Do you try to create fashion stars?
It happens by accident?
Yeah, it really does. A lot of people have tried to figure out the mystique of Saint Martins, but it's simply a group of students in a building that's not that glamorous, taught by a committed staff who the students probably hate.
How much do you have to wean them from the time they come in?
There's quite a bit of weaning. Sometimes they come in towing the line of respectability, and yet you have brands like Comme des Garçons who are being urban and edgy. It should be the other way around. It should be the youth who are making their own guerilla stores. They should be posing something that we react badly against, not something we already understand. But not all of them should be doing that because some of them do want to go to America and work for Calvin Klein or Banana Republic, or whatever.
Do you set out breaking the students' spirits?
I don't think so. Students may feel the criticism is harsh, but I think it's possible they haven't had criticism before. It's my job to point out when something is badly done, or when there's no point of view. To build a brand you have to have something about you. If not personality, then some thought process. I'm forty, and they're young, so they're meant to be informing me. They should be bringing me a book or something that I haven't seen, not like some obscure chant book by Dominican monks, but an image of the way they see the world.
Are you sad to see them graduate and leave the nest?
We're lucky because once they've left us, nine times out of ten we have a good relationship with them and they come back and give talks. People like Kim Jones, Giles [Deacon] and Emma [Cook] come in like three times a term and see a small group of students, so they get an objective viewpoint as if they took their portfolio outside. Someone like Peter Jensen has his own label and also teaches menswear at Saint Martins. Most others come and say hello at some point. I'm always glad to see them, but if I see ten people a day and it's five minutes each, that's fifty fucking minutes a day.
Do you keep up with students after they graduate?
I keep up with them on the Internet and in magazines. I don't usually go to the shows in London, because if I go to one I have to go to them all. Besides, they usually go on to be so successful and huge, and I'm just some sad fuck stuck in my office. They end up having far more exotic and fabulous lives than me.
Do they ask for advice?
Some come after me for my advice. I just laugh. What advice could I possibly give them? Sometimes I actually ask for advice from them.
Are you like a mother figure?
No, because I'm a terrible mother. And I don't feel like their best friend, either. Sometimes you hear rumors they've seen tutors in gay clubs and they're laughing about it, and you realize you are not them. They are going to be the gods. I have a fear and dread that one day I am going to be in some one-room cottage in penniless retirement, and they're going to be whizzing by in their fucking Ferraris, clutching their bloody god-knows-what bags and throwing morsels to me out the window. I suppose I could keep a photocopy of their first project so that later on I could bribe them. That could be my retirement fund.
I know you don't like playing favorites, but can you give me an example of a student you felt great about?
I never taught Hussein [Chalayan] because he was in the BA course, but I remember seeing his paper dresses and they were fantastic. The craftsmanship was something else, and he had magnets under the catwalk so the clothes moved. That year was a fabulous year. More recently, I've felt great about Christopher Kane. It's not that I admire him above anyone else; it's that he works so effortlessly. He comes from a point that I would never start or finish at. Now, he's doing Versace couture as a consultant and he's hoping to do his own thing.
Do you put graduating students in touch with, for example, Versace?
No. Well, in an indirect way, because the older you get, the older your friends get, and they end up everywhere else in the industry. Do people phone me up when they have a position? Yes. Do I put them in touch? Only if I've been phoned, and only if the work is right.
Do you tip off the press to hot students?
No, I've never been that clever.
Changing gears, what's your opinion of High Street and fast fashion?
I've changed my mind on that. When you speak to young designers who are supported by High Street, they'll tell you they wouldn't be able to do what they're doing without it, unless they were living in a squat and starving like some people have done. And they'd never be able to compete with those companies' manufacturing. Every now and then strict tailoring will come into the picture to try to knock High Street off-kilter, but you can't quite get the masses to wear that. Everyone knocks Britain, but you could always say we had a great High Street, even if our designers were not super-brands. We create people who are brave enough to do their own thing. So what if Britain hasn't built a super-brand since Burberry?
Would it be possible to build a Burberry today?
I'm not being facetious, but if I knew that I would be bloody retired and have my house on Fire Island. I know absolutely fucking nothing about Burberry. They've been doing it for hundreds of years, and they had Rose Marie Bravo and they have Christopher [Bailey]. Like Balenciaga, it's a brand that only had to be reawakened. They're not starting form scratch. Or like Yves Saint Laurent, which only had to pull in the licenses and restart. I don't get this obsession with super-brands.
Then I presume you're not a fan of American brands.
I'd like someone to write a book about how American designers make their money. I'm not naming names, but how do they live in penthouses, employ their staff, have their shops and travel around the worldwhen they're not moving that much stock? There must be some fabulous tax dodge that happens in America. I've often tried to work it out. And then you have companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, which is exactly the same as Ralph Lauren, but with a loud soundtrack. I just went to an Abercrombie & Fitch store this morningI was buying for my sonand thought, oh my god, it's like being in some ecstasy acid house.
What do you make of a big brand like Hilfiger buying Lagerfeld?
I haven't thought that much about it, but maybe that's me being a bitter and twisted cow. I respect Karl Lagerfeld and what he's achieved, but why not build a new name? Although, who's going to invest much money in a new name? But I really have no idea. I live in a microscopic bubble of cancer-causing chemicals called my office. (cont'd)