Céline Toledano is a familiar name in the circuit of Parisian fashion education. She started her career as Karl Lagerfeld’s right hand in the 80’s, working as his collection director for six years, then moved on to execute similar leadership roles at (pre-Phoebe Philo) Céline, Nina Ricci and Sonia Rykiel. In 2010, the dancer-turned-designer decided, together with Stéphane Wargnier, to create an additional fourth year programme for the curriculum of iconic 89-year-old École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, which counts Issey Miyake, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent among its alumni. Currently working for luxury headhunting agency m-O Conseil alongside teaching emerging designers the realities of the industry, she is aptly tapped into the market and understands what young talent needs to develop in order to thrive. We sat down in her office on Rue Réaumur, tea on the side, to discuss the change state of fashion and how the Parisian school is carving its path into the future.

How did you come to be here? We have read that you were also a professional ballet dancer?

Yes, I started in a ballet company in the north of France. I wanted to go to New York to be a dancer there, but someone came here and hired me. He was from New York and started a company in France. Looking back, I think I should never have done that, because I hated it. And then I quit. It felt good. I was happy I tried it, and I suddenly realised it was not my thing. I have no regrets. Then I started to work with Karl Lagerfeld and… it all happened like that. I don’t think I would say to any young ballet dancer: “Come and work in fashion!” You do not have this kind of possibility nowadays.

So rather than studying fashion, you learnt everything on the job, as such?

It is not possible now and that is a shame. In a way, you can always learn ‘school things’ in school, but who could have been a better teacher than Karl Lagerfeld? I learnt everything at the same time as I was, in fact, doing the job – the best school you can possibly have.

And now you’re back within college walls! How did the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture  Parisienne start out? What were its founding principles? 

In the beginning, this school was a place where people came because the design and couture houses here in Paris needed more women to sew. It is how this school was created – even now, the students never stop learning how to sew at a very high standard.

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“The most difficult thing is not the pattern making; it is to sew. We have a very high level of quality here. Whatever they do, even if it’s grunge, it has to be well done.”

Are the courses still focused mainly on the technical making of the garments?

It is not that you just learn technical skills. First, you have fabrics: which types, what colours, and all those things. You are going to learn how to ‘do’ a dress, or a blouse, or pants — which will be very technical and in depth. From the third year, you can decide what you want to do: work in a workshop, in an atelier and become a pattern maker, toiliste, modelist, or to go and be a designer. Then the students start to work on the processes to become a designer: ideas and images, doing three-dimensional research… 

So is it in the final year when students decide what they want to do?

At the moment, they start to decide from the fourth year, but they are going to start making that decision from the third year in the future. Because we have changed a lot of things here in the way that we teach technical skills. Usually, when you leave school, you are not professional. But the way we teach it, when you finish the course here, you are quite a good modelist already – you are not like a junior leaving school. You are a bit more than that, because you have spent four years learning technical skills.

How does the process work in terms of the students’ relationships with their tutors?

The further along they get, the less the tutors help them. When they do their final projects, the students should decide what they are going to do regarding their level of technical skill. This is sometimes difficult, because some are better than others. For this, they need help, because sometimes what they want to show is quite difficult. So for this they have advice, but no one ever makes things for you — that is a bit forbidden here. Whatever is the student’s style, at one point they will have to do things by themselves. The most difficult thing is not the pattern making; it is to sew. We have a very high level of quality here. Whatever they do, even if it’s grunge, it has to be well done. They can’t make something that looks like it’s done by the high street!

So this fourth year only came into existence in 2010, is that correct? And it was set up by you and Stéphane Wargnier?

We started it because originally the students only studied here for three years. But almost all other schools do four or five years. We realised, because we work for fashion companies, that usually when you leave school, you are so young, and you don’t always know how a company works. The students need to know why the commercial department speaks with the merchandising department, who speaks with the designers, who speaks with the communication team – and finally that all those people work together quite often. We realised that quite a lot of the time, they have no idea that it is not going to be creation all day long, so we added this fourth year. Every week they have people coming from French fashion companies: they can be CEOs, designers, production managers, merchandising managers, anything. They come and explain their work and how they decided to do this after their design studies. Sometimes for students, it is a way to discover that you have other types of jobs, which are not so clearly taught in school, but which can be very interesting; for example being a production manager or product developer. Often companies have previously hired people from business schools for these jobs, but now they’ve realised it might be easier to hire people from a more fashion-oriented background. 

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Photography by Paul Langsley

“You’re hired because you’re creative, but at the end of the day you are going to stay in the company because you’re good at designing real garments.”

Was this creation of the fourth year a reaction to what the industry needs from students?

It goes both ways. It is also about their expectations when they graduate. Students are aware of how the industry works, but they can always be very creative. In schools there are always many different levels of creativity – some have more than others. But at the end of the day, this school always teaches students that their ideas still have to be put on the market. They still have to produce them and communicate the what and the why. They can have the best idea in the world, they can be the most creative they want to be and design whatever they want, but in the end they have to think: “Who is going to take this from the rail?”

At some other schools it can be the other way around, so does this way of teaching start from the very beginning?

Yes, but you can still be creative and want someone to buy your clothes in the end. Some students don’t care – they just want to prove that they are creative. But now, in studios, you don’t have many places where you can just be creative. It is strange – you’re hired because you’re creative, but at the end of the day you are going to stay in the company because you’re good at designing real garments.

So are you still altering the curriculum now and adapting things?

We are, always. You have to, because you can’t just say: “I know how it works.” You may know how the industry works – but things are always changing. You need to be sure that what you teach is still speaking to people.

Do you think you’ve seen a change in what the students wish for when they graduate, in terms of jobs and ambitions?

It’s complicated, because I’m working as a headhunter, so I meet a lot of different students. I think what young designers are expecting is more than what they will have. The best of the students are quite quick to progress in a company, because they are good creatively, but in the end they are not going to be used just for creative things. They have to understand what is wanted of them by the head designer. Expectations are sometimes too high at the beginning, but at the same time I often hear that young designers would prefer to be in a smaller company. They learn quicker, because they have less people to speak with. They are closer to the designer, closer to the atelier, closer to production: closer to everything. 

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“More than anything, I still feel impressed by talent.”

How does your job as a headhunter influence the way that you teach, and the other way around?

It helps a lot, because I can observe how a company is organised from the intern to the head designer. Of course, you sometimes have students asking, “Do you think there are still companies where I could be working only on the shoes or only on creative pieces?” and I say “Hmm…no” [laughs]. 

How do you think that the students’ personal lives, or what they are interested in, affects their job and what they want out of life?

I think that more students want to be happy in their lives, as they speak about this all the time. I have no idea if it is because they are hearing what is happening in design houses, and they are a bit afraid…or if they are just lazier. I don’t think it is that [laughs], but sometimes you wonder! I can understand that some students feel like: “Am I going to find a job? Is it going to be easy?” Or, “Am I sure that I understand what companies are expecting from me?”

Do you think that this anxiety and fear of finding a job is linked to the pace and speed of fashion now?

Probably, but it has been a very long time since fashion was slow… It was a long time ago that we had only two collections a year. Now a lot also depends on how people work, and the differents ways of being organised within a company. Some brands have two studios, some have a team for show and a team for pre-collections, and others not at all. Then you have one creative director who is looking at everything, and another who doesn’t. All this has an impact on how the company works and how the designers work.

Have you learnt anything from working with students? If so, what do you think is the most surprising thing you have learned?

The difference between experience and no experience. I am always (positively) surprised by the talent of people. Also, satisfaction comes a lot quicker with education than in a company – as you can see students learning very quickly what you teach them. In a company something is happening very slowly. So you learn and you realise that you have experience. But more than anything, I still feel impressed by talent.

Interview by Julia van IJken and Harri Welch

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