Featured Student: Leoni Schwandt

Tell us about your background.

I have a BA in cultural and social Anthropology, Arabic and Islamic Studies. I’ve always been intrigued by other cultures. I grew up in a conservative catholic village in Bavaria, Germany. My family never really fit into the social milieu there so I developed an interest in everything that was beyond very early on. At the age of 17 I went to India to live with a host family and go to high school, which was one of the mile stones in my personal development. Leaving home so early took most of the fear away of going out and discovering places that seem entirely foreign to me.Despite countless internships and side jobs in museums, cafés, magazines, media agencies, fairs etc., in the end I always end up at university – for my studies and for work. I love the atmosphere and the idea of educating myself and others. Having the chance to learn and respectively pass on the knowledge couldn’t be more rewarding to me. But as an anthropologist I know how crucial it is to go out and listen to other people’s voices, which is often lacking in academia. Since I started studying I’ve lived in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the UK (and Germany of course) but if I hadn’t sat down at my desk at some point and tried to sort the information flood in my brain, I wouldn’t have learnt much from all these experiences. I don’t think I will ever have seen enough of the world around me but I hope I’ll always be wise enough to change my views and opinions from what I see.  

Why fashion?

Thanks to my very liberal parents I could dress up exactly the way I wanted since I was four. I never felt restricted by age or gender. My generous Grandparents would also regularly shop with me and they made me experiment a lot. I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by clothes in different colors and shapes. When I was living in India I realized that what I thought I knew about clothes, and the way they’re used as means of communication, was only a tiny piece of an endless panoply. I want to explore and raise awareness of how different people are using clothing to express personal character, social and political affiliations, gender, age so forth, which is always taken for granted and rarely reflected upon.

Why did you join this MA?

It’s one of the very few courses worldwide that looks at fashion and clothing from a theoretical and historical angle, without enforcing linear timelines or taking a greater focus on Europe and North America. I wanted to share my thoughts with people who were equally passionate about trying to find out what fashion is and what it means to people, rather than repetitively reciting the same ‘great designers’ again and again. I don’t have any interest in creating or selling fashion, I want to know why and how fashion exists. In large parts of my BA I focussed on fashion and particularly men’s fashion, which is not excessively written about in general. Our MA course leader, Dr Shaun Cole, is a well known scholar of men’s fashion. When I first read his description of the course, I thought it was designed specifically for me. It’s perfect.

Give us an example of a particular project you have enjoyed working on during the course.

It’s hard for me to pick one, I’ve enjoyed everything I so far. What challenged me the most was the unit about social theory and fashion. I love the feeling of being overwhelmed with a block of intensely complicated theory and then slowly working through it until I get it. Combining theory and people’s (and my own) behaviour with clothes brings some order into my inner chaos.

What extra curricular activities have you been involved with?

I’ve been course rep, so I attend committee meetings and get an insight into the micro-structures of UAL. I feel it’s my duty to make myself and my fellow students heard, whether it is positive feedback or suggestions for improvement. I’m always happy to receive feedback, so I want to give to the university as well. I’ve been writing for the course blog as much as I could. It’s a great opportunity to practice my writing and share my thoughts without going through the process of publishing a paper.

Where do you hope to be in two years time?

After I graduate I would like to go back to Jordan or Lebanon (depending on the political situation), to speak Arabic again, explore other people’s lives and earn some money. As much as I love studying, I feel I’m losing touch with ‘reality’ sometimes. In two years I will hopefully have gathered enough research to form a PhD.

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