Fashion: Declaring genius at Leeds College of Art graduate show

Moore, Hepworth, Hirst (and Leigh Francis) all studied there. Celebrating its 170th anniversary, Leeds College of Art has pioneered the development of Britain's creative arts. Stephanie Smith went to its graduate fashion show and found its bold spirit still very much alive and kicking.
Wool design focusing on traditional artisan techniques, by Leeds College of Art fashion graduate Amy Garth.Wool design focusing on traditional artisan techniques, by Leeds College of Art fashion graduate Amy Garth.
Wool design focusing on traditional artisan techniques, by Leeds College of Art fashion graduate Amy Garth.

As a furnace for the forging of world-renowned artists, Leeds College of Art burns fierce and bright. Former students include Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Damien Hirst, so its reputation speaks for itself.

Today, 170 years after it was founded, the college continues to seek out and nurture students with the strongest artistic potential, from art and sculpture to fashion design and communication, from Britain and across the world. One of just a few independent art schools in the UK, it offers degrees, masters and further education courses to students who want to grow in a creative atmosphere centred around a small, close-knit community. Last year, one league table of higher education institutions named it the top independent art college in the UK.

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Leeds School of Art, as it was first called, was created in 1846 by the merger of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute (which offered drawing classes) with the Literary Institute. In 1903, it moved to its present Vernon Street premises, its radical design reflecting the clean lines of the Art & Craft movement. In the 1940s, new departments were developed, including furniture, graphic design and printmaking, and a new pottery and workshops were built.

Historical referencing seen in the childrenswear designs of Tyler Kendrick.Historical referencing seen in the childrenswear designs of Tyler Kendrick.
Historical referencing seen in the childrenswear designs of Tyler Kendrick.

The 1950s to the 1970s saw a reappraisal of art education in Britain, based on ideas developed at Leeds, where artists set up the Basic Design Course, with students encouraged to adopt a scientific approach.

The impressive and eclectic roll-call of alumni includes: John Cecil Stephenson, pioneer of Modernism, there 1908-14; in 1907-13, Jacob Kramer, one of the first Expressionist artists and a central figure of the Leeds Art Movement; 1919-1921, Henry Moore; 1920-21, Barbara Hepworth; 1934-37, Kenneth Armitage, sculptor; 1949-1950, Frankie Vaughan, entertainer; 1960, actor Bob Peck, student and teacher; 1968-69, George Brecht, conceptual artist and avant-garde composer, teacher; 1968-69, Tony Scott, film director; 1979-1980, Kabir Hussain, sculptor; 1983-84, Clio Barnard, The Selfish Giant director who won critical acclaim and awards for her debut, The Arbor, about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar; 1983-84, Damien Hirst; 1989-93, Leigh Francis, comedian, actor, writer (and Keith Lemon); 1998-99, Omar Kashoura, menswear designer and senior designer at Vivienne Westwood.

Last month, fashion degree graduates presented their final work in an impressive show at the Corn Exchange – and demonstrated that the college continues to be at the forefront of creativity and design innovation.

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Harriett McHugh was shortlisted for this year’s Graduate Fashion Week Sustainability Award with her collection of outerwear for men and women created from discarded music festival tents. She aims, she says, “to fix rather than to throw away, to create covetable, unique pieces from waste materials that have multi-functional elements and durable construction methods. The use of residual items, in this case, reclaimed tents, has informed colour, pattern, silhouette, detail and functionality through a capsule range of uni-gender outerwear and accessories”.

Presenting an all-white capsule collection which also blurs gender, Tiar Johnston says: “My design ethos responds to the prediction that one day, men and women will share wardrobes.” Samantha Fenwick, meanwhile, says: “By both respecting, and breaking, the traditional rules of tailoring… my garments invoke a sense of empowerment by the wearer.”

Explaining her beautiful collection featuring floating silk teamed with high-necked bodices, Sofia Latif, says: “My work focuses on breaking down barriers of narrow beauty ideals, exploring notions of confinement and emergence… portrayed by the metamorphosis of the butterfly from the cocoon, taking a painterly approach from the hand-painting of silk.”

The greatest gasps and cheers of the night were drawn by the childrenswear collection, designed by Tyler Kendrick and modelled by the cutest, most enthusiastic troop of little models ever to grace the Corn Exchange catwalk. Drawing from history for silhouette and detailing, Tyler already has a business creating one-off, made-to-measure pieces for children.

A night of outstanding talent and inspiration from all. Remember where you saw them first.

Twitter: @yorkshirefashQ