Fashion's New Beginnings with Zowie Broach

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Zowie Broach
Zowie BroachPhotography by Maxyme G. Delisle

We speak to Head of Fashion at the Royal College of Art Zowie Broach about letting her students forge their own pathways

“It’s the end of an era,” stated the RCA’s outgoing Head of Fashion, Wendy Dagworthy to in one of her last interviews. “Whoever takes over from me, it’s going to actually have a real influence on what happens next.” Currently achieving just that is her successor, Zowie Broach who since taking over in October last year, has been enacting changes to realize her vision of an MA course that’s “led by what the students want and let them forge their own pathways.” First she started by stripping the MA show down from six presentations to two: “That means it can be full of error, but it’s the anticipation, it’s the experience”, she explains, “We needed to edit, we need to make it more real. They need to act more like designers and the first person you show to is the most important person, not the last. I didn’t want them to be big affairs, I wanted them to be kind of intimate.” Then she confounded expectations even more by staging a food-based performance piece in the middle of the presentations. “I wanted something very alive for me. We need to make people feel something.”

On Boudicca and her beginnings
Given her anarchic art based background, it’s no surprise Broach likes shaking things up. After graduating from Plymouth and Middlesex Universities, she set up the avant garde label, Boudicca with her partner, Brian Kirkby in 1997. Working defiantly outside of the mainstream, Boudicca have done everything from showing as part of the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 2007 to collaborating with filmmaker Mike Figgis. It’s this leftfield approach that also informs her work as an educator. Meeting Broach at the RCA, she’s an indefatigable whirlwind of energy, constantly on the move, introducing me to students, critiquing their work on the go while fizzing with ideas and mile-a-minute patter. With her unruly blonde mop and black ensemble, she resembles as much art student as professor. Other than a recent appearance at the Dazed Amazon Fashion Forum where she was quizzed by The Independent’s Alex Fury, she’s done precious few interviews – happy to let her students take the spotlight. “Yeah because it’s not about me. How can I be interviewed on something that I haven’t done? And I think that the focus here is their work and presenting them out as best as I can.”

"What teaching does is that is opens up your own synapses" - Zowie Broach

On the changing role of teachers
And while her academic career has seen stints at Parsons The New School of Design, London College of Fashion and Westminster College, the lure of working at the RCA was always strong for her: “It’s one of the only pure Masters school in the world. Even the location – you feel the energy of ideas.” Teaching for her is all about the push and pull of ideas: “I’ve always enjoyed the process of teaching. It is interesting - you can have all this knowledge but if you don’t benefit from it or utilize it, then what’s it for? And what teaching does is that is opens up your own synapses actually. And seeing that connect to the students and to see them blossom from that – that’s very precious. It’s like going on a journey with people rather than just enforcing a journey on them. So when you’re part of a journey, it also pushes you.” Broach has already started recruiting industry titans like Sarah Mower and Farfetch’s Jose Neves to stimulate debate and dialogue in her students. “Bringing in people across the ages, across all the industries – that creates all different kinds of interesting conversations doesn’t it?” she muses. As she sees it, her role as educator is to “ask as many questions as we can. Are we opening the right doors for them? Are we being fluid enough? I want to get to this new relationship where teachers are not just teachers, they’re creative thinkers too. They have to be as empowered in their thinking and as respected and there has to be a dialogue because we are in different times.”

On the future of fashion education
The volume and speed of fashion worries Broach who’s wary of students being pushed out to the limelight far too quickly. “I think you have to be allowed to develop. You know, we’re round the corner from the V&A with the Savage Beauty exhibition and McQueen was allowed to develop. I feel like saying to my students, you guys are in your early twenties. Relax, chill out. Be true, grow, enjoy. Push yourself and try things and explore. Because you’re not going to do that when you leave. What’s great about high fashion is that sharp aesthetic of understanding yourself.”

These are troubled times for fashion education of course, with the rising cost of tuition fees and disappearing grants conspiring to make fashion the preserve of the elite. While Broach’s role has been to seek new avenues for the RCA to make money, she’s also protective of keeping the MA as a place “where you can be pure and dangerous, to examine and experiment.” Much as she still does with Boudicca, it’s through making her students challenge and question the way the fashion system operates. “We very much tried to remove certain words like ‘project’ or ‘collection.’ We really tried to break down some of the systems that they have been used to think about. We’re trying to develop their imagination. Help them debate, perceive, be sharp and observant. Then out of that, they then form their new language. So I think it’s about trying to open them up. You start connecting that and it becomes a very powerful force.”