Stella McCartney. Alexander McQueen. Mary Katrantzou. Matthew Williamson. John Galliano. Christopher Kane.
… And me. Well, not exactly.
I wasn’t expecting to become the next international design aficionado, but I was about to enter the hallowed halls of London’s Central Saint Martins to study for a summer semester.
If, like my Dad, you’ve never heard of this Martin Central place, it’s the very fashionable arm of London’s University of the Arts. A concrete chapel of all things creative, its campus sits overlooking Kings Cross Station (yes, the home of JK Rowling’s Platform 9¾) and its diverse palette of programs attracts thousands of applicants from all over the globe every year.
Business of Fashion has CSM (as it’s commonly referred to by students, alumni and those in-the-know) ranked Number 1 as part of its Global Fashion School Rankings. But it’s not only fashion-focused. BA and MA programs range from Acting to Architecture, Fine Arts to Product Design.
The fact the school’s façade resembles that of a hospital seems somewhat fitting, considering it’s given birth to a bevvy of today’s most successful fashion innovators. Over half of London Fashion Week’s schedule is comprised of shows by CSM grads.
And still, this Harvard of fashion education institutions continues to groom the next generation of boundary-breaking creatives. If you have any doubts, take a quick stalk of the CSM Instagram account. The Saint Martin pupil is a perfect hybrid of downright genius and wonderfully weird.
And then there was me.
I had read about this consecrated college for years. I had dreamt of discovering what went on within those fortress-like walls. I wanted to know what kind of fashion royalty roamed the corridors and chaired classroom seminars, dispersing wisdom like some sort of fashion fairy dust.
I don’t consider myself a genius and neither am I notably wacky. But last year, after applying for a place in the Fashion Communication Summer Study Abroad program I found myself passing through British customs with a six-month study visa, a bag bursting with potential outfits and a belly full of butterflies. I was about to discover what all the fuss what about.
Was I nervous? Yes. Was I excited? Totally. Was I worried my wardrobe wouldn’t live up to the standards of those uber-cool fashion kids, crystalised between the pages of the college’s very own start-up publication, 1Granary? You bet.
I prayed for a dusting of that fashion fairy dust, but beyond the course guide and customary clichés, what was I to expect?
Long hours, nerve-evoking critiques (or ‘crits’ as we came to know them) and a schedule more compact than the Kings Cross tube at peak-hour quickly unfurled before me and my newfound peers.
What did a typical day involve? There was no such thing. One day we’d be scribbling words straight from the lips of industry insiders, feeling as if our brains might burst from an OD of expertise. The next, we’d be weaving our way through the exhibits on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, collecting inspiration for tomorrow’s presentation. Or rushing from SoHo to Savile Row, eagerly awaiting the tour that would introduce us to McQueen’s apprentice studio.
My class looked something like the Small World ride at Disneyland. We were American, Spanish, Australian, Russian, French and Japanese. We all had different upbringings, tastes and varied interests within the fashion-sphere, but we learnt each others broken English and local slang, and laughed, cried and went dancing together (when we weren’t arguing over who jammed the 3D printer, again).
The tutors were our friends, but they weren’t there to mess around. To say they encouraged us to think outside the box would be an understatement. We were constantly pushed to extract something new. If you’d seen it before, it was guaranteed your tutors would have, too.
I learnt the hard way that being late wasn’t cool. Doors will lock the moment the big hand passes the hour, and “the tube was delayed” is never a valid excuse. Coffee had to wait until after class, unless you were somehow virtuoso at balancing it, your oyster card, sketchbook and lunch atop a double-decker bus. I tried, and failed (and wore my Americano for the rest of the day). Being on time doesn’t cut the mustard. Being early is a CSM must.
The library was my favourite place:an archive containing every edition of every fashion magazine and coffee table encyclopaedia you could possibly envision. Like David Attenborough in the jungle, I would sit for hours and watch the CSM species come and go.
Yes, they were impeccably well-dressed, and I learnt to tell the drama kids (mostly dressed in black athleisure-like wear) from the fashion students (mostly dressed in something they crafted themselves).
But despite the diverse student body, I also learnt there was an underlying CSM “look.” Never before had I considered wearing a masculine trench coat with a pair of sneakers, and I had no idea what a Grenson loafer was. But two weeks in, I became obsessed with this ‘too-cool-for-school-style’ that everyone interprets and adapts after a while. It’s championed by tutors, students and the ladies behind the front desk (yes, the admin wear Marques’Almeida, too). I even saw a lunch lady wearing a pair of Céline shoes.
But when asked about my time studying in the fashion capital of cool, I find most friends are surprised when I encourage them to give it a crack, too.
If it’s not for an entire semester, check out their Summer School. It even includes a week-long class dedicated to hunting the city’s “cool.” Rumour has it Alexa Chung was spotted on a field trip to Shoreditch, and Dover Street Market’s designer-elite frequent the fourth-floor bakery for something sweet to eat.
Pondering a stint studying abroad? Or a June/July escape? It’s worth checking out what Saint Martin’s has to offer. A CV and folio application might be all it takes.
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