Illustration by Minnie Leaver
The Oxford Fashion Gala is a collaborative project between Oxford Fashion Society and Industry Magazine, taking place on May 3rd at Freud with the dress code “dress like Anna Wintour is watching.” Ahead of the gala, I interviewed 5 of the 15 designers participating in Oxford University’s first fashion show who, at the time of the interview, were in the initial stages of creating their outfits. Coming from such different backgrounds and in different stages of life – from first year to master’s students – the Oxford Fashion Gala appears to be very diverse, allowing for a great range of creative display and cultural inspiration.
Tara is no stranger to the fashion world – having worked for Grazia magazine writing on Middle Eastern creatives over lockdown, she has been making her own clothes to sell since 2019. Since graduating from Corpus Christi, Tara’s inspiration for her designs is wide-ranging, from small businesses online to the iconic Miu Miu puffer jackets, but she works best on following creative impulses from designs in her mind. Although this is her first fashion show, she is not backing down from a challenge, aspiring to create three outfits which she says are “slightly different from what I usually wear,” and experimenting with black and white prints on calico or canvas fabric. Equipped with a sewing machine and crochet techniques (which she started out perfecting with bracelets at the age of six), Tara’s current designs feature various tops, and shorts with one piece being a vest blazer and skirt combination following sandy, natural tones of beiges, greens, and blues.
“It’s fun to see how I can play with gender in outfits and gender exploration,” says Tara, “I think it’s important to do,” and whilst the outfits can be worn as separate pieces, they ultimately “work together well as a set of three,” taken from her freehand sketches. I discussed the theme of gender exploration further with Tara to find that she is heavily influenced by her friends who “dress more gender neutral,” enjoying putting “stuff together that wouldn’t necessarily go together – odd silhouettes and colours,” no doubt also influenced by her current master’s degree in gender studies at London School of Economics and Political Science. ‘Experimenting’ is the keyword in Tara’s designs and although she “definitely wants to keep designing as a hobby,” she finds the fashion industry very “gatekeep-y” and struggles to see how she could penetrate it career-wise. Many brands have recently incorporated more gender-neutral clothing into their fashion shows such as Lanvin, Valentino and Christian Louboutin. However, they still have a long way to go in diversifying their clothing and even when taking steps to include minority groups, these labels have the advantage of already being recognised worldwide.
Despite doing an art foundation year in 2021 in which he heavily focused on tapestries, the Oxford Fashion Gala marks Lincoln first year Thomas’ first-time making clothes. Inspired by his interest in Black-American quilt artists and various techniques and skills he has honed over time, Thomas is completely self-taught in the world of fashion – using a sewing machine to create his entire design. The piece itself is ambitious; taking inspiration from the Battenberg cake and its significance to the royal family, Thomas is creating a striking skirt made from pink and gold checkerboard quilted squares, adorned with pearls around the waistline, complete with a shirt and lace top over. The top half is anything but an afterthought, as Thomas is a huge fan of lace – “think grandmother’s curtains” -and plans to have it flowing throughout the design.
“Being Black British is definitely important to the design, it influences all my artistic processes”. Whilst Thomas’ piece is “not about race specifically,” it has had an influence as he is considering the idea of using a shirt which has the image of a Black cherub. I was lucky enough to see some of Thomas’ previous designs which showcase his love of bright colours, variety of textures and collage-like designs, reflecting his personal style and avoiding monochrome. As an English student “storytelling and literary inspiration do play a part as I am always trying to have a narrative in mind” says Thomas, as he likes to pair striking and serious silhouettes with more light-hearted and playful features, leaning away from casual looks but using basic items such as t-shirts to create more amplified looks. Thomas has always been interested in fashion, but without someone to teach him, he has found himself holding back at times. The gala is, therefore, “a good way of forcing yourself to take the plunge.” Whilst it has no doubt been a lot of hard work, he is keen to stay involved in the fashion industry in the future – this gala will mark his first clothing showcase and debut as a designer.
Running on creative impulses and spontaneous ideas, first year History and Politics student Jeea is her own muse, creating pieces that she wishes she had in her wardrobe. After labelling herself “a very big feminist,” I discussed Jeea’s exploration of her femininity and its influence on her general style to which she responded, “when I think about women’s rights and feminism, I often find myself comparing it to what men have – but you can’t appreciate femininity if you’re always associating it with men.” Although she admires the jewels and extravagance that come with her Indian heritage, Jeea’s design is not influenced by this. Instead, combining her love of animals and a monochrome Matrix-like feel, Jeea’s design will be a grunge, black and white look with the centrepiece being a butterfly top that wraps around her body.
In the absence of a sewing machine both at Wadham and at home, Jeea is embroidering, hand-stitching and hot glue gunning pieces together, adding to her desire to create a more “frayed, haphazard look,” whilst throwing in some silver metallic and sparkly features. Although she has been sewing for the past 7 years, upon asking whether or not she would like to design at a higher level in the future, Jeea chuckled and said, “I just do this every so often for a bit of a laugh – I’m not a professional, I just dress weirdly,” leading me to ask her if she’d considered a career in comedy. At the gala, we can expect to see a powerful outfit which combines feminine designs with masculine textures such as leather from Jeea, and I eagerly anticipate seeing this butterfly take wing.
St Edmund’s Hall Geographer Rose is going big and bold with her design, which features a foil exoskeleton that she is melding together with a blowtorch and attaching to her dress. “My design is very runway – I’m not sure how practical [it is], but it’s definitely out there!” says the first year. “I have a lot of strong opinions on clothes, so I end up spending rather a lot of time editing things to my exact taste.” When asked whether this distinctive design choice was reflective of her personal style, Rose answered “my personal clothes are more pastel, jewel tones and muted colour, I’m not such a fan of black colours” so we can be sure to say that this outfit will be a striking contrast from what the designer is typically seen in, albeit a welcome one.
From a very young age, Rose has been creative, which she attributes to her mum’s influence. However, in this instance, it was the 1938 Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali ‘Skeleton Dress’ that inspired the centrepiece of the design – along with elements of the 2022 Spring/Summer Maison Schiaparelli collection. The exoskeleton which wraps around the body, focusing on the rib cage, is reminiscent of the corset worn by Dita Von Teese in the Jean Paul Gaultier 2010 Autumn Haute Couture show and remains Rose’s biggest concern for the design – not so much its construction but more so how she intends to take it on and off. Having started experimenting with clothes by making alterations at the age of 14, Rose states that she often finds herself “going down a rabbit hole of Depop and eBay to find the perfect addition to my outfits.” Sewing was initially more of a meditative hobby for Rose, but she could now see herself working in the fashion industry, although and I quote, “you’d need to dedicate a lot of your life trying to break into it and I don’t know if I’m ready to do that yet.”
Inspired by brands such as Maison Margiela, Jon’s design focuses on the processes of upcycling and reconstruction. Although well into his second year as a Chemistry student at Lincoln, Jon studied Fashion and Textiles at A-Level and even considered pursuing fashion at a higher level. Had he not come to Oxford however, we may have never seen this exact creation of Jon’s as it is heavily influenced by Oxford University’s frequent black- and white-tie events. We can expect Jon’s outfit to resemble a tailcoat which has been created from deconstructed charity shop pieces, a favourite of Jon’s as he says, “not only is it cheap but you don’t feel bad buying second-hand clothes.”
His friendships and identity as a queer man have “kind of bled into inspiration for work,” as what started out as occasional edits made to clothes for his friends, turned into Jon perceiving his friends as his muses, one of whom will be modelling the tailcoat at Oxford Fashion Gala which marks Jon’s debut designer showcase. Whilst his entire design is handsewn, Jon has been “playing around” with his design, “taking it apart and putting it back together” and has faced a couple of issues in the process such as the top half of the tailcoat which has been “sitting quite boxy” due to the addition of shoulder pads, so it will be interesting to see just how much Jon’s design has changed from his initial sketches at the gala.
All five designers said that the Oxford Fashion Gala will mark the first public showcase of their clothing and, by following their creative processes up until the day of the gala, it will be intriguing to see what changes to the designs were made, if any. Using such a variety of materials and equipment from sewing machines to blowtorches, Oxford University’s first fashion gala is testing not only the skills, but also the courage of these creatives, as they allow their designs to be scrutinised by the public eye.