Reflecting On Fashion And Self With Dr Rachel Matthews

Feb 20, 2018

Miles away from rainy London, Dr Rachel Matthews continues to foster her knowledge in contemporary fashion and the communities within. Studying fashion at Central Saint Martins and Winchester School of Art, Rachel began her career in the UK, working as a designer for companies such as Whistles, John Lewis and Next. Creating fashion visuals for Elle, Brides and Fashion Forecast magazines, her illustration and consultancy work found her dealing with fashion companies in Hong Kong, Tunisia and Mauritius; educating those around her on the process and practices that inform fashionable taste.

As her career grew, Rachel found herself working in more academic settings, where she taught at Chelsea College of Art and Middlesex University in the UK before deciding to move to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne, she was head at Melbourne School of Fashion for five years and visiting lecturer at QUT, all the while completing her PhD at Monash University. Now the Head of Fashion at Collarts, we caught up with Rachel to discuss fashion and how social media has enabled a new generation of tastemakers, as well as the ever-evolving field of Fashion Marketing.

Thanks for catching up with me, Dr. Rachel. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I'm a born and bred Londoner, where I studied Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins. I did my Postgraduate studies at an art school outside of London called the Winchester School of Art. This was an experimental couple of years doing my Masters, where I specialised in printed textiles for Women's Wear. When I left, I worked in the industry for a range of companies as a womenswear designer developing ranges for high street retailers in the UK. I also worked for quite a long time in the London design office for a fashion production company in Hong Kong—they used to make for lots of different companies in the UK, and we would do all the design work in the London office.

It sounds like marketing fashion ideas has always been part of your work. When did that passion shift into academia?
As a freelancer, I used to work across different parts of the industry with different people and bit by bit, some of the people I freelanced with invited me to teach. I was in Australia before I started teaching full time. My husband is a specialist metal worker, making work for artists and architects. In 2007-2008, we both began to feel the effects of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) in London. At the time, my brother was living in Melbourne so we came for a visit with a view to making a change; and Melbourne looked like the city where both of us could get work. It had lots of creative, cultural makers in the art game and it also had opportunities in fashion… it took me a little while to adjust once we made the move … but that feeling was probably what drove me to do my PhD.


“To understand the nature of fashion, you need to look at the divisions—before and after, online and offline—to pull apart the way in which branding and marketing has changed in fashion.”


That would have been a huge change in your life. What was the topic of your PhD?
The title of it was Contemporary Fashion Tastemaking: Changing The Shape Of Fashion & Taste. It was about the change in fashion influencers from institutional fashion editors and journalists to bloggers and Internet celebrities. It examined the way new types of people have gained authority to influence and contribute to what constitutes fashionable style—it’s an insight into some very contemporary issues in media and communication of Fashion Marketing.

Looking at platforms like Instagram is really interesting, especially when these tastemakers don’t differentiate their ads to their normal posts. Does that come into your teaching?
Yeah, it's interesting and that's been a really fast-moving and slippery development in fashion media. When I started my fashion PhD in 2011, I selected a series of people to pin-down and study in-depth. They’ve become almost like institutional figures now—for example, Tavi Gevinson she doesn't blog from the front row anymore, she runs her own media empire and acts on Broadway. It’s fascinating to follow the careers of these new types of influencers… I’ve personally always been a magazine tragic — I love i-D, Dazed and all that—but looking at Instagram is a different experience. It’s like, how can we keep up with that? To understand the nature of fashion, you need to look at the divisions—before and after, online and offline—to pull apart the way in which branding and marketing has changed in fashion. Before social media, it was: here’s the product, let's advertise and then let’s sell it—it doesn't happen like that anymore.

It’s strange how all these moving parts of fashion have been blurred. Do you feel social media has changed the values of fashion and what it takes to “make it” big?
There have been so many people who have emerged through social media: on one level it could be compared to Kate Moss being spotted by a model scout on the street, in the offline world, before the emergence of digital platforms. There are still plenty of opportunities, but the Internet makes it more complex. It’s something I examine in my teaching, and it underpins the importance of Fashion Marketing. Outside social media, there are still important structures and networks that connect people. But you must engage and interact with your audience on many levels—you can't just use demographics anymore—all those general assumptions about what people think and the values people have, these have changed and evolved. 


“I try and make that clear to the students: we’re not just looking at Louis Vuitton or Gucci, we’re looking at people on a Saturday night, and what they’re wearing. Fashion is about real people.”


With values continually shifting and changing in fashion, traditional career paths into the industry can be pushed aside. What are the advantages of studying Fashion Marketing?
To have a sustainable career in any aspect of fashion, you need to understand the big picture. If you are going to be a blogger, for example, you need to understand the whole network and environment that within which you sit. So, a good reason to study Fashion Marketing might be, if you're a really successful blogger, where else can you go in fashion? Where else can you use your writing or styling skills? It’s important to understand the world you're connected to, because that’s where you can begin to unlock other potential opportunities, people and places that will help you grow. I think it’s really crucial to understand that Fashion Marketing is not just one thing or one type of activity—its ever-expanding.

I agree, fashion itself is always expanding. What do you like most about fashion?
I like the significance and the meaning behind clothing. I love the subtle cultural influences that like-minded groups of people create in garments and objects—it's like the whole sneaker culture, I find that really interesting as well. I love how communities connect around clothing, whether it’s a royal wedding dress or something like the Burkini in Australia. I try and make that clear to the students: we’re not just looking at Louis Vuitton or Gucci, we’re looking at people on a Saturday night, and what they’re wearing. Fashion is about real people.

How do you explore these ideas in your classes?
One of the first assignments in Communication and Branding is a case study. We research companies who have lost brand equity, basically how they've ruined their customer relationships. Funnily enough, when I was writing this assignment, H&M kept making PR mistakes (which makes great case study material), but there's a whole number of issues in fashion that can be explored via brand equity. Students also look at some of the blatant rip-offs of smaller designers by big business. This is something I try to emphasise: if you want to be in a creative marketing field such as fashion, you had better innovate—not imitate.


“Don't let anyone tell you that fashion is just pink and fluffy—it’s much more meaningful than that.”


What would you encourage Fashion Marketing students to think about?
Come with an open mind about what fashion is and can be. I think it's important to have room to discuss all of it, from its most creative to its most commercial and sellable. In Fashion Marketing, you need to understand how the creative and commercial combine. For example, our first class was about the difference between clothing and fashion, what’s the difference is between a functional piece of clothing and a fashion garment.

What are the differences between clothing and fashion?
There's a couple of important factors I would say. Clothing and fashion both have a purpose and a protective function. The way I explain it to the students is that there's two important factors that surround fashion: the first is time, because being ‘in fashion’ requires wearing certain types of clothing at a point of time. The other factor I talk about with the students is context… where you are acts as a framing device, choosing to wear particular garments in certain situations makes a statement and is part expressing your identity. That’s why the contents of our wardrobes aren’t superficial, they form an important way in which we choose to define and express ourselves. Don't let anyone tell you that fashion is just pink and fluffy—it’s much more meaningful than that.

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