Representing the creative future

“Just exist”: Fabio Piras’ call for disruption

The head of Central Saint Martins MA Fashion reminds us what it means to create

Fabio Piras on the CSM FASHION MA 2021 Show

Graduation usually has students anxiously ruminating one question: what’s next? Organic dyes and fabric glues barely dried and they’re already wondering how their work can benefit their future careers.

Tutors, on the other hand, tend to look in the opposite direction. For them, graduation offers an opportunity for reflection. What did my students struggle with and how we can help the next class face those challenges? What advice helped them most and what did I learn from my students in return?

This year, educational struggles exceeded the realm of design, as teaching was done via screens and students were pattern cutting on their kitchen table. Course leader Fabio Piras felt he had to embrace those changes with open arms. A year without the usual conventions might have been exactly what his students (and the industry at large) needed. “Sometimes we’re so conditioned by the way things should look that we forget the poetry of what we do.”

After a year of improvisation, experimentation, and resourcefulness, he recognises more than ever the necessity to be brave and stand by your artistic statements, whether they fit the mould or not.

The MA is presenting their work digitally this year. Is that any less stressful than a physical catwalk show?

Doing two catwalk shows would be less work than this. Maybe next year I’ll do that, just organize three shows, one after the other. [laughs] It’s been hectic. It’s time-consuming to create a digital platform, even if you’re not the one building it.

“The future would be: let’s do the catwalk, it’s a party, it’s an event, why not? But let’s not forget what we managed to achieve this time. Because this time, never before in the history of the course, students had so much voice.” – Fabio Piras

A show is more formatted as well. This time, you’re developing the concept from scratch.

The show is a comfort zone for us. Obviously, it’s a language we know. With the digital, we had everything to learn. Especially for someone like me, where it isn’t my forte. But there are opportunities in everything. A lot of things were taken away, but once you embrace the fact that this is your present, you can understand what your opportunities are within that.

I think for students it’s been brilliant. They might hate me for saying this. But it has taken away some of the conventions that they abide by, especially on MA.

On BA, I feel that the priority is to be super creative. It needs to be artistic. On the MA, you want to be believable, professional. A lot of times, by the time you reach the end of your MA, you want to abide more and more by the rules that you feel are the rules of the business. This time, that was taken away from the students. Cruelly, but for their benefit.

Even before COVID, the show calendar was heavily criticized. Do you believe these new opportunities will actually change the system or is everyone just dying to get back to normal?

Of course, we want to go back to doing a show, that is not the question. But, the opportunity of what we did this time is so much bigger than the catwalk. So, to me, the future would be: let’s do the catwalk, it’s a party, it’s an event, why not? But let’s not forget what we managed to achieve this time. Because this time, never before in the history of the course, students had so much voice.

The point is not about this year being more democratic. What does that even mean? Students have been given a space to curate. It’s about that responsibility, not about being democratic. Those who really embraced that produced amazing things.

“You should celebrate bricolage, especially in a college like Central Saint Martins. Isn’t that what we’re known for? It’s an art college, it’s also about making do. You need to be agile.” – Fabio Piras

I had the opportunity to speak to a few students and I was surprised by how positive everyone was. Students were grateful to be challenged. Is that the result of what they’ve been through this year?

Some of them are more predisposed to that kind of thinking anyway. But, the game was made more difficult. It’s not easy to think like that.

There is an important idea I tried to share with the students. Something they can’t get from their peers but that comes from tutors and those who are from another generation. Looking back on my past, on being a young designer in the 90s, there was a generation of designers who didn’t necessarily abide by a system that was already so polished and dominated by luxury groups and all that. McQueen was the king of that. I do my incredible show and I change the world, without a credit card. That was very much the spirit of that time. But to go and say that to someone in their 20s today sounds like granddad’s advice.

So stop complaining about not having a show. Just go out with your looks, play the trumpets, and that is your show. COVID enabled us to do that. And that is great. That is also what we try to do at the course. And it’s beautiful and brave, and inspiring.

This idea that you are missing the technology… what technology? Unless you are the king of technology, everything else is bricolage. Therefore, you should celebrate bricolage, especially in a college like Central Saint Martins. Isn’t that what we’re known for? It’s an art college, it’s also about making do. You need to be agile.

“Sometimes we’re so conditioned by the way things should look that we forget the poetry of what we do.” – Fabio Piras

Speaking of their process, many of the students mentioned words like “spontaneous”, “intuition”, “primitive”. It sounded like the pressure of how something should be felt away and they could create in a way that was truer to themselves. 

I totally believe that is true because I witnessed that process. Whether that is still true now, at the end of the process, I have my doubts. Because at this point, the students needed to communicate. And then suddenly…

I don’t judge the students for this. Because I know they need to learn from experience. But the minute they finished their collections, incredibly bravely, inspiring to watch, then suddenly the team of photographers, video makers and stylist friends came in, and they entered this polished world of delivery again. Whether that pleases me or not is completely irrelevant. It is my personal point of view.

But to me, the people that set the new paradigm for what is to come are the ones who could resist this. They were brave enough to offer something else. That is their greatest gift to the course because it allows the course to shift.

Why do you think that spontaneity disappeared in communication?

Because it takes a lot of maturity for a student to recognize the value in their work. I’ll give you an example. You might need to photograph your work in your kitchen, by necessity. You have your fittings and in the background, clothes hanging, a kettle on the stove, whatever. That, in terms of image for someone who isn’t the designer, can be amazingly beautiful. For the designer, that is just their kitchen and they become desperate to bring their team in.

Sometimes we’re so conditioned by the way things should look that we forget the poetry of what we do. Maybe trusting the honesty of having your socks drying in the background of your fantastic fashion, maybe that can create a better fashion image.

“There is a danger in becoming a talent factory. Of course, I want to be perceived as a course that brings in the “new names”. I’m very proud of that. But, it is important to ask, what kind of new names?” – Fabio Piras

You mentioned that you welcomed the challenges of the past year with open arms because you were desperate for a change. Could you explain what aspects of the industry you thought most needed that breath of fresh air?

Well, how long have you got? [laughs]

It’s a difficult thing to convey because it can come across dismissive, but I will try to be clear. On one hand, it is very important for a course like ours to acknowledge our connection to the industry and a fashion system which we, very fortunately, are a part of and worked hard to be part of. That was the work of Louise Wilson. When she took over the course in 1994, she aimed to build the course almost as a house. That was very innovative at the time.

“I would like to see more designers that are genuinely disruptive.” – Fabio Piras

At the same time, there is a danger in becoming a talent factory. Of course, I want to be perceived as a course that brings in the “new names”. I’m very proud of that. But, it is important to ask, what kind of new names? Are they the ones that enter the system without asking questions? Some designers are like that, but as a course, I would like to shape designers that bring something else to the party. Designers that are questioning the system and aren’t saying to the world they are sustainable simply because it sounds right, but that prove it in their actions.

It is important we have something to say. That we are brave. That we don’t do it for the sake of becoming a star and being successful. Because what is success? And who decides on those benchmarks? It’s not about getting it quick. It’s about doing something meaningful. That might sound empty, but it isn’t. There needs to be a commitment to your artistic statement.

I would like to see more designers that are genuinely disruptive. This won’t happen in a single moment, but we’re already seeing people who graduated recently who are that alternative. You have the stars of the catwalk and then you have those designers that have a completely different level of equally respected expression, like John Alexander Skelton. Whose intelligence and commitment I admire completely. To me, that is modern. That is what I would like to push.

I can’t force my students to be that. I can’t force my students to be Rottingdean Bazaar. But I respect that enormously. Or the designers like Matty Bovan. People who are part of a super system but are also capable of holding on to that personal, artistic statement.

Do you need to sell thousands of items to be successful? Maybe you only sell a few, and they are exceptional and their value lasts a lifetime. It’s not something you can implement systematically. You can question and then it’s up to the student to do what they want with that.

“It would be very hypocritical of me to say, “no, I don’t want to be number 1 in the BoF ranking.” There is always a ranking. We have 700 applicants a year, we only take 40 to 60.” – Fabio Piras

You describe a superstar system, a system in which – and 1 Granary carries blame there too – graduates are “spotted” and capitalized on even before they walk out the door, and incorporated into that machine.

Again, I don’t have a problem with that. Let’s call it the devil because that is what we are in a sense. If 1 Granary is responsible, what we cannot forget is that we as a course are the first ones responsible.

Anything we say about the course, anything we advertise about the course, it’s always about “this is the best course in the world.” Even when we don’t say it ourselves, that is what we hope people will say. It would be very hypocritical of me to say, “no, I don’t want to be number 1 in the BoF ranking.” There is always a ranking. We have 700 applicants a year, we only take 40 to 60. When we do a show, we don’t show everyone. We don’t want to show everyone.

And students depend on this. This year, they were expecting the selection. They couldn’t believe that everyone would be allowed to show, it was first seen as something negative. But that’s up to them to navigate. It’s part of a learning curve.

If Vogue doesn’t put you on Vogue runway, if 1 Granary hasn’t selected you among the 10,… that student should realise it’s one point of view, in one moment in time. Yes, it’s painful. But you also need to understand who you are and what you stand for. The world doesn’t end with this judgment.

“There is a fear of being borderline. A fear of being alternative. Because that immediately means exclusion.” – Fabio Piras

I think about this a lot. And my feeling, personally, is that it is impossible to be disruptive while feeding your ego, or the devil as you call it.

Actually, I totally agree. When I say that I want change, I want people that are braver. Why on earth would you think you can’t have a moment of expression, such as a show, because you claim you don’t have the means. Make it without the means. I know the context is different today, but you still can do it.

That is all I’m trying to say. If you can’t do a catwalk, go walk the pavement and have a friend film you. Broadcast it live. We have so many ways of existing and we’re terrified of using them. There are so many moments you can create that could be absolutely beautiful, if only you’d trust them. Magic. But no, you wait for a super-entity that needs to choose three people out of god knows how many, and then you’re disappointed for not being chosen.

Just exist.

London Fashion Week became digital. I was absolutely shocked that it wasn’t raided by the fringe. That is the best that could have happened. Any designer who felt unrepresented could’ve raided fashion week, entered that platform even if they did not like it. They would have changed Fashion Week by default. I was expecting a revolution. But people were terrified of being part of it. On one side there is a judgment of a system like fashion week, but then no one steps up to change it when the opportunity is there.

There is a fear of being borderline. A fear of being alternative. Because that immediately means exclusion.

 

Watch the MA FASHION show today are 2 pm GMT here

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