Representing the creative future

Shadowing The Great

As part of the MA Fashion Communications course in UNIT 1, the three pathways – Fashion Journalism, Fashion Critical Studies and Fashion Communication and Promotion, came together this year for a collaborative project – the Shadowing Project where students essentially “shadow” MA Fashion Design students from the start of their collection until London Fashion Week, where some chosen designers get to showcase their final pieces. With the Central Saint Martins MA Fashion design alumni being arguably the most well known in the world, it sure has made for an interesting project to follow since its conception.

We sat down with Roger Tredre, course leader for MA Fashion Journalism to discuss this now legendary project, while showcasing the visual Shadowing project of Gilbert Braun, a student in the FCP pathway who photographed the final work of designer James Theseus Buck.

How did the project come about? When did it start?  

I can’t remember the exact year. The Fashion Journalism pathway was originally part of MA Fashion until this year, in fact, so there is a very long closeness between Fashion Journalism and the Fashion Design course. The Fashion Journalism pathway was launched in the early 1990s at Central Saint Martins and I started teaching in 1999. So it was there from the very beginning I believe. One of the most clever things about it from the point of the view of the college — I don’t know how deliberately it was planned like this, perhaps not, but it worked out very effectively for Central Saint Martins — was that these designers were all becoming, in many cases, famous through London Fashion Week, and the journalists knew them already, having studied alongside them and maybe even shadowed them at CSM. So there was a brilliant kind of symbiosis between the designers and the journalists. Both sides were building their careers at the same time and the journalists were kind of playing a promotional role, although journalists might not like to think of it in those terms. So  it was a good close link between the journalists and the designers. However, most of the time they didn’t have much to do with each other. So the creation of a project, where right from the start the journalists were shadowing the designers through to the MA Fashion show or the exhibition made that link stronger.

Did the project change quite a bit this term because of the involvement of the FCP students? 

This year  the Fashion Journalism pathway changed from being part of the MA Fashion course to being a part of the MA Fashion Communication course. My major concern when  it was first discussed, was that we would lose the shadowing project and the link with the designers. So I went to Louise Wilson and discussed it with her, and she was very supportive and said “Absolutely, we continue with it!” She was very enthusiastic for it to be continued. There wasn’t any worry so after that I said ‘great, if it sits within Fashion Communication, that is fine. If we are going to involve more people, including the Fashion Communications Pathway students and the Fashion Critical Studies students, then maybe we need to structure it a little more, because up until now it was a very free form kind of project. It wasn’t considered part of the grading for MA. Students were encouraged to do whatever they wanted, really. They could turn it into a scrapbook, a diary. What has happened now is that we have tried to retain that freedom of interpretation of how you shadow the designer, but give a little bit more structure to it in order to make it part of Unit 1.

An excerpt from the James Theseus Buck shadowing project, written by MA Fashion Journalism student Cezary Koralewski.

Absent-minded things

Plasters, flowers, Christmas chains, pillow feathers, rubber bands and a couple other materials might sound “weird”, but these are now as familiar to James Buck as yarn and needle. You might expect a precise and deliberate selection of these, but for the designer it’s quite the opposite. “It’s all about what’s available. It could be anything. It’s an absent-minded thing. I layer it up and wonder what it may become.”

His handmade textiles – hand-woven rubber bands, solidified liquid latex or just a thousand plasters stuck together – can create an impression of being anti-couture, or more about fine art, but that’s not the case for Buck. However exquisite his designs would be, he mixes them with pieces from his everyday wardrobe. He makes clothes, not sculptures. “It always takes a different form. Pressed flowers become a coat and rubber bands become a knit. That’s what I like in fashion – everything you do is somehow related to the body.”

Collection this complex, in both its visual and philosophical layers, sharpens our appetite for a wonderful fairy tale about the character that’s going to wear it. But Buck has no such character in mind. “There’s no one specific idea in these pieces. They are not telling a story and I don’t want them to. The collection has enough things for people to interpret on their own. They don’t need me to tell them what I thought. They can make up their own mind. I think it’s more about me, it’s a way of showing what I think should already exist, but it doesn’t.”

Casting couch

Apart from flowers from his mother’s garden and plasters, a significant part of the collection was made with the use of rubber. “It’s a liquid thing, sculptors use it to make moulds.” These include a shirt, coated pants and jumpers, trainers painted on sheer socks and a couple of pairs of moccasins that look as if they stepped into a latex paddle. There is also a cast of a suit jacket that retains the details of its every stitch and button. “I knew nothing about casting. I have been probably doing it completely the wrong way, but if somebody else did it I would never find out all these things that come up when you make a mistake,” says Buck, comparing his method to photography, where one can take more interesting pictures if one doesn’t understand the camera and is not distracted by frame or exposure. “It’s so important for me to make everything with my hands so I can understand it. I find a way by my mistakes.”

We had Kathrin Huesgen acting as a mentor through the entire process this year. What was the rationale there?  

This year, we wanted to  make it more rigorous. One of the important things from the journalist’s point of view is the ability to understand exactly how a designer works. So just to be thrown out there to shadow the designers and hope that they gain some technical knowledge was maybe a bit too simple. So we invited an experienced womenswear designer – Kathrin Huesgen, a German designer who has worked for many leading fashion labels in Germany, including Boss woman, which Jason Wu now designs. Because Kathrin was living in London at the time, she agreed that she would work closely on this project to help the journalists appreciate the technical aspect of what the designers were achieving and to ask the right questions of the designers in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to do. I think that added a new element to it. What we have also done is encouraging students to collaborate, so for journalists to work with Fashion Communication students and to make it a final piece of work that is not only written in an interesting way, but is also visually appealing. I’m quite excited by what we have seen this year, although I think it is a bit of a trial year. I think next year and the year after, we’ll see something even better.

I remember you telling us that Louise would not even look at the visually unappealing projects, so was it her suggestion that we should collaborate with FCP? 

Well, the funny thing was that Louise actually wasn’t very interested in the end results unless they looked beautiful. Since she never thought they looked beautiful, I never showed them to her in the end. I kind of gave up. But she agreed with the principle and what we were trying to achieve. She understood that fashion journalists were primarily focused on being writers and editors, not directors. She understood, and Fabio understands as well; he has been very supportive. They understand that what we’re trying to achieve is something that really helps the journalists to understand how designers’ minds work. It is good for them to be forced to talk about their work sometimes. It is a good process to go through. I know some of the designers definitely appreciate that. Some of them are very wary at the beginning and they have to be talked around and encouraged. In some cases, journalists have ended up being life long friends with the designers that they have shadowed, or maybe they are writing press releases for them, and helping them in all kinds of different ways.

Sometimes, of course, I think back to the Greek fashion journalist who shadowed someone like Christopher Kane. What a thrilling opportunity that was for her. Of course, he was just another student here but she had picked the right one. So that was a brilliant piece of talent spotting by her because the journalists make the approach to the designer. They are not assigned a designer to shadow.

There must be a lot of those in the archives from the alumni.  

We don’t keep all coursework. That would be impractical. However, I have certainly been careful to keep really good coursework that comes across my desk. I make sure I keep it and eventually pass it on to the library. So, having said that, I really wonder whether I have got the Christopher Kane one somewhere. It is possible I gave it back to the student. So it may not be there unfortunately.

Do you recall any interesting things that have happened over the course of the shadowing project? 

I think there are 2 things. One is obviously the details that you learn about the collections, and I love it. It’s my favourite time of the year when the shadowing projects come in. I love reading them because it’s fascinating. But apart from talking about the collection that the designer has created, there is also the human element that the journalists are invited to explore as well. We want them to kind of be a fly on the wall at every stage in the process and the big human drama every year is which students get into the show, and which don’t. I’m obviously talking about Louise Wilson, course director of the MA course for so long: her ‘showdowns’, confrontations, love ins with the designers over the years have produced extraordinarily powerful, dynamic, exciting, alarming, disturbing, thrilling copy. Brilliant. Most of which can never be published unfortunately. It’s highly confidential. That was always the understanding of the shadowing project. If you were going to have complete freedom to wander around the MA studios and listen to Louise having an argument with a student and then write it all down, it could never be published anywhere. So there are some pretty tough moments in there, and it is interesting from a human perspective to see how the designers have responded to the challenges put to them by their course director. It hasn’t always ended happily. It’s not like right at the end Louise and the designer reach an understanding and have bonded in a powerful way. That often does happen and that was magnificent when it did. I’m sure the same thing happens with Fabio as well. But there are also times when it doesn’t end happily and it’s quite upsetting actually to read the shadowing project if it really goes into the details of what went wrong, either in the collection or in the relationship between the designer and the course director, whether they are philosophical if they didn’t get in the show or whether they are bitter and hurt. So the shadowing project is fascinating on a number of levels which I think is brilliant. Just a shame they can’t be published.

Are they in the library though? 

That’s another reason why I have been very careful about not putting them in the library. But I do believe that once time has passed, there is no need for these things to stay completely confidential. Maybe they could be put in there someday.