LONDON, United Kingdom — I just finished reading the interview with Jane Rapley, the Head of College at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in this month’s Luxury Briefing, and I couldn’t help but think that for a school that prides itself on being progressive, she sounded behind-the-times when it comes to the way the industry works and what her students need to thrive in it.
Take for instance her answer to the question: Is it difficult to teach ‘creatives’ to be business-focused? She says:
“Yes, it’s terribly difficult! And we don’t always try…Product design is very much about the market because the way it works is that you identify a gap, research it, answer a very specific problem and quantify it. It is a more analytical process than being a textile designer. However, we don’t necessarily expect a great engineer or scientist to be a great business person or a musician to know how to run an orchestra, so does a designer need to know about business?”
Um, YES. This is a business. Just because they’re not plugging numbers into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean scientists don’t know the basics of their business. In a previous life when I was working with scientists involved in packaging, I was surprised to find they all knew that without the support of the marketing division, they had no hope of getting their ideas off the drawing board. They were all too aware of costs per unit, of minimum number of sales required, all those business-y things.
Rapley goes on to say:
“Our responsibility is to make them [the design students] understand the areas where they don’t have expertise and surround themselves with people who do. McQueen is a very good example. By chance, or by design, he surrounded himself with some very interesting people who were prepared to buy into his vision and allow him to make it happen. We’re not about trying to develop all of those skills in one person.”
First of all, I think this does a great disservice to McQueen, who has had a series of strong managers by his side. Partnerships like that do not just happen. In order to find a good manager, designers have to stop thinking of managers as people who need to buy into their vision. Instead, they have to respect the job they do and listen to their advice.
Talented managers get a thrill out of building businesses in the same way designers get a thrill out of creating a new silhouette. A potent partnership must be founded on mutual respect. Hussein Chalayan is practically glowing these days, so happy is he to have met a manager with whom he gets along (Puma’s Jochen Zeitz). To say managers are there to back someone else’s vision, goes a long way towards explaining why there’s such a shortage of talented managers willing to work in fashion.
Look at all the trouble this attitude caused Christian Lacroix when he expected the managers at LVMH to bend to his will. They got so fed up with his lack of understanding, his refusal to compromise for the sake of profits, that they sold his brand. The days of designers being able to create whatever their hearts desire and have a hope of staying in business are long gone — if they ever existed.
I think what makes me so upset about this interview, is that I am very frequently asked for help by designers who all want the same things — money and someone to help them “sort out” the business side as if it were an adjunct to their activities. Let’s make this clear: If you’re in fashion, you’re in business. If you want to create things for pure aesthetic joy, then you should be on an art course. If more students at CSM were being taught the basics of their business at college it would give them a huge lift in the future. Even if they never intend to strike out on their own, how much more persuasive could they be in fighting for their ideas if they understood the implications in production costs, margins, overheads, etcetera? It appears that the primary way CSM deals with this is by sending students to do internships and hope they pick it up through osmosis. Jane said:
“We need to provide the students with an awareness of the range of skills that they have to have if they want to go into somebody else’s business and where their creativity fits alongside the accountant, the production engineer, the marketing people, the retail people. Some pick that up post-graduation and have the drive to become very business minded. And there’s nothing like going out into the world and finding that you have nothing to eat at the end of the week to encourage that!”
Internships can certainly be helpful, but it seems these students are being sent out into the world not fully prepared for the reality of business. As a journalism student, I was taught the basics of media law, production, and even ad sales. Of course, magazines and newspapers have other people to do those things on a day-to-day basis, but as the people creating the content that is at the center of the enterprise, it is essential to understand what happens to ones work after it leaves your hands. The students at Central Saint Martins may not like their production class any more than I liked my media law one, but I bet it would be just as helpful to them down the road
She also says:
"British industry doesn't feel that it gets what it wants out of our education system. For the past 35 years this has been an ongoing battle: industry says it doesn't get what it wants and fashion educators say that industry doesn't understand what it is setting out to do. Industry complains that the graduates do not have enough basic skills in some areas and not enough technical focus or production skills."
Is it really so far-flung an idea that students can be highly creative, technically competent and have experience in other areas of their business? Yes, CSM graduates are highly sought after and get great jobs abroad. But how many English designers have I met in Milan and Paris who are dying to come back home? Too many.
Even if they don’t relish the idea, I think the students know they’re missing something. Why else are websites like this one so popular? Students at Saint Martins should be made to work out the cost of the garment, to factor in the shipping, the taxes, the mark-ups and every other part of the process because they are leaving CSM and entering a fiercely competitive business world — a world they’ll need to understand in order to thrive, and survive.