“Same shit. Different year.”
This was the sign hanging in the office of Louise Wilson, the Course Director of MA Fashion at Central St Martin’s. Right above her head, it was, if I remember correctly. Four words, two by two, informing the student facing her that he was not an original. In fact, he was decidedly less special than he thought he was, just the latest in a long line of no-hopers to pass before her one good eye.
Central St Martin’s is the setting for the early chapters of Silk for the Feed Dogs, my experiences there, the inspiration. Back then it was a different St Martin’s than the school bearing that name today.
The year of my shit: 1998. St Martin’s was dismal, draughty, echoey; a Victorian workhouse. Like the fictional Coketown in Dickens’ Hard Times, it was caked in grime and stank of chemicals. Plaster fell from the ceiling and landed on your pattern pieces. At best, this might inspire a new fabric treatment. Hussein Chalayan became known for burying his graduate collection in the garden to study the oxidizing effect. It was that kind of place. A sense of anarchy ricocheted through it, perhaps the cause of the falling plaster. It was a deconstructed building, inside which deconstruction was taught as part of the syllabus; it was conceptual as opposed to practical, like many of our final collections.
Despite doing a good impression of a disused multi-storey car park from the street, it was a dream factory inside. As a freshman I was grateful for its seediness. It was less intimidating that way and even instilled a perverse sense of certainty in the future, encouraging the underdog to dream big. From this rubble we would raise ourselves up, shake off the dust. Our next gig would be in a plush, gilt-edged design atelier, ornate with mouldings and cornices, situated on a rue du faubourg or a viale.
But that was pre-September 2011. One much-discussed £200 million development project later and Central St Martin’s now occupies a shiny, spacious, purpose-built arena a couple of miles north. An architectural gamechanger with suspended walkways, a roof garden and a glass and cement-lined avenue bisecting it that could accommodate a fleet of London buses. Tastefully exposed brick replaces flaking plaster. It resembles a government building, a headquarters.
From London’s Shoreditch to New York’s Lower East Side, gentrification killed the artistic community, drove it elsewhere. Even though you were in the centre of Soho, the old CSM made you feel you were on the fringes of something, pluckily striving against your circumstances. It was working class, never bourgeois. Fittingly, Jarvis Cocker performed at the farewell party, a tribute to the crumbling pile of pre-war bricks that inspired Pulp’s anthem “Common People”: She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge. She studied sculpture at St Martin’s college…
The past tense in which he sings now rings funereal, implies that’s ancient history.
I believe buildings can have a spirit just like people; the interaction of certain individuals with a physical space can spark happenings, movements, revolutions, or even, as in my case, the most personal and private awakenings. But you can’t invite the rabble in and then nag them to get their Doc Martened feet off the coffee table. I said pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said, oh, you’re so funny. I said Yeah?
I’m glad I attended when it looked like shit. I looked like shit then too. I was a work in progress. Inside today’s version, I would have felt like I was in a display cabinet. This new vast brick and glass dream factory would not have belonged in my novel. But then I am a sucker for believing the original is always better than the remake.
Today there is a blue plaque on one of the smooth white walls informing us that the Sex Pistols played their first gig in St Martin’s in 1975. It resembles the ones administered by English Heritage to buildings where long-dead writers and artists once lived or created their most important works. It seems to me that the erection of that sign means it’s time for Louise to retire hers.
This is definitely not the “same shit” we are dealing with.
You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.