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It’s a late Tuesday afternoon in January, we’re at Finlay’s final fitting and the collection isn’t coming across the way he wants it to. Just two weeks out from London Fashion Week, the judging panel don’t seem very forgiving about this. “I don’t get it, it’s all over the place,” one of the tutors says. I glance over at Finlay, his collected demeanour giving away little as to what’s going through his mind. “I think that the context is actually really important,” he breaks the taut silence settling over the room. “That’s almost why I came here, to challenge what CSM stands for in terms of design.”

 

For Finlay, part of this challenge involves his male models walking the show nude (“It’s “Jacket”, it’s not “Jacket” and underwear. The moment you see underwear, you think that it’s designed. I think that it takes away from the project.”) There’s no consensus between the panel on this point. “Now it’s in its total honesty, where it’s uncompromised, which if that’s what it is, then I think you should stick to it no matter what,” course leader Fabio Piras says. “But there’s a moment where you also have to keep integrity with different solutions.”

 

Finlay intends the use of nudity as an expression of naturalism, but I’m conscious of the reality of how it’s likely to be perceived on the runway- a space wrought with connotations to the objectification, exploitation and sexualisation of the human form. The implication of male nudity specifically is not lost on him, as he points out the relative non-issue of female nudity in other MA collections dotted around the studio- an exposed breast here, a buttock peering out of a mini skirt there. But in his dogged pursuit of vision, I wonder if he will surpass it altogether and arrive at something else instead- esotericism. Is there not, as Fabio once warned him, something “masturbatory” about this? Who is this vision for, if not himself?

 

“I can’t tell how that went,” Finlay admits after the fitting. “With the other designers, they’ll be like oh this is nice. But with me, they’re always like this, questioning everything.” He busies himself with rearranging the jackets back on the rail, his eyes flitting to his friend and coursemate Jonathan Ferris whose masked models are marching down the studio to their own fate. I don’t recognise the expression on Finlay’s face, a contorted mixture between frustration and discomfort. “Even though I stand by my own work, I also stand by what Jonny’s showing,” he says. “But there needs to be some kind of allowance for the two to merge somehow. At the moment, it’s definitely more one-sided.”

 

There’s a prescience to his words, as he delivers news of show selection- “I’m not in”. I’m not surprised by this, and I don’t think he is either. “The work is really designed not for the show. And then I’m showing it to them and asking them to put it in the show. So, the question, is why?” he says. We’ve spoken at length before about alternative ways he wants to present his collection, but rationalising doesn’t shield him at this point from the immediate disappointment of not being included amongst his peers. “I’m not sure if it’s ever actually possible to challenge the system from the inside,” he says, his gaze already distant.

The thing about Finlay is that I never know what’s going to come next. “I have an idea,” he tells me over the phone, the line crackling with background noise. Famous last words, I think to myself. “I want to walk out in the middle of the show, just holding my jacket.” For some reason, we start laughing- him excitedly, me nervously. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that he’s only 24, the poignancy of his work reaching far beyond his years. At other times, it’s his optimism that betrays his age, the appetite for rebellion not yet knocked out of him by an industry built on tradition and convention.

 

True to his word, he emerges from the crowd on the evening of the MA Fashion Show. He holds up two fingers in the vague direction of the school, and then to fashion critic Sarah Mower, and then finally to the livestream camera, before hurtling up three flights of stairs with security trailing behind. Backstage, tutors are aghast, proclaiming that he will never work in fashion again.

 

Not a day later, Finlay receives an outpouring of support both from fellow students, and brands like Doc Martens and Supreme (the global creative director of the former even suggesting that he should have hi-fived him along the way). Although, not everyone’s a fan. He reads me Sarah Mower’s last message to him on Instagram: “Was it punk to deliberately aim to mess up two women’s collections in your view?” She blocks him soon after.

 

I can see how bad the optics are, an entitled white man throwing a tantrum over not making the cut. It doesn’t necessarily work as protest either, too quick for people to realise that he’s even a designer. But at the same time, a critique that rests solely behind the guise of feminism feels somewhat superficial without any concomitant attempt to understand why his act did in fact resonate with so many other young designers, many of whom women themselves.

 

I have a related question I’m hesitant to ask. Does he think that CSM has a vested interest in pushing for diversity? “I dare not say,” he holds both hands up. Usually quick to answer, he treads carefully here, relaying only what he has heard from coursemates who have felt the need to “tokenise” themselves, to play up their “diverse” identities to be granted certain opportunities. “At one point, I had the idea to just cast all old, white men as a comment on the fashion industry, the UK and its racist culture,” he adds. “Even with our final fittings, the majority of them are old, white men. I think it’s a bit weird that they get to choose the 20 best people out of 40. There must be some bias.” This acute self-awareness is refreshing, particularly given that Finlay himself belongs to the demographic that such bias presumably leans towards.

 

There’s a word I keep turning over in my mind to describe Finlay- trojan horse. Unafraid to go against the grain and prepared to see his ideas through at all costs, I’m not sure that he’s a designer that fashion wants, as much as he’s a designer that fashion needs.

Written by SHIN HUI LEE @SHINHUILEE

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