Rob's World

The School of Fashion's 3D Design Associate Director carries a rebellious, but meticulous, spirit into class, clothes and creativity

All clothes designed by Rob Curry.

Photography: Nicolas Gutierrez. Fashion Editor: Flore Morton. 

From his playful British humor to his quirky, chic pairing of flannel and camo, Rob Curry, Associate Director of 3-D Design at Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion, brings dimension, fittingly, to his role encouraging students to tease fledgling ideas into real world apparel.

Curry, whose typical daily uniform includes a tie casually hanging from the front of his shirt with top button undone, views his job as interpreting “the language of fashion.”

A favorite of students and fashion world stars alike — from designers Vivienne Westwood to Bruce Oldfield and former model Jerry Hall — the Cheshire, U.K. native began his ascent to fashion virtuoso following his graduation from Leeds College of the Arts in 1994. 

Prior to Leeds, he took foundation art classes at Manchester Polytechnic — and even then, his instructors seemed to recognize his true calling.

“I was taking painting and sculpture courses, which was my interest at the time, but my teachers told me my sensibility was like that of a fashion designer,” Curry recalls. “Since schooldays, I’d always had had a minor crush on 18th century French history, and that was when Vivienne Westwood was very much inspired by that period.”

Although his professional affiliation with Westwood wouldn’t come until later, Curry remembers sneaking off at lunch break during a school trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum to World’s End, the shop that Westwood and legendary punk mastermind Malcolm McLaren ran at the time on The Kings Road in London.

“I was coming out of my Gothic phase, and knew about punk rock and fashion. World’s End was such a cool little shop, with the famous backwards clock on the facade.”
Still, he admits: “I honestly didn’t start anything major in fashion until I was leaving school. At the time, the reigning philosophy was that it’s all about the concept, and you just need to know a little bit about pattern making…”

“But I’m a maker,” he emphasizes. “I didn’t like drawing. Everything the instructors wanted me to do, I hated.”

Soon, he was closer to doing what he loved, working as a couture apprentice to Bruce Oldfield, famed for designing gowns for Princess Diana and other high-end clients, including San Francisco socialite and philanthropist Ann Getty.

“When I graduated from Leeds in 1994 I knew I wanted to be in the studio and developing my skills,” Curry says. “Luckily, I had two friends who knew Oldfield and recommended me to him.”
“It was an old-school apprenticeship. I was hand sewing, mounting and setting fabrics and putting linings into garment,” he recalls.

“School had all been about concepts and portfolios and inspiration mood boards, which was so not me,” he adds. “I was the only person in my whole class who actually cut my degree collection 100 percent. Back then 3-D was not regarded as real. The idea was, ‘You’re getting a degree in fashion – you don’t have to know the rest, we’ll get a pattern maker’.”

Working for Oldfield he earned the grand sum of a hundred pounds a week, the equivalent of about $165. “I received it in a tiny envelope, with notes and coins, back in the day,’’ he laughs.

But it was fun to rub shoulders with prominent yet unpretentious clients like Getty. “Oldfield had small store in Knightsbridge, with fittings in the back room and I remember holding the pins for her dress. She walked into the front where there was a bigger mirror, and another lady obviously recognized who she was and started gushing, ‘I really like your handbag.’ Getty said, ‘I picked it up for 20 quid’.” 

Curry always knew he wanted to work for his idol, Westwood.

“So I called them up and spoke to the head of studio, Avis Charles. She was great, she told me to come in the next week for a trial day,” he says.

“Vivienne was there, but we weren’t introduced,’’ he recalls. “I was a little nervous and star struck – the whole thing was surreal – and she was wandering around in house slippers she always wears in the studio. I was at the machine sewing, and she looked at me, and gave me a wry little smile.”

And that was it – he was on as a dressmaker for the famed house. And within a year and a half, he would become Westwood’s premier couturier.

“It was great, but also backbreaking work. We never worked less than 70 to 75 hours a week. If I did a 10-hour day, I was lucky. Twelve and 13-hour days were the norm. Sometimes at show time, I would go in on Tuesday and not go home until Thursday,” he admits.

Wanting a diversion from the rigorous schedule and a chance to explore his own design aesthetic, Curry took on part-time teaching at Middlesex College and Central Saint Martin’s and freelanced for Julien MacDonald, who had been named artistic director at Givenchy after the departure of Alexander McQueen.

His next big break was being asked by his friend Kimino Homma to design a line called Unbilie for Yacco Maricard, a Tokyo-based company.

“They were looking for a new label – they wanted something cool that didn’t necessarily have to be wearable or sell a lot but could be a showpiece,’’ he recalls. “Something that was cooler, more high fashion. What I did for them was very geometrically cut – very much like what I teach in my Fabric and Form classes.”

The geometric approach is something that inevitably leads Curry to the subject of one of his fashion idols.

“Madame [Madeleine] Vionnet invented the concept of geometric cutting – she is not so much an influence as a goddess to me. She created a new language, a way of perceiving the body in terms of a series of geometric shapes,” he says.

“Most if not all of the great designers of our era bow down to her: John Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto, Azzedine Alaïa, Martin Margiela. She changed the way clothes were cut. She was the antithesis of someone like Chanel, who was all about style and courting celebrity, so it became more about the brand. [Vionnet] shunned celebrity – she said she wasn’t a designer, she was a dressmaker.”

Getting back to his Japanese work, Curry says it was rewarding “to have the luxury of doing a collection where the people paying for it literally say it doesn’t have to sell for the first few seasons – that’s unheard of, to have that freedom and none of the worries of a start-up.”

It was around that time that, through mutual friends, Simon Ungless of the Academy’s School of Fashion contacted him.

Curry booked a flight to San Francisco, yet didn’t anticipate anything more than a week’s vacation.

“But Simon and I got on well, and he said, ‘Just come over here and do what you did at Saint Martin’s,” Curry recalls. 

So he joined the School of Fashion in March 2006 and set about creating a new class on Fabric and Form.

“They had design classes, and pattern making, but instead of having 3-D be all about design and drawing, I thought we should start by working with the fabrics.”

“My concept and approach, and what I always tell students, is that it’s all very well to do beautiful pictures. I can do a drawing of a beautiful house, but that doesn’t make me an architect. Everyone’s different, but the drawing never interested me that much. I was more into the architecture of it than these concepts of ‘narrative’ that people talk about…I’m more into the mechanics. Forget fashion, even – design is either well done or badly done, and whether it’s ‘fashionable’ or not is irrelevant. Good fashion will be good, regardless of trends.”

Students have responded enthusiastically to this creative approach.

Emily Melville, a former student who now teaches 3-D Design to current MFA students, says Curry’s class was a breath of fresh air.

“He introduced me to the idea of designing directly on the garment, letting the fabric guide the development of the garment. We would create interesting geometric shapes out of fabric and place them on the form, shaping and molding the fabric and photographing [it] as we went. This was totally new to me and really set me free in the design process without having to struggle with sketching,” she recalls.

“All my ideas for my senior thesis collection came during that process working with Rob,” she adds. “He has been the number one influence on my fashion life.”

School of Fashion alumna Rinat Brodach, an Israeli-born designer who now shows her own line in New York, echoes Melville’s enthusiasm.

“Some of the teachers I’d had before were not ‘getting’ me. They didn’t understand my clothes or presentation… Rob understood me immediately. We had a connection and he helped me refine who I am as a designer.”

She said being in Curry’s class was always fun, too.

She recalls, “He’d tell these stories of dressing Mick Jagger’s then-wife Jerry Hall or working with Helena Bonham Carter. Back then, he was living in a time when fashion was the real deal. There was no social media. Real people were making fashion, not like it is today, when it’s become so ridiculous.”

“He had sayings that will always stay with me: ‘Be Zen with the fabric – just stay with the fabric.’ Even now, when I cut a corner, I remember the way he taught me to do it.”

May 2015 BFA Fashion Design graduate, Patricia Wijaya, says her major takeaway from Curry’s classes was draping. 

“He helped us understand the construction of the garments that we wanted to make and see what can work and not. He taught us how to not get stuck with only one way. He always tells us to see it as a fun puzzle.”

She also respects his work ethic.

“He almost always comes at 8 a.m., sometimes 7:45 a.m. even. And if we were doing collection, a month before it was due, he would come every single day of the week to help us, even on weekends,” Wijaya says.

BFA Fashion Design student Linka Rowland, who graduates December 2015, offers this testimonial to Curry’s influence: “One of [his] best analogies that made everything really click for me was that you had to think of the process of turning the drapes into patterns as a puzzle, always being mindful of how things would or would not connect to each other to create the desired outcome.”

“Just this week, at my design internship, I was asked to drape and create a pattern based on a sketch. It was easy for me to create what had been asked. As someone who came to the Academy with zero knowledge of patternmaking/sewing, I know I would never have been able to do that without the skills Rob taught me,” she admits.

“He has a no-nonsense attitude, which I love. Part of what makes him a great teacher is that he sugarcoats nothing. He gives 100 percent and expects the same in return. But he is also very gentle and has an amazing vision ... His creations are always over the top, limitless in imagination and impeccable perfection down to every detail.”

Curry’s elaborate, historically-influenced costumes like the Mae West or Madame Butterfly-inspired looks, English pheasant hunting outfit and others inspired by the Union Jack, serve to illustrate his creative multiplicity.

“We all have different facets and strings to our bow,” he says. “I love doing these looks because it’s so rare that I do anything that’s for me… This is a chance for me to get these ideas out of my head and just do it, whether that’s a huge pom-pom or an English country look with a black top hat and gloves.”

The constant stream of ideas, and risk-taking, are key to Curry’s personal work and his teaching.

He admits: “I believe in doing. I tell students, don’t sit scratching your heads and asking, ‘Can we do it like this?’ Just do it.”