Disruptors in Fashion Education: Hywel Davies From Central Saint Martins
To be a designer is to learn how to navigate the multi-faceted modes of communication and creation—a component that Hywel Davies, Programme Director for Fashion at Central Saint Martins in London, knows all too well. With a prolific writing pedigree and journalistic mindset, Davies brings his editorial insights to the classroom day after day, working to create an education paradigm that pushes the boundaries of expectation. We spoke with Davies to learn more about the diverse fashion ecosystem at Central Saint Martins and how his own experience plays a role in the way he approaches the industry.
Success in fashion can be seen as a product of creativity, privilege, opportunity, and public opinion. How do you see all of these components working together within the ecosystem of fashion?
We have to be careful about distilling fashion into specific terms because it’s much more complex than that. I can understand why people would think that privilege is a major component in determining success, but we’re really trying to change that at Central Saint Martins. I do think that opportunity is a definite player in the fashion ecosystem, but public opinion, in terms of the education at Central Saint Martins, is not something we worry about when educating undergraduates—not at this stage at least. We focus on developing a safe space where students can find their voice and work hard.
It’s important to be open to every person around you. This willingness and passion to be open to anyone from anywhere is a large part of both our DNA and richness as an institution. With international students from all around the world, our school and the students within it are afforded a global perspective, a fact that exists at our very core. We have to be global because fashion is global, but we bring our own UK perspective—after all, we’ve been here since the 1930s, so this place has a deep history with the space and culture around it. And we see students come here despite the political climate, as challenging as it is.
Privilege, however, has changed a lot. Students now have to pay much more to attend schools, and we are keenly aware as to how much it costs to study full time, which is why we’re continually partnering with brands to support students with their courses so that they can get that help externally.
It’s so important to get a rich cross-section of individuals at Central Saint Martins. From various socio-economic backgrounds to cultures from near and far, diversity is a key element in education, and we always strive to create this environment at Central Saint Martins.
BA Fashion 2018 graduate Paolina Russo
How does the larger ethos of a journalistic approach play a part in who you are as an educator?
I actually studied at Central Saint Martins and then went on to work as a journalist—a background that is really fundamental in everything I do. The core skills of being a journalist revolve around understanding the many facets of what you’re working on: it’s understanding the subject, knowing who is doing what, and then recognizing who your audience is. Knowing how and who you’re communicating with is such an important element, and I think journalism is sort of like design in that you are telling a story—a distinct narrative—to a specific audience.
What role does fashion media play in an emerging designer’s career?
I think it’s less about media and more about the designer’s ability to showcase their product externally. What’s unique about Central Saint Martins is that design courses are right next to communications courses. Designers are creating collections and then we have communications students creating content right beside it. It’s a fundamental that we’ve tapped into. And this side-by-side type of education across departments leads to these incredibly strong connections long after graduation.
How do you empower students to think beyond trends that oftentimes drive the market?
We do not endorse trends. We’re very much about focusing on the individual and helping them develop their own voice or language. The product has to be good; it cannot just be about great media.
How do you see the Brexit effect impacting Central Saint Martins? Do you think fashion as a creative force has the power to overcome this?
It’s so unclear what is going to happen with everything from Brexit, and we’re in a really challenging state of flux. It’s imperative for people to see Central Saint Martins as an institution that is open to everybody. The entire ethos of an art school is about welcoming people from all around the world. When the Brexit result came in, Central Saint Martins launched a soft campaign called Creative Unions, which aimed to celebrate and focus the discussion around how creativity should not be negatively impacted by Brexit.
Beyond that, Central Saint Martins is not just a school for fashion. It’s a place for studying textiles, architecture, communications, photography, and so much more. We have diversity in curriculum, which then draws in a diverse student body and diversity in ideas. With Brexit, there is a fear that EU students may be shifted to be international students, which means the fees will go up. It’s issues like this that we’re still struggling to figure out, because there is nothing worse than having students barred from coming due to cost.
With the richness of London comes the expensive cost of living. How do these realities shape the Central Saint Martins approach to education?
It’s a huge challenge. London is the most stimulating space for both students and creatives, but it is so difficult when people cannot afford to stay here. That’s why we work with so many external initiatives to support emerging designers, but even through those programs the cost still looms over creatives in a way that is hard to ignore.
MA Fashion 2018 graduate Liam Johnson
How do you prepare students to deal with a global marketplace while teaching them in a city that also has its own distinct point of view?
I try to make the curriculum as international as possible, while still infusing the UK context as a whole. Students do bring the global knowledge with them, and we have so many partners, staff, and brands that we work with to help craft an environment that speaks to the global mindset. It’s a mindful blend between the two that enables us to present a vast perspective of fashion.
Do you think protest has a place in fashion education? How does it inspire the education and environment at Central Saint Martins?
It has a place in fashion education and the industry as a whole—it’s an incredibly healthy component. One of the fundamental philosophies we have at Central Saint Martins is the idea that fashion is not about just creating more clothes. There is enough clothing out there that is poorly made, cheap, and utilizing processes of creation that are causing our environment to suffer.
Fashion is powerful and visual, and students need to understand the power of working in fashion. When you come to Central Saint Martins you have a privilege of being part of both this community and this fantastic industry, but that also means that you have to accept the responsibility of being the vision of the future. The only way that the landscape of fashion will shift is if change comes from within. It’s about rethinking how things are made, how people are treated, and so forth. We take that very seriously here, as do our students.
The current fashion system sees young talent underpaid and underutilized. In what ways are your students breaking into the industry to combat this? How do you prepare students for this?
A lot of students do a placement year after three years of undergraduate studies. We work with bigger brands to ensure that our students are paid, but there are also so many great designers in London who cannot afford to pay students, so we work the logistics out with the designers. Every experience in fashion is different, and it’s important that students understand that. That being said, our guidelines are incredibly strict and we never hesitate to pull students out if something is not up to par.
BA Fashion Communication and Promotion 2018 graduate Julie Greve
As an educator of the next generation of designers, what do you think the future of fashion looks like?
The industry is already heading towards place it has never fully been before. People are sick of the catwalk and I’ve come across recent launches of designers that have been so poorly reviewed. The industry hasn’t been exciting—that much is clear. The future will be something much different.
Today, it’s so much more about quality than quantity. We empower students to focus on a single vision and to question what has been and still is happening in the industry for so long. Our emphasis with students has always been on creativity and opportunity; to think outside the box in all facets, and because of this we see how the rules and expectations are changing. Those who are doing interesting things are not just slotting into the calendar, showing every season, or even based in London. They are doing things on their own terms.
It takes an inspired amount of positivity to break out of complacency and push forward to change. What’s so incredible is that we have all of these students and individuals that are informed, political, and passionate, which are key forces in slowly upping the industry.