30 June 2023
Bringing Inspiration from the Reading Room to the Catwalk | User Stories
Fashion student Mihai Popescu won the 2022 Fashion Research Competition run by the British Fashion Council and the British Library. He recently completed his degree in Fashion Textiles and Design at Middlesex University.
I was always into art. When I was young, I made a little book in which I could draw clothes and shoes and headpieces. I was obsessed with Lady Gaga, and I drew a lot of inspiration from her outfits. But I never thought I was actually going to study fashion.
After college, I decided to take a gap year, and moved from Romania to London. Being in a big city, with so much going on, I felt the need to pursue what I’d always loved, so I applied for a foundation course in fashion textiles and design. My great-grandmother was a weaver, and she’s the reason I decided to study textiles. She died when I was quite young, so I never had the chance to spend time with her and learn her craft.
I hadn’t heard of the British Library x British Fashion Council Fashion Research Competition until one of my tutors told us about it. The brief was to go to the British Library and use its resources to look into my heritage, and to use that research to propose a collection. When I visited the Library, I found out so many things that I hadn’t known about my culture. I was actually a bit upset that I hadn’t thought about going there earlier on in my degree.
It made me understand who I am as a designer
You could find books there that would tell you every single detail about traditional Romanian dress. One thing that I really liked was traditional pattern cutting. Traditionally, people would use embroidery to make rounded necklines and different types of ruffles. I’d never imagined that you could make so many intricate designs from a square piece of fabric. I’d seen the finished garments before, but I never knew how you got there.
The process really made me understand who I am as a designer, and realise that I have something unique to offer. The project was inspired by everything that’s happening in Romania at the moment. A lot of political parties are trying to use traditional Romanian dress to say that gay people do not belong in Romania. As in, these outfits are traditional, but being gay is not traditional. They even had a referendum to try and change the constitution of Romania so that marriage is only legal between a man and a woman. They use the phrase, ‘the traditional family,’ which is also the title of my final collection.
One of Mihai's designs, taking influence from an image found in the Library's collections.
It’s okay to be gay and Romanian
I wanted to tell them that it's okay to be gay and Romanian, and that any family is a traditional family. I’ve been living in London for six years now, and it's very hard for me to go back home, and be myself, because of the situation. So this collection has a very special place in my heart. I was debating whether to make it, because of how people might react, but I don’t regret it: it really helped me find out who I am.
The British Library is absolutely incredible. It's so calming. I spent three, four hours at a time going through books, taking everything in. I think it's an amazing place, and I would recommend it to anyone who does design. I think it's very important that we have places like that in London.
I cried when I got the prize
The fact that I won the competition gave me a lot of confidence in what I’m doing. In my opinion, telling a story with your designs is very important. It’s one of the reasons I decided to do fashion: it’s more than just clothes; it’s political. I cried when I got the prize. It was a very intense day: we had to go for interviews, and the judges were very nice, but they weren’t giving anything away, so I didn’t know how it had gone. When I heard my name, it was probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
The competition had a prize of three thousand pounds. I invested the money in my final collection. I think it gave me the freedom to experiment. The financial aspect of this course can be challenging, so winning the competition gave me a head start.
The final result is inspired by my time partying in London. When I did the styling for the show, I went for a cyberpunk, club kids feeling. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I was happy until I saw everything on the runway. We had so many people coming to see the show, and when the models came out, everyone just started to scream! Now, I’ve started to apply for jobs, and I hope to have time to work on my own label as well. I’d like to develop my ideas further. I’m really inspired by the British conceptual designer Craig Green. His collections are like pieces of art.
As told to Lucy Peters