LONDON, United Kingdom — Design is generally about function leading form in a problem-solving exercise that almost always starts with a sense of discontent with what is generally available and a strong determination to make it better and even change radically a template that might have been used for many years. The result, in the hands of the right practitioner, is a completely new solution to the problem, a solution that works for the times, and makes previous thinking irrelevant.
In most design situations there is certainly some looking back and learning from the past — what modern architect would be modern if he didn’t know of the great masters from Palladio to Le Corbusier? But the knowledge is there only to inform new thinking, with no attempt to re-present old ideas as something new in design disciplines.
With the exception of cheap mass housing that works on the principle that deep in our psyches lies a desire to live in something as near to an eighteenth century country cottage as modern technology can create, fashion stands alone in its desire to put form before function and revisit earlier and often quite recent dress eras, in an almost endless series of revivals.
In an increasingly desperate attempt to hide the banality of current fashion thinking, some clueless designers, drafted in to revive old-established labels, actually sell exact copies of the original maestro’s most successful creations from the past, which is about as futile as car kits that clothe a modern machine in a pastiche of a roadster of 70 years ago. Pathetic in car kit sellers; disgraceful in highly paid and ludicrously over-valued fashion stars
Why does all this happen?In order to answer this, I would like to look at what is happening in tertiary education in the United Kingdom as a result of the current government’s financial policies, which have allowed universities and colleges to fix their fees up to the level of £9000 per student per year. Predictably, even colleges charging much less now feel that they must obtain permission to charge the full amount. In fact it has already become part of the never-ending fight between academics in their desire to exalt their status and I have heard it said by just those people that if they do not charge the full amount it will be assumed that their establishment is inferior to others with whom they are in competition.
So it requires no crystal ball to see that within a very brief time all colleges will be charging the full amount for tuition fees — and, I suspect, along with the government quietly phasing out the safeguards such as scholarships and bursaries currently being put in place to sweeten the bitter pill. So education as a right becomes education as a privilege which, like most privilege has to be bought.
How might this affect arts training generally and fashion training specifically?
Any family facing fees of £9000 per year for three or four years must look closely at the benefits such an investment might bring. Initially, at least, these benefits often come from following a path of conformity. But conformity is not where creativity begins. An original eye (and the creative results that might come from it) develops contrapuntally to what is currently accepted as the mood of the moment — and let’s not forget that all great creativity is the result of a divine discontent with the status quo — a discontent that forces a new vision to the fore.
Creators must, by definition, be revolutionaries — and that has been the basis of our liberal art school philosophies for over a hundred years. It has produced David Hockney and Damien Hirst; Ossie Clarke and Alexander McQueen; none of whom came from families who could afford large fees for a college education about which they understood little. But the most important value of state-aided education is that in the past it has produced the politically alien force that drives forward creative change.
True creativity is always political and almost by definition stems from a feeling of alienation that comes from the belief that the creator is excluded from the political mainstream of his time. When Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Stephen Jones were students, their lives were those of outsiders. With no money, few prospects, no homes (like other impecunious students, they mostly lived in squats) and an abiding hatred of a society that had produced Thatcherism, they had everything to fight against. Their social alienation was the grit that made the pearl.
That was twenty-five and more years ago and during that time the world has changed. We have increasingly accepted privilege as a right — and one that should be pursued as much as equality was fought for in the past. And such thinking is echoed in the attitudes of our art schools which are, only to often, equally as compliant and complacent. Not surprising.
Whereas students used to want to smash a system they felt was weighted against them, now the students I meet in colleges have usually taken on the middle class aspirations of their tutors and wish to preserve — and join — the ‘make money and be a success’ system. It may sound simplistic, but this is surely the reason why so many of the graduates and post-graduates of our fashion colleges are so incredibly complaisant and conformist.
They are encouraged to be so by The British Fashion Council which is heavily weighted in the direction of the high street, a perfectly acceptable position to be in, but the thinking of the high street has increasingly affected our educational bodies — and of course their products. That is why, despite the hysterical hype of our young designers, there is barely a handful that is not producing stereotypical clothing that not only reflects what is already available in the high street but is never as well made or competitively priced.
Who is it that advises a young designer whose name is barely known four miles a way from Hoxton to charge well over a thousand pounds for a very ordinary dress? And whose interests are they serving — certainly not the long term prospects of the young designer. And, only too often, they are the same people who accept without a qualm when a few seasons later that talent has disappeared, sacrificed on the get-rich-quick approach that knows that when one log has burnt out rather quickly there is always another waiting to be thrown on the pyre.
To conclude, it is generally accepted that the future of fashion depends upon the future of fashion education, although I have some doubts about that. If that education is allowed to become the privilege of the rich and comfortably middle class then London will never regain its position as the crucible of creativity it only so recently had.
Students who see the pinnacle of their hopes and aspirations as buying the latest Prada handbag or getting a table at the Wolesely are of no use at all to London fashion. And, in case it might be said that I have been unfair to our colleges, I would suggest a reality check. British design education (including fashion education) is good, but it is time we stopped using the old mantra that claims they are the best. Their complaisancy has in many cases been there undoing., and what they had that made them leaders has long gone.
For example, is there any proof at all that they are currently producing any graduates with a ghost of a chance of reaching the level of creativity that, say, Marc Jacobs gives us each season? I think not — because the will to change things has been subsumed in the desire for fame and money, not at the peak of a career but as little as five years in. And with it has gone the desire for outrage. Until that is regenerated, many might think £9000 a year rather too high a price for a fashion education that ends up with the high street.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion