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College of Loud Knocks

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Cardboard crown Linda Waddington design in a student show, topped by a cardboard crown (Tom Stockhill for The Post)
LONDON—The day before the graduate fashion show here at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, students lurk outside Louise Wilson's office. As they approach the closed door, they whisper: "Is she in?"

Oh, most definitely yes.

The course director for the master's program in fashion is inside, taking care of crunch-time catastrophes: last-minute cancellations by models, clothes that are in danger of falling apart – or that fall short of her artistic requirements.

When the door opens, Wilson's booming, demanding, aggravated voice blasts from the interior with the velocity of a monsoon. Anyone in the vicinity is struck by flying reprimands and expletives. This is not a good time.

Yet this is when everyone comes. The international audience of retailers, fashion consultants and press has arrived – scrutinizing and searching for the next breakthrough talent.

Central Saint Martins has become fashion's ground zero, the place where creativity is cultivated.

The college was founded in 1989 when two art schools dating back to the 19th century – Central School of Art and Design and Saint Martins School of Art – merged. In the last five years, its iconoclastic alumni – including John Galliano and Alexander McQueen – have been wooed by fashion's corporate titans. Headhunters for such behemoths as Vendome and LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton have come shopping for creativity, provocation.

Alumni have joined France's esteemed old design houses, reinvigorating them and changing the direction of fashion. Their work has not only altered the look of the clothes that hang in the closets of fashion's elite, but has changed the mood of clothes in general. These newcomers dethroned minimalism with their love for romance, femininity and daring. They challenge sang-froid and cynicism with their novices' belief in fashion's exciting storytelling abilities.

"Our strength is producing students who will be catalysts," says Jane Rapley, dean of the school of fashion and textiles. "We want you to push the edges, to be provocative. But know what you're provoking."

Usually, young designers capture the industry's attention because of the apprenticeships on their resumes. Former assistants to Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, Jean Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada and Geoffrey Beene have all drawn audiences to their debut collections thanks to those former associations.

But now, thanks to its list of flashily successful alumni, a bachelor's or master's degree from Central Saint Martins can conjure up that same kind of buzz. No other design or art school can.

The philosophy at CSM, in this city's Soho district, exemplifies how cultural attitudes about fashion and its economic and social purposes differ from one country to another. The agenda at the school, where 50 percent of the faculty is composed of visiting lecturers from the industry, has been shaped by the nature of the British fashion business. British designers have never been able to compete with Italian production capabilities, their technologically advanced textile mills and well-executed casual chic. French fashion tradition and the artistry of haute couture – founded in Paris in the 19th century by Englishman Charles Frederick Worth – are incomparable.

Designers educated at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design display an unflagging allegiance to realism and practicality. European houses turn to American designers like Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Peter Speliopoulos for their sportswear sensibility and merchandising expertise, among other things. They may dabble in fantasy and describe their work with hyperbole or abstruse language, but commercial viability remains a priority. The American fashion industry markets clothes.

The British industry sells ideas.

"The world is hungry for people who can produce ideas," says Rapley, who came to Central Saint Martins in 1989. "We've always had this peculiar reputation for producing people with ideas."

Wilson Louise Wilson, master's program course director. (Tom Stockhill for The Post)
Fashion Central

At the top of a wide, winding staircase, doors open onto a student workroom populated by young men and women stooped over cutting tables, dressmaker dummies and piles of what the unimaginative eye might see as debris.

Not all of the folks gathered here are design students. Several have been lured with pleading expressions of desperation and cries for help from friends racing to complete their final collections.

The room is depressing. It borders on dank.

The paint is chipping. Pipes are bare. The blinds don't fit properly in the oversize, dirty windows. Large fluorescent lights hang overhead, casting a gray glow over the room and highlighting the remains of a half-eaten cookie.

Dominating the walls are tearsheets from newspapers and magazines featuring Saint Martins's most famous graduate, designer John Galliano. He is the cornerstone in the school's starmaking reputation. The tale of his rise to success has become mythic, growing into an impossible-to-match feat that first attracts and then frustrates students.

"Students come here thinking they're all going to become John Galliano," Rapley says. "A John Galliano happens once maybe in 20 years, 30 years. People often come with rose-colored glasses and are often disappointed."

But a myth is hard to dismantle. So the Galliano tale is told and retold and his work is held up like a talisman of good fortune. More than a decade has passed since Galliano was a student at Saint Martins School of Art. His work grew out of his romantic meanderings through history. He has always favored difficult bias cuts, elaborate details and untraditional fabrics. He sold his graduation collection, "Les Incroyables" (loosely, "The Unbelievables"), to Browns – an influential London boutique with a reputation for launching the careers of designers.

Galliano soon established his own company, and his collections – when he had the financial means to produce them – were exuberantly praised. Yet production, manufacturing and distribution made financial demands he could not meet. But Galliano was so talented – such a genius, as the story mutates into legend – that American Vogue, its editor, Anna Wintour, and man-of-influence Andre Leon Talley put their substantial clout behind him. Eventually, Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH, hired Galliano, first to design for Givenchy, following the retirement of founder Hubert de Givenchy, and then for Christian Dior. Arnault also bought a stake in Galliano's own struggling company.

With the emergence of Galliano, a floodgate opened. Time after time, major fashion houses needing a young designer to inject excitement and inventiveness into a stale collection have turned to Central Saint Martins. Alumni include Givenchy's Alexander McQueen, Chloe's Stella McCartney and Tse's Hussein Chalayan.

McQueen captivated the fashion establishment by affecting a virulent disdain for it. Chalayan plays the enigmatic designer who refuses to take bows and overlays his presentations with anthropological musings. McCartney enchanted insiders with her sweet frocks when all around her were aggressive, somber garments.

A clique of former Central Saint Martins students also helps to form the core of a new generation of innovators. Tristan Webber, Antonio Berardi, Matthew Williamson and the design team Clements Ribeiro all have emerged as distinctive voices that are drawing attention.

What is most significant, however, is not the number of influential graduates but rather the philosophy by which they were educated.

"I think what we represent at Central Saint Martins is the extreme example of what British art and design philosophy is about," says Rapley, who also ran the textile program here for two years and has 20 years of experience working in the industry. "Our philosophy at Central Saint Martins is to push at the edges and the boundaries."

The school's graduates have a reputation for being eccentrics, iconoclasts and individualists. One myth about the school is that alumni can sketch the most mesmerizing and inventive garments but are incapable of sewing on a button. Not true. Yet Rapley admits that dressmaking and tailoring fundamentals are not CSM's forte.

"Some of our foreign students – Japanese, German – come here with wonderful technical skills. They come from a system that prizes that. That's not where our strength lies," says Rapley, 51. "In a highly competitive commercial market, other colleges do that better than we do."

The Apostles of Style

The students hovering over their work are expressionless. Their appearance is unremarkable. And in this bland room, it is almost impossible to believe that a student at this school was inspired to bury fabric, to let it deteriorate and stain, then dig it up and construct clothes with it. But Chalayan did.

    Cuttin' up Cuttin' up at Central St. Martin's College. (Tom Stockhill for The Post)
"You have to be careful who you let go off on these esoteric tangents," Rapley says.

Now, as fashion's great new intellectual, Chalayan was able to keep an audience waiting – impatiently – for more than an hour for the start of his signature fall '98 womenswear show. When it finally began, his models stepped into a mirrored labyrinth, little squares of colored gel dangling from their lips. Ah-ha. Uh-huh. When the presentation ended, the models took their bows but Chalayan refused. As the chattering audience filed into the London night, cerebral interpretations bumped up against visceral irritation.

"I think he is one of the most interesting graduates from the '90s," Rapley says. "He has a way of developing ideas that are more than about the length of a skirt or the sexiness of a frock. He personifies, at one end of the scale, what we're about."

To some degree, the program focuses on indulging and finding inspiration in the esoteric, the bizarre and the shocking.

"It's been quite difficult," says student Linda Waddington, who did her undergraduate work here as well. "You're a bit more forced to make decisions. It's quite conceptual.

"Creatively, you're pushed to the limit," she continues. "There's not so much emphasis on the technical."

So some students, including alumna McCartney, apprentice with tailors to round out their education. "A lot of my contemporaries went [to Central Saint Martins] to learn technical things," McCartney says. "That was the one thing that wasn't so great."

Waddington is putting the finishing touches on her small womenswear collection, which will be included in the graduate show, the finale to this two-year program for which the total two-year tuition is about $13,000. She is crafting a crown from a sheet of cardboard. Her line was inspired by cartoon violence, she says. "It's something quite harsh and silly."

Her post-graduation plan is to take things slowly, work for an established fashion house and then launch her own signature line.

Another student, Lee Holman, has made big, black prehistoric fur dresses. Melanie Smith has created open-weave black knit dresses that form a lattice over a white background, creating the illusion of an abstract cityscape.

To get an entire collection, even just a garment, into this show, the students have to get their ideas and their handiwork past Wilson. This is a formidable task, not the least because every command from Wilson is delivered with the ferocity of a jackhammer. Also, the students are aiming at an ill-defined and constantly moving target.

"I don't have a philosophy for the course," Wilson says. "We don't really know what we're doing. We change it every year. I don't really think about what the mission is."

"What is good work?" Wilson muses. "You just know it when you see it. You just can't explain it. If you work at Mercedes-Benz and someone nips along in a scooter, you know the difference."

She is a graduate of the master's program, worked as a visiting tutor here for several years and in 1992 became the course director. After this show she will take a year's sabbatical to work in New York for Donna Karan.

Wilson is demanding. Volatile and abrasive. But she is not always like this, she says. There are times, in the heart of the semester, when she sits down one-on-one with students to calmly and thoughtfully discuss their work, she says. Now is no time for coddling, no time for hand-holding.

"They're not students. They're adults," she says. Are they afraid of her? A colleague says yes. But then backs down. "There's no fear. I'd never agree with that. It's respect in fear's frock."

Wilson, 36, is dressed all in black. Her long red hair is scooped into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. And on each hand – crowding her knuckles – are two silver rings of jaw-breaking bulk. As she assaults the ear, there is the sense that what really causes her ire is not the students and the demands of this show, but the mundane details, the disorganization and the inflated expectations of the audience. This show has transformed from a display of student work into an audition for the industry fast track.

"The media focuses on the names. Ninety percent of the students in the course are going out into the industry and they never get written about. There's a broad range of fashion: knitwear, textiles, journalism. The only thing with press attention is that it can be very draining on our energy store," Wilson says.

And indeed, when expectations become inflated, when an audience sits waiting for the next genius, the product of a merely talented student looks only fair.

Even the most successful graduates talk of the pressure to be more provocative than their nature allows.

"Saint Martins is really trying to turn out designers who are very individual," says McCartney, daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney. "They pushed you to do crazy things, to use plastic and to do all these themed projects.

"I did all that because I had to do the projects, but when it came time for my show, all I wanted to do was make nice Savile Row suits with embroidery," she continues. "I wondered, 'Is this stuff going to be too boring for a Saint Martins show?' "

The school doesn't set out to create commercial designers. "Why should it? I don't think one should be taught to be commercial, but that what they do could be commercial," McCartney says. "I would have liked for them to say that to me. I used antique lace, hand-dyed lace," in the graduation collection. "Someone wanted to buy the collection and they couldn't. I couldn't make more of the clothes." It was impossible to replicate, en masse and profitably, the beauty in these individually dyed bits of one-of-a-kind lace.

Current students struggle with the same issues. Peter Hawkings and Lucy Russell have worked as a team since their undergraduate days at Middlesex University. They came to Saint Martins because they wanted to further define their style. But they have been disappointed.

"You learn more if you go out into the industry than here. What have we learned here? Not a hell of a lot. We developed our own style. It's good as far as design and inspiration," Hawkings says. "The thing about Saint Martins is that it's all about being very showy. And we wanted to create a collection that was very minimal and clean-cut."

Show Time

The afternoon of the graduate fashion show arrives and the audience has gathered under the Queen's Gate Tent, which sits adjacent to the city's Natural History Museum.

Wilson is trying to extract the hype from the show. Her modest hope is "that the students present their work in a professional manner and that they get jobs." Nothing more.

Many of the clothes reflect the current mood in fashion. Some have obviously been inspired by the challenging and minimalist style of Kawakubo, the romantic ostentation of Galliano, the ethnic street party sensibility of Gaultier. In this regard, they are like the bulk of the established design industry. They have been moved by the mood in the air; they are not out to alter the course of the wind. In this show, at least, no prodigy was revealed.

From backstage, over the din of the show's soundtrack, Wilson's voice rises. The words are muffled. But the voice roars with the mandate of the school.

"We always want more, more, more," she says. "You see good work; you want it better. We push, push, push."

Toward the rear of the tent are the students' cheering friends and family. Up front sits the fashion industry. Not smiling. Leaning forward. Silent, scrutinizing, searching.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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