Central Saint Martins fashion graduates hold a silent protest at not being able to to exhibit at the school’s final catwalk show. Photograph: Artur Kula/Demotix/Corbis
The BA press fashion show at Central Saint Martins (CSM) attracts leading fashion journalists, buyers and employers, and this year’s glittering event was no exception. In the glamorous atrium of the art college, now part of the University of the Arts London, models showed the work of 40 undergraduate students. But as guests left the show, they were met with a silent demonstration by almost 100 other students whose collections had not been chosen for the catwalk. “They were standing in silence, modelling their own designs or they had got friends to do it. There was amazing talent there and when you think how much they had spent on course fees and on their collections you can understand why they were so disappointed not to get shown,” says Sarah Mower, fashion journalist and ambassador for emerging talent at the British Fashion Council. It can cost students £10,000 to prepare an MA collection, she says.
“I think the problem comes from the college accepting too many people on the course,” says graduate Dilara Findikoglu, who came up with the idea for the demonstration. “There used to be 20 to 40 and now it’s 120. Throughout the year everyone works really hard and puts equal love and effort into their collection and it is very upsetting not to see your name on the list.”
Despite this, according to a new global ranking of fashion schools, CSM is the best in the world. The ranking, produced by the Business of Fashion, a website for the creative industries, measures schools by global impact, learning experience and long-term value. The UK does exceptionally well, with CSM, which produced Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton and John Galliano, top for undergraduate programmes. The Royal College of Art, where alumni include Christopher Bailey, Holly Fulton and Erdem, is best in the world for graduate courses. Meanwhile, Kingston University, London, is rated third for its undergraduate fashion courses and the London College of Fashion fourth for graduate programmes.
Brilliant school, brilliant exposure, zero help afterwards … no agencies or industry links provided
But an accompanying survey of more than 4,000 fashion students and recent graduates uncovers simmering discontent – particularly about how well fashion schools prepare students for employment. CSM was well ahead in the undergraduate table for global influence, but has a long way to go when it comes to learning experience and long-term value, says Imran Amed, founder of Business of Fashion. “Saint Martins is not alone; students from most schools wanted greater exposure to employers and more preparedness for working in the industry.”
A recent CSM graduate commented in the survey: “It’s one of the most prestigious schools in the world when it comes to fashion and just that in itself opened a lot of doors for me. There is a lot of controversy around the training at CSM, though – like the fact that we didn’t have one single technical class or business course throughout our BA. If you want to have that, you are told, you can go somewhere else.”
Another respondent said: “Brilliant school, brilliant exposure, zero help afterwards. Based on your own intuitions to get a job, no agencies or industry links provided.”
University for the Creative Arts Epsom was fourth highest for student satisfaction with the quality of the lecturers, but there were complaints about finding work afterwards. “Career paths were not adequately explained,” said one graduate.
Kingston University graduate fashion show. Photograph: Ezzidin Alwan
Over the past two decades, fashion has become one of the most competitive courses at university, with at least six applications for each place at the top schools. But there is no guarantee of a job at the end, says Alex Brownless, a fashion designer who co-founded the Arts Thread network to help creative people launch their brands and gain employment. “The top schools have long lists of alumni designers, but when you look closely you find half their graduates are not working at all or not working in the industry. I know a major London institution where a shop assistant in Top Shop, Oxford Circus, qualifies as a job in fashion. Students rack up huge debts and struggle to pay for materials and think there will be a job at the end because their course has an 89% employment rate, and they end up in Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s incredibly cruel.”
Brownless thinks universities should publish detailed statistics on how many of their fashion students are employed and what they’re doing a year after graduating. But Mower says this is not the only problem with fashion schools: while the number of fashion courses has increased, they don’t necessarily cover the skills needed for the industry. “A huge skills gap is opening up – pattern cutting has gone by the board in many colleges, while the design houses are crying out for skilled pattern cutters and pay good money. People come out having designed a collection but it is the technician who has sewn it,” she says.
Joshua Kane, one of Russell Brand’s favourite designers, is a bespoke tailor and also worries that skills are being lost. He took extra classes to work on his cutting and sewing techniques. But he disagrees with the claim that fashion schools don’t give students enough help. “I would say we had plenty of exposure to the industry. In the end, it comes down to the work ethic of the individual students and how hard they fight to make themselves more employable. Some of those I meet today don’t have it,” says Kane, who graduated from Kingston University in 2007.
Ayako Furness, a womenswear textile designer at Burberry, who moved from Japan to study at CSM, agrees. “I was surprised at how much students are expected to learn by themselves in the UK and they didn’t teach much technical-wise but I disagree with people who say they don’t help you find work. CSM helped me to get internships and then my first job with Louis Vuitton.”
Fashion design courses are not there to teach business and enterprise, says Elinor Renfrew, BA (Hons) fashion course director at Kingston University. “Our students work on real briefs with real companies and we make as many links with employers as we can. That’s how they learn about the industry.”
Willie Walters, course director of BA (Hons) fashion at CSM, says the press show is just one of the many things CSM does to link students with employers, and disagrees that it can be unfair. “Students know from the outset that they will not all be able to show their work there. We hold assessment shows two weeks before the press event, where all students show their work. This takes a full day. There is also an exhibition in June where they show their full portfolios, attended by press and potential employers.”
But she is proud of the independent spirit of students who launched their own fashion show. “I don’t mind young people rebelling, that is what they should be doing.”
She’s not going to tell them to rebel again next year though. “That would be like having your mum say ‘that’s nice darling’.”
1 Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, UK 2 Bunka Fashion College, Japan 3 Kingston University, UK 4 Parsons the New School for Design, US 5 Fashion Institute of Technology, US 6 Polimoda, Italy 7University of Westminster, UK 8London College of Fashion, UK 9 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia 10 Drexel university, US 11 Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, Israel 12 Ryerson University School of Fashion, Canada 13 Stephens College, US 14Nottingham Trent University, UK 15 Savannah College of Art and Design, US 16 Philadelphia University, US 17University for the Creative Arts – Epsom, UK 18 Istituto Marangoni, Italy 19 Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, China 20 Hogeschool Van Amsterdam, Netherlands
1 Royal College of Art, UK 2 Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, UK 3 Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Belgium 4 London College of Fashion, UK 5 Savannah College of Art and Design, US
6 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia
7 Institut Français de la Mode, France
8 Ryerson University School of Fashion, Canada
9 Polimoda, Italy
10 Philadelphia University, US