The Royal College of Art, with its emphasis on cross-disciplinary fashion education and small-scale approach to teaching, has earned a reputation for nurturing exceptional talent in its menswear, womenswear and knitwear courses.

We spotted a wealth of potential in this year's thirty fashion graduates, which the college has helped them develop. The collection's individual differences in concept and execution were a clear testament to how research into materials and techniques is stimulated here, but most of all, how the post-graduate environment encourages risk-taking. At the RCA, the experience of designing a final collection is about the personal journey of exploration and creation.

The overarching mood of this season's show? 'There is a lot of fabric manipulation going on,' explains Professor Wendy Dagworthy. 'The students are all inspired by different things, so the collections are very individual, but there's a powerful theme overall. The School of Materials has clearly had an effect. We encourage research into new materials and we allow students to go into workshops in different fields and experiment.'

Professor Dagworthy, one of the founders of London Fashion Week, is retiring from the RCA this year after a 16-year tenure, during which she has cemented the institution's status as a breeding ground for creativity. It makes this year's graduate show particularly momentous.

Pieces of fashion architecture could be found in Katherine Roberts-Wood's womenswear collection, whose rigid silhouettes with undulating details were constructed from harness-like felt structures. Louise Annis cut her coats with curved, reinforced shoulders, offered up new pocket forms, and a bolder saturation point - pairing Pop-hued crimson with magenta.

Big shapes recurred throughout the show, also in softer silhouettes like James Kelly's oversized parkas with feathery surfaces and Eva-Maria Suviste's collection, where silky fabrics on loose-cut garments became bulky through tightly woven frayed panels. Material experimentation is after all the college's calling card. Emma Hardstaff seemed to bring a coherent synthesis of the womenswear theme, crafting her own crackled metallic fabric concoction, composed of foiled fake fur and lace.

A standout menswear collection by Ellen Pederson played with ruching and gathering details, bringing a lightweight feeling of sophistication to masculine shapes. Dan Prasad took the classic men's suit and updated it by removing the collar, but adding fabric elsewhere, in the form of strips and longer under layers that added fluidity.

As Professor Dagworthy concludes her immensely influential career, we quizz her about the past and present...

W*: What exactly is the role of education in fashion design? What do your students have that self-taught designers may not?
Professor Wendy Dagworthy: A fashion education teaches technical skills, like drawing and creative pattern cutting. If you've don't have a formal education, you will of course have a more open mind, because there are no rules in place. But I do think an education makes you better equipped. You learn how to inform others of what you want. How to communicate through drawing what a pattern cutter has to execute. At the RCA we encourage personal research and through education you learn how to use that research fully.

Fashion has become more present as a career choice. Is there an evolution you've seen in the designers that have been under your tutelage, in how they approach their education?
Yes, they are more aware. Everything around them affects them - music, art exhibitions - it's all connected. They're also more professional. When we started we didn't know what we were doing, there weren't even seasons to work towards! Most colleges now also have professional guidance, so students know their options more: they can start on their own or they can work within the industry. They learn how to behave, put a portfolio together. More and more students now venture into film; we encourage them to find other ways of presenting their work.

As a designer yourself, what have you tried to express?
I looked at travel and different cultures like India and Africa. I was also inspired by workwear. It was an easy, comfortable look, which was about making unusual things work together with attention to detail.

Has it influenced your judgment as a teacher?
Yes, with students I tend to look at details, like what type of buttons to use. But as a teacher the most important thing you try to nurture is the confidence to believe in yourself. You have to know what's going on around you but you have to keep your individuality. And of course enjoy it.