Lecturer Kirsty Smith on skateboarding culture and her passion for teaching
Kirsty Smith is a Senior Lecturer with Subject Leader remit in Fashion Communication at Plymouth College of Art, overseeing modules in Fashion Photography and Fashion Film, as well as running the annual student visits to both London and Paris Fashion Week.
Alongside being part of Plymouth College of Art's impressive academic team, Kirsty is working on her PhD in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, and a number of her research outcomes have been selected to be part of an exhibition at London's Somerset House. The show, which will look at the culture of UK skateboarding, is due to open in July 2021.
We sat down with Kirsty to hear her advice for future Fashion Communication students, her passion for the skateboarding culture and how her own work has influenced her teaching.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Lecturing is an incredibly rewarding career. It has afforded me unlimited possibilities to help shape generations of students. My personal approach to teaching is a healthy balance of making mistakes while finding solutions to creative briefs. This is my way of supporting students to become passionate, inquisitive, and adaptable to new challenges.
What makes the course at Plymouth College of Art (PCA) unique compared to other fashion courses?
At PCA we are a completely industry-focused course, led by staff who have worked in industry and/or still do.
We are situated in a city but surrounded by moors and seascapes, our students are able to produce outcomes without needing to travel far, reducing the impact of the course's carbon footprint.
With an abundance of opportunity, students benefit from the same spaces where Nick Knight, i-D magazine and multiple brands come to shoot their own images and campaigns.
As we are smaller than average universities, PCA offers a great deal from interdisciplinary work that occurs between different courses. It also means that as staff we understand the characteristics of individuals and are able to respond to students' interest on a personal level.
How has your own work informed and developed your teaching?
Years of shooting fashion photography led to a developing interest in videography. Watching the industry evolve has enhanced my understanding of fashion culture as well as my own portfolio. I draw upon this knowledge to help students focus on realising the complexities of fashion media while inspiring them with real life examples from my own portfolio. Combine this with a lifelong love of skateboarding, the attributes that have shaped my personality often mean that I don't shy away from a challenge and I love to push boundaries. I want students to feel empowered to challenge themselves and the industry. To benefit from what is current and innovative, to want to be at the forefront of our discipline.
How did your interest in fashion and skateboarding come about?
Like most things in my life I can honestly say by chance! I was originally at university to study contemporary craft, believing I wanted to be a furniture maker. During this time I fell out of love with furniture and in love with photography. I also met my partner who was studying media journalism. He was made a full-time member of the Sidewalk, a UK skateboard magazine and I found myself assisting on a full-time basis. Before either of us really fully understood what was happening we found ourselves globe-trotting, shooting for brands and as they say ‘living the dream’. After a number of years of what can only be described as ultimately amazing carnage, I stepped back to focus on my own career.
Fashion photography has always been my love. In the early years of my university life, I often travelled to London to shoot catwalk for magazines, while assisting studio photographers. Working alongside my husband, I found myself shooting and styling for very different brands, mainly streetwear and skate related companies.
After a break from high-end fashion, I returned to shoot for Vogue, Harpers, GQ, La Perla, Calvin Klein, BBC, Vauxhall, Nike SB, DC Shoes, Vans, Quiksilver (the list goes on as do the stories!) predominantly street style, catwalk and back of house. These styles of photography all rely heavily on quick thinking to capture the shot, skills I value learning from years spent working in the skateboard sphere.
As a creative, do you agree that you never stop learning?
When I say we never stop learning, I truly believe that is our human story. I believe creativity is simply living in a constant flux of questions, most of which we will never answer but lead us along the most incredible journeys of discovery. I see my practise as a photographer and videographer as a way to engage, entertain, and inform my audience. These passions are often challenged by what I think about, what I do and who I want to be. What's more, when I invest in my learning I am often inspired, which in turn expands my knowledge and impacts the way I produce images and films. By surrounding yourself with diverse individuals, creative and inspiring people, learning becomes a natural investment in others and yourself.
What advice would you give students starting their studies now?
The word on everyone’s lips right now is COVID. Students are unsure if it is a good time to study or not. My advice COVID or not, university is always going to be a challenge but a great one!
My tips for starting right now is to really think about what you want from your experience. Do your research by looking at each course prospectus and prepare questions in advance. Be active in asking what you want to ensure you have a clear picture of what to expect from the course.
How many hours will you have with your lecturers each week?
How easy is it to book out facilities such as computers or studios?
How many other students are on the course?
Finally ask fellow students about their experiences, students are pretty honest about giving you the facts. At PCA we welcome any questions students may have and encourage you to meet us at open days, virtually or in person. You can chat with me now via our Unibuddy platform, just look for my name in the staff chat page!
What has been your most “pinch me” fashion moment to date?
I suppose for me one ‘pinch me’ moment was attending the BAFTA’s. A highlight of my career so far. Our short film, Island Queen was nominated for the Best British Short Film in January 2014. Directed by Ben Mallaby, the budget production was made in Cornwall. I doubled up as both the gaffer and second videographer. To be seated alongside superstar actors and actresses was incredible and a night never to be forgotten.
Who is your fashion icon and why?
Personally, I think icons are humans who challenge the world and seek success in ways others don't necessarily recognise. I prefer to be inspired by knowledgeable voices who test you and challenge you to think outside of the box. For me people like Spike Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Tarana Burke and Spike Jonze. Within fashion, I am inspired by brands such as Aday, Bakoto and Patagonia. They are companies way ahead of the high-end labels when it comes to sustainable approaches to design.
What is the best advice that you have been given?
Advice can come in all shapes and sizes. For me, the best advice came from watching an interview with David Bowie some years back and this has stayed with me ever since.
"If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. When you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting."
I think we all need to step into spaces that test us and not fear failure. Some of my best work has come from being totally out of my depth.