LONDON, United Kingdom — It’s all change in British fashion education.
Following the untimely death of Louise Wilson, course director of Central Saint Martins’ esteemed MA Fashion course, many observers wondered who could possibly step into her legendary shoes. Around the same time, Wendy Dagworthy, another notable figure in British fashion education, announced her retirement after almost two decades as head of fashion at the Royal College of Art, prompting a global search for her replacement.
Indeed, the absence of Wilson and Dagworthy looms large for Britain’s two pre-eminent creative institutions, which top the league table of MA programmes in BoF’s inaugural Global Ranking of Fashion Schools. But, as with all endings, come new beginnings, which in this case will be led by Fabio Piras at Central Saint Martins and Zowie Broach at the Royal College of Art.
What can we expect from the new course leaders, and how will they retain their schools’ leading positions in global fashion education?
Fabio Piras: “You need to understand your place in the industry and how you’re contributing to that.”
“They all want to be the super designer; the next new name on the fashion week calendar,” says Fabio Piras of the fashion students at Central Saint Martins. “They come to the course because it’s famous for creating names. They want that end-of-year catwalk show, with one name after another. They don’t want to be mixed on the catwalk or come out as a trio.”
Central Saint Martins’ MA Fashion course has an outstanding reputation, sustained over more than three decades, and has produced graduates such as Christopher Kane, Roksanda Ilincic, Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha and Craig Green. It is also the only graduate course that shows at London Fashion Week on the official fashion week schedule every February.
“We promote the idea that our graduates work for big fashion houses. But if you were somebody starting a career at Adidas or Gap that doesn’t make you less successful,” explains Piras. “It could make you even more successful. It’s very important for the students to understand this. Everyone thinks they have to be the next Christopher Kane. You could be — but only if you are.”
A Central Saint Martins’ alumnus himself, Piras has over 20 years of international industry experience, including five years as creative director of Brioni. He joined the faculty at Central Saint Martins in 1995, working alongside his predecessor, Wilson, as womenswear tutor. Piras also had a short stint as course director between 1997 and 1999, when Wilson took a brief sabbatical to work at Donna Karan.
“My vision for the course is to continue with what we’ve always done, which is fostering originality, individuality and creativity,” says Piras. “At Central Saint Martins, it’s very easy to continue to produce good work, to have a good show, to have a good name and to always be in the press. But as a student, you are not just there to be creative. You’re there to understand how your related industry is moving. You need to understand your place in the industry and how you’re contributing to that. You cannot be excluded from reality.”
Everyone thinks they have to be the next Christopher Kane. You could be — but only if you are.
The MA program at Central Saint Martins is 18 months long, with around 25 to 30 students graduating each year. “We’re very fortunate to have a set of alumni that are of a high calibre and we often bring them back in to speak with current students.” Piras pauses. “But that’s not enough.”
An important part of teaching for Piras is the exchange of ideas. Piras has already started to recruit a varied range of guest tutors and lecturers to stimulate debate and dialogue with his students. “It’s important to speak with people who have different experiences and are not always immediately linked to us,” he says. “I intend to bring in someone from buying and someone who has worked for years at the forefront of creative young talent. I’m also looking to bring in a design director from a company like All Saints.”
Menswear is a key topic on Piras’ agenda. “There’s a lot to say in menswear and I’ve been trying to enhance it. I'm increasing the quota and I'm increasing the variety,” he explains. “Our menswear pathway has always been smaller than the women’s — and it will always be smaller — but there are lots of opportunities there, and it’s something that interests me a lot as a course director.”
On the future of fashion education, Piras is concerned about the volume and speed of the industry in which students are pushed in — and out — of the limelight so quickly.
“The challenge is always the same. It’s about how fast you can develop, how fast you can grow and how fast you can grasp anything that will enhance your potential. It sounds really cruel, but it is a world that gives you very few chances,” he says. “Mistakes are important because they help you to grow. As educators, we’ll always tell you that error is part of the process. A course like this is designed for that.”
Zowie Broach: “You come to find what’s inside of you.”
“The vision has to come from them — the students,” says Zowie Broach, whose extensive academic career includes stints at Parsons The New School of Design in New York, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and the University of Westminster in London. Since taking over as head of fashion at the Royal College of Arts last year, Broach has been focused on enacting changes suggested by the students.
“My instincts for the first year was to listen to what the students were about and to use my knowledge to guide, not to lead,” she says. “I went around and asked them: ‘What do you want your show to be? Who do you want there? What do you want to get out of this [course] going forward?’ I’m not interested in enforcing something on top of another thing. The course is led by the students and it has to be based on honesty and truth.”
After graduating from Plymouth and Middlesex Universities in 1997, Broach launched avant-garde label Boudicca with her partner Brian Kirkby. Hand in hand, the two designers became known for working defiantly outside the mainstream. Their breakthrough came when Boudicca was given the opportunity to show as part of the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la haute couture in 2007.
It’s this anarchic approach that also informs Broach’s work as an educator today. “I see it as revolution not evolution,” she says. “If you want to become clever, just go away and study. All the information is out there. Why do people go to fashion school? You come to find what’s inside of you. That’s what is nurtured in the two years of this Master’s degree. It’s about being able to look inside of that person and find what may be there.”
The course is led by the students and it has to be based on honesty and truth.
Since its inception in 1948 by former Vogue editor Madge Garland, the highly-acclaimed MA programme has trained many leading designers in the fashion industry, including Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Clare Waight Keller at Chloé and Peter Copping at Oscar de la Renta. About 50 fashion design students across womenswear, knitwear, footwear, accessories and millinery graduate each year — although it is in menswear that the college has traditionally excelled. London Collections: Men is a testament to that success, showcasing the work of RCA alumni like James Long, Matthew Miller, Katie Eary and Alex Mullins.
For Broach, this was inevitable. “I think women have had what they wanted to wear for ever and ever. They’ve become lazy. But, all of sudden, you’ve got menswear and that’s got really interesting today.”
“At the end of the day, menswear or womenswear, it’s quite old-fashioned to have them divided, isn’t it?” asks Broach, referring to the new spirit of androgyny and gender-neutral fashion that is so prevalent on today’s catwalk. “There isn’t a men’s toile and a women’s toile. The division is being led by the designer’s work. One needs the absolute understanding of masculinity; the other the absolute femininity. But what is the absolute masculinity and what is the absolute femininity right now? It’s all in flux.”
Broach’s top priority is to connect with the Royal College’s vast student and alumni network, and open her design students up to collaborations.
“We have a project called ‘Across RCA’ every year for a week and anyone can put in an idea. There was a project last year where five students spent 48 hours in a library somewhere in South London. What was interesting was that none of the students were from the same programme. There was someone from fine art, someone from product design, someone from knitwear,” says Broach. “We have such a wide range of courses at the Royal College, from information experience design to innovative design engineering. I’m really looking forward to building collaborative projects with them going forward.”