Eloquent, passionate and incredibly accomplished are just a few words that could be used to described Rhys McKenna, the unbelievably talented menswear designer who has recently graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art with a 1st class degree – BA (Hons) Fashion. At 22, Rhys has already won multiple accolades throughout his time at Edinburgh for his innovative and boundary pushing designers and futuristic use of fabrics, including most recently the Burberry and British Fashion Council competition. Rhys has also become an advocate for sharing ideas of creativity and realising concepts, speaking on many occasions, and notes a highlight being speaking on the BBC radio about his work so far.
A creative childhood, nurtured by encouraging teachers at high school – including an art class trip to China, led Rhys to explore different avenues of creativity and become fully immersed in experiences. Something that continues to be an important part of Rhys’ design practice today – as part of his research for his graduate collection ‘Anachronism’, Rhys secured a place to become an aide to the Knights of the Thistle at their summer and winter ceremonies. We chat to Rhy about his time at the Edinburgh College of Art, experiences so far (including his time in New York interning with Rochambeau), and plans for the future.
The Fashion Conversation: What inspired you to study fashion at university?
Rhys McKenna: I have always had an affinity towards creating ideas and concepts, designs and artworks with a determined purpose of bringing them off the paper and into 3D, into creations that could be engineered, produced, sculpted, constructed. This is what inspired me to study fashion. I believe that you can draw together multiple interests that you have in fashion. It’s a hugely inspiration field to work in, and to bring your full self into study; interests, books you read, films you watch, your family, nationality, history, everything is important and everything is inspiring. For me, film was a particularly significant influence in my motivation to pursue a career in fashion. I am hugely inspired by science fiction and historical films and merging the two. Film captures garments in a dynamic, photographic and heightened sense, and in films garments are tied completely to their character. I think the idea of creating identities, characters and stories through clothes is something that compelled me to pursue fashion. Also the concept of doing everything in fashion from drawing to prototyping to illustrating/painting to constructing to fabric treatment to accessories to design books, the subject allows you to become specialised in a wide array of different disciplines which I believe is the catalyst for innovation.
TFC: You’ve spent four years at the Edinburgh College of Art so far, and are planning on pursuing an MA in menswear there as well. What has your experience been of the Edinburgh College of Art? What is one of most important things you have learnt?
RM: The course at Edinburgh is fantastic, we are mainly tutored in fourth year by Mal Burkinshaw our programme director. He directs us in our projects with personal, tailored guidance and nurtures our different hopes and aspirations for the projects which means we are constantly building on our work with someone who understands it just as much as we do. We are taught in innovative and directional ways to challenge our thinking and build skills, abilities, techniques and processes which simultaneously help us to develop personal approaches which go beyond the conventional sense of fashion. The most important things I’ve learned is to find or make a path, to persevere and to take good advice – take constructive criticism but believe in the strength of your own ideas and identity too. Also I’d say don’t be afraid to ask for help, companies jump at the chance to work with students and are very open to collaborations.
TFC: The images of your collection, ‘Anachronism’, shown at Graduate Fashion Week earlier this year are absolutely mesmerising. Can you please tell us a bit more about your design process? What inspired your graduate collection?
RM: Research this year for my graduate collection focussed on ideas of Scottish heritage and tailoring, contrasted with high-specification military & space-ready clothing and material innovation. This combination enabled me to bring a bank of ambitious but technically grounded concepts to life, affirming that my discipline and work is an extension of who I am. Designers like Haider Ackermann, Y3, Burberry, Zegna and Valentino were all potent sources of inspiration mixed with sci-fi films like Prometheus, novels like Cloud Atlas and Mortal Engines, historic portraits in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the iconic Kelpies Sculptures. I also am a strong believer in primary research. This year for example my project was inspired by the Order of the Thistle: an ancient Scottish Order of Chivalry. As part of my research, I secured a place to become an aide to the Knights of the Thistle at their summer and winter ceremonies.
By taking polarised sources of technological and traditional inspiration and fusing them, I continually developed new ways to create; note taking, sketching, imagining designs, creating prototypes and experimenting with materials. I believe strongly that developing abilities across several disciplines is a sure-fire way to create exciting innovation and develop a sense of informed risk taking and versatility. I work hard to express this combination of interests through my collection and technological developments using 3D cutting, self-taught 3D modeling, experimenting and composing new exciting materials. I’m really proud of coming 2nd place in the Oracle Fashion Technology Awards at Graduate Fashion Week for my use of Carbon Fibre, Kevlar and structurally-altered Lace.
TFC: Can you please us a bit more about your incredible achievement winning the Burberry and British Fashion Council competition?
RM: Of course, the Burberry and British Fashion Council experience was fantastic. The challenge was to create a collection with a vision of collaborating with companies and industries outside of fashion to create a luxurious but innovative collection. The problem solving, resourcing, digging and creating are all parts that inspire me. I enjoy connecting with people in the industry and enjoy building up relationships with companies outside of fashion to construct clothing using non-conventional fashion materials, and the 10 sponsors I secured for my graduate collection were perfect to work with for this brief. I created a collection using the same thematic lines as my graduate collection and injected my passion for Burberry’s history and innovative stance on fashion, drawing on their iconic trench and historic Kingsguard coats by Royal appointment. As part of this project I presented my other passion for exhibition design – I proposed an ambitious and technological presentation located in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh with statuesque garments in hardened carbon and resin interlaced with models, with a rousing bagpipe band performance and the exterior of the Cathedral adorned with Carbon fiber pavilions and stone sculptures.
TFC: During your undergrad, you’ve gained some incredible industry experience interning or collaborating with Mackintosh of Scotland, H&M, Rochambeau, Patrick Ervell and have an upcoming internship with Burberry and the British Fashion Council. What sort of work did you do and what are some of favourite moments?
RM: My internships for both Rochambeau and Patrik Ervell in New York are some of my most memorable experiences so far. Rochambeau was working on its SS16 collection and I assisted with this. Designing new garments styles and accompanying them from paper to pattern to production was very rewarding. To experience connecting with fabric suppliers, learning to build a marketable colour and fabric story and building up relationships in industry was extremely valuable in further developing my communication and decision making skills. Firing off ideas then submitting them to my boss, the design director Gamu, then led to me doing the same with the owners Lawrence and Joshua, presenting them with enjoyable, unorthodox ideas which I then filtered and edited until we reached a commercial product. The experience of compromise, of creativity and of presenting was brilliant especially to understand how many ideas it takes before you create the right one. Shortly after I returned home, Rochambeau had their SS16 show as part of New York Menswear Fashion week. It was inspiring and humbling to see my work included in the collection, the products of my learning over the month. I won the Mackintosh of Scotland competition and the company realising my prototype design was amazing. My internship with H&M DIVIDED section for 3 months and latterly a freelance job in the &Denim section of H&M for 1 month designing for music festival Coachella, took me to Sweden which was a fantastic learning and lifestyle experience. The British Fashion Council and Burberry 2016 internship will be a huge learning opportunity that I am extremely excited about and desperate to utilise knowledge from – injecting all experience and advice gained back into my MFA practice.
TFC: You’ve accomplished so much already, what are you goals for the future? What are some of your upcoming projects?
RM: I am now starting a MFA with a specialism in menswear, so will be at ECA for another two years. My ambitions for the future are multiple: I want to work in the Far East to experience a real change of working dynamic, I want to work in labs that specialist in integrating technology with garments or innovative material creation (I developed an enthusiasm for wearable technology in my research project this year) and The Biomimicry Institute Arizona is a place I will strive to visit and take up education in once I have a fuller knowledge in the field of fashion to underpin it. I also want to bolster Scotland’s influence on the global fashion industry through technological material collaborations with its vast and specialised array of innovative material manufacturers.