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Julia Neill

MPhil Jewellery & Metal, 2014 –

Following my MA in Womenswear, also at the Royal College of Art, I have worked in the fashion industry for around eight years. I’ve done catwalk stuff with Matthew Williamson and John Rocha, and projects for Sonia Rykiel and Louis Vuitton, and so on. Following that I was at All Saints for four years, and then Head of Design at Urban Outfitters, managing teams and doing concept direction for womenswear and accessories across Europe. I was working my way up and really enjoying it, but over the last couple of years, I realised I’d lost the connection with where I’d started and I wanted to reconnect with who I am as a designer and recontextualise what I want to do in the next ten years. I wanted to be hands-on and more directly involved with making again.

Instinctively, I was drawn back to the RCA. I knew that I’d have never have got where I was without that MA. It wasn’t just about the training, but also the way they encouraged me to question my thinking and to constantly reassess the reasons behind every decision. The RCA was challenging in a way I hadn’t experienced since, so I knew it was best place for me.

I chose Jewellery & Metal because I’d done so much within womenswear, and I wanted to do something in a different field, which had a completely different agenda and new set of codes to explore. It seems to me that fashion is increasingly disposable, so I was keen to work with something in which people invest. Jewellery, for me, has a lot more meaning. Clothes have a function, whereas jewellery has very little function but a lot of people wear it, and I find it very interesting to consider why they wear it and what they’re trying to communicate.

A lot of the work I did with Urban Outfitters was about identifying trends and tribes, and that was very interesting. They are a company that look to the street much more than the catwalk, so that probably drew my attention to really looking at subcultures and youth culture. Everything I’ve done up until now has, in a way, lead me to where I am now.

It was a big leap of faith to leave my job and embark on the PhD, and there are two aspects to why I made the decision: one is to get back to the core of why I’m a designer. I’m looking at subcultures, whether they’ll survive in the digital age, and the broader impact of technology on identity. In some ways, the youth of today are more concerned about how they are perceived than about who they are, and much of my research is based around that. I’m looking at this through the iconography and symbolism of jewellery. In the future, I’d like to go into companies and see where I can add value in research teams as a consultant. The second aspect is that I want to set up my own jewellery business, so there are theoretical and a practice-based sides to the PhD. 

The experience so far has been really good, but also difficult. I’m full-time but I don’t have funding, so I’m also working as a consultant at the same time, which has been a real challenge. The PhD is very demanding, and I’m also learning the practical making skills simultaneously, so keeping track of everything is quite full-on. Personally, I need the momentum of full-time study, so I’m going to continue to do as much consulting as I can, but keep it within a framework that doesn’t interfere with my PhD work. There are advantages to keeping a hand in the industry, but it can be distracting.

My research question has evolved over the course of my studies, and I think the key to a practice-based PhD is learning to understand how the practical work relates to the theory. I love the subject matter of my research and it’s been fascinating to think about how to connect the two. It’s very much going to be an evolving process.

I had a hunger to learn again and I’ve definitely been doing that, constantly analysing what I’m doing, opening up different lines of thinking. It’s making me much more observant of the world. My supervisors really challenge me, but I know that’s because they know I can do more; if they see potential in you, they will always push you further. They see things in you that you may not be aware of yet, and I think that is something unique to the RCA.

"Instinctively, I was drawn back to the RCA. I knew that I’d have never have got where I was without that MA. It wasn’t just about the training, but also the way they encouraged me to question my thinking and to constantly reassess the reasons behind every decision. "
Julia Neill
Julia Neill