Campus close-up: London College of Fashion

From female students in Lebanon to women in prison, the institution is reaching new audiences through its outreach activities

August 14, 2014

The London College of Fashion has its home just off Oxford Street. It would be hard to think of an education institution better located for its field, unless you put a petroleum engineering institute on an oil rig.

You might think the place would be awash with supercilious glitterati, but its students bustle, chatter and fret about work as much as those at any other university. There are few suggestions that the college, one of six institutions that comprise the University of the Arts London, is the preserve of the privileged.

“Because it’s got a big reputation, for some there could be a sense of ‘I couldn’t possibly go there because I’d never get in’,” said Frances Corner, head of college and professor of art and design education. “That’s my concern, rather than fashion necessarily being elitist.”

She is well aware of the difficulty fashion institutions like hers face in challenging other preconceptions.

“Fashion is a really curious discipline because it touches everything,” Professor Corner said. “It touches the humanities, social sciences and media, and it’s very important economically. I sometimes say it’s a subject for the 21st century because we live in such a visual culture now. So although people can be a bit sniffy, actually, when you start to add it all up, it’s very serious.”

The college states its commitment to widening participation. The Fashion Education in Prisons programme, where a group of female prisoners from HMP Send in Surrey worked with the college to produce a fashion magazine, won Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards last year.

“We’re really pushing that,” Professor Corner said. “For the next stage I want to set up a manufacturing facility in London where we’ll be able to get women on release to do further training to up their skills, because London needs highly skilled machinists.

“We’re trying to do things that are a lot more inclusive, a lot more about diversity; genuinely using the power of fashion to reach new audiences.”

These projects allow Professor Corner, as head of a specialist arts institution, to approach government funding threats with pragmatism rather than despair.

“I believe that the more unequal a society is, the more we all lose out. A good education is something we should all be entitled to,” she said. “With the economic pressures everybody’s under, which isn’t a party political issue, you need to have elite skills, a good education. We’re working hard to get manufacturing back into the UK but if you do have it here, it’s got to be highly skilled.

“I’m very fortunate I’m part of an institution that can demonstrate to all political parties this is what we want for the future of the UK economy and this is the way to do it. My feeling is to do it through the actions rather than any rhetoric, because that’s what’s going to make the difference.”

The work does not end on the UK’s shores. The college has acted in an advisory and consultancy capacity across the globe for countries looking to establish fashion courses.

“We’ve done work in Sri Lanka, bits of Bangladesh, Turkey and, if you have a relationship which combines industry, government and educational institutions, then you can begin to build a partnership that allows you to develop courses in that area,” Professor Corner said.

The college’s most recent consultancy agreement is with the Lebanese American University. Professor Corner said that she “completely believes” that institutions like hers have an obligation to go to the developing world to promote fashion education.

“We obviously have relationships with the established fashion centres – America, Paris, Milan and China – but one of the things I’m concerned about is that fashion has always been a great driver of economic development and also the education of women,” she said. “Somewhere like the Middle East, where again there is a lot of interest in fashion, has lots of women who aren’t able to come and study here. I think it’s really important that we’re not just seen to be institutions that work where it’s easy.”

She added: “To be able to take that and go and work in other countries where they’re interested in education for women is great,” she adds.

As a female head of a higher education institution, Professor Corner is in a minority. The fact that men and women seem to be on a parallel career trajectory until it comes to senior roles is “deeply frustrating” for her.

She added: “You can feel it sometimes – that sense of wanting to have more of the same, not really feeling comfortable with having a woman coming in. People – well, I suppose it’s men – sometimes feel uncomfortable with having a woman’s voice in there.”

In numbers

6 institutions, including the London College of Fashion, make up the University of the Arts

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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