Leaving the Nest: A Brief History of the Royal Academy’s Graduation Show
As the end of yet another school year approaches, creations of various fashion students from different academies are to hit the runway. Right in the heart of Antwerp, you can find one of the world’s most forward-looking fashion departments, about to send the newest generation of graduates out into the wide world. Follow along as we explore how the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts managed to transform their annual intimate fashion presentations into highly anticipated and monumental fashion shows.
[Somewhere] In the MoMu archive, there is a black and white 8 mm film showing demurely dressed young women - some giggling self-consciously - clutching sketches of their outfits as they walk between four rows of loosely arranged seats. This was the Academy graduation show of 1967, only the second show since the inception of the department, in which music came from a gramophone record and polite, poppy garments were interspersed with costume designs and theatrical scenarios.[…]The evening show was in the refectory, conducted in the style of the old Parisian haute couture salons, with models running and presenting their number (or drawing of the silhouette) to the jury. Half a century later, and the same annual event has turned into a high-fashion behemoth - close on four hours of silhouettes worn by professional models are seen by an audience, headed by an international jury of top fashion designers, talent spotters and journalists.
Underneath this ever-changing appearance, the graduation show has always been an integral part of the students’ education. As their designs come to life on the catwalk, they are able to reflect on their work, but gradually this reflection has extended itself to the show as a whole, and to the profiling of the students as they are introduced to the international fashion industry.
At its inception in 1966 the Academy’s fashion department defined itself as a supplier of ”stylists” to the commercial Belgian garment industry. This intention was reflected in rather intimate presentations wherein appropriate, well-made garments - mostly unstyled and worn by fellow students and friends - were the sole focus. Students showed their work to a small audience of family, friends, and a select group of local industry representatives.
At the dawn of the 1980’s the Academy experienced a pressure to change its course from the inside out. Inspired by designers like Mugler and Gaultier - whose elaborately styled shows and unique designs left a lasting impression on the industry - students fought for the right to have more creative agency. It was the class of 1981 who first obtained this right, and the successful international careers some of its students built up in wake of their avant-garde graduation shows not only inspired their successors, but also changed the students’ job expectations. The Academy soon followed suit on this path of innovation.
As a result of the increased interest by press and public alike, the graduation show permanently closed the Academy’s doors behind itself in 1985, moving to the much more spacious Handelsbeurs. Simultaneously, the students’ ambitions became grander and more international. Newly appointed head of department Linda Loppa encouraged these ambitions by introducing an international jury, and finally allowed the organisation of separate shows for the fashion and costume design courses. Geert Bruloot, show choreographer since 1985, remarks how this generation of students distinguished themselves from their predecessors:
When I see now the fashion shows of the Six when they graduated and I see what people like An Vandevorst or Jurgi Persoons did, some years later, there is a huge difference of maturity
Eventually, these heydays of spectacle had to come to an end as well. In recent days, the student’s maturity has only increased, as Master students prefer to produce experimental collections in their third year, exchanging them for an unprecedented professionalism and focus on personality in their final collection. Although many designers turn to social media and live-streaming, the Academy still chooses to remain loyal to its heritage, with a show that is now considered by students as their calling card; it is their one chance to present themselves to an industry where “young fashion designers need almost instant succes” (qtd. Bruloot).
In much the same way as its students experiment, discover their talents and afterwards launch themselves into the fashion world, the Academy has over the years pushed its own boundaries in order to adapt itself to a changing student body and industry, and will continue to do so in the future - a future well-worth waiting for.