It takes a college degree to win a prized place for postgraduate study here at the world’s hottest school for fashion, but sometimes less and more will do.
“A few years ago, one of our teachers said, ‘There’s this tailor’s apprentice who is an awkward character, hasn’t had any formal education since he was 16 and can’t draw. But he cuts like a dream, and he has passion, eye, imagination . . . ' We took him,” recalls Jane Rapley. “He was a big gamble, but that is one of the things that we do.”
Risk-taking Rapley is dean of the School of Fashion and Textile Design at Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, a public arts university in the heart of London that is entirely undismayed by its reputation for being more off-the-wall than off-the-peg.
Central St. Martin’s, known in the trade as CSM, is a winsome blend of urban grit, award-winning art and frontier fashion. It is on London’s Charing Cross Road, which is famous for its bookshops, theaters, street life and red-light Soho around the corner. The college is famous for its results.
CSM comes stage center this week during London Fashion Week, when a catwalk of its graduates show their fall designs. Then, next month, CSM celebrates its astonishing invasion of France at the Paris ready-to-wear shows.
The newest star on the far side of the Channel is a 27-year-old rapscallion, a bulky, street-talking cab driver’s son from London’s declasse East End. He is, yes, that not-long-ago and as-ever-awkward tailor’s apprentice named Alexander McQueen.
McQueen aggressively moaned his way through a master’s, chafing at discipline and course requirements. He still doesn’t draw very well despite their best efforts, his former teachers say. But, corsets!--has he flowered.
Five years after leaving CSM, McQueen is now chief designer for Givenchy, where he presented his first haute couture show last month and polished his yob image to mixed reviews.
“I’m really nervous because I can only be myself and couture’s not for the average person. It’s about paying 20,000 pounds [about $35,000] for a dress. It’s for the select few. I mean, you never see these people. You never get invited to their dinner parties. I just work for them,” McQueen told a British fashion writer en route to designing a wedding gown for a Saudi princess.
CSM has not only Givenchy but also Dior in its list of foreign conquests. The new chief designer there, John Galliano, is a plumber’s son from working-class red brick Streatham in South London. There will be no prize for guessing where in London Galliano went to fashion college, or where he taught part time until Paris beckoned.
Both designers are beneficiaries of the networking that is one of the invaluable extras that comes with a CSM education, but, at 37, Galliano has a longer track record than McQueen and is more polished than his new rival.
When Britain’s famously errant Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, launched a journalistic career with the magazine Paris-Match last month, Galliano was her kickoff interview. “How can one hide largish hips like mine?” she asked. He replied, with courtier’s charm, “But they are so much more sensual like that.”
Such is the grist for gossip among the 750 students at CSM with designs on future fashion fame. Tuition for residents of the United Kingdom and European Union countries is $2,500 a year. Others, including a sprinkling of Americans and Japanese, who are the largest contingent of foreigners in a student body that is 25% from aboard, must pay about $9,600, with London’s expensive living costs on top of that.
In the CSM cutting room one recent afternoon, Jason Jennings, a 22-year-old Londoner, was worrying the pattern for a beaded one-shouldered blouse that will highlight his final undergraduate collection. “This year I’m doing slinky, body-hugging dresses. The collection uses a lot of beads and is based on erotic images from the ‘30s,” he said.
Rebecca O’Brien-Oluyemi, at 31 one of the mature students in this year’s graduating class, is playing with playing with variations on ‘60s and ‘70s themes in designing a collection for the larger woman. “My research shows that there’s only four houses that show clothes for bigger women beyond T-shirts and leggings,” she said.
At a speech this month to a meeting of American businessmen, advertising wizard Lord Maurice Saatchi bragged that London had become the creative capital of Europe, particularly in the visual arts, architecture and fashion. He bowed specifically to CSM. “It has to be inspired teaching, don’t you think?” Saatchi said.
And as part of it, perhaps, a polished knack of picking the one applicant in five who gets admitted. “Because of our reputation, we attract a certain type of student,” Rapley said. “But we don’t only take the wild, wonderful, wacky and aggressive ones. We look for imagination, commitment to hard work and the need to say something.”
Once admitted, tomorrow’s fashion designers find themselves rubbing up against jewelry and textile design students as well as potters, painters, sculptors and theater designers.
“I spent a lot of time meeting great people. They have a knack for picking weird and very talented students,” said Katie Grand, 25, who might have graduated with the class of ’94 but instead left to become founding fashion editor of the hip London monthly Dazed and Confused. “The great thing is that at St. Martin’s you are encouraged to do the most bizarre things. The teachers are brilliant and all completely eccentric.”
Could part of CSM’s lure be its facilities and campus? Not. Across the street from the theater that is showing “Blood Brothers,” the school is an undistinguished pile of Industrial Age bricks that squats companionably but with no distinction alongside fast-food joints and Foyle’s, one of London’s landmark bookstores.
Heating conduits and electrical fixtures dangle from the ceilings above scuffed red linoleum in long, white-painted corridors where classrooms and tutors’ offices crouch behind old wooden doors dressed in glossy black.
Loonies sashay in off the street with fair regularity; security guards dissuade them. But the outlandish ideas that students bring back from their own close encounters with London are more than welcome.
Indeed, Rapley said CSM’s location is one of its success secrets, together with its international mix of students and a corps of visiting instructors who work in the fields they come part time to teach about.
This year’s fashion week is a who’s who of young CSM alumni: Fabio Piras, Clements Ribeiro, Pearce Fionda, Sonja Nuttall, Hussein Chalayan, Stephen Fuller, Griffin, Justin Oh, Antonio Berardi, Katharine Hamnett, Paul Frith, Rifat Ozbek, Bill Gibb, Joe Casely-Hayford.
“We try never to forget that we are an art school. Art is at the core of design. When students first come we tell them that they must be visually greedy. After that, it is up to them,” said Rapley above the rumble of double-decker buses and police-car sirens. “I am fond of saying that the role of the designer is to find a visual language for those who can’t do it for themselves.”
One gray afternoon last week, Anna Ziesche interrupted her dialogue with a tailored jacket featuring a sculpted collar-cum-scarf to model a striking, heavily stylized Oriental gown designed by a Japanese classmate.
“Back home in Germany, fashion schools are not so international, and they emphasize cutting. Here, you do a project every couple of weeks and you must finish something. You become a designer,” said the 25-year-old Hamburg native.
Like all his design classmates at CSM, Paul Richardson, 22, dreams of the day when he will present his own signature collection--preferably back home in Newcastle in northern England.
“London’s not always easy, but this school has been a good choice, you’re always on the go,” said Richardson over drawings for a paneled evening dress in lightweight cashmere with a huge stand-up collar.
Designer Wendy Dagworthy, the fashion course director at CSM, said students are encouraged to take learning into their own hands. They may be sent out across the city to see an art exhibition with instructions to design a collection inspired by their view of a particular artist. They design collections for Barbie dolls, and collections based on a piece of music, or architecture, “or serial killers, for that matter,” Dagworthy said.
“We want to challenge them, to know what’s going on and to push it much further, to experiment. If one collection’s a disaster, so what, you’ve still learned something,” she said.
Dagworthy is proud of CSM’s maverick image. “We are sometimes criticized as the school whose students design unwearable clothes. But once you’ve done the research to get to that point, you can always back up,” she said.
This year, the CSM master’s show Friday will climax London Fashion Week. Dagworthy says to look for a soft-edged romantic collection, with lots of blacks and grays, a certain transparency with paler and flowery fabrics. Experiments in fabrics will extend to georgettes, chiffons and laces, she said, with texture as important as design.
Fashion week is a trade-off time. CSM students will traipse from show to show, cadging tickets to see the work of designers who preceded them at the school. And the designers will see the CSM show--for a peek at tomorrow.
“Nearly all the new designers are from St. Martin’s. And as a matter of fact, there are a number of very good designers studying with us right now,” Dagworthy said with a gambler’s winning smile.