Young Chinese designers increasingly head to London art, fashion schools

Business remains the top draw for young mainlanders studying in London but enrolment in creative arts schools has tripled in recent years

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 5:17am

Chinese students who go abroad have a reputation for studying "pragmatic" subjects like business or science, but an increasing number are staking out identities in London's design and fashion worlds.

The change is part of a larger trend that is seeing "Made in China" evolve into "Created in China", even as students in the British capital say working in a field that relies on rule-breaking takes some adjusting to.

The number of Chinese studying creative arts and design in London has more than tripled over the past five years to 1,585, according to official British figures. Only business courses attract a greater number.

"There is obviously a huge creative talent base in China, and London offers a great place to study," said Phil Nettleton, a spokesman for the city's official promotional organisation, London & Partners. "Names like the Guildhall, St Martins and the Courtauld resonate throughout the art world as symbols of excellence and cutting-edge thought."

The University of the Arts London, which includes the Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design and London College of Fashion, saw a more than 100 per cent increase in the number of Chinese students over the same period. About 560 Hongkongers are studying at London art and design schools.

"London is definitely the most popular [choice] and Central Saint Martins and the Royal College are the most popular universities," said Ejing Zhang, an up-and-coming designer and textiles graduate from the Royal College of Art.

She added that the city's museums, diversity, nurturing environment, and famous alumni - including her design heroes Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan - were its key draws.

Kenny Jiang, a product design student at Central Saint Martins, said eight of his 86 classmates were mainlanders.

"Parents are much more open-minded nowadays and allow us to do what we want when it comes to our studies," he said, adding that there were more opportunities for designers in China than before.

The overall number of mainlanders studying in London has grown 60 per cent to more than 12,000 over the past five years. They are now the biggest group of international students in the city.

Courses in history, philosophy, creative arts and design saw the biggest increases. Women art and design students outnumbered men three to one: 1,215 women to 370 men. Jiang said there were still "way more Chinese students studying economics, management or finance". Business and administrative studies remained the most popular subjects with 3,990 students.

London Fashion Week's international showcase of emerging talent in February featured eight Chinese designers, seven of whom studied at the University of the Arts London.

"There is most definitely a wave of interest in Chinese designers in London. Designers like Haizhen Wang and Huishan Zhang, who show at London Fashion Week, have drawn attention to Chinese design," said Niamh Tuft, a British Council programme manager.

"With many designers returning to China after training overseas … there is a genuine excitement about this new generation of designers and a shift in discussion about the Chinese market to talking about the Chinese design scene."

Jiang said his compatriots sometimes had difficulty integrating. "Chinese students are very good at the technical stuff but are not that creative and innovative compared to local students," he said. "Most come to London to carry on their studies after finishing high school in China. We have already been educated to follow certain rules, but here there are no rules."