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Intelligent Design

At London`s Central Saint Martins College, professors are hard at work fashioning the style world`s next generation of stars.

Author Sarah Horne Photography Vicki Churchill

Image – Vicki Churchill

ON A NEARLY Arctic January day in London’s Soho, Matthew Harding, a slim-year-old Englishman with slicked-back sandy brown hair and fine features, sorts through a bin filled with fabric samples and rough patches of sheepskin. “I found a great old rug from the seventies,” he says, picking up one weathered square of animal hide. “But for the runway I’m trying to source pieces that are a bit, well, less nasty.”

Around him in the MA Fashion studios at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, the storied British institution that has schooled the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Pierce Brosnan and Sir Terence Conran in everything from fine art to drama, students in black hoodies and skinny jeans are shuffling around their work spaces with stacks of patterns and swathes of fabric. The drab, freezing room three stories above Charing Cross Road is worlds away from the dramatically lit catwalks of London Fashion Week, where the most promising of these students will show their work in a month’s time.

Unlike the slick studios of Project Runway or Launch My Line, there is no “accessories wall” here, no L’Oréal Paris makeup studio, no guarantee of overnight stardom. The windows rattle in the wind, paint peels off the walls. In 2011, the school will move out of its ramshackle digs and into a state-of-the-art facility near Kings Cross railroad station. Until then, students shiver, La Bohème–style. The only hint of the stakes they face is a wall one floor down, where some of the most prominent alums of CSM’s fashion program have scrawled their names in pencil. John Galliano. Alexander McQueen. Stella McCartney.

Phoebe Philo. Zac Posen.

No pressure.

Harding’s neat, chest-high studio desk is bare but for some sketches for his masters collection, the sum of nearly a year and a half of work. The 10-plus looks he will present in the coming weeks to Professor Louise Wilson, the formidable head of the program, are also the culmination of almost “seven hard-core years” of studies at the college. Today, he jokes, running on about four hours of sleep a night, his fingers blistered, “It’s really very unglamorous. You’re up at six-thirty in the morning, cutting garments, doing five people’s jobs at once.”

Just half of the students in these rooms will be selected to show at London Fashion Week, hitting the runway on the same day as the prestigious Burberry show, when droves of international press will be in attendance.

Across the room, Cornel Bolt, a 29-year-old from Switzerland with a shock of blond hair and heavy-framed glasses, is circumspect about his chances. “I try not to think about it,” says Bolt. “People are really competitive. I mean, nobody’s going to steal my scissors from my desk. It’s not sabotage. But it’s been a really tough process. I was expecting it to be hard. I had no idea just how…” A middle-aged female technician interrupts his sentence, clearly getting impatient. “Cornel, do you have something for me to cut? Or am I just going to sit here all morning waiting for you?” With that, Bolt shrugs apologetically and gets back to the task at hand.

One floor down, Wilson, the source of the students’ skittishness, sits behind a spare desk, her hair pulled back in a plain ponytail. In her office, she scans their sketches and judges their final pieces with characteristic bluntness. Some students liken the process to an evisceration.

“I’m not the Simon Cowell of fashion,” she snaps, clearly weary of the comparison. “But we’re not clinking champagne glasses and air-kissing each other here, congratulating ourselves over making another little star. It’s not about coming here and being dusted with fairy dust. I’m an educator. I come in at eight, I work till eight or nine, I’m overweight, I go home, I lie on the bed and I eat Kit Kats.”

When some of her MA students first arrive, says Wilson, she faces the uphill battle of tearing down everything they think they know about fashion. She breaks off into one of her riffs. “We’re dealing with a group of students who say they’re inspired by fountains and silver chairs, and they carry designer handbags. It transpires that they have very few skills, and they don’t make things to wear. They’re used to seeing their fashion in a picture. I’m used to seeing fashion on a body. So they try to bully me into submission by showing me what they think they’re doing fabulously, and I bully them into the fact that they need to show me clothes on a human.”

When asked if her tactics amount to tough love, Wilson grumbles, “It’s not tough love. It’s hard, analytical teaching, one-to-one between my staff and the students. It’s got nothing to do with love, with favorites.” But even Wilson, who goes on to growl a bit more about working for an underfunded institution “where the bloody heating doesn’t work!” softens into something approximating a purr when she pauses to consider the “mystique of the place. Yes. It’s something.”

Jane Rapley, CSM’s Head of College, is thoughtful about the pressure that faces students such as Harding and Bolt and idiosyncratic educators such as Wilson. “It’s a horrible pressure, and it’s a lovely pressure. We don’t want people to imagine, ‘Oh, at CSM they’re all too up their own bottoms, too grand for me.’ We have to sometimes disabuse our students— ‘You might have been a star in your own small pool, but you have to work at it.’ You’ve got students here who have palpable ambition. A lot of them have to learn how to grow up. CSM might get the door off the latch, but I tell students, ‘It’s you that walks through. All the degree will do is maybe open the door, but in the end you are the creative force.’”

For Anne Smith, who heads the fashion program at Central Saint Martins, there is the humdrum work of educating, and then there are the moments that make you catch your breath. “I remember Christopher Kane’s graduating show,” Smith says, referring to the talented Scottish designer who now heads up Donatella Versace’s couture collection. “Sitting front row, it was a sort of spine-tingling moment, and I thought, this is new and fresh. There are always strong students, but every two or three years there is someone who makes you gasp, who you know will go all the way.”

Back in the MA studios, there’s a rack of semifinished clothes beside Harding, offering just a hint of what his final collection will look like. There are sharply tailored sheepskin pencil skirts and psychedelic structured blouses that look as though they could be worn by a time-traveling Elizabethan courtesan. “I think I’ve come to something that’s a little bit Narnia Snow Queen,” Harding muses. “I like to play with structure. I like it when you look at a piece of clothing and wonder how it works. I create nightmares for myself making these laborious things.”

At the end of the day, Harding hopes to establish his own line, but he’s willing to work his way up through the ranks of the fashion industry. “I’d love to work at Givenchy, or Lanvin. But it’s not about being bathed in the golden light and just making it overnight. In the end, you just don’t want to disappoint yourself.”

SARAH HORNE is glad to see that British eccentricity is alive and well.

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