Frances Corner, head of the London College of Fashion, gives a lesson in the fundamentals of industry success.
A distinct sense of “Britishness” is giving upcoming talent in the UK an edge over their international counterparts. So says Frances Corner, who as head of the London College of Fashion has a unique insight into what the future holds for the fashion industry.
“There is a particular combination of factors you get in the UK that really make us exceptional. At LCF we’ve been established for 125 years and we understand the importance of education for the creative and cultural sector. For over a century we’ve had a commitment to the idea that design needs to have a proper education system attached to it,” she says.
“On top of that we’ve got the heritage and tradition of museums, galleries and being a great nation of shopkeepers, so we are aware of the importance of goods and of aesthetics. The final part, which is becoming more and more apparent, is that we have this inventive entrepreneurial spirit.”
Corner credits this spirit with driving the success of the college’s impressive alumni, which includes recent fashion success such as JW Anderson, Nicholas Kirkwood and Sophia Webster. However, Corner, who is also a member of the British Fashion Council’s advisory board, is anything but surprised at the steady rise of her former students.
“I always believe talent is important but drive and determination are absolutely key. I remember David Downton [fashion illustrator and honorary doctorate of LCF] saying all of the successful people he knows in the industry are failures with amnesia. You have to develop a resilient shell. When you get turned down and something hasn’t quite worked you really do have to dust yourself down and get on with it. I’m not surprised that Nicholas [Kirkwood] and the others have done so well, as they were like that even as students,” she says.
According to Corner, who joined LCF in 2005, another reason for the success experienced by recent graduates - and one of the most essential components for new designers - is the notion of branding and understanding the “complete package” when it comes to creating a product.
“It is not enough to have great creative vision; you have to also understand the brand. Our biggest criticism in the UK was that we had the creativity but didn’t know what to do with it. However, students are now beginning to understand how to make that entrepreneurial element work. It’s not just about being a great designer and expecting everyone to fall at your feet, it’s the whole picture.”
Corner instils this notion of a fully rounded education in the 5,560 students enrolled at LCF, and is keen to point out that the college runs 78 courses covering all facets of the industry, from postgraduate diplomas in pattern design and executive MBAs in fashion, to courses on retail, marketing, buying and merchandising. The syllabus has evolved to incorporate the growth of online retailing, social media and internationalisation, with the changes in how we communicate and shop “very much part of the curriculum” at the college. Students even have the opportunity to study Mandarin alongside their main subjects.
“One of my big messages is fashion is more than frocks. That’s what’s so great about Drapers, because the magazine reflects all aspects of the fashion industry rather than just focusing on big-name designers. Obviously fashion is about a lot more than that and our courses also mirror this.”
Corner says fashion education is often criticised for being too creative and not focusing on the commercial side and what actually sells in stores. But she believes blending the two elements is crucial in developing the work of up-and-coming designers.
“The point of being here for three or four years is to really develop your creativity, your vision, your spark - that’s really important - but we would not be doing our job if we weren’t making sure students understood how to use that when they leave. It’s an understanding of the commercial without being driven by it.”
For Corner, craft is still at the core of the college, and it is this that is her particular area of expertise - from 2005 she was doctor of art and design education at LCF, but in 2009 became professor. Prior to LCF, Corner worked as an artist before becoming associate dean in the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of Gloucestershire from 1998 to 2001. She was then appointed head of the Sir John Cass department of art, media and design at London Metropolitan University from 2000 until 2005.
“It all comes back to heritage,” she explains. “It is part of our DNA. LCF was originally set up to educate women to go and work in the couture houses of the West End and that philosophy underpins everything. We do a bespoke tailoring programme and we had a two-year pattern-cutting course, but now we’re developing a three-year degree course so students will be able to understand pattern-cutting by hand as well as how it works digitally. We pride ourselves on the fact that our students are known across the industry for being able to construct well-made garments, shoes and bags by hand.”
However, as a member of the governing board of the Fashion Retail Academy, Corner has major concerns about the well-being of designers, given the immense pressures they are under to perform at the highest level.
“It is such a machine. As a designer you could be doing a couture show, ready-to-wear, cruise, pre-collection, jewellery, scent, and accessories and you’re supposed to have that creative vision and understand the commercial [aspect] that’s pushing it all; there is no way one person can deliver that. A number of designers over the years have either lost their names or had a crash because they haven’t understood the demands or been able to manage that. It’s the responsibility of the companies to know they need to nurture people.”
Corner says she strives to make students aware of the stress and responsibility to deliver the bottom line as it is “impossible to put the genie back in the bottle” once they leave the college. On average 75% of LCF graduates go into employment or further
study within six months of graduating - the national university average was 87% for April to June 2013.
A desire to keep students grounded and support them throughout their studies and beyond is inherent in LCF’s vocational focus.
“We’ve always had one foot in industry and one in education so our courses are always very vocational. We try to give everything so our students are employable. Getting out into the industry is vital. Part of the reason for developing our scholarships is to make sure all students have the opportunity to take part in placements in the UK and abroad as well as developing their collections,” she says.
Nicholas Smith, an LCF fashion journalism graduate now working as a brand content assistant at accessories label Radley, says the college’s students are encouraged to work from a broad cultural basis that examines economic and social structures, not just fashion: “From a vocational point of view the internships were incredible and the practical skills I learned at LCF, from Photoshop to shorthand, are things I use daily in my current position.”
Likewise, Katy Davis, a freelance filmmaker and photographer who studied a BA in fashion styling and photography, says the placements she took part in during her course have built up her industry contacts: “Some of the designers I met on the Nike project [the brand teamed up with students to test its Making app, which helps designers make ethical and sustainable choices in their work] are people I now work with regularly. The experience led on to many other freelance jobs. It was an incredible opportunity.”
For current students, including Barbra Kolasinski, who is studying an MA in womenswear fashion design and technology, the final project gives the designers an opportunity to create and showcase their own collection for the first time. “I’ve met a lot of suppliers who have given me insight and advice on the industry, which is invaluable as a young designer,” she says.
Given the slight upswing in the economy and the cautious industry optimism, the Yohji Yamamoto-clad Corner believes there are jobs in fashion for the 1,500 students who will graduate from LCF this year, whether they are at big international brands, smaller bespoke services or even their own labels.
“We try to expose students to all the different opportunities open to them. We make it clear that very often while you are developing your own label and identity you are also working for other companies. Every student is an individual and we make them aware that if they don’t have their own label it is not a compromise - they haven’t failed at anything. If you’re a good pattern cutter you will do fantastically well in the industry, and it’s a great job,” she says.
“It is not just about working for Chanel or Dior or being the new Stella McCartney - there are other ways you can be in the industry and really showcase your talent. It is essential for the future of the fashion industry that we are nurturing and supporting these young designers.”