Fashion graduate Rhys McKenna believes that current students can learn from his unique career path and choices, and has decided to share his wisdom with them at our Alumni Insights events. We spoke to him about his motivations and experiences.
Why have you chosen to take part in these events? Is alumni advice something you benefitted from while a student?
These events are the perfect opportunity to create an exciting forum where knowledge and experience can be shared in a manner that is inspiring and enthusiastic. Such events invite stimulating and thoughtful interactions between alumni and current students which is hugely positive. I wanted to take part as a result of being proud to be a part of the University of Edinburgh. In addition I have gained an incredible education through the institution, therefore I want to assist in any way I can the current students whose shoes I’ve been in. Equally I thoroughly enjoy talking about and discussing design, education and forging one’s own path, therefore I jumped at the chance to take part.
Why is it so important that students hear from graduates who have gone on to have successful careers?
I think its extremely important for students to hear from graduates as the sharing of individual and divergent experiences helps students realise they can forge their own path. Hearing about how to mine each experience for learning and development opportunities and being enthusiastically given permission to take an instinctive path and indeed told that there is no wrong path, venture or project is something which graduates can offer a unique perspective on.
In addition, graduates have extra clout as a result of a strong identification with the University and more broadly Scotland. Students can feel that the graduates have been in their shoes, in this place. This strong force of empathy makes the guidance resonate.
Why would you like to help Edinburgh students? Do you believe an Edinburgh education is a unique one?
I have received an incredible amount of support, guidance and expert tuition from the University, and to contribute to the University community in the form of helping students is a duty that I firmly believe every alumnus has. It is extremely enjoyable to share experiences and discuss with current students the hopes, aspirations, courses and projects which are diverse, engaging, bridge different specialisms and are new and innovative.
Edinburgh has a unique take on education which I continue to be inspired to be surrounded by, embodied in the tutors, students and University community. Edinburgh’s educational style in my experience revolves around empowering its students, supporting them to develop a real sense of agency to branch out and grasp all opportunities with an appreciation for heritage and history paired with a knowledge and appreciation of modernity and internationalism.
Edinburgh has paved the way and equipped me to successfully take hold of a wide array of opportunities. Such opportunities have been exhilarating and included a threee-month placement at Burberry in their Menswear Runway Design department as a result of winning the annual Burberry and British Fashion Council Competition. Others include presently working on menswear design for Stella McCartney and taking up the lead designer role for two separate high profile sportsmen within their respective menswear brands, as well as health ventures into ergonomic consideration of hospital clothing for intensive care patients.
Which moments or activities during your studies really influenced your subsequent career choices and opportunities?
Firstly the dedicated coaching of diversity and permission to be creatively disruptive, and secondly my time at Burberry as achieved through a competition win, first made accessible as a result of the University of Edinburgh’s partnership with the British Fashion Council. Directed by Mal Burkinshaw in partnership with All Walks Beyond the Catwalk’s Debra Bourne and Caryn Franklin, the Diversity Network has been a prominent part of my education. The principle of questioning the current systems and institutions of fashion has significantly helped shape my voice through my time at Edinburgh. This has manifested in several strands including the address of physical disability in sportswear, material associations, and socio-economic diversity. With issues of the clothing-barrier being touted as similar to environmental barriers, it seemed an appropriate direction of study and a memorable project.
Through further research it was apparent sportswear does a good job of understanding diverse bodies and responding with considered, rightfully complex, highly efficient and performance enhancing solutions – uniforms worn by athletes competing in the Paralympics are a globally recognised example of this. Further investigation led me to meet regularly with a disabled athlete called Hope, an internationally renowned and medal-winning swimmer and rower. In regard to fashion education I was informed by her experience and tried to address the problems through intelligent cutting in clothing. My response did not tackle accessible clothing in a final or conclusive way, however, it encouraged investigation and discussion of complex, serious and relevant issues that fashion might have some hand in contributing to. Some are already responding and lessons could be learnt from 3D technology in knitwear that is rapidly cutting down costs of customisation meaning soon prices for a custom knit piece could rival those that are off the peg.
Equally memorable was the outcome of my graduate work, exploring material innovation, heraldry and structure that resulted in garments that challenged materials associations. I was combining Sophie Hallette lace with Carbon Fibre and Kevlar, ignoring the traditional and stereotypical uses and associations of each. Unpacking and freeing up materials from their traditional associations was informed by historic use of lace, understanding its use in Scottish history and heraldry through research into the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and working as an aide to the Knights of the Thistle – Scotland’s highest order of service at St Giles Cathedral.
What do you wish you’d known as a student?
Studying is certainly about exploring your chosen field and discovering and developing your voice within that context. I definitely think taking a leap of faith and committing to divergent thinking, followed by the synthesis of ideas, lessons and concepts, which may seem alien to each other, is very powerful. I am very grateful to have been encouraged to do this, empowered by the permission to creatively forge my own path in the Fashion department. Therefore I was not left wishing I’d known this, instead it was proactively part of the curriculum and championed by our tutors. This innovative and industryfacing constitution has been pivotal in my education of which I am extremely grateful.
The Alumni Insights events are only possible thanks to the generous support of our alumni who take part. If you are interested in participating in one of our events, please contact CJ Cochran, Alumni Manager: