduction of glamorous gala shows put the RCA students on the global map.

The World Comes Calling (1968-88): Professor Joanne Brogden
After taking over from Janey Ironside on her departure in 1968, Joanne Brogden would go on to become the longest-serving Fashion professor (though she did not actually assume that title until the 1970s), steering the School through two decades of economic, technological and aesthetic changes. The Master’s course was reduced from three to two years and the new format required greater discipline and intensity. Brogden also felt the programme on offer should be increasingly industrialised to move away from a ‘boutique’ business model. Ever-closer ties with industry were established, and commercial sponsorship became linked with taught elements of the course. The RCA visited firms to assess their needs and, symbiotically, industry recruited from a pool of College graduates. By the 1980s, the course had an international outlook and had forged links with manufacturers across Europe and beyond: in 1983, students oversaw a collection for Monsoon in New Delhi. As the course’s operations became increasingly costly, the College’s fashion shows were reimagined as a prestigious gala event, with a correspondingly high admission fee.
The World Comes Calling (1968-88): The Students
Under Joanne Brogden’s professorship, students were increasingly snapped up by international fashion houses rather than by the dwindling British ‘rag trade’. Keith Varty (1975), Liz Griffiths (1976), Lynne Burstall (1979) and Elaine Chaloner (1981) all went on to high-profile careers with international houses. Griffiths was to have an enormous influence on Missoni through her experimental approach to knitwear and colour, and Burstall would become design director for Oasis and Coast. Other notable alumni include Stephen King (1972), Clare Dudley Hart (1972), David and Elizabeth Emanuel (both graduated 1977), Anne Storey (1979) and Neil Barrett-Barber (1988).
The World Comes Calling (1968-88): The Place
Most of Joanne Brogden's tenure was spent in the Cromwell Road building, removed from the main Kensington campus. But in 1985, the Fashion School was finally repatriated in the tower block on Kensington Gore, by then known as the Darwin building in honour of the man who had done so much to secure the College’s survival and success. The gala fundraising fashion shows, which were such a key part of Brogden’s tenure, took place in the College’s Gulbenkian Hall, facing the Royal Albert Hall, and later in the College’s main thoroughfare, the Henry Moore Gallery, completed in 1987.

The glamorous gala fashion shows took place in the College's Gulbenkian Hall, facing the Royal Albert Hall.

The World Comes Calling (1968-88): The Time
There was an uncertain period for the RCA against the economic turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s. After the stability of the long Darwin era, a succession of Rectors each held the post for only short-lived tenures. This volatile phase finally came to an end in 1984 with the appointment of publishing magnate Jocelyn Stevens, who nevertheless immediately plunged the RCA into another period of turbulence and re-structuring. But it was also a period of considerable growth for the College as a whole, which included new buildings and an increasingly international outlook. Brogden’s role was in part to capitalise on this, and ensure that the world came calling at the graduate shows: Missoni and MaxMara recruited from the RCA cohort, sometimes even before the shows had taken place. Alan Couldridge, tutor at the College and alumnus of the Ironside years, set up a project office to work on industrial placements and raise funds for the School. This successful enterprise funded the department’s move to computer-aided design and helped send students around the world for experience.

The invitations and catalogues for the annual fashion shows were designed by students from the RCA's own School of Graphic Design. This design includes cards that interlock to form a revolving door.

By 1976, the punk aesthetic was emerging and is evident here in the 'spray paint' design for that year's fashion show invitation.

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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