Denim on the catwalk is no longer a rarity but if you spot something particularly innovative – say, Hannah Jinkins’ staple-to-fit denim concoctions or Per Götesson’s outsized silhouettes – they may well be born out of the ongoing partnership between London’s prestigious Royal College of Art and Japanese mill Kaihara. Instigated by UK-based denim guru Mohsin Sajid of Endrime, the tie-up is now in its sixth year.
Zowie Broach, RCA’s head of fashion, describes denim as the ‘fabric of memories’, and one of the fashion world’s common denominators, meaning it’s a material worth investing in for the next generation of designers. “Like the backpack, the sneaker and the smartphone, we see denim as woven into people’s identity – so it won’t disappear. The fabric itself is iconic, and second year MA students who’ve received Kaihara sponsorships have gone on to create their very own denim icons – unique expressions that celebrate their differences as designers. Thanks to people like Mohsin Sajid, they’re able to create and innovate fashion for tomorrow using denim from one of the best mills in the world,” says Broach, adding that the next step is to work on the future levels of sustainability that denim must now attain.
During the first semester of each academic year, Broach, Sajid and Kaihara’s Irene Lo invite students to apply for the sponsorship by presenting a proposal detailing how they’d like to work with the fabric. So what is the selection-process criterion? “Picking only a few designers each year is incredibly difficult as a dozen very talented students usually apply for the sponsorship,” says Sajid. “We always make sure to select students with very different creative expressions. If we go for one with more of a workwear-based approach, the second student has to be about something completely different,” explains Sajid.
This year, Tiscar Espada from Spain and Chinese Yimeng Yu have been picked to break denim boundaries, with a broad selection of Kaihara fabrics at their disposal. We’re not at liberty to reveal details about the pieces currently taking shape in the RCA fashion studio, but in terms of aesthetic direction, Sajid describes Yimeng’s work as an elevated, super sophisticated take on tailoring, while Espada’s pushes more of a workwear-inspired look– but in an entirely novel way. “These students are fashion designers, not denim-heads, and that’s the point of the exercise – you can create anything using denim, and the RCA talent really push the limits,” observes Sajid.
The pool of specialist knowledge made available to students within this famed fashion college is broad. Aside from the weekly one-to-one “denim surgery” sessions held with the sponsored students, Sajid comes in to the RCA regularly to teach the denim fundamentals – from basic blocks and twin needle usage to tips on mills and their respective denim specialties. He also holds lessons on denim history, even inviting students to his Sussex-based denim archive.
The learning is two-way. Kaihara’s Irene Lo notes that the collaboration pushes the mill’s product-development team to try new things. “Students lack commercial boundaries entirely, and it’s such a joy to see how they explore denim, illustrating the immense possibilities of the fabric,” enthuses Lo. “Last year, two students used the same 4oz denim fabric, presenting it in totally different ways. Menswear designer Saul Nash made a hybrid zip denim elephant pant with mesh inserts – which highlighted both the lightness and strength of the fabric – while Renata Brenha Ribeiro created a gorgeous hand-smocked top featuring hand-painted polka dots, resulting in a garment with a real sense of Latin American cultural heritage. Every year, the students’ work inspires us to keep an open mind and continue exploring different possibilities at the mill.”
We’ll keep our eyes peeled on the RCA graduate show – due to be held 7 June in London – to find what Tiscar Espada and Yimeng Yu have in store. Rest assured, it won’t be a lineup of five pocket regular fit jeans.