This feature was originally published in 1 Granary Issue 1
Professor Jane Rapley sits in the canteen at Kings Cross a little over a week since she retired from her position as Head of School at Central Saint Martins, a role she held for the last six years. Since then, the college has undergone some pretty radical change, but Jane has been around long enough to witness a lot of what made CSM the institution it is today. Jane started first as a visiting tutor in the late 1970s, before returning as a permanent member of staff in the late 1980s, first as a professor, then as the Dean of Fashion & Textiles before finally taking up the big role of head in 2006.
Think how much has happened in those years. How many students have gone through and out into the world, to make such large contributions to the school’s legacy. How the two schools – the Central School of Art & Design and St Martin’s School of Art – were merged in 1989. How the new singular college was then integrated into the University of the Arts London, then the London Institute. How the constituent schools, the Drama Centre and the Byam Shaw School of Art came to be a part of CSM in 1999 and 2003 and in the last year, how the college has upped sticks and moved itself out of Charing Cross Road to the new campus in Kings Cross. It’s difficult for anyone to keep up, but Jane witnessed all of this as a member of staff, while nurturing the young talents of students such as Hussein Chalayan, Giles Deacon, Christopher Kane, Gareth Pugh and countless more during a time when Britain was changing constantly, when society’s relationship with fashion was evolving and when society itself was in flux, too. Jane is as fundamental to our conception of CSM today as any one person could be.
“I think with the undergraduates there’s a conception of ‘oh, if I’m really wild I’ll be the last collection in the show.’ Which is very shortsighted. It doesn’t even get you 15 minutes of fame.”
If Jane is feeling down about her recent departure from the working world, she doesn’t let on today. Sitting with her back to the plate glass facing onto the new building’s main street, she has just come from lunch with her successor, Jeremy Till. She is animated and enthusiastic as she talks, eager to cover as much as possible and hopping from one topic to another, one minute reminiscing about some of her favourite students in the fashion department, the next ruminating on the current decline of primary education in Britain.
We meet during the second week of term in October, and the college is bustling with activity as students return to a semblance of routine. Out on the atrium, one group has placed cameras to film students’ reactions to out-of-the-ordinary stunts around the building – a mock murder scene around a dummy corpse, and the audio from a porno playing on an empty bathroom corridor. Creativity and eccentricity is everywhere in the college. Despite huge upheavals and cuts to university funding, Central Saint Martins is still evolving and still producing artists, designers and other creative talents who are making huge contributions to the world around us. But it didn’t get to this point without a fight.
“Building a reputation is the easiest part,” Jane explains with a sigh. What happens next is more difficult. How do you stop the school’s reputation overshadowing the reality? “By keeping on trying. By not believing the hype. This is so important,” she tells me. “You do not believe your own hype. By hyping it you bring in all sorts of opportunities for your students, you bring in more income for the students. You hype it as much as you can, but you don’t believe it. Not internally. You have to keep working. We have to keep looking for the students who are going to help, because you don’t do it by yourself, it’s a combination of staff and students.”
“There’s a terrific pressure on the staff here year after year after year. But that’s how it goes. That’s what maintaining a reputation is about.”
Jane is keen to stress the international nature of CSM today. While in the past, both the Central School and Saint Martins formed a breeding ground for talented British artists and designers, the reputation created by those past graduates has attracted more international students than ever, and now the college is contributing to art & design on a global level. These international students often go home to their native countries and what they learned at CSM helps them develop the characters of those countries. It’s no longer just a British institute. London is a global city, and CSM is no longer just a fashion school, either – the move from Soho to Kings Cross opened up more resources for graphic designers and product designers, sculptors and drama students. With nearby St Pancras International, the world can very much be delivered straight into the heart of the college and vice versa.
But regardless, the media and the British public have long been obsessed with graduates from the fashion department, with the eyes of the world constantly focused on the college. Jane acknowledges the fact that it’s often the fashion graduates who contribute to the college’s public persona and its legacy. “The fashion people of course tend to get the most profile here,” she says, “because there is more press, and so often it is ex-students from Fashion Communication & Promotion (FCP) whom are the ones writing; graduates who may have had nothing to write about, so they write about the school. It’s the journalists who want the stories, and actually, journalists are very lazy. But this place makes a good story, though I think there are other frankly as interesting, if not more interesting, areas of culture.”
“We’re here for the misfits. We should be attracting them”
About once a year, a national broadsheet will get themselves into the college and interview Louise Wilson in an attempt to get to the heart of what happens in the studio, as if it were a magical workshop of secrets and fashion fantasy. All this really does, however, is keep building up a reputation of mystique and intrigue around the college, and prepare another round of students for entry into the media’s exclusive factory. Who’s going to be this year’s star? How long do we have to wait for another Alexander McQueen or Christopher Kane? The result, according to Jane, is a scary level of pressure placed on students on the BA and MA courses as they prepare their final collections or magazines for the graduate shows. “There’s a pressure on the students to live up to certain expectations… But I think they put an expectation on themselves, especially with the undergraduates. I think with the undergraduates there’s a conception of ‘oh, if I’m really wild I’ll be the last collection in the show.’ Which is very shortsighted. It doesn’t even get you 15 minutes of fame. But unless there is real talent there, then that could be really counterproductive, and a wild collection might not even make it into the show at all.”
“I think the expectation is not from the outside, I think it’s from the staff inside, actually, to find what they’re looking for, and how they want the course to be represented. It’s a partnership between staff and students. Of course there’s an expectation, of course there’s a pressure. There’s a terrific pressure on the staff here year after year after year. But that’s how it goes. That’s what maintaining a reputation is about.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Jane remembers that before the Kanes, Katrantzous and McQueens, the fashion department was “on its knees”. After the merging of Central and Saint Martins in 1989, the fashion department’s reputation far preceded it, and when Jane became dean of the department one of her tasks was to take it back from the brink.
“It’s very hard to keep a reputation. You have to work very very hard. It’s very tempting to sit back to say, oh, we’re king of the heap. And you can’t do that. You have to keep going.”
“At that point degrees were validated by a national body, and the national body tried to close it down, because it was such a shambles. The month I arrived as dean, Vogue did a feature which photographed all the famous designers from the Seventies and the Eighties: Katharine Hamnett, Rifat Ozbek, John Galliano, John Flett, all those sorts. And the headline was saying “it’s the Death of St Martins”. Saying it’ll never produce these people again, isn’t it tragic? The school did still have a reputation, but it was teetering on the edge of being a negative one. But the core was there, the belief was there, the students were there, we just needed to rebuild it. Because once you’ve built it, it’s very hard to keep a reputation. You have to work very very hard. It’s very tempting to sit back to say, oh, we’re king of the heap. And you can’t do that. You have to keep going.”
That rebuild happened in the early 1990s, and one of the students who emerged at that time was Hussein Chalayan. Chalayan is regarded by many who knew him at CSM as one of the most fascinating students who came through the BA. Even today, his work as a student stands out in Jane’s mind. “Hussein was such an interesting student. I remember he won a prize in his second year, with an outfit he made out of books. He was so interesting and so refreshing and so not-fashion in a way, [the books were] such a wonderful moving fashion installation.”
Jane holds fond memories of that first year after her and her staff had rewritten the BA course. “It was a fantastically good year, and I remember sitting on the exam board and saying, ‘well done everybody…’ We’d gotten this really wonderful set of firsts and really interesting students and I remember thinking to myself, we made it, we made it.” And Sarah Mower was the external examiner for FCP and I suddenly felt overwhelmed and I thought ‘we’ve done it!’ and I think I burst into tears. And I remember seeing Sarah’s face, with her thinking, ‘What is this woman on about?’ But we’d rescued it. And so I felt emotional.”
“I think things are going to get tougher now, but it was as tough [in the late 1980s] as it is today.”
“That year it had been so difficult to put the show on, but the show was fantastic,” Jane remembers. “It was in an old theatre in Clapham, and we had a collection about sadomasochism and the whole thing really upset the press. One of the collections had a man playing the character of a drunken cook and he sprayed lager on everyone and I think someone like Hilary Alexander got in a strop about it, the governors were stroppy about it and we got in such trouble. But actually it said what we are. This is what Central Saint Martins is about and it kept true to what the original Saint Martins spirit – not where everybody else is. The show was in a crummy decrepit theatre in Clapham and not in a West End hotel.”
This ushered in a new era for the fashion department, helped along by a turn in economic fortunes for the nation as Britain started to come out of recession in the 1990s. In the late 1980s, the situation outside the college meant that even the most talented of students weren’t being presented with the kind of opportunities they deserved. “We were in recession,” Jane explains. “I think things are going to get tougher now, but it was as tough then as it is today. There were talented students who came out then, but they didn’t make it in quite the same way as some of the students who graduated 5 years later, because they graduated into a positive, moving economy. There was lots of Japanese investment around for designers. The circumstances outside changed. The circumstances outside have a profound effect on what the opportunities are. It varies all the time.” Now, times are tough again, but the fashion department continues to excel at the college and to surprise the staff with its results. Willie Walters, course leader of BA Fashion, speaks fondly of Jane’s success in this last most pivotal year for the college. “Our latest challenge has been the move to Kings Cross which was a nightmarish experience, not least for Jane,” she told me. “It seemed to me a miracle that we had such a successful end of year fashion show, born out of such chaos; a lovely result for Jane’s last year.”
“Sometimes you find people who are so talented but it’s not just about talent, it’s about how you manage your talent.”
Lee McQueen was a student who Jane knew and who surprised her after he left the college. “Loads of the former students have surprised me,” she tells me. “Some of them surprised me because you thought they were going to fly and they didn’t. Sometimes you find people who are so talented but it’s not just about talent, it’s about how you manage your talent. But McQueen, he was very talented. And he was very odd, especially the way he came to us – one of those classic CSM people who didn’t come through a normal route, who needed to come here to find a place. And he was very talented, especially talented. Not that I spotted that, I think his course director, Bobby Hillson [who founded the MA course], did. He could so easily have been one of those really, highly-talented people who burnt themselves out, and he didn’t, he went very far. So that did surprise me.”
But what the press often forget is that Central Saint Martins is not just a fashion school. “The clever thing my predecessor did was that she very much wanted to have drama in here, because she believed the ones that get the attention are either actors or fashion designers. And she said we are too dependent on fashion designers, if that goes out of favour again. So we need another thing to pick up the profile. And we’ve had some very good actors coming out, but people perhaps don’t know because they weren’t at Central Saint Martins. They might have been at Drama Centre before it was CSM. But Michael Fassbender is one of the Drama Centre people who will help to carry the profile. OK, he might be rude about his experience here, which of course a lot of them are. But it helps.”
“I’m slightly worried this building won’t attract misfits”
The college never intended to babysit its students or to guide them by the hand throughout their time here. At least, not under Jane’s watch. Regardless of the field they are being educated in, students at CSM are not only given technical skills, according to Jane. “I’m old-fashioned in the sense that I believe education is education,” she explains. “It’s not entirely about vocational training, it’s about growing people. And hopefully the majority of students who graduate from here have figured out a little bit more, not everything, but a little bit, about who they are, and what they want to do with their lives. Some will. Some never will.” Is this a matter of being given freedom while at college? “Not freedom. You give them the responsibility. The other thing about coming to CSM is we expect our students to take responsibility and hopefully by making it through the process here, they are confident enough to take responsibility for their own decisions.”
The result is, hopefully, employable creative graduates in all sorts of disciplines. Recent statistics for the University of the Arts as a whole, of which CSM is a member, put the number of graduates in relevant employment or postgraduate study at fifty five percent. But Jane stresses that this is not entirely up to the college. “That depends on what the student themselves wants to do. At the end of the day, we have to decide how we want to survive, and it’s very variable and up to the student. Because CSM has the particular reputation that it does, people come here because they believe, maybe erroneously, that they can do what they like. But they can’t, nobody in this world does exactly what they like, even if you’re mega- wealthy. It’s a balance between what you need to know and how you need to operate to realise your creative ambition or dreams. What you take from the college is up to you.” So the onus is constantly on how students can fulfill their own potential, without staff spoon-feeding them? “ At the end of the day we teach, you learn. You have a choice of what you want.”
“Hopefully the majority of students who graduate from here have figured out a little bit more, not everything, but a little bit, about who they are, and what they want to do with their lives. Some will. Some never will.”
Nowhere does this apply better than in the fashion department, where students are encouraged to work independently and seek assistance and guidance only when necessary. Without this independence, genuinely talented graduates who have pushed boundaries could not have fully realised their own potency. On graduating, their success then is determined by what awaits them outside the college’s four walls, according to Jane. “Some students were luckier than others. Lee came out [in 1992] as the whole economic scene was going up, and Gareth Pugh’s time [in 2003] – we were on a roll at that time, too. Gareth was an interesting student, I think he showed at the end of the [BA Fashion] show, but that was because his collection had these great big balls that were so difficult to manage. He surprised me in that he stayed the course, he’s still there, he has something special and people recognise that it’s not just that he’s quirky but underneath the tension on the surface there are actually real ideas and imagination and talent.”
However, raw talent wasn’t always enough for some others. “Giles Deacon had a little more difficulty,” she tells me. “I remember his graduate collection very very well. So beautiful, it was all tooled leather, but then he went off and he actually worked in menswear, although I don’t think he likes to say that now. He brushes over that a little bit. I think he was unusual because he came back after probably a good half a dozen years in the industry. And then he started to do his own thing. That’s quite difficult to do, because you know all the pitfalls by that time. Often when designers come out they think ‘oh, I want to do my own designs’, and you’re so naive that you’re less cautious and you take more risks. And Giles was a very grounded, not cautious but very sensible, grounded person, with a good talent but not a” (Jane does a dramatic sharp intake of breath) “and I think he’s done very well as a designer now.”
“You have to be careful that you don’t just choose the applicants that fit a mould. In this place you’re always looking for the ones who break the mould. Who change the mould, whatever their mould is. You have keep looking for the ones who are thinking from the outside.”
The students who Jane taught and encountered during her time at Central Saint Martins have gone on to make profound changes in the fields of art and design. She tells me a story of one student in the early 1990s who she was particularly fond of, but who had “had such a troubled past – he had to defer for a year because he was in prison for GBH.” But when he came back his graduate collection was a masterpiece, and was well-received across the board, Jane recalls. “It was a wonderful collection, just so different and so special.” The student graduated and went on to achieve great things in menswear. Jane thinks of this man as a telling example of what CSM is really about and what it should always strive for. “That’s what we’re here for. For the misfits. What we should be here for. We’re here for the misfits. We should be attracting them. I’m slightly worried this building won’t attract misfits. But as long as we keep looking for them and making sure they’re not put off by us, they will come… You have to be careful that you don’t just choose the applicants that fit a mould. In this place you’re always looking for the ones who break the mould. Who change the mould, whatever their mould is. You have keep looking for the ones who are thinking from the outside.”
Jane believes that Central Saint Martins is about the people who make it what it is, who go through it, who work with each other to inspire and to help people develop themselves as artists. It’s not about one single individual whose name might be in lights now, but about a body of staff and students working together. And the college’s success now in adversity isn’t down to Jane alone, either, but down to the people she has worked with to make Central Saint Martins a home for the eccentrics and the misfits and all the creatives who mightn’t fit in elsewhere.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky. Some people here are a nightmare, but they are a wonderful nightmare,” she smiles. “And if they can’t come here, where can they go? We fought very hard not to become corporate. It’s much harder now to make room for staff-misfits, but we try. They’re important too, they’re the grit in the oyster. That might be a cliché but it has an important meaning for us. You do need some grit in the oyster.”
Words by Ana Kinsella
Left photograph by Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Right photograph via Efu.com