x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

More 'wow' than a Chanel show: the new home of Central Saint Martins

A tour of the spacious new premises of London's top-end art and design college.

A student at work in the womenswear studio at the new Central Saint Martins site.
A student at work in the womenswear studio at the new Central Saint Martins site.

You might think Kings Cross Station on a bitterly cold London morning in February would be hardly the place to look for future fashion stars.

However, I am aware that somewhere very near stands the shiny new, purpose-built headquarters of a college that has spawned more designers in fashion's superleague than any other on the planet.

From Sarah Burton, the designer behind Kate Middleton's wedding gown, to Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci, Celine's Phoebe Philo and the former Christian Dior supremo, John Galliano, the common denominator of these, and many (many) more is the fact that they have all studied fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (CSM).

It has been four months since the 72-year-old institution was uprooted from trendy Soho and replanted in a formerly derelict industrial zone, currently undergoing an ambitious £2 billion (Dh12bn) regeneration spearheaded by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Because "N1C", London's newest "cultural district", still resembles a 67-acre building site littered with traffic lights and hoardings, I've been told simply to "follow the students".

I'm hoping a 20-something swinging a large, black, art portfolio, whose outfit - Russian fur hat dyed pink, a short parka over bright blue shiny sports trousers and chukka boots - suggests she is not office-bound, will lead me to The Granary.

She does. Although I should have guessed that the building that looms impressively as the centrepiece of the development had been set aside to incubate the next generation of cool artists and designers.

This six-storey protected mill, built in 1851 during the height of the Victorian industrial boom, has been magnificently restored and converted into a 39,000-square-metre campus at a cost of £500 million.

Once inside, I discover it has more "wow" factors than a Chanel haute couture show. The architects Stanton Williams used enough concrete to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools. The wow factor continues, from the two-storey library boasting 3,000 bookshelves, interspersed with vast warehouse windows and original "gate" numbers where grain would have been loaded on to steam trains, to the Lethaby Gallery, an exhibition space with original railway archways, and the steel and glass contemporary main building that houses most classrooms, which overlooks a central walkway known as The Street.

Giorgio Armani himself could not have done a better job.

Then there's the 400-seat lecture theatre, a "housewarming" gift from the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, which has benefited from a stream of CSM alumni over the years.

Light courses through the building, exacerbating the buzzing energy generated by 3,000 young creatives going about their daily designs.

"The fashion school grew out of an arts college," says Anne Smith, dean of the School of Fashion and Textiles, as she explains the reasons for the move.

"Moving here is a fundamental 'plus' because we now have a mix of disciplines under one roof. There are many more communal areas and the building is transparent. Students can see what other students are doing. We are already seeing a fusion of disciplines. Students are already pushing boundaries. That's only going to grow."

Since it was granted university status in 2004 as the University of the Arts, CSM - itself an amalgamation of four art schools including the Drama Centre, of which The King's Speech actor Colin Firth is a graduate - had harboured dreams of unifying its disciplines, which were spread over five sites.

Last June, the doors of its prime site in Charing Cross, whose sale to Foyles bookshop contributed to the entirely self-funded new building, finally swung shut.

The move was always going to be painful. The old building with its crumbling, paint-splashed walls was where the Sex Pistols had played their first gig in 1975, Jarvis Cocker (a CSM Fine Art student) had written Common People in 1995 and hundreds of young men and women who went on to change fashion history learnt their trade.

Now well into the second term, with teething pains (including wobbly Wi-Fi access and an out-of-bounds print studio) resolved, the dust seems to have settled.

How do students feel about not being able to walk down the same corridors graced by Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Galliano?

"It's been … interesting changing locations and feeling the benefit of more open space and interacting with students from other pathways," says a final-year menswear student, Savannah Yarborough, 24. Her look is what I'd describe as being very Central Saint Martins: a Stevie Nicks vibe in black head-to-foot with a trilby perched on wild, bleached hair.

"I wanted to come here because it is the best college in the world," Yarborough says, echoing the dreams of so many.

More than 2,000 students from all over the world compete for 170 places on CSM's Bachelor of Arts course. There's also a Masters programme that puts on its show during London Fashion Week.

"The space problem was far worse in the old building," says Leena Muley, 23, a final-year womenswear student, blinking in the winter sunshine in one of many outdoor seating areas.

Outside, workmen are putting the final touches to a forecourt with 1,120 water jet fountains. An outdoor ice rink is planned, too.

"We miss not being able to pop into the haberdashery shops of Soho, but we have exactly the same machines and teachers here. It's the same college in a different space," says Shona Jones, 24, a third-year menswear student.

"There was nowhere to work before," agrees Aimee Matthew-John, 22, a final-year womenswear student, "and all the space in the library makes you want to pull books off the shelves and pore over them all afternoon."

I track down one of CSM's most legendary tutors, pink-haired Natalie Gibson, a senior lecturer in Fashion Print, who has taught at CSM since the 1960s.

Does she miss the old building? "Dreadfully, but I'm aware students like it here."

I am shown high-tech digital print machines, a recent investment afforded by the move."New machines are one thing. Ideas are what really count," she tells me.

"John Galliano was totally brilliant in every way, from ideas to self-motivation.

"Matthew Williamson … he was so driven and his parents were right behind him. Fashion is so tough you need support."

"It's really an art school where fashion happens to be a department," Chalayan has said about his former college.

"They don't teach you to be commercial: they want you to create," agrees a final-year womenswear student, Scarlett Tull, 22, from Brighton, who is wearing a sunny yellow jumper, purple skirt and studious glasses.

Watching students stretching luxuriously over huge pattern-cutting tables in a studio where natural light illuminates their work, I'd say this is as good an environment as any to do just that.

"It's very nice to have high ceilings, which we didn't before, and windows with light, but it's the same college," says Tull. "I think you should focus on us, not the building."

Scarlett is quite right. What creates fashion stars - past, present and future - is not merely bricks and mortar. Although I suspect a splendid new building won't cramp the style of the next generation one little bit.

 

artslife@thenational.ae

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