Sustaining fashion education

Frances Corner presides over one of the largest and most influential fashion schools in the world. London College of Fashion with its Centre for Sustainable Fashion teach all aspects of the industry and explore sustainable fashion, including helping women prisoners, as our K reporter learned.

You might expect Europe’s largest arts university, with 5,500 students, to be encyclopaedic in scope and over-run by rich, foreign students. In fact, it is neither polymorphous nor polytechnic. Yet it enjoys worldwide kudos. 

As the name implies, London College of Fashion is a ‘monotechnic’, in that it focuses on all things fashion, from management to science, and visual merchandising to journalism, as well as design.

Indeed, it’s the only academic institution in the United Kingdom to specialise in fashion education, research and consultancy.

More than half of the students come from within the UK (this proportion is typically only one third in similar institutions), 11% are from the rest of Europe; and 37% come from overseas, which are important for a global perspective. Over 100 countries are represented in the current intake.

And it’s inclusive: 40% of the British pupils come from lower socio-economic groups, often first-generation university attendees in their family. As well as undergraduates there are 400 taught post-graduates, including 60 PhD students and 11 executive MBAs. Some post-grads are studying consumption psychology; others gerontology: for example, the implications for clothing for those with dementia.

All of which makes LCF unique, according to professor Frances Corner OBE who has been head since 2005. She’s conscious of the choice young people have between LCF and a myriad of other colleges. Exposure to new ideas; the quality of professor-student exchange; the breadth and calibre of industry placements; access to the latest equipment, for example in leather working; and a strong international community are all critical. 

Provoking debate

On top of that, “We are slightly anarchic: we like to challenge the status quo, which is good for an individual’s education”, Corner says. She believes it’s important to have a different way of thinking and to develop different ways. And a broad understanding of the fashion industry is vital, “When you think of what’s being demanded of designers nowadays, from overseeing six collections annually, year after year; it’s a different animal from [couturier] Cristobal Balenciaga’s day!”

Corner’s own background is broad, having been an artist and teacher of print making. In fact, it was only when she came to LCF that she began to teach fashion.

She is also a trustee of the Wallace Collection (one of the finest museums of 18th century French art and furniture, as well as being an arsenal of mediaeval armoury), “a monument to beautiful things”. It’s all part of her “passion for understanding”, although her role is practical: chair of the audit committee, which “controls risk”.

Two qualities that led her to write Why Fashion Matters, a neat hardback in the form of 101 “provocations about fashion”, which is also an apology for the sector’s importance to the economy, society and to individuals. The book deliberately eschews images (though it is handsomely laid out with varied use of colour and typeface), so as not to distract from the message. Peppered with words of wisdom, it starts by stating that fashion is the most immediate and intimate form of self-expression and that

'Faster than anything else, what we wear tells the story of who we are – or who we want to be’.

Paying attention

Corner believes environmental and social sustainability are the same, saying, “Fashion doesn’t have to be exploitative” of consumers, workers or the environment, and draws a comparison with the food industry. If we are not vigilant, she argues, horsemeat ends up in the food chain (as it did in Britain last year) or immigrant workers are drowned while picking cockles in Morecombe Bay (north-west England). By the same token, garment employees in developing countries should have a decent standard of living, “We’re all entitled to proper food and clothing, at real prices”.

But living in a globalised society, she admits there are no easy answers, though open debate is crucial.

“We could carry on [with our wasteful, inequitable lifestyle] or we can say ‘no’, which is braver…

You can’t change things all at once, but you do what you can”.

Which brings us on to the LCF’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, set up in 2008 as one of the milestones to celebrate the college’s 100th anniversary, and conceived to challenge ‘reactionary fashion cultures’ with its excessive consumption and ‘disconnection’. Led by LCF professors, CSF is a cross-institutional (University of the Arts, London) project. The centre explores vital elements of the college’s ‘Better Lives’ ethos: using fashion to improve the way we live and create a more sustainable future.

Capturing beauty

A strong proponent of social sustainability, Corner encourages students to get involved in outreach programmes, including the award-winning Fashion Education in Prisons Project. In Holloway prison, 25 female prisoners are taught fashion manufacturing skills, including pattern making and machining, “London needs 150 more machinists every year”

At Her Majesty’s Prison Send, women are taught hair, make-up and photo shoots, which allows them to produce The Beauty’s Inside magazine. Not permitted to show the face, the models portray a poignant, restrained allure. She points out that women are disproportionately penalised by the prison system, but both schemes have reduced the rate of re-offending.

Incubating for the future

In October this year, Corner sealed the deal on a five-year partnership with Kering and CSF to support sustainable practices and innovation in the fashion industry. She believes Kering is the only luxury Group with a strong positioning in this area,

“It’s genuinely interested in sustainability, taking into account shareholder value as well as the broader issues of the environment, women and domestic violence

– that’s important to me, as head of what is essentially a women’s college”.

Entailing three projects, the programme will act as incubator for new ways of thinking about sustainable fashion. There’s the Kering Talks, where each year a business leader will speak on the latest thinking in sustainable fashion; and the annual Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, a contest open to students in fashion, management and communications, to provide solutions to a project defined by Kering. The third element will be the co-development of a module for the sustainable design course. 

At the launch ceremony, François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, said, “We’re willing to share our sustainability knowledge with our competitors [in order to maximise the effect]". Professor Dilys Williams, director of CSF, said, “We’re challenging and changing the conventional, short-term mind-set from plundering – to contributing to – the world.

Working with Kering, with whom we share a sense of urgency and possibility, we’ll be moving from what is ‘acceptable practice’ towards creating a legacy for all of the world’s kids”.


Learn more...
Visit the CSF website
Watch the video featuring Kering / CSF partnership

Pictures' legends & credits:
Field of Jeans at Chelsea College of Art in September 2013. Image courtesy of Catalytic
Slider :
A student at work in the visual merchandising suites at John Prince’s Street
Students in the workshops at Curtain Road
Students taking a break in the John Prince’s Street canteen.
Professor Frances Corner OBE, Head of London College of Fashion, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of the Arts London
'Why Fashion Matters', Thames & Hudson. Professor Frances Corner OBE
'The Beauty’s Inside', a collaboration between LCF and HMP Send. Image: David Hardy
Professor Dilys Williams. Director, Centre for Sustainable Fashion.