Celebrated art and design institution Central Saint Martins has been through multiple upheavals and come out stronger. But will it continue to thrive in a rapidly changing world, asks Katie Baron
Fashion’s found itself in a precarious place. At the dawn of a new decade, clavicle-deep in the climate crisis (does the world need any more clothes?), political turmoil and a maelstrom of media channels offering a thousand ways to communicate and consume beyond catwalks, mags and conventional shops, its role and influence has never been more up for debate. With such a seismic shake-up underway, fashion education needs an equally radical rethink: enter superstar-honing Central Saint Martins (CSM), a London institution with dissident thinking deep in its DNA.
Hywel Davies is Programme Director of Fashion at CSM, co-editor of the new title Fashion: Central Saint Martins (Thames & Hudson) and a former student of the college. He says radical originality has always been the lifeblood of CSM, priming it for the progressive new ideas the industry urgently needs. “We’re producing designers and communicators who are independent thinkers,” he tells us. “They are inspired by fashion’s relationship to the wider world, to the extent sometimes it’s barely about the clothes. It’s always been a place for outliers.” Davies’ book explores CSM’s Midas touch via its most prodigious alumni, from courses including design, journalism, promotions and critical theory, but also its legendary kingmaker staff, and seminal collective projects. From Katie Grand to Riccardo Tisci, John Galliano to Molly Goddard, it’s a kind of homage to an alternative hive mind across the decades; a mythical club of non-conformists that members can always plug back into for support (Richard Quinn rents his print studio to other students and designers) and one that’s far more diverse than the big-name success stories may have you believe. With Grand proving you don’t even need to have finished your studies to have its power pulsing through your veins (she famously left to concentrate on establishing Dazed & Confused) it’s fashion’s version of The Firm.
Building on the book’s lead, an exhibition sharing its name runs 5 February – 10 March in the college’s impressive Lethaby Gallery, which aims to visualise the ley lines between historic legacy, creative characters and the future of fashion. Curated by students from the Fashion History & Theory MA course, it’s been engineered to reveal “the essence of [Central] Saint Martins, its integral DNA, and what it’s really like to study here,” says student-curator, Mary McCartan. The timing is pertinent: 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the official merger of London’s Central School of Arts & Crafts and Saint Martins School of Art – a union Vogue magazine described at the time as the death knell for the college, but arguably thrust it into pole position precisely due to the cross-pollination of ideas the merger subsequently incubated.
The show is split into six distinct yet overlapping parts, and includes garments, film footage, writing and drawings. Firstly, there’s By Night – an examination of the influence of nightlife on students’ work, a thematic that runs from the hedonistic days of the Charing Cross Road location where alumni such as stylist Simon Foxton would come straight to class from the Blitz Club or Hell (“the college was really an extension of the clubs”) to new-generation star Charles Jeffrey, an ex-intern at Dior’s couture atelier who is now the theatrical poster boy for post-gender fashion liberation and the closest thing today’s London has to a bone fide club kid/impresario; Loverboy is both Jeffrey’s fashion label and a club night. The potency of such interdependency between fashion, poetry, music and performance raised Jeffrey’s profile – his coterie was once flown into Milan Fashion Week by Gucci to (unofficially) breathe some idiosyncratic life into the event’s party scene – but it’s also, “the way in which Charles paid his way through college” reminds Alistair O’Neill, CSM’s Professor of Fashion History & Theory “showing how nightlife permeates the core of his work in every way, fantastical and practical”. By Night, will include one of Jeffrey’s own coats, emblematic of his nocturnal lifeblood.
Next is Transforming Materials – an odyssey of unorthodox, weird and extreme materials that have re-shaped fashion thinking from the ultra-innovative to the ‘ingenious-on-a-low-budget’, including Alexander McQueen’s infamous ‘bumster’ trousers and a Galliano-crafted waistcoat made from buttons and sample fabrics. The third part, R&D Explorations, offers insights into processes and tools including stylist/set/costume designer Edwin Mohney’s pink gaffer tape ‘dress’, while Against The Grain homes in on projects dealing with eco, ethical debate or social taboos. Key pieces include an open-source text from sustainability pioneer Phoebe English and a t-shirt from original fashion activist and inventor of the protest tee Katharine Hamnett. Section five, Writing, featuring text from fashion journalist, author and critic Alexander Fury’s 2019 haute (it retails at €800+) compendium Chanel: The Impossible Collection. And Drawing completes the zones, in homage to one of fashion’s most important traditional skills, showcasing original sketches from artists and designers, including John Booth, Hussein Chalayan and the late Muriel Pemberton, a renowned artist and lecturer once described by The Independent as having “invented art-school training in fashion in Britain”.
The exhibition also houses the 2019 White collection – CSM’s rite-of-passage challenge for first year BA Fashion students, all of whom are required to produce a garment from a standard-issue two metres of white fabric at the end of their first term. Virgin pieces from future geniuses, O’Neill describes them as a “fundamental symbol of the students’ initial aspirations”. They are a notable first point of an intermedia manifesto; as a project the White Show extends trans-course – journalism students shadow designers while the communications team are required to produce and promote the show. A series of portraits of alumni, shot by MA Fashion Image star Ethan Hart, includes teacher Brian Harris and Kim Jones of luxury goods group LVMH fame, the man who arguably kick-started luxury’s love affair with streetwear.
As for what comes next, Fabio Piras, ringleader of the eighteen-month MA Fashion course – possibly the most covetable design qualification in Europe – should know. Piras, who succeeded the famously demanding, imperious yet well-loved Louise Wilson in 2015, takes approximately 40 students per year from applications numbering 700. She believes the college’s cross-fertilisation – “fundamentally an art school culture” and rigour in cultivating students’ understanding of what they contribute to the industry and “humanity-at-large” is what will redefine fashion’s place in an increasingly complicated world. “The pressure attached to affirmation [created by social media] has become a big problem,” he says. “There’s a sense of readiness and the need to be liked that is, in my opinion, delusional, as if the word fledgling no longer exists and your goal is simply to please. But you can’t leap-frog the mental process that defines who you are and what your work means, and in the current climate being able to assess that value is an incomparably important business skill”.
Piras, somewhat surprisingly, says the most successful designers are those who don’t work autobiographically. “It’s about what’s convincing as a creative statement, having a strong point of view, looking outwards and delivering on a persona. Matty Bovan, for instance, had a point of view that was challenging no matter what, it was never middle of the road. The same with Kim Jones, Craig Green and Charles Jeffrey. We love fashion, but at CSM we also have an inherent disregard for it. We have no taste. That’s why we need wild cards including the people whom I find confusing at the beginning”.
Davies agrees on the wild cards, saying “we often pick people when we weren’t sure how we felt about them ourselves” and while he and Piras both renounce the idea of aesthetic fashion movements within CSM (“there are no movements anymore” states Piras), communities are key – particularly those challenging the status quo around gender, race and identity. Davies namechecks British stylist and art director Ibrahim Kamara whose work for brands including Burberry and Stella McCartney (both helmed by ex-CSM talent) challenges the conventions of traditional masculinity, British-Ghanian photographer Campbell Addy whose portraiture raises questions regarding sex and religion, and photographer Rhea Dillon who’s using her lens to “articulate the black experience”. It’s a new generation of image-makers set to reinvent the language of fashion once more. “You must trust that you have something to say outside the establishment – the establishment being the existing industry, including CSM itself,” says Piras. “Our role is to make it clear that whatever the students think, they have the capacity to change things”.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.