A Blessing In Disguise?
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A piece from the The Angolan Archives – Print graduate Sandra Poulson’s final collection, influenced by the colonisation of her hometown Luanda, Angola.

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‘Headspace’, Look 6, from Johannes Warnke’s Windows of Perception graduate collection. Hand-stitched, draped and dyed in his childhood home of Würzburg.

Following a Covid-19-induced chaos of a year, Susannah Lethbridge reflects on an overlooked part of the unlucky mix; Central Saint Martin’s 2020 graduates, and life six months later amid an ongoing Pandemic.

The Central Saint Martin’s graduate show, famed for its instigation of alumni legends Galliano and McQueen - to name a few, marks the perfect end to a culmination of works – be it BA or MA. A goodbye to Saint Martin’s finest, and hello to the industry’s beady eyes. But as the Pandemic came into swift full force last March, the cancellation of such a venerable event was imminent. Bringing with it the closure of college, inaccessible facilities, studios and resources shut, it felt like the end of the world for 2020s graduates and, indeed, it was for a brief period of time, as students garnered their half-finished garments home: the King’s Cross structure suddenly disembowelled. Yet nine months post D-Day, six post-graduation, they reflect kindly on such a tumultuous year - to their own surprise.

 

‘I really do believe this year has been a blessing in disguise,’ remarks recent BFA nominee Bradley Sharpe. The womenswear graduate, recognised for his enormous tent-like creations - poles and all, has used this brief pause in time to his advantage in taking up online business classes, strengthening his efforts in opening a studio. ‘Apparently it takes having something as basic as freedom taken away from you, for you to realise what you can do with what you have.’

Left, appliquéd cotton smock with red kokoshnik headdress (£11,000), and right, pinafore and screen-printed cotton skirt with peach kokoshnik headress (£10,500), both designed by Natalia Goncharova for the Ballets Russes’ Le Coq d’Or – Kerry Taylor Auctions

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Ex-Print student Sandra Poulson, winner of the MullenLowe NOVA Award, photographed in the old Saint Martin’s building exhibiting for the XYZ EXCHANGE CLASS OF 2020 VISION SHOW.

‘Apparently it takes having something as basic as freedom taken away from you, for you to realise what you can do with what you have.’ Bradley Sharpe

For others, the break from the chaotic rush of the summer term has provided them with an opportunity to re-evaluate and self-develop, a freedom to grow. Pre-epidemic, Violette Villeneuve had her sights set on a research trip to Japan – since refocused onto the MA programme. Knitwear graduate, Paul Aaron, reflected on his blossoming ‘journey of finding a new love for myself, my skills and my drag’, evident in his ever-evolving final collection – due for completion early next year. Lilly Yang, a womenswear alumna, decided upon a return to the arts, more specifically, a place on Chelsea’s MA Fine Art programme. And after seven years in fashion academia, Sandra Poulson, Print, elucidates her shift towards a future focused on educating others – moved by her graduate collection-centred topic: the colonisation of Angola.

 

Despite varying experience amassed from placement years, stints with Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, Rick Owens and Molly Goddard- to name a few, none have bagged the elusive ‘Employed’ status since graduating. ‘I can’t claim Universal Credit anymore’ jokes Aaron, ‘The pressure is on to find a job.’ Yet, free from crit criteria and looming project deadlines, most seem eager to follow in the footsteps of previous pioneers in forging their own path, establishing their own brands and studios. Haunted by the Diet Prada-fuelled horror stories of stolen designs and uncredited work, students have quite simply been put off working under others: ‘I know my worth’ as Aaron puts it boldly. But in the midst of a pandemic-hit economy and worsening job market, with Brexit’s impending debut just in sight to top it all off – the cherry on the cake, can today’s graduates really afford such a risk?

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Knitwear graduate, Paul Aaron, models the second look from his final collection – which took over 600 hours to singlehandedly crochet and embellish.

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The ‘Fragment’ jacket and ‘Distorded order’ skirt paired with the ‘Traces’ shoes from Violette Villeneuve’s final collection – crafted from wool waste, printed viscose and bio-resin.

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The fifth look from Womenswear graduate Lilly Yang’s final collection, made from all-natural fibres, deadstock and fabrics sponsored by JW Anderson.

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Louis Thompson wears the tent coat dress, made with Silk Taffeta and Bamboo batting, from phase one of Bradley Sharpe’s final collection; The Crowd Is Wild.

Undeniably, they’re not where they envisioned themselves to be four years (minimum) and £60,000+ deep into student debt later, ‘I thought I would walk into endless opportunities’ reminisces Aaron. ‘But we didn’t stand a chance’. Whilst few have managed to procure the odd job; Johannes Warnke’s glimpse in Lady Gaga’s 911 music video and Sharpe’s collaboration with publications including Dazed and AnOther.

 

The question lingers: what role will designers have to play in our strikingly new zoom-centred, mask-wearing world? 1.6 million global deaths later, we’ve almost reached the one-year mark of Covid-19’s notorious emergence – an anniversary we never thought to expect. Stacked against the odds, will 2020’s graduates manage to overcome the decade’s greatest hurdle? The Central Saint Martin’s alumni certainly seem to argue so.