‘I felt inspired every single day’
An MA in Textiles led to Emma Shipley launching a luxury label.
Emma Shipley is a graphic artist specialising in fine drawing, luxury scarves and cushions. She launched her own label, Emma J Shipley, at London Fashion Week in 2012 and won the Emerging Brand prize at the WGSN Global Fashion Awards and the Newcomer Award at the UK Fashion & Textile Awards in 2013. Shipley has collaborated with brands including Disney, Aspinal of London and Atelier Swarovski.
What were you doing before you started studying at the RCA?
I was working at a design studio in London after graduating from my BA creating print designs for different companies in the fashion and interiors markets. It was very trend-led and fast paced – I learnt a lot, but ultimately felt I had more to offer and wanted to pursue my own unique style rather than follow trends.
When did you first hear about the RCA, and why did you decide to study here?
I did Textiles for my BA, at Birmingham City University. My tutor suggested I should look into it; I felt I had a lot more to learn and I really wanted to develop my own style further. However, I also wanted to get some industry experience first, which I found really helpful in terms of deciding what I did (and didn’t) want to pursue in my career.
Were there any differences between your expectation of studying at the RCA and the reality?
I knew it would be hard work, which I was prepared for, but it was also really emotionally tough. Trying to discover and inject your work with your essence and soul is an essential part of studying at the RCA, and of course requires you to be extremely self-reflective and tough on yourself.
Can you describe what it was like studying at the RCA — what was a typical day like?
I felt inspired every single day. I remember feeling this very real buzz of energy and ideas – that feeling of not being able to sit still because there were so many thoughts, potential plans and experiments to explore. Each day was different but could include researching in the library, sampling in the print room, drawing at my desk, having discussions with peers and pursuing collaborations. We also had some great sessions from diverse visiting tutors. Drinks in the Art Bar were essential at the end of the week to unwind and process the progress made!
What were the benefits of being in an international art and design community?
We had a brilliant year group; I think we definitely fed off each other. The international mix was fantastic as it meant that people had completely different backgrounds and approaches to design. Some of my closest friends are those I met at RCA.
Did your work change or develop while you were at the RCA?
Yes, hugely! I stuck to my detailed drawing style, but like to think I discovered my ‘design soul’ at RCA. I also researched patterns in nature and the mathematical structures behind them for my dissertation and used this to inform my work, which I think was crucial in creating my own unique take on Textiles.
Can you remember any particular teaching moments that had a significant impact on your practice?
We had a project called future textiles and I researched creating non-repeating patterns by writing my own algorithms to control a design program, inspired by the way that patterns in nature are never quite regular and never repeat exactly. This was really the start of my final project and completely fed into my future work.
Did you face any particular challenges while here?
I was working part-time while I was studying, after being scouted by the design consultant Anne Tyrrell MBE while in my first year. So that was excellent experience but also meant I had to juggle my time (and brain) between commercial design projects and my RCA work.
Do you have good memories of your time at the RCA?
Yes, so many! Dancing on tables in the textiles studio is one… But the most rewarding was probably the final show; finally being able to share the outcome of two years of hard work and to get a great response.
What have you been up to since graduating?
I can’t believe it’s been six years! But when I look back, a lot has happened in that time. I’ve launched my own brand, initially focusing on silk scarves, and lately expanding into interior accessories, sold in stores including Liberty and Harrods. I’ve collaborated with brands including Disney, Star Wars, Aspinal of London and Swarovski, exhibited at London and Paris Fashion Weeks and further afield in the USA, Hong Kong, Japan and China.
I won the WGSN Global Fashion Award for best Emerging Fashion Brand, and the UK Fashion and Textiles award for Best Newcomer. I’ve recently been to South Africa and Botswana on a research trip supported by Arts Council England, studying San rock art and exploring potential collaborations. Next, I’m launching a collaboration with an interiors company on a whole range of wallpapers and fabrics.
Do you have a clear sense of how your time at the RCA informed what you’ve gone on to do?
I don’t honestly feel I could have done anything I have in the last six years without my time at the RCA; it was pivotal for me.