Dare to think beyond the familiar – fashion design with teenagers

When teaching in the art room it is often surprising how hard you have to push pupils to get them to think creatively and challenge them to get them to go a step further than the familiar or their initial idea.  There are of course various issues that contribute to their cautious approach.  The pupils’ age, peer group pressure, the comfort and security provided by a familiar approach all play a part.  The whole general structure of an educational system that encourages pupils to think that there is often only a single way to be ‘right’ and an ‘interesting failure’ isn’t valued in many other areas other than in the art room.

All these sorts of thoughts occur to me often enough when working with the children that I teach who are all aged between the ages of 12 and 16.  But perhaps there is one assignment that I hand out once a year to the oldest groups that I teach that underlines the conservative artistic approaches more than most.  It is a fashion design assignment.  I should stress at the start that it is a ‘design’ assignment and not a ‘make’ assignment.  We have neither the time or the facilities to actually attempt to make the outfits that the pupils dream up.  In some ways this is a shame, but it does mean that the final assignment is only ever result in a drawing. This in turn means that the pupils can let their imagination run wild, their design is not ever going to be limited by their (or mine) abilities with a sewing machine!

I’ll be setting this assignment in motion again this week and I’ll be leaning heavily on the work of two designers who don’t necessarily let the practicalities of wearing of their creations be a limiting factor. Most of the pupils are aware, at least to a degree, of the catwalk shows from the various fashion week shows around the world.  They may, from time to time, have seen images of one or two ‘over the top’ designs.  However, asking them to push their imagination into these areas of creativity is very much the challenge.

The assignment that a colleague reworked last year to draw on the work of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen fits very much into these sorts of intentions and we will be making use of here creative process again.  Added to this will be photographs that I have made this week whilst visiting the Kunsthal in Rotterdam to see the exhibition by Thierry Mugler.   It was a very theatrical experience to visit the show.  Video projections met you as you entered the space and each separate room was referred to as an ‘Act’.  Some designs were stylish and elegant evening wear, but others were extraordinary for their exuberance strangely retro qualities. Bodices modelled on classic American automobile styling, sometimes complete with wing mirrors.  A series of ‘fembot’ cladding with their roots seemingly in the sci-fi cinema of the 1920s and 30s.  And finally, one outfit that was constructed with an array of exhaust pipes with clear motorcycle references.

I’m left with two thoughts.  Are these the designs to tempt my teenage designers to push the creative boat out, and are Mugler and van Herpen’s designs the ones to tempt the boys away from choosing the parallel running architect design assignment instead?