Q&A: University of Westminster BA 2021 - Fashion Film Directors

by SHOWstudio on 2 June 2021

Showcasing their most important collections to date, the University of Westminster BA fashion design students turned to fashion film and a documentary in place of the annual runway show. We spoke to two of the film directors, and course leader Rosie Wallin and senior lecturer Robert Leach, to find out more.

Showcasing their most important collections to date, the University of Westminster BA fashion design students turned to fashion film and a documentary in place of the annual runway show. We spoke to two of the film directors, and course leader Rosie Wallin and senior lecturer Robert Leach, to find out more.

Utopia / Dystopia - Director Younji Ku

Video and sound artist Younji Ku presents Utopia / Dystopia, a short film showcasing the work of 12 graduating designers in a domestic mise-en-scène. We spoke with Ku about the serendipity of making mistakes, filmmaking as a stream of consciousness and how Utopia / Dystopia echoes the repetitiveness of lockdown.

SHOWstudio: How would you describe your style of filmmaking?

Younji Ku: It's like following a stream of consciousness. In the process of creating something, the most joyous moments for me are letting small accidental thoughts and events be part of the work, like random thoughts that occurred in my head, things I saw and heard in the background, some technical glitches…Ultimately I think there is a reason why these things appeal to me at that right moment, so it feels somewhat genuine to adopt those.

SS: How did you interpret the theme for your film, and how is this reflected in the outcome?

YK: I was given the theme of Utopia/Dystopia. I decided to interpret it very freely and add a smaller theme of repetition, which is one of the ideas/methods that I have been obsessed with for a long time. Reflecting on the lockdown time we lived in, repetitiveness could be interpreted as dystopian but then I wanted to also deliver a utopian element of it. As if a carpet has countless repetitive patterns only to break the patterns and create contrasted highlights to eventually finalise the whole picture. So the film is a bit like what the fuck are you trying to say, but then I like it that way so viewers take their own interpretation.

SS: How did you manage the responsibility of showcasing the graduate designers' collections?

YK: I consciously made an effort to show every look as much as possible in the film. Given the concept of the film showing mostly wide shots (because I decided not to use any close up shots of the garments) it wasn’t smooth and I'm not sure if I succeeded, but I was conscious of it. 

SS: What was the biggest challenge you came across working on this project?

YK: Directing six models all at once on set was definitely challenging and exciting. I had not done it before, especially with very limited time at the studio. I initially asked for 12 models - that would’ve been crazy but really interesting.

SS: What was your favourite piece of clothing featured in the film?

YK: The look in the vacuum cleaning scene. I love the colours and how it looked on the model Dillon.

The beautiful thing about doing a film is it's controllable in a way that live events aren't - Rosie Wallin

The University of Westminster BA fashion design course leader Rosie Wallin directed the third film Soft Focus, featuring nine designers. We found out more from Wallin alongside senior lecturer Robert Leach, about the decision to showcase this year's graduates' work using fashion film, planning a fashion showcase in a pandemic, and why the university is a leading innovator.

SHOWstudio: Rosie, how did you interpret the theme of Soft Focus for your film, and how is this reflected in the outcome?

Rosie Wallin: With the other two shoots, they were going to be in a studio and very sort of clean and quite modern, so I wanted to go in the other direction with mine. I was looking at photographers like Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville and Francesca Woodman. I was looking at that kind of grainy, quite saturated colour, but almost sort of old-fashioned filmmaking. I'm a massive film fanatic. Creating a mood was the most important thing to me. I didn't want it to be too pretty, but I wanted it to be more feminine [than the other films], but a different kind of feminine.

SS: How did you approach creating your film?

RW: For me, the most important thing was to have a really good director of photography (Ciro Canida in this case). If you've got a shared vision, and if you've got somebody who understands what you're looking for, then that's half the game.

SS: Tell us about the three themes; Modernist, Utopia/Dystopia & Soft Focus

Robert Leach: Rosie and I formed three abstract ideas, which became more developed over time, especially as we saw more of the students’ work and they naturally fit into three areas with three different artistic visions.

RW: I saw it as almost like an editorial in a fashion magazine, where you would have three different shoots. I thought, why can't we have three different films? One that was very futuristic, which was utopian, dystopian...it could almost be sci-fi. Younji Ku was a shoe-in for that, because that’s what she does. I was thinking about films like Under The Skin (2013), which has Scarlett Johansson in it, and she plays an alien who eats men. Such a weird film. For Modernist I was thinking, we should have a black and white shoot that's much more architectural, very minimal and clean. Then Soft Focus was originally called 'Romantic', but I thought 'Soft Focus' was a bit better because it's more about the kind of graininess of it. I wanted it to be a bit like an opium den, you know, sort of beautiful, but with a slightly darker edge.

RL: The overarching rationale of all of this, is that we didn't want people to get bored. We didn't want to show all the students in one film. I think three visually very different, arresting vehicles felt better. We've said to the students that it might not be exactly what you would do, but treat it as an editorial and one of many platforms. If you don't like it, do your own thing as well.

SS: Why did you choose the medium of fashion film to showcase the students' work?

RL: We realised that we had to make contingency for the fact there may not be a show. Rosie and I opened that conversation quite early on and we both felt that fashion film was the way forward for us.

RW: Having worked with SHOWstudio quite a bit I was very aware of how visionary Nick Knight was in promoting film as a medium for fashion. I'd worked with Riana Casson, who was our producer before at SHOWstudio, and I started talking to her as soon as I took over as course leader in 2020 about what might happen the next year.

We also asked them [the students], we involved them all the way through in the decision-making process because we didn't want to impose something on them. Of course, [at first] everybody wanted a show, but...that's a big gamble. We wouldn't know for sure whether it would be able to take place, whether there would be an audience, how limited the show would be. A show was much more of an unknown quantity, whereas with film, it's much more controllable. We weren't going to be victim to whatever the government had decided that week. Also...with a film, all of them can be in it unlike the show, where only half of the students are selected, so it's completely democratic. The beautiful thing about doing a film is it's controllable in a way that live events aren't.

RL: The students will [always] lead us in a way, you know, we're not dictators. I didn't want to see students bitterly disappointed when we could avoid it. It was also about doing something a bit more forward-thinking and different.

RW: The University of Westminster is an innovator...change is part of the DNA. It also feels like it's time now for a fashion reset, where we actually really think about what fashion is now because the world has changed due to COVID-19. We can't just keep going on the way we were, we have to do things differently. Film is one of those things, but it's not the only thing.

RL: Fashion is about change. If you're in fashion and sort of resenting change, it's a bit of a weird dichotomy.

RW: Fashion can be a bit conservative, ironically, and a bit resistant to things being done differently. One of the really lovely things about Westminster is that that's not the way, everyone is up for having a go at trying something else.

Fashion is about change. If you're in fashion and sort of resenting change, it's a bit of a weird dichotomy - Robert Leach

SS: What was the biggest challenge for both of you?

RW: Ooh, that’s a good question! The main challenge was to just getting them to see it as all of us together, rather than us and them, to get them on board. This year, the message is that we're all in it together. We said that from the very beginning, we're all struggling and we're all trying to make the best thing. We can all pull each other down with bickering, or we can push each other up by pulling together.

RL: It was kind of like doing three shows, [instead of one]. It's a lot more work for us. Of course, there is all that logistical, governmental kind of pandemic related stuff; restrictions of space and distancing, COVID testing, quarantining staff. But creatively, less so.

RW: The main challenge for the year was how to teach fashion during COVID!

RL: We’ve all literally had to learn new jobs!

RW: We've had to make a whole archive of films about how to make stuff. None of us had a summer holiday last year; we built content and organised all these films for the whole summer, and so when we came back in September, the first, second and final years all had filmed content that would reinforce what they were learning online. I've got this little saying, which is that I never want to just solve a problem, I always want to create an opportunity. It's super cheesy, but it means you kill two birds with one stone. You're not just solving the immediate problem, but you're also you've got your eye on the future.

One thing that I would say that has been the silver lining of it all is that funnily enough, students can sometimes when they're in a studio setting get quite distracted by other people's work. Whereas because they've been in their own little cocoons, in some ways they've been more creative.

RL: They’ve built their own creative worlds, their own design languages. It’s been kind of healthy in an unhealthy way. There's something about the confidence that they've gained.

RW: Both of us were on such a high after the week of shooting the films, both of us enjoyed it so much. The most important thing I would say about this year is that they are such a lovely bunch of people. Really mature, lovely people who have been an absolute pleasure to work with. I think there might have been a bit of argy-bargy, but nothing major, there's no massive fashion divas or anything.

Still from 'Modernist', photograph Matt Moran

Film director and editor Adrian-Florin Ardelean was tasked with documenting the graduating designers' creative processes. He told us about pulling together this mammoth undertaking.

SHOWstudio: How would you describe your style of filmmaking?

Adrian-Florin Ardelean: My approach to filmmaking itself in directorial style is truly based on collaboration, it’s every person who participates in the filmmaking process with me, because I value inclusivity, I like to hear from everyone about what they feel regarding the story they’re trying to tell. It’s my interpretation of it, but it’s kind of like an audience review; if we the creators, the filmmakers, do not take joy in the story that we’re capturing, then how will the viewers? It’s trying to capture as much realism as possible, even though in our industry realism is always going to be perceived as more pompous than the actual reality. It’s trying to capture things as authentically as possible and to tell authentic stories.

SS: What appealed to you about working on such a big project with students?

AFA: First of all, it’s studying through a pandemic. That was the main thing, how do you do a degree in a pandemic [without the final graduate catwalk show]. Suddenly you’ve taken that away, you’ve taken away the main goal that these students thrive towards, away. I wanted to explore what motivates them.

SS: How did you approach the project?

AFA: Because of the lockdowns and because the students have moved abroad, the main challenge was how do you capture their creative process, when I can’t go to them? I can’t be there to film thirty people throughout this whole period. The first thing was to put together a document on what I wanted, then the students captured themselves - because everyone has a very powerful camera in their pocket, which is their phone. I know it’s a style of filmmaking that has been overused in the pandemic, but these are the tools we’ve been given, and we’re going to work with them.

The first brief was for the students to record their surroundings, their rooms or studios, to give us an insight into their lives. And then I did a whole week of 20-minute informal interviews with each student to ask about their concept and their understanding of the concept. I’ve never met these people and I wanted to get a bit of excitement from them, and for them to tell me their concept and their creative process and the problems that they’re facing at the moment, the problems they faced at the beginning, and what they’re looking forward to. That was what was beautiful - the process. I didn’t shy away from asking the students, when was the last time they cried? It’s these sort of little elements that show us a much bigger journey.

Then at the end of each interview, I asked them to show me their room, take me with them on their day, them going to the seamstress. They were my eyes and ears. It's a very universal language, it’s the Instagram and the TikTok culture - that was my approach basically.

SS: How did you manage this responsibility of showcasing the graduate designers’ collections?

AFA: What I wanted to highlight in this film, is that even though there are different styles and different concepts [amongst the students], there will always be a similar sort of process. If you don’t have this problem, you’ll have the other. I think 75% of people were complaining about not being able to source fabric properly. Then you go into another issue, like not being able to see a seamstress or have a fitting model, and you see how people overcame collective challenges. I wanted to highlight something relatable. The creative process can be repeated, no matter the art you’re creating. It’s a journey, and I’m curious about how students and teachers adapted.

SS: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

AFA: Not having enough time is always the problem, but also with this project, not getting enough content from some people. It’s very hard to micromanage everyone. The more material and samples you give me, the more I can make a beautiful piece. The main challenge, because this could have been an hour-long documentary, is how do you showcase thirty-one different stories?

SS: What were you looking for when cutting the film down?

AFA: It is the same sort of feeling as digging through vinyls. Looking for the next thing to sync, to create that amazing mix. That’s how I see it. You don’t know what you’re going to find. It’s quite exciting because then I have to use my knowledge in editing.

SS: Did you manage to include all of the students' in the final film?

AFA: Some people didn’t manage or want to have the interview or didn’t want to be filmed, but we tried to include as many people as possible. Because of my post-production background, I approached the project with the mindset that I’ve got everything I need, I just gotta find the pieces to put them together.

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