Cutting edge: Meet the young designers offered a bursary by the power behind Louis Vuitton
The students of Central Saint Martins are known internationally for their creative wit and ingenuity – and every year, LVMH, the world's leading power in luxury goods (including Louis Vuitton), offers three of them a bursary for the final year of their undergraduate degrees. In an industry driven by a thirst for the new, this scheme aims to nurture and support fledgling designer names. Harriet Walker meets the chosen few.
When the designer's models stalked the catwalk wearing ripped and dishevelled toile and calico separates emblazoned with graffiti-ed slogans, there was a knowing ripple of amusement across the audience. Marching to a soundtrack of Pink Floyd's "We Don't Need No Education", the clothes were testament to the modern student existence – not the Bacchanalia it once was, but something much harder. 'Too much pressure', 'No jobs', 'Am I working safely?' were phrases Avetisyan, aged 23, chalked on to his garments.
"Apart from exhibiting your aesthetic taste, a collection has to reflect who you are socially and financially at a given moment," he says from Moscow, where he is currently working for Russian designer Vika Gazinskaya. "Sadly, the economic situation today makes young people anxious to admit they are students. But as a student, one can get away with things big fashion houses can't. It's about turning your disadvantages into advantages."
As the international recipient of LVMH's bursary scheme, Avetisyan was faced with even steeper fees than his home-student peers – but turned his own interpretations of rather precocious penury into a theme of his work, crafting simple workman-style jackets from the sorts of fabrics more usually seen as linings or even on the cutting-room floor.
Inspirations for shapes came also from graduation ceremonies gone by, in the flowing sack-backs of the tunics modelled on traditional academic robes and hoods worn by students. Outsized cuts recalled Victorian school smocks, as well as street urchin garb, while the dingy colour palette was not a little Soviet.
"The starting point was the anarchist film Zero de Conduite by Jean Vigo," Avetisyan explains. "It tells the story of schoolboys who decide to rebel against their repressive teachers. It made sense in the aftermath of cuts in education and student riots in London – there was a general feeling of angst as to what was going to happen next."
For Avetisyan, the next step is an MA course, although he aims to work in the industry for a while first – whether the influence of his rebellious collection on his consciousness or vice versa, he feels the need to be beyond the educational system for a while.
"Before my final year started, I got an e-mail from my tutor saying I had to come for an interview with Willie Walters [Central Saint Martins' head of womenswear] and a few members of staff from LVMH. I thought the interview went really badly, because I get really stuck for what to say and I'm not very good at articulating myself. But sometimes I do the worst interviews for internships, and they're actually the ones I get."
Print student Jessica Mort, aged 24, is as modest and unassuming as the clothes she engineered for her final-year collection. Made from a relatively inexpensive polyester fabric, the intricacy of her pieces belies their humble origins. Threads were deliberately snagged and teased out with tweezers byf hand; one swatch of about A3-size took one person an entire day to manipulate into the artfully-distressed finish.
"I started playing around with fabrics," she continues, "pulling the threads out, and I really liked the technique, so I created my own fabrics doing that. I study womenswear and print but I'm actually not very 'printy' – I'd say I'm more textiles."
Being awarded the LVMH bursary meant that Mort was able to give up her weekend job as a shopgirl at Aquascutum, which had seen her through hard times at university but had also eaten into the time she had for designing, pattern-cutting and the rest of her academic workload. She spent half her year in industry interning for the designers Christopher Kane and Diane von Fürstenberg, but then returned home to the Wirral and worked in a boutique for six months, in order to save for her final year and the collection she was about to embark upon. "I spent all that time working when I could have interned, looking back," she says, of the time before she knew she had won the LVMH scholarship.
But, rather than spend her windfall on luxurious fabrics, Mort still chose to work with her pulled polyester. "At Saint Martins, you don't have to buy expensive fabrics, and actually it's more interesting to see what you can do on a small budget. If you can make your cheap piece of fabric look better, there's something special about that really."
Jessica Mort's clothes are clinical in their austere cuts, but feminine and modern in their embellishments, which range from Op Art-esque prints to latticed and interlocking curlicues of sequins, beads and hardware. The frayed polyester takes on an aspect of flapper-ish fringing for a sci-fi era, and camo-print versions add dimension to flat-cut jackets and tops with long, flaring sleeves.
Mort is innovative and inventive; she also has a place on the renowned MA course at Central Saint Martins, which has birthed designers such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan under the watchful eye of tutor and mentor Louise Wilson. "As of yet, I can't afford to do it," admits Mort. "But I'm going to try and find some funding and take that place up in October."
"I'd love to have my own label," she adds. "At the graduation ceremony, Stella McCartney was also there to receive an award. To have even a fifth of the success she has had would be amazing. To see my own label in shops and have my own shows. I just thought 'Gosh, I'd love that'."
The 23-year-old’s graduate collection was a confection of frothed and frilled, heavily-constructed gowns. Full-length fishtail skirts, tiered, pleated and rippling tulle, and whorled silk embroidery recalled Pre-Raphaelite beauty and the Age of Decadence, while ostrich feathers and sharp shoulders spoke of a more structured, early-20th-century aesthetic.
“I was really lucky the year before I graduated to go and work for Dior,” explains Ward, from his home in Cheshire. “I worked on couture and they gave me a fair bit of responsibility – I was able to drape for them.”
Ward’s work is unashamedly opulent: his influences are near-cloyingly sweet and feminine (he cites Disney’s Fantasia as one inspiration) but undercut and infused with a knowing sense of showmanship that detracts from any overall Romanticism. For his final collection of his undergraduate career, Ward looked also to the 1945 film Ziegfeld Follies, the biggest musical of its day, which featured costumes inspired by the illustrator Erté.
“I got used to working with a certain standard of cloth and around people at that level,” he says sheepishly of interning at the Dior atelier. “The reality of when you come back and you haven’t got a team of 200 or a budget… It’s quite soul-destroying afterwards to make a dress on a budget of about £20.”
As one of this year’s recipients of the Grand Prix LVMH Scholarship, Ward has been helped immeasurably toward fulfilling his creative dreams. “It was a vast sum of money they gave me,” he continues. “It made me be able to do the best thing I could do. I felt quite down after my year in industry to think that I’d be limited in some ways, but it changed what was possible.”
A state school-educated student from outside the affluent south-east, Ward found Central Saint Martins inspiring but intimidating. His mother suffers from mental illness and was unable to support him herself. Tuition fees were high and textile budgets low, but Ward’s tastes always tended toward the fabulous and flamboyant – something he will be able to exploit in his new role in the workshop of New York red-carpet label, Marchesa.
“In London, there’s a lot of snobbery about reference points,” he explains. “And there are lots of people being overly pretentious about concept, so much so that at the end of the day, they’d designed something that wasn’t actually beautiful. But couture is important – for women to keep dreaming.”
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