Hong Kong’s Izzue gives Central Saint Martins fashion graduates a shop window in China

Fashion MA students’ prize for winning a contest is a trip to China to design a mini-collection for store chain; their journey is one that growing numbers of Chinese fashion students are making in reverse, as applications to famed London college rise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 7:18am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 8:05pm

Every year the highly rated Master of Arts course in fashion at the world’s best-known design college is bombarded with applications from would-be students from around the world – including more than 400 from China.

Unlike in the past, most of the hopeful Chinese students submitting their résumés meet the academic, creative and linguistic requirements of Central Saint Martins in London, but the majority are turned down, to maintain a balance of nationalities on the hugely oversubscribed course.

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Course director Fabio Piras has witnessed the striking improvement in the standard of applications from China, and taken satisfaction in seeing graduates make their mark in the brutally competitive real world.

The two who have shone the brightest after leaving the college are Masha Ma, who now has studios in Shanghai and Paris, and Huishan Zhang, whose Qingdao-made garments are sold in some of the world’s finest department stores, and from his boutique in an exclusive district of central London.

“The applications from China are enormous,” says Piras, who is Italian. “We get hundreds and hundreds; we could feed 10 MA fashion courses with Chinese students but you can’t because you have to have diversity within the community.

“The level is very good. There was a time where the ideal Chinese student would have already done an undergraduate course in the UK. Now we have extremely good Chinese applicants that are educated in China and they are even more interesting because they have more to benefit from a masters in London.”

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“I like the idea of someone trained in Beijing who would then move to London to do a year and a half course to develop much more of an identity and level of skills that enables them to move forward. The level is very high.”

As a regular visitor to Beijing and Shanghai, the lecturer has witnessed the rapid changes at close quarters. The most recent trip was with the winning team in a competition jointly organised by the college, Hong Kong fashion brand izzue and athleisure brand Phvlo, founded by Central Saint Martins graduate Johanna Ho.

Students on the MA course were challenged to produce a mini-collection based on the themes of travel and change, the reward being to see their work ultimately be produced for sale in stores.

Part of the prize also involved being flown to Beijing for an izzue event. Instead of attending routine lectures, the winning trio found themselves staying in a hotel, conducting media interviews, proudly witnessing their clothes on display in the izzue store in the prime shopping centre of Taikoo Li in Sanlitun and visiting key city sites.

Piras, too, was beaming proudly at yet another batch of talented designers about to make their mark commercially. Previous Central Saint Martins graduates have included John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney and Christopher Kane.

The MA course director is a former Central Saint Martins student himself, who went on to enjoy success as a designer, launching his own label and working for different luxury fashion brands in Europe.

“What sets us apart? It starts from being an art college, not a fashion college as such, so we start from the artistic endeavour, we couldn’t care less whether you know how to do a colour card or not, you need to find you own way. It needs to be made out of thinkers, otherwise you create dressmakers. That is not what we do.”


“It takes a very specific level of student. The kind of students that apply to courses are a bit more rougher, rogue, they have a personality that makes them perform artistically. It makes a very resilient student, someone who can perform with agility.

“Imagine being in a place where you have all these egos and you have to fight for survival!

“On the MA we don’t just have academics; it also includes industry professionals, which is very important. It is ideas and the creative process and the dialogue and the coaching of the students.”

Just 40 students are accepted annually for the MA in fashion, with foreign students paying £27,000 (US$35,950), more than twice as much as their British counterparts.

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Being accepted virtually guarantees graduates a job afterwards – in the fashion world, it is like having Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale on your job application form.

In the case of the izzue winners, their careers have already been kick-started; the students will be able to show would-be employers an actual collection that has been sold in stores, rather than sketches and samples.

“It is amazing to see how this company works on what is the other side of the world for us,” says Margherita Mazzola, a member of the winning team. “When we go back home it will be hard to describe to other students just how amazing this has been. We saw the stores and met the teams and now our garments are designed and approved as a final product.”

About the collection

Shoppers will be able to buy the capsule collection designed by the Central Saint Martins students early next year, when the garments appear in izzue stores in Hong Kong and China.

The winning team of design students Margherita Mazzola, Harriet Claire Cox and communications student Alanna Eileen Cooper were chosen over 10 other teams from the college. Judges deemed that their designs best captured the theme of travel/change, and also featured a high degree of functionality and versatility.

The winning collection was commended for its ability to be changed into a variety of looks – a chic hooded jacket or an elegant sleeveless dress. It is also capable of spanning different seasons.

After they were nominated as winners, the trio collaborated with the izzue and Phvlo design teams to come up with a 10-piece capsule collection, due to debut in early 2019.

Piras says collaborations such as this are chosen very carefully.

He adds: “It is a formative path for a student to work with a client on a commercial project that has been commissioned. A huge component is the fact that izzue has a market that is broad, for young people and at a price level that includes many people.”