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University of East London fashion students score an 'Absolutely Fabulous' success

Undergraduates create 12 couture costumes for pivotal scene in film

By Kiera Hay

When students on the University of East London’s (UEL) fashion course returned to campus last autumn to start a new academic year, they expected to hone their skills in sewing, pattern-cutting and design. 

What they didn’t anticipate was the chance to use that burgeoning expertise to create 12 avant-garde costumes for a pivotal scene in one of 2016’s most eagerly anticipated films – Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

UEL fashion design senior lecturer Caryl Court said, “The students were thrilled when I explained to them what we were going to be doing because everyone knows about Ab Fab, even students who were probably very young when it was last on television.”

The UEL collaboration with Ab Fab occurred thanks to a mutual friend of Caryl and Ab Fab costume designer Rebecca Hale. The friend told Rebecca that UEL’s fashion students might just be the cool, young talent she was seeking to help outfit the film.

Caryl recalled, “I tried to hide my squeals of delight when they called. I said, ‘Yes, we can do this!’” 

“I just thought, for the students, the course, the University, this is something we absolutely had to do.”

The beloved Absolutely Fabulous, which has been televised on and off since 1992, follows high-powered yet dysfunctional best friends Patsy (Joanna Lumley) and Edina (Jennifer Saunders) as they navigate the London fashion scene. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie continues those adventures on the big screen. 

Following their initial conversation, Caryl and the film’s costume team met at the BAFTA building in central London to work out a plan: Caryl’s students would create a collection of garments that would be displayed at a party hosted by Patsy for (fictional) Japanese designer Huki Muki.  

The students would be given materials including red boiled wool, pleather, and foam to create minimalist, avant-garde looks akin to the designs of Japanese designers Comme des Garçons and Yohi Yamamoto.  

The timeline? They had five weeks to make 12 couture-worthy outfits.

In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Rebecca Hale said, “I wanted to include younger designers so I asked the University of East London to create all the designs. We collaborated with them. We had a sort of think tank going and they produced everything for that party.” 

Caryl said, “The students worked in groups – we couldn’t have managed it otherwise. But they were really good at divvying up tasks according to skills.

“I’ve been really amazed at how well they’ve worked. I’m proud of them.

“It’s a huge amount of work for what probably won’t be much screen time, but that’s film, isn’t it?”

Fashion student Becky Smith noted the rarity of a budding designer getting to show their handiwork on a platform such as Ab Fab.

“It’s just something completely different, especially us being only second-year students,” Becky said. “But being in London, you’re at the centre of everything. So when opportunities like this come around, it’s really fantastic.”

Coincidentally, around the time UEL worked on the Huki Muki collection, the Ab Fab team also asked UEL alumna Yasmeen Uddin if she would allow her 2015 Graduate Fashion Week collection, comprised of clothing impressed with the faces of celebrities, to be featured in the film. One of Yasmeen’s dresses eventually made its way into the wardrobe of Edina’s ditzy assistant, Bubbles.

On Yasmeen, Rebecca told Women’s Wear Daily. “Her postgrad show was amazing and she’s fresh out of college so her outfit was perfect,” 

The hard work was worth it, according to Caryl. 

“They got so much out of this because they worked to a live brief,” Caryl said. “They had a deadline they had to meet. They worked with a real client, and what the client wanted, the client got.”

The students even got to visit the Ab Fab set and meet the cast and crew.

Fashion student Chris Robertson said the entire experience was “pretty full-on and amazing”.

“Seeing it at the theatre will be a completely different experience,” he said. “It will be incredible to see something we did on such a big scale and with so many other people seeing it, as well.”