Saint Martins' fashion grads can connect the dots

AP News
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Posted: Jun 29, 2011 1:06 PM
Saint Martins' fashion grads can connect the dots

A shabby community sports hall doesn't seem like the place for London's fashion elite to gather for a show by a bunch of 22-year-olds.

But these aren't just any kids _ and the host isn't your basic local college.

It's the slick and professional annual presentation for bachelor's degree students at Central Saint Martins, one of the world's best fashion schools.

Few fashion schools can claim the network of support that Saint Martins enjoys. It was the launch pad of Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton, John Galliano, Christopher Kane and Stella McCartney, and it's those connections that help nurture future stars.

While the 40 designers dressing models backstage last month in their final-project collections are unknown students, there's an impressive lineup off the catwalk eager to cheer them on.

Kane, Britain's hottest young designer, is on the judging panel. Seated among the audience of proud parents and school friends is Burton, creative director of the house of McQueen and designer of Kate Middleton's wedding dress. They're joined by executives from fashion giants Lanvin and H&M, not to mention the best of the industry press.

As the seats fill up there's a buzz of excitement and anticipation, but the pressure seems to energize, not faze, the students.

"I always feel confident about my clothes," said Nicholas Aburn, 22, moments before the show. Aburn, who came to London from outside Baltimore, won the first runner-up prize later in the night with his sharply tailored, 80's-inspired feminine styles.

Although it's best known as a fashion school (originally called just Saint Martins and founded in 1854) the London college has been home to a range of courses, including drama and music, since it merged with the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1989.

The school has an impressive list of alumni: actor Colin Firth, painter Lucian Freud, film director Mike Leigh and Sex Pistols bass player Glen Matlock to name a few.

The famous names not only burnish the college's reputation but are key to its continued success.

In fashion, more than the other streams, Saint Martins graduates are everywhere at the highest level of the industry, including numerous others who work behind the scenes for some of the world's most storied ateliers: Christian Dior, Chloe and Marc Jacobs among them.

The school's prestigious alumni can offer to fresh graduates what few others can _ a paycheck once they complete their studies for one. The opportunities are a powerful magnet for the brightest, most ambitious young designers around the world.

That, in turn, attracts sponsorship for shows and student projects that feed the school's reputation. This year's undergraduate fashion show, for example, looked so glossy partly because it received sponsorship from beauty megabrand L'Oreal.

In an industry where you can live off your looks and connections for quite a while, that gives Saint Martins an extra edge.

Many students gain a real feel of the fashion business long before they leave school, which may explain why they appear so mature and self-possessed for their tender age. Burton, who graduated from the college in 1998, interned with McQueen while at the school.

Her tutor at the time "gave you this brilliant attitude of 'just get on with it'," Burton told reporters at the school's annual show. "It was very much survival of the fittest at Central Saint Martins, which is a good thing, really."

The bar is set high for the admission process. Willie Walters, director for the undergraduate fashion course, said that enrollment for womenswear _ the most popular stream _ was so competitive only about one in 38 applicants was admitted this year. And that's just the first hurdle. Once they're in, they need to work to the top half of the class to get the chance to present their final collections to the press and fashion executives.

"Perfection is expected at Central Saint Martins _ but we'll support them in their endeavor," said Walters, who has taught hundreds of students since 1998. "The press will scrutinize the designs. If the clothes are not immaculate, they would say so."

Still, Walters said the undergraduate degree allows more room for "rough diamonds" and is not as demanding as the master's fashion course, which is famously exacting and showcases alongside top brands at Fashion Week.

It was during his master's show, in 1992, that McQueen first wowed the fashion world with his exquisite tailoring and daring designs.

The students appreciate the tough love, and they say the staff manages to focus on a magic mix of creativity, technical knowledge and commercial savvy. They like how there's an emphasis on experimentation and the more artsy side of things, as well as the bread-and-butter of how to put together a garment.

"The teachers push you very hard, so that's good. They know how it works in the real world," said 28-year-old Rym Jarbouai, who recently graduated from a Saint Martins course on pattern cutting to start her online business selling handmade bags. Having studied fashion in both Paris and London, Jarbouai said the school helped her take concrete steps, whereas she found the emphasis in Paris was more on ideas and "visits to museums."

So, do teachers from the start know who'll be the next sensation _ the next McQueen or McCartney?

Absolutely not, Walters said. It's one thing to show great talent in their graduate collections and quite another to have the charisma, business sense and "skills to make it in the real world" as an own-label designer.

And even if she had a hunch about spotting fashion's next buzz-worthy star, she insists on keeping mum.

"It's an awful cross to bear, being the next big thing," Walters said. "I can't say, but I'll have it in my heart."