Why Central Saint Martins Looms So Large in the Fashion World

A supremely talented artist, formidable in ability by all accounts, has only a six-percent chance of making it into the most prestigious undergraduate fashion program in the world. This meager statistic shrinks to two percent if our hypothetical applicant is then able to harvest his money, blood, and spirit and be selected to show in said program’s yearly fashion show – a place where legends are born.

Central Saint Martins rests at the pinnacle of the very best – the crème de la crème of talented would-be designers who hold the future aesthetic of us mere mortals in their hands. Talent flocks to CSM from all around the globe to be trained, curated and for a lucky few, to debut in a yearly fashion show where media, buyers and industry figureheads present a one-off opportunity to make it big in a famously cutthroat business.

CSM’s recent move from London’s SoHo to a set of Victorian industrial buildings in King’s Cross, replete with £200 million GBP ($260 million USD) worth of renovations, stands testament to the school’s shining success. With a new lecture theater sponsored by LVMH and having cultivated the then-undiscovered likes of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Christopher Kane, one may argue that CSM isn’t simply a fashion academy, but rather, it is synonymous with the industry itself and is the epicenter of its future.

The most successful alumni of CSM render the product as vessels for a wider vision that can span the length of a brand, or even an era.

In a melting pot of raw artistic talent and vision, what separates the truly exceptional from a student pool already composed of the best? The most successful alumni of CSM are masters of executing perspective: their resulting work renders the product as vessels for a wider vision that can span the length of a brand, or even an era. Creating a brand identity, for many, is similar to how we develop personal identity. For Nicholas Daley, a CSM Bachelor of Arts graduate, his brand is nearly indiscernible from himself. He maintains, “I just wanted to make clothes which I could wear.”

We see Nicholas Daley, the man, omnipresent in Nicholas Daley, the label: wool pants and jackets with proportions that are just off-kilter enough to startle, but sharply tailored to reflect an English sensibility. Drawing on his family’s textile roots in the jute industry in Dundee, Scotland, his Spring/Summer 2017 collection is shot on models with stony expressions reminiscent of 19th century portraits, and almost takes the viewer back to the Industrial Revolution if the three-piece suits, rolled trousers and floppy hats had not possessed silhouettes which belie their historical influence.

From the designs themselves to the use of traditional materials such as British Shetland wool, there is little doubt that Nicholas Daley’s background serves as a major source of inspiration. Christopher Shannon, a veteran MA graduate, stands opposite Nicholas on the branding spectrum. Although his collection, a veritable magpie’s nest of tracksuits and erratic cuts in flashy emblems and colors, seems to speak for itself, Christopher thinks the way he arrived at this aesthetic is much harder to pin down.

Branding, for Christopher, is almost a subconscious decision; his personal tastes and experiences filtered by years of “making work, making images and doing projects” eventually developing into a distinctive label. He is wary of pigeonholing his brand into simply reflecting himself, but instead opts for a more inclusive principle: “I like the term ‘work.’ I’m not sure I’ve translated my experiences into a brand, more like just expanded on my interests and point of view.”

While both Nicholas Daley and Christopher Shannon agree that being educated at Central Saint Martins can be invaluable to aspiring designers, Shannon also sees the dark side of such gilded exposure. “Imagery comes and goes at breakneck speed; in a way it loses its value, so the clothes have to work harder.” He raises the question of whether CSM is a celebrity institution where status precedes talent – its reputation a commodity for people who simply buy their way in. He states CSM’s current norm of “ripping off references and calling it luxury” stands in stark opposition to how CSM can be, “at its very best, inventive and witty, and well-crafted.”

The influential pull that evoked a sort of nostalgic disdain in Shannon means something entirely different to Nicholas Daley. The media exposure from his graduation collection being selected for CSM’s famed press show has garnered features in magazines such as Dazed and CHAMP. “Ultimately this led to BEAMS finding out about me and I then started my own label,” he said. It is popular (perhaps the only) opinion that being selected for Central Saint Martins’ grad show is eponymous with commercial success. Does therein lie the value of a Saint Martins fashion education? While it holds true when Christopher Shannon claimed that “The college is only ever the people in it,” the clothes are only ever the people who wear them.

Brand identity is forged from inspired, experienced commentary: a personal and political critique of the times in which we live. Central Saint Martins is not only a place that shapes the artist, who in turn creates a brand, but bridges the oftentimes rather large gap between an artist and his audience, or in parallel terms, a label and their potential markets. As Nicholas Daley attests, “It is always difficult to find that window of opportunity [for brand exposure].”

Christopher Shannon believes the press attention is “helpful, but when it descends to just showing off, I find [it] less interesting.” He describes the intense focus on selling a collection to the press as caricaturing a creative into a brand: “It’s a bit gross when people think of themselves as brands before [thinking of themselves as] developing designers.” It is worth considering whether enormously talented designers such as Daley and Shannon would endure more convoluted paths to commercial success if they had not had their time in the Saint Martins limelight, if at all.

Nicholas describes his experience of securing a coveted spot on the year end press show as “a great achievement and a catalyst for things to come.” The prospects of an aspiring creative are grim, mostly due to a lack of sufficient exposure; the ratio of talented individuals to successful ones often involves near-insurmountable numbers. The most valuable contribution of an establishment such as Central Saint Martins is perhaps their seemingly infallible system, which places aspiring designers in the most glorified part of the public eye.

While it holds true when Christopher Shannon claimed that “The college is only ever the people in it,” the clothes are only ever the people who wear them.

Like any other educational institution, Central Saint Martins grooms the people of our future. The nature of fashion’s future is perhaps unlike any other as it involves a dialogue between brand and wearer – intersecting character and experience under different outlets of individual expression. Central Saint Martins brings artist and audience together – but not in an obligatory “spin the bottle” sort of way. The value of CSM lies in an unshakeable belief in its institution, from the public and the press, to buyers and fashion editors, and even the students themselves.

Nicholas Daley’s reasons for attending CSM aren’t purely artistic: “I enrolled at CSM because of the menswear pathway, but also [because] it is one of the best fashion schools in the world.” The magic leap of faith borne from CSM’s repute for excellence, clearly not lost on its audience nor its students, is part of the force which puts labels on our backs and shapes our cultural psyche. From designers like Shannon and Daley to other individuals, the art of defining ourselves has an almost religious significance – and whether we realize it or not, the alumni of Central Saint Martins are the ones taking us to church.

This story was originally published in HYPEBEAST Magazine Issue 16: The Projection Issue as ”Branded in the Spotlight.” Find out more here.