Paul Toner walks down the halls of his old fashion college.
I went to fashion school for the same reason everyone else did. Yes, to pursue an education in something I was passionate about – I was half-decent at writing, and right into my clobber, so I thought I’d marry the two for a degree in fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion, one wing of the enormous, amorphous institution that is UAL, the University of the Arts, London. But above all else, I saw it as an opportunity to escape the small-town shackles of home. I loved growing up in Liverpool, but in the capital, no one sniggers at your skinny jeans or chides you to ‘get a proper job’.
You’d think that budding students head to Central Saint Martins (CSM) and the London College of Fashion (LCF) suffused with the boldness to become the next Lee Alexander McQueen or Stella McCartney – and some do. But for the rest, it takes the form of a three-year bender where you can dye your hair green, live in a windowless squat in Hackney Wick and discover who you really are.
Those grasps at self-expression are different for everyone. For me, it meant piercing my nose; it meant openly dating lads; and in my wildest moment of rebellion against my hometown, it meant pairing loafers with joggers – a heinous crime in the land of Nike 110s. But fashion school affords you the chance to reinvent yourself so totally and completely, should you choose; you don’t even need to keep your name.
Inevitably, when you have hundreds of 18-year-olds on your shared UAL campus, all in various stages of personal transformation, you have a recipe for chaos. Kookiness abounds, very often for its own sake; you are swiftly introduced to new archetypes of people that you could barely even conceive of at home. Camberwell painters in Madchester windbreakers; health goth fine art historians bumping speed like it’s Vicks Nasal Spray; rollie-chaining designers decked out every day in yet more Jean Paul Gaultier. The CSM library became a repository for all of God’s angels; the weird, the west, the wonky – and I sat back and watched as much of it as I could.
It’s easy to dismiss the eccentricity of UAL as attention-seeking. Some of it is – I’m sorry but no place can ever be fully accommodating for a fella to strip his kit off, mount a photocopier and scan his member a hundred times. Not in the middle of the afternoon, anyway. But the atmosphere was so enlivening and beguiling, on and off campus, seeing how people my age could think so creatively and stand so tall with their looks and designs. No wonder you’d find staffers from Vogue and i-D lingering outside the doors on the first day of term, eager to get a feel for the first traces of style ten years from now. Even more enigmatic were the casting agents – rather, the rumours of the casting agents that would spread like wildfire through the common rooms. Stepping out at the right time, in front of the right person, could lead to your life being transformed, your dreams fulfilled, or at the very least, a long afternoon in a Shoreditch studio with 50 other would-be-Gandys, posing for a wiry old woman with a bob-cut. As such, one-upmanship was rife.
Everywhere you’d look, someone would be moving a bit mad, all without a shade of irony or self-mockery. It’s this seriousness, this commitment to sticking out like a sore thumb, which has helped build UAL’s reputation as one of the finest creative institutions on the planet. It has also helped create a reputation for oddness that precedes it, one that prospective students are long aware of before they land, and thus teed up to try and emulate whenever they arrive. Take ‘That’s So CSM’, an Instagram account with 22.2k followers that documents the college’s more outrageous aspects for a chuckling, cheering audience. A cursory scan reveals students wearing tentacles for trousers, mohawked barnets a-plenty, someone smoking a cig in a hot pink rabbit costume, an alien in nothing but bra and knickers and Grayson Perry, UAL’s chancellor, eating a spot of lunch dressed like a little dolly. With looks like that to compete with, you can’t just throw something on when Monday morning comes.
And yes, this can be liberating, this expectation can drive you to uncover new aspects of yourself, or refine your sensibilities within your designs or outlook. It’s hedonism as pedagogy – like it or not, you will learn from it. But what is often overlooked is how constraining and stifling this atmosphere can be, and the pressures aren’t directed solely from your peers; the institution demands it, from the top down. CSM, especially, is known for its cutthroat degree shows, where out of hundreds of students, only a handful are permitted to showcase their collections. Competition is fierce and rejection is brutal, but those who are chosen will exhibit their talents to a catwalk lined with industry figureheads, talent scouts and potential employers.
Just take the White Show, for instance. It’s the first major event in the school calendar where, at the end of term one, all first-year design students each create a look made from a pieces of white fabric. Over the years, the event has seen inflatable dicks and balls walking alongside ghoulish headgear, and the sort of dresses that look like bacteria under a microscope. On first glance, you may watch the models voguing in patently ridiculous white sheets and think that these designers are going nowhere fast. But it’s not about the design itself – it’s about leaving the largest impression. Showing up and showing out early on, garnering a name for yourself in the process, cements your spot there: the madder, the better. The uni, after all, has a reputation to uphold.
But hey, I can’t rag too hard on it all. What would fashion be without its eccentrics, its eclectics and its catwalk tyrants? Universities like UAL are keeping up their traditions by shoving everyone else’s where the sun doesn’t shine, carving out a more inclusive industry in the process. Embrace the oddness, reject banality and be honest: if you had the chance to waltz into your workplace dressed like a nymph – why wouldn’t you?