The IFM graduate show was replaced by a digital platform and video. Is that something you’re interested in experimenting more with in the future? Or are you convinced that a catwalk show is the best way to present the work of students?
I’m very happy and proud of what we did, but the physical show is another moment, it’s more about the instancy – you need to be ready for it. For me, it is quite important to have the physical show because you have the audience, the students can meet the journalists, etc. You can share your emotion directly. It can be very stressful but there is only this one moment in which those emotions can be felt and I like this uniqueness.
But at the same time the digital object is very useful because you get a lot of feedback. You can share it in a minute. You can send it everywhere. It’s an amazing platform for the students because you can easily send the link as a portfolio. Maybe in the future we will have to do both.
“If you don’t take risks during your studies you miss something because you won’t have that opportunity again.” – Thierry Rondenet
In the article our editor wrote, words like “risk”, “embracing failure”, and “experimentation” kept coming back. Would you say those are some core themes and principles that you try to bring into your teaching?
Yes, of course! You know, a school is like a laboratory. If you don’t experiment during school, it will be quite difficult to do so when you work for a label or even luxury house. If you don’t take risks during your studies you miss something because you won’t have that opportunity again.
Especially now, during COVID, you need to find a way of doing things differently because you don’t have the same options. In Paris, fabric shops were open, but if you were looking for anything more specialized, you needed to do it yourself, otherwise you just didn’t have it. And when it comes to menswear design more specifically, the vocabulary can be quite narrow sometimes, so you have to find ways of moving it or reinventing it.
You mention COVID limitations. One thing that was lacking for all students this year were the encounters with industry professionals. What makes these so helpful to their education?
What happens very often is that an outsider will be able to express, in just a few sentences, how they feel regarding a project. That spontaneity isn’t easy to find in longer, recurring tutorials. Someone external might come in and give a review of the collection and say, “I think you will have to follow this direction because I think that you are very, very strong on this skill and you have to go deeper.” For the students, when you have your teacher repeating the same thing over and over again, it can be refreshing to have a quick, outside perspective.
“In some schools you have a strict atmosphere of competition, but that’s not the way I want to teach.” – Thierry Rondenet
I only saw the collections through a screen of course, but everything looked incredibly luxurious and finished, mature and professional. However, is there a danger that students become too focused on the end result of the image before they have the time to deconstruct?
Yes and no. At IFM the MA is two years, so during the first year, we spend a lot of time working on their personal universe. They have time to deconstruct what they are thinking. By the time they start their graduate project, they have finalised that journey of questioning. Also, you shouldn’t forget that the students this year did everything by themselves. I had one student who worked with a pattern maker, but everything else was done entirely individually. If it looks professional, it’s because of their skills.
One of the students mentioned the family-like atmosphere of the course. Is that something that’s important for you to nourish as an educator? And if so, how do you do that?
Yes, that’s very important, especially at the moment. Some of the students are so far away from their families. I have two or three students who were not able to go back to Taiwan and China. It’s hard to just see your family over Zoom. Of course, I am not their father, but I think it’s nice to have moments where you don’t speak about the project and take time to speak about other things, to exchange about a psychological or a financial issue, to try and find ways to help them. In some schools you have a strict atmosphere of competition, but that’s not the way I want to teach, putting students like competitors against each other.
Do you think competition in that way can be harmful?
Yeah, it could be. Not all students have the same skills when they start, so it can be difficult to find your way. But in the end, there can always be surprises, it’s unpredictable how someone will develop. So I don’t believe that you can compare. Especially in fashion, you never know. Everyone should get a chance to prove themselves. Especially now. How can I say that your only goal should be to be the top student and become the best designer in the world? No, not at all. No.
I think this idea of competition is a stereotype that causes harm individually but also to the industry. I don’t think we get the best out of people when they are scared or when they are tired. An argument that is often used by people who do stimulate this competition, is that it prepares you for the industry. Do you think your students are prepared for the fast pace and high stakes of the industry?
I think this will change in the future. This traditional hierarchy, to me, is very old school. This system where interns are not allowed into the studio because they are not part of the design team… This way of thinking is very old fashioned. I don’t even understand it. Because if you’re a young designer, your strength is to have a different perspective. You might see the collection differently. But if that intern doesn’t even have the chance to speak to the artistic director, or even the head designer, how can you incorporate those fresh ideas?
Our industry is really going through big systemic shifts. Students come in and realise the old system no longer exists. How does this compare to the time when you were studying, the energy and the hopes you had?
Well, it was a long time ago
I love asking about this.
It was so different. When I started in fashion, for instance, Japan was a big market, so starting your own label, in one season you could have thirty new buyers. It was so easy, you know? And you were supported by the fashion industry. Right now, it’s so different. You have to start very small. You have to wait, you have to be patient and really think about a strategy to introduce your collection. You need to have much more skills than I had at the time, because you have to be digital, you have to understand how to create an image.
“If you don’t have the pleasure, it doesn’t work. ” – Thierry Rondenet
I want to go back to something you mentioned in the beginning. You said you want to deconstruct the language of menswear. What does this mean and how do you approach it?
I have one student, for example, who is working mainly on tailoring. The approach of tailoring is about perfection. It’s about using the right materials with the right shape. But then, you need to start asking, with this very limited language, how can I find a way to move the boundaries? We worked a lot on shoulders, reinventing that shape. It was a very geometric approach, like finding a new way of putting the garment on the body. Or another student who incorporated trousers almost like accessories, so impressive. Very couture. I always try to find ways to communicate through images and not to remain too technical, so we can forget the weight of menswear. Because there is such a strong tradition. I don’t know if I’m very clear?
You are describing menswear as something that feels almost dogmatic in its approach and you want to get rid of that completely without getting rid of the techniques that are used?
Yeah. To be free.
So for instance, I had a student who worked on the perception of a garment when you wear it. So, it was mainly a work on proportion. How can I change the proportion in the jacket? How can I wear it differently? How can I shift the placement of the prints?
I feel that you have a hyper-individual approach where it’s really about recognizing the skills of every student. You also mentioned how much surprise there is in fashion. Keeping that in mind, is it ever possible to develop a teaching formula?
I mean, when you teach, you have to reinvent yourself every year. We rework our approach constantly and try to find other ways of doing it. And we also have to listen to the students, because what matters in a school is that you enjoy it. If you don’t have the pleasure, it doesn’t work. Especially in fashion, because it requires so much involvement. You need to be happy and you need to enjoy it.
I have a clear vision for the BA, but for the MA it’s a little different. When they arrive at school, they already have a kind of process. You follow up with them, but they already have a signature, so you can’t change someone from scratch in an MA.
You have a very international group of students. At Central Saint Martins, we were always encouraged to take what we learned back to our own countries. We weren’t trained for a career in London. Do you feel the same way about your students or do you hope to integrate them into the French and European fashion systems?
Yes, we definitely think about integrating them into the local fashion systems. Especially in Paris, you have LVMH and Kering and all the other big houses. I think we can really find places for our students here.
“If you are not curious, forget it. ” – Thierry Rondenet
Does this mean you also need to prepare students for that fashion culture? Teach them how to talk in a studio, for example, how to communicate your creativity differently than you might do in another culture.
Yes! They have a teacher who is doing theater and who teaches them how to present themselves and speak in front of an audience. They have individual portfolio coaching. Then this also comes up with the technical teacher, for instance, they’ll say, “You can’t present your outfit like this because I don’t understand it if you explain it like this.” You need to work as if you are in a studio. This means that you need to give the right instructions.
What makes a good student?
First I would say curiosity, if you are not curious, forget it. And then, the capacity to change your project in a very short time.
Yes. When you are a creative, you have to question what you are doing at every single step. Even when the collection is finished, you need to go back and rethink it, improve it. This is very important, especially in fashion, because all the work you do is always connected. Sometimes you think you have a new idea, but it might come from something very, very small you did at the start and don’t remember.
Sometimes the students feel stuck, they’ll say, “Thierry, I don’t have it. I don’t know how to do it.” How do you go on from there? I’ll often say, “Let’s go back to what you said at the beginning, but look at it more precisely.” There will always be more ideas there that you didn’t see because you were too close.
What is it you enjoy most about teaching?
Exchanging ideas. Each year, you encounter a new generation with other ways of doing fashion. I like the freshness. Especially the first years, they are sometimes a little bit naive, but I like this very much because it’s like they have no filters. It gives me a lot of energy. We always speak about fashion saying it needs to move. And these young students, they change so fast, they always make it happen. It’s inspiring. It gives you hope.