When you’re the stylist for a major, envelope-pushing celebrity like Lady Gaga or Rihanna, coming up with a steady stream of new looks is a daily challenge.
“[Rihanna] always wants to try something new, so I have to know what works, yet also try to push things forward, because this girl has already worn a million amazing outfits,” her stylist, Mel Ottenberg, told Billboard in September. “It would be great if there were enough things to excite me [on the runways], but there definitely aren’t.”
That’s why Ottenberg, as well as the stylists behind some of music’s more daring dressers, are increasingly turning to students — rather than major fashion houses — for new garments. And no school has received more attention than Central Saint Martins in London. In 2014, Lady Gaga made headlines after buying the entire graduate collection of Wilson BK, one of several students whose garments she’s worn for TV appearances, promotional videos and dramatically walking the streets of Paris (as was the case with a Jack Irving piece made of shimmery inflatable tentacles worn at the end of her Artpop tour). Over the past few months, Rihanna has appeared in designs by recent graduates Essie Beckman and Dilara Findikoglu. And Björk has lately collaborated with newly minted Central Saint Martins alum Harry Evans. “I guess I end up working with a lot of students,” she told The Guardian. “I’m not sure exactly why that is, maybe there’s something we give each other.”
The proliferation of designs from students and recent graduates on the backs of celebrities doesn’t mean they aren’t still borrowing — or, better yet, being paid to wear — frocks from the world’s largest luxury apparel companies. For key events like the Academy Awards or the VMAs, major designer labels still dominate. But in a decade where celebrities are constantly in the public eye, thanks to paparazzi and social media, the demand for new, never-before-seen clothes has outstripped houses’ abilities to furnish those clothes. And if wearing and up-and-comer’s creation earns a celeb a little extra good will, all the better.
But why Central Saint Martins? While stylists do pull from the collections of students at Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology in the U.S., they keep an especially sharp eye on the London institution simply because it’s considered the best. It’s consistently ranked as the number one fashion design school in the world by both Business of Fashion and Fashionista, responsible for training some of the industry’s leading designers of the past several decades: Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, John Galliano, Celine’s Phoebe Philo and Zac Posen among them. Every February, the university hosts a runway show at London Fashion Week to showcase the work of graduating MA students before a high-profile audience of department store buyers, journalists and stylists.
That’s how Beyoncé discovered Georgian designer David Koma in 2009. Her team of stylists reached out after seeing a dress shown at the graduate show, and asked if he would make a custom dress for an appearance at the MTV Awards in Berlin. “Everyone knows how it is to get [into Central Saint Martins], and how amazing the course is, so all of the top stylists look at that show,” Koma told Billboard. “That’s how I was contacted by Beyonce’s team, as well as Rihanna and Lady Gaga.” The industry took note, and Koma landed profiles in Dazed and British Vogue shortly thereafter. In 2013, French fashion house Mugler appointed him creative director, which he continue stop lead while expanding his eponymous label in London.
It’s a trend worth celebrating. For young designers, a few key celebrity placements can mean the difference between toiling for years in obscurity and jumpstarting an eponymous label. And celebrities? Well, they’ve got fabulous clothes to wear.