“Everyone was so international. Everyone had this hunger,” fashion designer Christopher Kane has confessed to the New York Times, referring to his first overwhelming impression of Central Saint Martins (CSM)—shedding light on what principally motivates its reputation. An integral part of the University of the Arts London, the college of CSM was formed in 1989, after the union of the Central School of Art and Design (founded 1896) and the Saint Martin’s School of Art (founded 1854), and since then, it has gained international fame. To mark the college’s contribution to the development and growth of the British fashion industry, the Royal Anniversary Trust of the United Kingdom offered CSM the Queen’s Anniversary Prize. It was 1998: CSM’s premises were still situated on Southampton Row and fashion designer Alexander McQueen, sculptor Antony Gormley, and musician PJ Harvey had already received their diplomas.
Yet the maze-like corridors, steep staircases, and heavy, carved wooden doors of the site at 12–42 Southampton Row—designed by architect E. P. Wheeler in 1938—belong to the past era of the college, as in 2011 CSM moved to a new home: the Granary Building in King’s Cross, which once stored Lincolnshire wheat for the bakers of London. The grade II listed building was originally designed by architect Lewis Cubitt and completed in 1852. Approximately 160 years later, the interior of the building was purpose-designed anew by Stanton Williams Architects, leading to a nomination for the Mayor’s Award for Planning Excellence in 2012. Former students of the college recall the precedent to the King’s Cross era, when CSM courses also took place in a former banana warehouse on Long Acre street in Covent Garden, which incorporated numerous creative studios.
Notably, the past and current premises of CSM have served as a multicultural platform for encounters. In 1966, Richard Long (winner of the Turner Prize in 1989) met Roger Ackling on the roof of the college—an incident that would allow them to collaborate during their future artistic careers. One year later, in 1967, Gilbert Prousch met George Passmore at the college; they were both studying sculpture and they would later go on to form the renowned duo Gilbert & George. “St Martin’s was very special because, briefly, it was the most famous art school in the world,” they said to journalist Nicholas Wroe in an interview for The Guardian in 2012, “we felt very arrogant about being there; they made us feel very privileged.” In addition, it was there that musician Jarvis Cocker met the “thirsty for knowledge” female student who would later inspire a song by his band Pulp, entitled “Common People” (1995). Cocker had met the Greek girl around 1988, during a “Crossover Fortnight” course on sculpture, while he was studying film at the college.
Either “hungry,” in the words of Kane, or “thirsty,” following Cocker, many CSM students have turned into celebrated graduates, and later inspiring professionals in the field of fashion and textile design (Sarah Burton, Hussein Chalayan, Phoebe Philo), music (M.I.A., Faris Badwan, Tom Vek), acting (John Hurt, James Aubrey, Anita Pallenberg), and the fine and performing arts (Gerald Scarfe, Laure Prouvost, Mark Titchner).
Yet CSM owes great part of its worldwide reputation to the final shows of graduates of the Fashion MA. Press and critics have often raved about CSM graduate shows and their inventive approach to fashion. For instance, Gareth Pugh used red and white balloons to frame a bodysuit in his 2003 show, which triggered the interest of Nicola Formichetti and led to a publication feature in Dazed and Confused. Twelve years earlier, Naomi Campbell, Yasmin Le Bon, and Kate Moss had walked for the graduation runway show of Stella McCartney in 1995, framed by the tunes of “Stella May Day” song, composed by her father especially for the occasion. Hussein Chalayan (“The Tangent Flows,” 1993) had buried the silk garments of his collection in the ground, so as to retrieve them six weeks later and apply them to the models in a state of decomposition. Prior to that, Alexander McQueen (“Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” 1992) lined his garments with locks of his own hair covered in Perspex, marking in this way his Gothic signature. Isabella Blow bought his entire graduate collection; his earlier struggle to pay the college’s fees, pretending to be waiting for a check from Italy, would soon fade into oblivion.
Although John Galliano was publicly associated with CSM, in relation to his graduate collection (“Les Incroyables,” 1984), which was inspired by the French Revolution and was bought by the Browns store, he has also taught at the college, while trying to formalize his fashion label. Meanwhile, Sir Peter Blake, Anthony Caro, and Barry Flanagan—all CSM alumni—have also been employed by the school to teach. For instance, Blake had been involved in the foundation course of CSM between 1960 and 1962. A CSM alumnus, Louise Wilson, would play a key role in the reputed Fashion MA curriculum of the college. Wilson undertook the same master’s course with a grant, and after graduating in 1986 she returned to the college to teach in 1992. She directed the MA in Fashion Design at CSM from 1999 until her death in 2014, summarizing her role in a few words in an interview with Telegraph journalist Kate Finnigan in 2012: “You work with them, you discuss ideas and you push them a bit harder, and at the end of it you just see what happens.”
In the early twenty-first century, CSM comprises four schools (School of Art; School of Fashion and Textiles; School of Communication, Product, and Spatial Design; the Drama Centre London). In August 2012, British architect Jeremy Till succeeded Jane Rapley as head of the college; one of his initial goals was to ensure that CSM remained “flexible and responsive to the demands of students and the wider society,” as well as “agile enough to remain ahead of these changing circumstances.” Representing an amalgam of tradition, modernity, and audacity, it is very likely that Central Saint Martins will continue to shape the educational experience of generations of students who accompany them along the way.
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