Today is the day of the Central Saint Martins BA fashion show, but not as we’ve ever witnessed this annual spectacle before. Under normal college rules, there’d have been an internal selection of students who made it to the runway. A noisy, excited crowd of families, dressed-up students, and fashion press would have been jostling into the Kings Cross campus. This year, the campus is deserted, egalitarianism has broken out, and the drum-roll is for the entire cohort of 2020, all 106 students. Their work and their self-made films went live today on the school’s new digital platform.
Daniel Lee, one of the thousands of alums who have climbed to careers throughout international fashion, weighed in to offer technical help from Bottega Veneta. “It’s vital to support the graduating class, the future of our industry—now more than ever,” he said. “I wanted my teams to help build the digital platform. As always, in a time of crisis, it is the younger creatives that have new ideas on how to do things differently, and I believe it’s vital to get those ideas through.” He wasn’t the only one to pitch in. Sam Gainsbury put her show production team at students’ disposal, too. “It’s not 500 privileged professionals seeing it in a room any more. That’s a breath of fresh air,” she said.
When the pandemic hit, CSM’s Sarah Gresty cut down the graduates’ final assignment to completing two pieces and a 90-second video explaining their work, measures (with all the Zoom tutorials involved) which doubtless sound familiar to fashion students everywhere. But what would Central Saint Martins—long regarded as an elite institution which teaches a very British art school insistence on identity as the key to creativity—come up with when identity politics, privilege, and racial injustice are the big issues of our time? With the walls of domesticity pressing in on everyone, and minds exploding with the implications of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism movement, the impacts are visual and visceral, authored with nuance by Gen Z students from the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa, the USA, and beyond.Designs by Gus LangfordVideo: Courtesy of Central Saint Martins
Jessan Macatangay, a print student from the Philippines, coined a phrase for that experience: “Finding beauty and power through struggle.” It might have been controversial, to put it mildly, for the college to platform a white British student first, but Gus Langford’s contribution acted as a symbol of the great reckoning that is taking fire within university education: an English flag emblazoned with the word SHAME. “I looked at my identity, and concluded that I feel no pride, but shame to be a white English male. All around me, I see people overflowing with pride for their identity, whereas I feel a distaste and disconnect from mine, especially in the current climate,” he says. “I was working on this before the BLM movement, but I’d have to admit it took a few selective people to question me. I can’t stress enough how important it was to have people of color at the center of my working environment, whether my acting head of course David Kappo or my classmates.”Designs by Shanti BellVideo: Courtesy of Central Saint Martins
Shanti Bell, a black Londoner, focused herself explorations on the pressures young males experience. “Some surround themselves with a hard outer shell to protect themselves from society,” she explained. “It hit me how my brother and my men friends are weighed down by the male ideal. I hoped to make a contrast with that, and proudly display their vulnerability and gentleness.” Bell took to woodworking at home during lockdown. “I see myself as a fashion designer-furniture maker. I’m inspired by carpenters and watching my mum build things.”Designs by Sandra PoulsonVideo: Courtesy of Central Saint Martins
The question of what a designer is, what fashion itself is for, and what good it can do in the world—all this, which might have been laughed off by the industry as student cheek in the past—couldn’t be more pertinent now. “I’m always off-brief!” says Sandra Poulson, who studied print but during lockdown built a multimedia installation that grew out of her research in her home country Angola. Utilizing a selection of common household items, her project addresses “the relationship between... inherited societal memory from colonial Angola and the civil war.” The work exists, she says, in the context of “the current, also globally changing fight for the end of racial constructs and discrimination within the West.”
Central Saint Martins has always been a college that accepts the blurring of the boundaries between fashion and art, but in 2020, the conviction that intersectionality, politics, and sustainability are at the center of things is being pushed further than by any previous generation. And who’s to say where the opportunities to earn a living may spring from now? Evidence of students’ fast acquisition of new skills in digital rendering, hand-crafting, and story-telling are all over the show. Hireable talents, not necessarily in front-on design, are there for brands looking to co-opt relevance. But some are set on making clothes as clothes.Designs by Conner IvesVideo: Courtesy of Central Saint Martins
Conner Ives, the American CSM student who’s been selling his upcycled pieces outside class since he was 21 (and annoying some of his teachers in the process), finally graduated. For the past months, he worked on a single piece—a bubble dress on a boned crinoline—which he ended up embroidering by hand. “I realized that what was meant to take five to 10 people working around the clock would have to be made by me alone.” True to the couture-like tradition behind the piece, he ended up doing 12-hour days sewing flower-form recycled sequins from The Sustainable Sequin Company on fabric donated by his former boss Wes Gordon of Carolina Herrera. In his video, he calls his statement, with a highly conflicted poignance, The American Dream. It was his dream to be a designer who talked about the American fashion tradition from being a child, a naïveté he wanted to recapture. “It’s a relationship I’ve put in my work, that I have to reconcile with myself,” he says. “ But I ask myself, how could I, at this point?”Designs by Louis Shengtao ChenVideo: Courtesy of Central Saint Martins
Out of all of the troubles of the times they are emerging into, it’s a testament to youth that beauty and conscience survive hand in hand. The resilience of this cohort, thrown back on their own scant resources, arms them with a purposeful optimism. Louis Chen, one of the year’s Chinese graduates, made his delicately dramatic hand- fabricated collection at his London home, dyeing in his kitchen sink, using electronic components as embellishment, and shooting the looks in his backyard. “I used my own way to interpret sustainable fashion while living in these difficult times,” he says. “But I believe every cloud has a silver lining and I’m excited to see a change coming in this industry now: less demand on production, more diversity and cultural tolerance.”