Understanding Central Saint Martins

It can be overwhelming to consider just how many designers there are in the world. At any given time, there are numerous young talents looking to find a way into the fashion industry, pouring their every effort into the next collection that will define them. But for all these creative spirits, we often only hear about a few. For designers hoping to break into the fashion industry, the odds they face are immense. Producing quality work is only the first step, as many barriers stand between aspiring designers and commercial success. From personal connections, to education and training, to the razor-thin margins that brands must maintain to stay afloat, the journey is not an easy one. In this piece, we focus on just one of these barriers—education—turning to one of fashion’s most significant kingmakers: Central Saint Martins. 

Central Saint Martins (CSM) was formed when two London schools—the Central School of Arts and Crafts and St. Martin’s School of Art—merged in 1989. While Central was primarily known for its theatre and arts, St. Martins was known as a fashion school. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, CSM gained acclaim and renown as a center for innovation and discovery in global fashion. Today, it stands apart as one of the most reputable and rigorous institutions that designers can hope to train at.

One of the school’s most vital contributions is its masters program exhibitions. Since the 1980s, fashion’s up-and-comers have used their graduating collections to communicate a statement about fashion on the world stage. For designers like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, the graduating show was a chance for a young designer to make his name. With their graduating collections, McQueen, Galliano, and others like Stella McCartney managed to leave a lasting impression on the world of fashion that would inform the interpretation of their work for decades to follow. 

In many ways, McQueen and Galliano, who went on to work for some of Europe’s most vaunted fashion houses, helped build the reputation that CSM graduates enjoy today. In Galliano’s case, the CSM collection he produced upon graduation as a young man in 1984 rivaled the work of Vivienne Westwood, Britain’s most subversive designer at the time. It was a demonstration that the old guard of the couture houses would have to turn to the younger generation, who had, themselves, begun to find inspiration outside the cloisters of European names like Dior and Balenciaga, turning to exciting new influences like the burgeoning Tokyo fashion scene. 

Hilary Alexander, a fashion correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, commented that putting a cash value on CSM’s contributions to fashion would lead one into the millions. The school derives revenue from close relationships with large, global clothing retailers and manufacturers, and its reputation puts it in a position to equip students with valuable brand partnership opportunities. Kiko Kostadinov, for instance, had the opportunity to pursue an extended partnership with Stussy while he was a student at CSM. 

Describing the educational philosophy at CSM, Alexander put it this way,

The training is very anti-establishment. But that is underpinned by a knowledge of pattern cutting and how clothes hang. It's not an anarchic free-for-all, there's a rigour in terms of the disciplines that go towards making a designer.

In other words, the school’s method marries the iconoclasm of its star graduates with the decades of technical expertise in design that comprise its history. For aspiring designers, a CSM degree is an opportunity to learn from the best minds in the industry, and to use those lessons to make a mark of their own on the history of fashion.

Institutions like Saint Martins perform a gatekeeping function even as they remain essential intellectual centers of fashion research and design. It is not always enough for a new designer to have a groundbreaking design, sometimes what really matters is having a place to show it off. 

Today, there are many exciting recent CSM graduates who are making waves in the world of fashion. Among the leading lights of this new generation of young designers are Kiko Kostadinov, Craig Green, and Yang Li, each of whose work embodies the ethos of CSM—deep, practiced craft, coupled with blistering originality.

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