x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Central Saint Martins is about people, not a building

As the art college with its familiar entrance on Charing Cross Road closes its doors, a reflection on what made the place so special.

The Central Saint Martins BA Graduate show is considered a crucial fixture on the fashion calendar. Last Tuesday's was no different, despite it signalling the end of an era. In mid-July, the heavy wooden doors of the famous art college entrance on Charing Cross Road, near London's Soho, will close for the last time.

From October, the college that has spawned more fashion design stars than any other will reopen in swanky new premises near a purpose-built site in Kings Cross.

Fittingly, before the chosen 45 of the 140 students making up the class of 2011 kicked off the show - which was staged, as usual, in York Hall, a former boxing venue in East London - a short movie was screened.

David Bowie's Changes took on poignant meaning, used as a soundtrack to a film directed by Danny Vaia, which details student union-type photos and scenes of draughty but much-loved studios, unchanged since 1939 - places where generations of designers, stylists and fashion writers, including this one, learnt the fashion trade.

I'm sure I wasn't the only person sitting in the hot, crowded hall feeling strangely melancholic. Guest of honour, Sarah Burton, the Alexander McQueen designer and creator of the Kate Middleton bridal dress - who graduated from CSM in print in 1998 - looked extremely wistful sitting front row.

When the final line of Bowie's 1971 classic rang out and the famous brown doors shut with the caption, "Central Saint Martins' Charing Cross 1939-2011 RIP" ("Time may change me, but you can't trace time"), I certainly got a lump in my throat.

It didn't last long, though. From the opening collection by final-year student James Nolan, in which a solitary model in a dark flannel suit pushed a Victorian pram to a creepy up-tempo version of The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, to the startling finale, where 3D textiles created by Crimson Rose O'Shea audibly crackled like a box of Chinese firecrackers, Saint Martins proved why it is considered the great showman of fashion colleges.

Although one of the reasons it has always felt brazenly confident enough to show on its own (as does its only serious rival, the Royal College of Art), away from "Graduate Fashion Week", which takes place this week, is because of massive financial sponsorship from L'Oréal.

Other factors include the fact that its (often unconventional) teachers are the best. One of my first lessons involved being taken to Paris to learn how to gate-crash fashion shows. Then there's an enviable "old boy" network that has far-reaching tentacles into Oscar-winning costume departments, global advertising bureaus and French luxury conglomerates.

Whoever organised this show was well aware that one of the biggest blockbusters of 2011 will be the film version of Susan Hill's chilling novel The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe (Hollywood can barely contain its excitement). Because CSM alumni will inevitably make up a bulk of future fashion designers - past pupils include Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Gareth Pugh and David Koma - it is wise to make a note of not just names but trends.

The major trend was a return to big clothes: big, in the sense of size and shape, and sculptured, tactile 3D fabrics.

Layered, pleated, sliced, laser cut textiles were often dissected to reveal a millefeuille 3D effect. There were also lots of wide-legged trousers and yeti knits (Katie Jones's were tepee-like, Juhee Han's looked like a Dr Seuss cartoon).

It's often tricky for students who have majored in print, textiles or knits (rather than simply "womenswear") when the latter medium happens not to be in fashion. This is clearly not one of those years.

Print is having a moment: Flaminia Saccucci - remember the name - won the L'Oreal Professional Award for her pretty florals on rubber skirt/legging hybrids without having to resort to gimmicks.

But hey, it wouldn't have been a CSM show without gimmicks. The year before I joined Saint Martins (as it was before it merged with the Central School of Art in 1989), John Galliano famously got models on his student catwalk to throw fish (dead) into the audience, setting a precedent for outlandish theatrics, which has stuck.

This year's included "It" girl Daisy Lowe modelling a shirt in Josh Bullen's menswear collection; Noriyuki Dori's knits accessorised by eerie gas masks with bunny ears; and Momo Wang's models' plaits held up by helium-filled balloons. Mostly however, it was clothes that were bizarrely beautiful - and none more so than those worn by first and second-year students standing way above the catwalk in the tiered gallery.

Dressed reassuringly more wackily than even the generation taking their bow on the catwalk (who looked pretty weird), it reminded me that Central Saint Martins is more about people than a fusty, old building. Although those of us who knew it will always have Charing Cross Road, the show demonstrated the future of this fashion institution is clearly in safe, creative hands.