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To watch a Central Saint Martins MA graduation show is to dip a thermometer into a cauldron of the imaginations, tastes, and beliefs that are firing the young people who will soon be unleashed on fashion. You don’t go there, either as an audience member, or as a prospective student, expecting nice. There are no classes, academic dissertations, or business studies on the curriculum. Instead, each cohort is confronted with a more nebulously challenging form of training: being urged to be risk takers, go deep into their instincts and identities, to be obsessive about research and technique.

It was ever thus, but how are the ones who’ve studied through the pandemic and are graduating into a grim world situation responding? “I’d say they are much more resilient,” observed course director Fabio Piras. “They deal with whatever they find, make it work for them, find solutions. We’re in a very difficult time, a very emotional time, on the brink of all sorts of disasters—climate disaster, social disasters, political disasters. It’s like: I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’d say they have this kind of almost romantic, dystopian kind of attitude.”

So there they were, the MA Class of 2023: delivering all kinds of the unexpected. For one: surprising viewpoints on offbeat sophistication. Georgia Presti pulled precisely elegant laser-cut silhouettes out of a zero-waste flat-pack system inspired by box packaging. Chie Kaya’s Heirloom collection devised “a wardrobe that can be passed down, that every woman will want to wear,” by repurposing and draping menswear to create waist-focused shape, turning linings inside out and transforming a trench coat into a huge chic bag.

Francesca Lake, a graduate from Jamaica, had her swoop-hatted models working a spirited collection that merged “dancehall and church. Where regality meets vulgarity!” complete with flocked Bible clutches. Nora Kassim, brought up in a Somali family in Hamburg, hybridized the wrapping of fabric typical of her dad’s tribe with transformable technical sportswear. “It’s about my father’s way of dressing everyday in Germany, and how my generation dresses. It’s about me, growing up in-between. Out of that, I wanted to develop a collection people can wear, regardless of whether it’s cold or hot.”

The dread around climate and the destructive forces of humanity surfaced emotionally amongst Oscar Onyang’s clan of pro-nature survivors clad in strangely medieval caps and woolly layers of green and brown knitwear. He was partially inspired by the women who set up their anti-nuclear peace camp around the US airbase at Greenham Common in the 1980s, he said, “and missing being home in Beijing. When I went out of London to a nature reserve in England, it reminded me of home, that we all connect with our same origins in nature.”

“I feel like a lot of my generation has gone goblin-mode,” said Isabel MacInnes—the term for hacking today’s obstacles, while also taking care of your own needs. For McInnis, it’s meant figuring out how to manage her disabilities while also patchworking her expansive denim and jersey pieces from a panel-based system. “It’s about distortion, difference in pain, and my practiced skill base with pattern-cutting,” she said. “I take the glamorous and feminine and distort it, using a paper pattern drafted from a 4-D scan of my distorted torso, to create lumps and bumps in unexpected places.” She’s also a vocal advocate against the culture of over-working in the fashion industry. “I made this between 10 am and 5 pm, and had Wednesdays and weekends off to rest and see friends, and I still did it! I’ve got good skills as a seamstress, even though I can’t stand up for long periods. But fashion normally demands ridiculous hours,” she added. “I look around and ask, why shouldn’t I be able to have balance?”

This is the first generation of designers who are truly digital natives. Yaku Stapleton, the second-youngest of six siblings, transformed his family members into superheroes. His mum-figure wielded a sword and shield. “I was reading into the Afrofuturism movement, and it was explaining how you can kind of create a reality that’s beyond the one that’s given to you. Then I realized, I’ve done this before! I carried out Afrofuturism in my own life when I was a child, by playing these games, going into these worlds that really don’t exist, a whole identity where they’re living my whole life baking apple pies, cutting trees, and fighting dragons.” He grinned. “Legit: every day after school, that’s what me and my three brothers were doing, playing RuneScape. So with my collection, then I wanted to recreate characters based on members of my family, with that feeling of being young again. What would my sister, mother, nephew, look like in this world?”

Maxime Black invented an AI entity and then collaborated with it to design his collection—feeding it 3,000 styling photographs of himself, and seeing how it combined them. He then physically recreated the looks according to the machine–which, unable to read any fashion, cultural, or functional hierarchies in the clothes, had synthesized everything into whole-body blobs. “I started this project trying to just say listen, we shouldn’t be scared about AI—we just need to understand how it works,” Black reasoned. “I’m very interested in sci-fi, but to me this is just a technology, like the invention of the sewing machine. I used it as a tool only to have a conversation with it. But I’m still a designer. It can work with humans, but we shouldn’t worry. In the future, we humans will still be in charge.”