Fleet Bigwood, pathway tutor for the MA Textiles for Fashion at Central Saint Martins since 1993, initially agreed to meet me outside the campus studios for a conversation on his role as an educator. With a focus on how his work in the industry as a print design consultant for such brands as Stella McCartney and Donna Karan shaped his approach at the college, the conversation was meant to last about forty-five minutes or so. In the end, after our first conversation barely scratched the surface, Fleet gave me more time for a second conversation to talk even more about his work with the legendary Lee Alexander McQueen and Louise Wilson. On top of that, Fleet also gave the photographer for this article a lesson in silk-screening.
What became clear as Fleet conveyed the privilege of working with the talented students at Central Saint Martins, is that the college’s environment is imbued with generosity. This holds true whether Fleet’s discussing technology’s influence on creativity in fashion, describing the ideal student, or explaining his regard for each student as an individual.
Fleet: For me, teaching has always been about looking at the student as an individual, never looking at the group as a whole, responding to what their skills are and what their point of view is. I’ve never been taught how to teach. It’s something that’s happened through doing it over 26 or 30 years. I suppose what happened back in the 80’s and early 90’s, when you showed any sort of enthusiasm for your subject and you worked closely with your tutors as a student, they would ask you to come in and offer your services because of your particular specialism. It was Natalie from BA Textiles who first asked me to come and teach at Saint Martins. But I studied textiles at Camberwell which as a course no longer exists. Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in South London taught a very particular approach. It was actually a textiles fashion course but there was no fashion in it. I did my MA on the fashion course with Natalie, Brian Harris, Judith Found and Bobby Hillson. That was actually at Saint Martins, the last year of Saint Martins before it became Central Saint Martins. It was quite a significant moment in a way, and I was so glad I got in at that point. Because we were all in fear of the whole thing dissolving.
“Teaching has always been about looking at the student as an individual, never looking at the group as a whole.”
What’s changed since you started teaching at Saint Martins?
What’s interesting is that it hasn’t changed so much in terms of the level of student quality. What I love is that we always have had a handful of fantastic graduates every year, more than a handful, and six or seven really do incredible work. I’ve become slightly cynical about the world lately for lots of reasons, especially about fashion as a subject and its popularity. What’s changed is that bureaucracy has become more important than it’s ever been. Health and safety has become more important than it’s ever been. And technology has become more important than it’s ever been. Those three factors affect the environment in which we work. Back in the old school days at Charing Cross Road, it was quite free in what was allowed and wasn’t allowed. And you could work in any medium, in any way, in any process with a quite free spirit. And now it’s slightly more restricted. It doesn’t really stop the good creative from being creative. But I find it interesting that now students prefer to produce something in a very slick manner and offer it multiple times in different formats – but essentially it’s one idea – rather than doing many ideas in a more rough way. It’s a kind of post-production obsession. There is a danger that it is becoming all about self-promotion and appearing like pages from a magazine with very limited substance. I know digital technology is significant now but really it would be great to see somebody with a paintbrush or a crayon or a pencil, or a collage and scissors. You just very rarely see it. The idea of being able to spray something or use bleach or burn something is almost out of the question. And I think these students, given that amount of freedom, could be even greater than they are. If we look at American art, or Pop Art or anything that’s happened in the last 30 years in the UK art or British art, there are all sorts of ways of working. I think the idea that you would stop that and stick it all on digital media is slightly negative. I think it’s a fantastic thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s opened up many doors. You can use technology in a different way. It’s very simplistic. It’s like using a screen in a different way. So, there is plenty of potential. I think you can produce digital fabrics that do not look anything like Mary Katrantzou’s or Peter Pilotto’s. That’s obvious, number one. It’s just having somebody with the vision to do it. Initially I was concerned technology would kill a lot of creative processes, that it would certainly remove the physical print room aspect of textiles but it hasn’t. It’s just enhanced it and sped it up.
It’s about how the technology is used.
It is how it’s used. But it’s all the other things. Let’s not forget all the other things because all the other things are working with your hands. I’m obsessed with craft. And I’m obsessed with processes that have been lost. Let’s not forget, because we are dealing with a 3D outcome. I do feel there is a lack of physical interaction with things. And I mean, as we work in an industry which is about three dimensions, and it’s about fabric and form, that students should be prepared to make a mark and work with fabric, work closely with the materials they intend to design with. I think we can’t be too sterile. It doesn’t make it work. You can’t wear an iPad. Portfolios somehow sometimes seem quite barren in terms of breadth of ideas or even in the way the students make the work.
“I do feel there is a lack of physical interaction with things.”
Do you see the portfolios as being barren?
I do. Also, I think, as we have a lot of people come from the industry and the recruitment companies to look at the work, that’s something that’s been clearly highlighted. Which, I’m not sure it’s anybody’s fault. It’s just the way that technology is offered to us, and embraced by the students.
But the breadth is not the same. How would you describe the ideal student?
The student who works very hard, has a sense of humor, who has a point of view. Instead of drawing on their own personal references, culture, art and interests, students tend to reference fashion too directly. It’s important to be aware of what’s going on in fashion and the history of fashion, of course, but not let it influence their personal vision too directly. It has become harder to create an original point of view, when so much fashion and imagery is readily available. From a fantastic archival piece that might exist in a library or museum. So, it’s so accessible I think things are inevitably compared and referenced more than they have ever been and you don’t need a Masters in fashion history to visually understand the language of a particular designer, brand or house. Again, I think it’s difficult to form a point of view. There’s not the same level of risk-taking, which is probably due to money, due to debt, and accessibility. We’re in an era when things are so easily accessible, if glamour and fantastic quality fabrics are presented, students probably feel slightly intimidated. So, it’s almost as if there’s too much exposure really. That’s probably been said hundreds of times by people my age but that’s the way I feel.
And these comparisons are recent?
I think these are more recent. Probably back in the early days of when I was teaching, the thing that existed, where you could see the collections, was called Collezioni, which was a magazine that came out after all the shows had finished. It also cost a fortune to buy. So, if you didn’t go to Franks and buy it, then you really didn’t know what was happening in fashion. And the fact that you didn’t know, made your point of view kind of fresh, which is inevitable. But we can’t change things. So it’s up to the students how much they immerse themselves in it. I’m quite happy to speak to somebody that is quite obsessed and looks at every single collection, as I am with somebody who refuses to engage with it because each one has a point of view. It’s just about how to work with it. But what I also want to make clear in a way is, for our course, we take people on for lots of reasons. Obviously, usually based on their skills or their point of view, for their vision of things. But to quote Louise, ‘We know what we don’t want, but we don’t know what we want.’ We know we don’t want the clichés, and we don’t want anybody that’s a pastiche of anything else. From that textile pathway, we have graduates who have started their own businesses as designers and stylists, illustrators and bookshop owners. The outcome is very broad. For me, the Textiles for Fashion pathway is about seeing the potential in someone and nurturing their specific skill. It’s reading the individual and what they respond to. How they interact with other people and how they interact with their research and their references. How they respond to holding fabric or using machinery or technology.
We’ve talked about technology and the immediacy of media access, what are some of the trends affecting your industry and have you had to adapt the way you teach?
I don’t think of trends in any shape or form, so I’m not really sure how to respond to that. Trends to me are things that other people make up. So that again goes back to the students’ point of view. With the MA alumni, the very strong ones are the ones that get the most press or the best jobs, and with a clear point of view. And I don’t think they would even consider trends. It has to be something that we ignore.
“Trends to me are things that other people make up.”
What about trends in regard to the creation process, or the manufacturing process?
What I think is significant, and this is within the past 15 years, as technology has sped up and become more sophisticated, the designers and the brands are able to produce things they obviously previously couldn’t. So, you can do digital jacquard, that can be embroidered or printed or sequined on the top and it can be turned around very quickly. And I think the students sort of respond to that in a way they aspire to adding on, and on top, and on top, and on top. That is something that has impacted on the way they work. Of course with their financial restraints students have to find other ways of making things. And that often results in something which has got a slightly newer vision because they’re not going to the specialist weavers in Switzerland or in the south of France or in Italy or wherever. They’re not using Chinese suppliers. They’re having to sort of cut corners and find ways of being resourceful from doing it themselves, which is really healthy.
What are some other challenges that you see students facing?
That’s an interesting point, actually. Twenty years ago, students showed their collections during London Fashion Week on the MA which was unlike any other course anywhere. And if it was shown on the catwalk, then there was a response that occurred the following day and it would last for two or three weeks. And then from that point they were picked up. Now today, of course, the consumption of imagery is so instant that the fall from the show come down is very dark and deep and long lasting. And that has quite a significant effect on people. Again, it has to do with the speed at which things are consumed that can have an effect where it completely deflates a graduating year. But of course, as a non-obsessive social media person or digital person, I still believe in the students’ work. But I think it can really affect them if they’re not featured or if they’re featured and then people sort of lose interest in them. Essentially they’re creative. They’re talented people. They’ve shown their collections and then nothing. They feel deflated, which is a difficult position to put yourself fin when you’ve committed probably your parents’ money, 18 months of your life, you’ve put everything, your heart and soul into that collection, and then it’s worthless. But then it isn’t worthless. But to them sometimes it feels worthless.
Does that somewhat echo with what is happening in the industry, in terms of that attention span that just moves on to the next thing? Designers working in the industry though have a framework that pushes them onto the next thing, but for students, there is a gap.
You’re right. They do have a framework which pushes them onto the next thing, the pre-collection and the rest of it. But of course, as we know fashion is in sort of in a strange place really, where yes, they do have a business but for how much longer? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?
Do these types of questions come up in your teaching? Or in your interactions with students?
No, I don’t think they do. Personally, I don’t talk about things like that. I’d rather talk about the idea and try and sort of engage with their proposal, which is really a privilege.
You describe teaching as a privilege. What do you enjoy most about teaching?
What I love is the one-to-one contact, the conversations. I love the challenges, the students’ aspirations, their goals, the technical translations of their ideas. You know they often work in very specific straight lines. They have the idea and they try to make the idea directly instead of allowing themselves to be open about what they may discover en route. And I think, if you think about that idea, think about changing the fabric base, think about scale, think about other ways of working with it, how to source it, or just being slightly more random about your working methods, those things can lead to fantastically new work.
“What I love is the one-to-one contact, the conversations. I love the challenges, the students’ aspirations, their goals, the technical translations of their ideas.”
And maybe take away from that sparseness that you’re seeing in the portfolios?
Exactly. Also, it’s a mistake to think you know what the idea will look like and aim for that. You’re creating a really difficult problem for yourself because very rarely can you get to that point.
I was going to ask, do they have the skill level needed to reach that original idea?
Right. That’s actually the fun thing. And then there’s also the fact that they’re all so different. One student is very different to another student. Their backgrounds and their history and references, it’s all really fascinating. It’s a bit of indulgence. I love it. And it’s very different to what I do the rest of the week.
Right. So how does your desire to teach connect with you do the rest of the week?
I guess because of the way I work, I work with people in many different ways and for very different outcomes and I have done for a long time. And working closely with them and realizing their demands and the randomness of certain collections that I work on, it informs me about what people are currently looking at in terms of inspiration and fabrication. It’s like working with the students. People being creative. The difference of course is that they make it into a commercial venture.
So, thinking about your career here at CSM, do you think about legacy?
No, but what fascinates me, and always has done, is the idea that what we do in this building, especially in that room, (and I have to say the BA does an incredible job with those BA students so that when they come up to us they continue that creative process), is that somehow we affect culture. I love that. That thrills me. More than anything. More than one of my graduates, more than Craig, let’s say, as a textiles student, doing what he does out there and being fantastic and winning awards and making great collections. The idea that he affects culture in some way is brilliant. We’re all so used to the idea of certain games that have sold millions of copies and they’re fabulously successful and that affects culture, obviously. But the idea that we within this building can affect change, is fantastic. With the work we do in our studio, you know something the rest of the world doesn’t know, or the press don’t know or the bloggers don’t know. You know something, right? You know it’s going to happen because it’s happening right there in that room. So, in two months’ time it will be shown. Then everybody will know what that is.
“What fascinates me, is that somehow we affect culture.”
You see echoes of what’s happened in the course studios out in the world.
Yes. With Craig, you can see the silhouette and the see the identity he created on this course is completely clear throughout his collections. It’s almost like a repetitive silhouette to a point. That’s not an insult, that’s a focus, a signature. I see it and it’s like seeing one of your own, and you feel proud. Then I meet those people years later and I think, their life experience is so broad. They’ve only been out of college for three or four years and they’ve had exposure to this, they’ve won these awards, they’ve got this money, they’ve got this status in the world, and they’re four years out of college. And that’s remarkable. I thought when I was teaching Alister Mackie he had an interesting aesthetic. But our parents wouldn’t know what we would ever be. To me with teaching you can’t tell. Of course, you have your suspicions. But only after having done it for years you can kind of see maybe a little bit more than somebody who is younger. Because of experience, that is what it is.
So, your understanding of students has changed over the years.
Yes. I always felt like I was slightly cynical about the potential output of these younger people. But I’ve been proved wrong time and again. So now I feel I should never judge things.
That’s an interesting turn, to become less cynical over time.
What is interesting for me is that we have this reputation at Central Saint Martins, which is almost self-fulfilling. It almost sustains itself. Because of its name, because of its history, because of its alumni, because of its position in education, we draw in the most talented young people from around the world. And that’s so joyful. Even if you’re not that super skilled person with the greatest vision, but you learn through peer learning and you’ve got some of the best staff in the world. It’s a great melting pot, I think it’s a fantastic thing. There’s a broad range. I’ll use Lee as a transparent example. Prior to him doing what he did with his aesthetic and point of view on fashion and on women, and how that evolved, culturally the change that he has made is phenomenal. We’ve got skulls everywhere, as an example. We’ve got advertising campaigns, movies, we’ve got videos for bands, promos, all these things which to me are a direct link to Lee McQueen. I know that might sound ridiculous but there’s the sinister aspect of what he did, but that made it sort of viable for people to do that in music, or in advertising. Morphing, science fiction, that darkness that his aesthetic was, has been culturally adopted globally. That’s what fascinates me about culture. It kind of evolves in a way in the least expected places. In fact, Lee’s dark aesthetic, when he first showed it, was called misogynistic and people thought it was an insult to women. It was ‘terrible.’ It was called ‘vile,’ it was written about as if it were a vile thing. Now, of course it wasn’t Lee, but to think that the brand would ever be responsible for a royal wedding dress? From that point of view of his first show, you would think you would not believe it could become so establishment.
“We have this reputation at Central Saint Martins, which is almost self-fulfilling.”
What would you like to have contributed to the field?
Hopefully a kind of passion for the fabric and how to make fabric, in whatever form that might be, from digital to embroidery to print. When I was a student and graduated, brands and collections probably used to produce a print, just a print, as part of their story, part of their presentation. Maybe one or two prints maximum. Now when you look at the collections, there are passages of prints, passages of embroideries. I’m not sure if that’s a legacy of this textile course or courses but it’s completely changed out of all recognition because designers used to show a print as part of their collection. Then they realized the print could sort of illustrate a narrative or describe the collection in a very succinct way. I don’t know that it’s anything to do with us, but the world has changed completely in what it serves up in terms of decoration and fabric and pattern. Completely out of all recognition. You only have to look at something like Katharine Hamnett’s era. It sort of puts us in a position where we try to prepare students who can go out there and work in that arena really, who’ve got the confidence, knowledge or the skills to do those jobs at those brands, which they do and have done.
So, you do feel that you and CSM are preparing these students to take on these roles. Can you tell me more about working with Louise?
Louise was very passionate about her subject. She was in touch with a lot of people. I worked for Donna Karan for years and I introduced Donna to Louise and she then became design director over there in New York. Louise was ruthless, hardworking, very funny, very generous person. I think people just remember this rude, giant swearing head, of course. But she was extremely generous with her time, with her laughter, with her humour.
Generous with her intention?
Absolutely, that’s exactly what she was about. I mean, it was all a bit of a big circus when Louise was around because she made it that way. That was just her personality. She’s sadly missed. But you can’t dwell on it. Fabio is fantastic and is a great course leader, and it’s opened up the aesthetic of the course slightly. Louise had a very particular way of working, a formula, which suited not only her and us, the staff, but the students and for the period for which she reigned supreme. Fabio took over when Louise died, literally with a phone call, and twisted the course slightly into something much broader, which is very exciting because as with all things, the clue is in the title. It’s about change, isn’t it? Fashion has to change. Fabio has a great vision for the future, and that’s positive.
Can you tell me more about your experience with Lee McQueen?
I’ve seen twenty-six years of students on sewing machines and seeing Lee McQueen for the first time sewing something, and I remember thinking, ‘This is incredible skill.’ And his cutting of garments without even taking a measurement. Just literally cutting and seeing that and thinking, This is an incredibly talented boy. You know, he was a working-class boy with terrible teeth. And Louise used to tease him about his teeth constantly before he was ‘Alexander McQueen.’ But his talent was remarkable. When he graduated, when he left, he was really angry and disappointed with everything. Lee was angry that people showed so little interest in what he had done on the MA. The only person was Isabella, who saw the potential. He came back into college one evening, and talked to me and a friend of his. But it was a funny thing. The fact that he was angry, it was anger that kind of made him excel. Because it drove him.
Did you form a partnership or collaboration with him?
We just decided to work together because he would work on shapes and I worked on fabrics, although he had a lot of ideas for fabric and produced pieces in his garden or in the flat.
Let’s put this into a context. How long had you been teaching with the college before this happened?
About three or four years. He was a very early MA student that I sort of worked with. When I graduated from the MA, Louise actually said to me, you shouldn’t come back and teach until you have some experience in the industry, which was fair enough. I came back a couple of years later when Lee was on the course. At the time, he didn’t stand out as a student other than he was incredibly skilled. It wasn’t like he was teacher’s pet. He didn’t come into college that often.
And at this early stage in your teaching career, how did you approach your relationships with students?
We were friends. That was an odd thing about that early time. So, I was in my early twenties and the students were also in their twenties, so we would go out drinking together. Which is why that Lee connection came about. Because we all socialized together. Also, we were in SoHo. So, the back door of the print room lead to Greek Street, and that’s where we’d go to the bars. We’d all meet up. We’d literally walk out to go to drink and talk about fashion.
“The textile graduates should adapt their aesthetic to fit the mindset of the brand, which is what their role is.”
And now you’re compiling a book?
It’s more like a visual CV more meant for our clients. It’s almost like an archive. Together with my partner, we have worked on over 300 main line and pre-collections. A lot of sportswear. we’ve done ballet, we’ve done red carpets and Oscar dresses. It illustrates the breadth and diversity of work we have done. We are lucky to have Alister O’Neill art direct it. The textile graduates, I feel, should adapt their aesthetic to fit the mindset of the brand, which is what their role is. I want students to understand the role of a textile designer and realize that diversity and being able to adapt and have multiple ideas is important. And not to be precious about any particular idea process or technique.
You’ve been very flexible.
Very flexible. But again, that is partly due to my age and my generation. All of these things have changed so much over the years. Even the fact that I have a studio with some square footage, it’s almost impossible to get in London now. Students move out of London to their parental homes, to Rottingdean, for example. James and Luke, they live in Rottingdean on the south coast. Matty Bovan lives up in York. It’s been written about and commented on a lot in the last few years, the fact that the city is not a viable place for young creative people to operate due to inflated rents, etc. I think that’s a desperate state of affairs. Although, it’s not proven to be that detrimental, which I find interesting, because they function outside the city. And that in a way makes them slightly more tantalizing.
Words Troy Wise
Portrait Azra Sudetic