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Getting noticed: it's time to bring the anarchy back to graduate fashion

Marcus Jaye
12 June 2023

Is there anything more disgusting than a dirty ashtray or feeling like one? The star-studded crowd at the recent 2023 Central St Martins graduate show who were pelted with old fag ends can attest. The designer in question, T.J. Finley, aka Evilkebab, produced a collection to remember made of thousands of old cigarette butts picked up off the floor of London. Spare cigarette butts made their way over the audience, which included artist Grayson Perry, fashion icon Virginia Bates, actor and model Damian Hurley and Sarah Mower, Condé Nast’s fashion critic – thanks to the sweary and chain-smoking models.

Finley’s collection was titled ‘FAGS FORKING THE RICH’ and was response to the designer’s working class background and queerness. Stale fag butts woven into fabric and crushed and manipulated forks featured sculpted into a corset were part of the spectacle. “It was very important for me to not be polite, be honest and be raw,” the designer told Vice.

“The audience reaction was one of shock, as you can imagine, but the mood changed long before T.J. threw anything into the air. The clothes all reeked of cigarettes and the models channelled a certain bellicose spirit. I loved it,” says Dal Chodha, editor and lecturer, who witnessed the show.

“I think the fact that it happened so close to the section where the offspring of famous people were sat was interesting – I don’t think that was conscious, but it added another layer to the whole thing,” he says.

The Evening Standard reported that Mower was “really not happy” and Damian Hurley, son of Elizabeth, was apparently “very, very mad”.

“Of course, everyone was shocked, some gasped, but really it proved to me how desensitised the fashion audience has become,” says Chodha. “Most people were too busy filming it to react to it. It reminded me of the lack of applause that happens at the end of shows because we are often all too busy livestreaming them. T.J.’s performance was visceral, regardless of how you felt about the messaging or the clothes, at least it left a thought with people,” says Chodha.

Finley was one of 135 graduating students that night. Chodha thinks there are many who would argue that it was not very collegiate, or that no one is talking about Finley’s clothes. “I think the point he is making about queerness and class and how those identities congeal in an institution like Central Saint Martins is valid – and incredibly important to acknowledge,” Choda says.

This show, performance, protest, call it what you will, has turned people’s attention back to graduate fashion, which for many years hasn’t had the exposure it once did.


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A post shared by Evilkebab (@finleytj_)

There was a moment in time – 80s & 90s – when every crop of CSM alumni were awaited with bated breath. The best had their first collections bought by Browns in South Molton Street and then went onto future stardom, even taking over a House in Paris. They were simpler times. Finding the next John Galliano, Alexander McQueen or Stella McCartney was a massive thing back then and made column inches, creating stars overnight of many of the UK’s greatest designers.

Ironically, today, the numbers of fashion courses and graduates have swelled while the exposure has diminished. Held every June, GFW - Graduate Fashion Week - showcases the work of over 3,500 fashion graduates each year. Starting with four universities, 10 years ago, the 2019 edition featured 45 international universities from leading design schools around the world, including The New School Parsons in New York, Donghua University in China, Bunka Fashion College in Japan, Shenkar in Israel, and Accademia Costume & Moda in Rome.

It’s almost overwhelming how many graduates these schools are pushing out. It’s big business. The University of Arts London is moving the London College of Fashion to new campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Straford. While the facilities will be new, it could be anywhere. So, how can fashion graduates stand out today?

“The romantic in me would say through great, well-made clothes but in reality, designers need to stand out more than just once and for more than just what they can make,” says Chodha.

Do gimmicks like this work? Chodha thinks it depends on the end game. “They might not immediately appeal to the CEOs of the behemoth luxury brands, but that is the point. It worked here because it can become a catalyst for a bigger conversation, a continued conversation (about class structures, elitism, the idea of fairness and balance),” he says.

“Fashion today is not polite, it is inert. Everyone needs to work much harder if they want fashion to mean anything beyond the length of a glitchy livestream,” says Chodha finally.

This anarchic spark is a reassuring flicker of the energy needed to change things. That audience will never forget the show. Fashion teaching has become a business, obsessed with numbers, and fashion shows are often more about the audience than what is found on the catwalk. This is waking people up.

Fashion graduates need to take their futures into their own hands to stand out. They’ve paid enough. Please give us more of T.J. Finley’s anarchic spirit. This is London spirit, this is what London has always done and what London does best. Just don’t wear white.

Main image: T..J. Finley, Instagram @finleytj_

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