David Kappo is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the spirit of St. Martins. He has frequented the halls of the institution since before its merging with Central School of Art and Design, and remains one of the most prominent tutors in the institution as he directs CSM’s Graduate Diploma while lecturing at the Royal College of Art’s MA course. We invited Kappo, dressed extravagantly in floral tunic and bejewelled en masse, for breakfast at Dishoom, to hear how Louise Wilson once saved him from a tranny shop in SoHo and why it’s important to have the courage to wear what you design.
”… is there somewhere else we can sit, because this music is going to make me start swaying!” David Kappo is energetic and alert as he shows up at Dishoom on a rather gray Thursday morning in July. David has the energy and appearance of a proper CSM kid – or rather, St. Martins, as it was called back in the day.
David Kappo was born and bred in London, and growing up, he quickly found an affinity with dressing up, and ultimately, the institution of St. Martins. “I love fashion because I love dressing up – it’s a very selfish and personal reason,” he says while ordering a chocolate chai. He describes his teenage self as “a proper i-D whore,” who would wait impatiently for the magazine to hit the shelves at the local newsagent. “I would just ferociously read it – I’d read all of it, from the cover, through to the adverts and to the back, and just take it all in. A lot of the designers that I felt an affinity with were all from St. Martins – I mean, they were still students! So that was my first kind of obsession.” It felt natural to join the cult institution, so after doing a foundation course at the neighboring Central School of Art and Design, he enrolled on a BA at the more artsy St. Martins School of Art.” I never envisaged or realised that you can actually have a job as a fashion designer!” he exclaims.
“I would come in to school to kind of hang out in the coffee bar, just to find out where we were going that evening. And then we’d do a bit of pattern cutting, around that.”
As many others from his expressive generation, David approached (and still does) fashion as image – the magic of expressing and subverting identities through style. In pre-high street days where whole identities were not so easily and cheaply acquired, he would scavenge second-hand stores and customise his own looks, and wear them out clubbing attracting attention due to his inventive and loud outfits. “Clothes, hair, make-up can really change other people’s perceptions of you – but also your own perception of yourself,” he reflects. “And that was really exciting.”
His time at St. Martins in the early ‘90s coincided with a bunch of other golden ticket kids; Hussein Chalayan, Giles Deacon, Luella Bartley, Katie Grand, Christian Weber, Phoebe Philo et al. were all studying, socialising and partying in and around St. Martins. Attendance was in no way a concern, as they spent much of their time to see and be seen in the famous Dave’s Coffee Bar: “I would come in to school to kind of hang out in the coffee bar, just to find out where we were going that evening. And then we’d do a bit of pattern cutting, around that,” he explains. Still, he remembers very clearly remaining in awe of the institution, and the shared pride he felt for attending the school. With only 30 places each year, an admittance was the only blue-stamp one needed in the, at the time, much smaller fashion world. “I’m not saying that’s it has changed now, as I know the application rate is still phenomenal, but fashion is so much more fashionable now,” he argues. Back in the days, then, people were laughing at us; fashion students were weird, drug addicts, or just bizarre. And I was like, “yes! Of course they look weird! That’s why I want to be involved!”
He remains in close contact with many of his peers, who, as the impressive name-dropping above shows, are major industry leaders. “Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that we all kind of hung out together, because we were all so different. It was a real joyous time. And I think everyone was of a similar mindset. Everyone was into something, something of their own. There was an appreciation of difference, and that we all knew what we were into.”
David Kappo as a St. Martins student
To Kappo, what made his generation so distinct was that each and everyone ‘had a thing’ – whether it was writing, sculpture, painting, you name it. David’s? “I was into girls that looked like girls! That was the one thing that drove me: hair, make-up, and looking femme. And that spilled over into my work,” he says.
To a large extent, David’s work as a tutor is to bring out that ‘thing’ and creative freedom that we, under the pressure of success, spend an awful lot of time concealing. “It’s about bringing what you are about as a person into your work; it’s not about trying to conform to what a fashion designer should be. Nowadays, you get people coming in with so many preconceived ideas about the type of work they should be doing, how they should be doing that work, so that I, as a tutor, have to spend a lot of work and time breaking that down,” he says.
“Something has got to change. Something major has got to change. All I’m seeing is loads of designers just turning out stuff, loads of stuff that doesn’t really mean anything. And that breaks my heart.”
After finishing his BA degree, David desperately wanted to move to New York. He began working in a tranny shop in Soho, selling wigs and make-up to local drag queens and fashion students alike. However, it was here that Louise Wilson, the to-be doyenne of the MA fashion programme who had just started working at St. Martins, came down and, in her own words, ‘saved him’ as she offered him a bursary for a MA degree. While finishing his degree, he was offered a serious designer job in a remote Italian village, and suddenly his life changed dramatically. “It was a rude awakening,” he recalls. “The moment I walked into their studio, I thought, ‘OK, let me plan my strategy to get out of here’. But it gave me a huge insight into working in a studio, and in the industry.” After a few months and salaries, he filled his carrier-bag with cash and “legged it to New York,” where he stayed for a year.
A year later, when David returned to London to set up his own brand, Dave and Joe, with designer Joe Bates (of SIBLING), where they would work directly out of Bates’ flat in Victoria, “banging out pieces” from the living room, made out of cheap fabrics from Brick Lane, partying at night and pattern-cutting during the day. Stylist, journalist and shop owner friends would help them get into the market, and suddenly Dave and Joe was an actual fashion brand. “Looking back, it was just nuts,” he recalls. “We would just literally be there, sewing stuff all day, get really pissed at night and just go out partying. But then then the next day you’d do it all over; you get up, you have a shower, an aspirin, some pretty make up on, and you’re fine.”
Twenty years later, David Kappo has become one of the most influential fashion educators in the country. He directs the Graduate Diploma at CSM, the acclaimed 1-year course that prepares students for an MA in Fashion design; he teaches regularly on CSM’s BA and MA Fashion courses, and finally, on the Royal College of Art’s prestigious Fashion Design MA course. He has come to realise how education is, to him, the most interesting way of working with fashion. “I really love fashion, but what I really love more is people. Having your own label… It was so hard. I had so many sleepless nights about factories, production – ‘is the fabric going to be delivered on time?’ I can’t believe I was losing sleep over a bulk of jersey! The worry just seemed disproportionate,” he explains. “For me, it’s far more creative being a tutor than it ever was being a designer. I’m working with so many talented people, all with different ideas.”
“It’s about giving student the licence to be who they want to be.”
What exactly is Kappo’s job, I ask him, when he’s tutoring an aspiring designer? “It’s about giving student the licence to be who they want to be,” he reflects after a moment of pause. “When you can take a decision for yourself, my job is done. It’s about giving you the confidence to make your own decision.” While that is easier said than done, Kappo these days often has to struggle with the over-business-conscious student, who is already thinking business strategies as they’re finishing their first projects whilst in college. “I don’t see myself as preening people to then go and get a job wherever. I hate when students tick the right boxes for the sake of ticking those boxes. For anyone who’s going to have a career that is going to last 40 years, you’ve got to bring something else to the table.” He insists on assisting students to become the future game-changers of the industry, to turn it on its head, over and over again. “I want my guys to go out and change fashion. I want them to not keep looking back to see what’s been done before. It’s about moving forward. It’s something I tell to all my students, and I mean this: they are the future of fashion, and they have got to own that.”
The business-savvy student is to Kappo an emerging phenomenon, perhaps symptomatic of a growing presence of business in fashion. To him, the increasing combination of corporate hegemony in the design world and financial pressure on students are the two biggest threats to the industry. “The industry has become really hardcore,” he says. “It’s all driven by money and big business. I think that a lot of students or graduates get caught up in the industry really quickly without having really learned their craft.” Everyone makes mistakes in the beginning, he reminds me, and it is key to make space for such mistakes: “but if you suddenly have a backer and you’re showing at fashion week, your mistakes are going to be really public – or you start playing things really safe, because you have to satisfy ‘the business’ rather than satisfying yourself creatively.” Safe is not an option, and Kappo is not shy to criticise the current functionality of the fashion industry. “Something has got to change. Something major has got to change. All I’m seeing is loads of designers just turning out stuff, loads of stuff that doesn’t really mean anything. And that breaks my heart.”
At the same time, Kappo fully understands the raised financial awareness amongst students, as they’re confronted with the annual £9,000 in tuition fees, high living costs in London and gigantic student loans. “Students are much more strategic about their careers, which I’m kind of really impressed by, but also a bit saddened by,” he reflects, describing how the financial pressure on students spills over in their work, as they come to college already knowing which kind of company they want to design for, and thus design with that in mind whilst in college. “But, if I had been in that situation, paying nine grand a year, maybe I would have been more strategic myself. I just want them to play. Business should not be on the expense of grabbing this experience with both hands and discovering what you are, learning from mistakes, and playing.”
While talking about the current and future state of fashion can seem pretty dark, Kappo maintains an absolute passion and faith in his students, and the institution. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, someone will do something and it’ll make you want to cry because it is so beautiful. You still have these moments that really change fashion,” he concludes.
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig