Strategic Partnership?


5 May 2017

Please forgive the hand wringing that is to follow.

Yesterday, Central Saint Martins (CSM) announced details of a new “strategic partnership” with the luxury conglomerate LVMH. As part of a four-year deal, LVMH will provide scholarships and project opportunities for CSM students. In return, the partnership will give “LVMH maisons access to academic expertise and dedicated R&D”. Primarily, this will be delivered through a sustainability and innovation research body led by Carole Collet, the founder of the university’s celebrated Material Futures MA who has now returned to the university in the newly created role of the CSM LVMH director of sustainable innovation. The aim of the partnership, according to the university’s dean of academic programmes Anne Smith, is to “take CSM into the maisons and bring the maisons into CSM.”

What does this mean? Firstly – and what the university’s press release leaves out – it means that LVMH has made a considerable financial contribution to the university (and for a university to have tied itself quite so closely to a commercial enterprise, one would hope that the contribution is rather more than “considerable”). Secondly, it means that CSM’s role as a talent producer for LVMH (around 50 alumni are currently employed by the conglomerate, with designers such as Céline’s Phoebe Philo chief amongst them) is likely to be formalised to at least some degree. Existing collaborative projects – a scheme to design a tiara for Chaumet; a proposal to create uniforms for Sephora’s retail staff – will presumably become the norm. The passage between the university and the maisons has become that much more traversable with the announcement of the partnership and is now primed to shuttle talent towards LVMH. “Art schools have traditionally been quite inward looking,” said Jeremy Till, head of CSM, speaking at the conference to announce the partnership. “Given what is happening in the world outside at the moment our students and staff are demanding that we engage fully with the outside world.” Well, quite, although whether what that criticism refers to is a lack of engagement with LVMH and its ilk is a different matter.

So, let the speculation as to the success of the partnership begin. In a best case scenario, the arrangement will prove beneficial to both parties. In a university system gutted of funding by a succession of laughable government policies, CSM is to be applauded for attracting financial backing where it can. Further, LVMH’s involvement with the school will undoubtedly provide opportunities: the craftsmanship and expertise available in the ateliers of houses such as Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Loewe, Moynat and Céline is peerless, and ready access to this will benefit CSM. LVMH has the resources to be a tremendous support to students’ development if it so chooses, while the input and enthusiasm of arts students may prove a welcome tonic to the fustiness and fussiness of some of the brands on the conglomerate’s books. “We know this is a great place for good ideas,” said LVMH’s group managing director Toni Belloni at the launch of the partnership. If LVMH is open to those ideas, then the partnership could prosper. Further, the group perhaps deserves credit for supporting education at a time when the state seems to have little interest in so doing. Letting CSM into the maisons may be no bad thing.

And now for the other side of the conjunctive: letting the maisons into CSM. Forming a balanced perspective on this is difficult: overcoming the grotesqueries of commerce's entry into the academic sphere is a challenge, while the fact that the Kering group already has a similar arrangement in place with the London College of Fashion provides scant succour. Clearly, however, much will depend on Collet, who has a fine academic record but will now be tasked with balancing the provision of progressive, creatively free eduction, with a need to service (to an unknown degree) the interests of a multinational corporation that is unlikely to have furnished its financial blessings upon CSM idly. On this topic, LVMH’s group executive vice president of human resources and synergies, Chantal Gaemperle, proved less than illuminating, stating that the “DNA of both parties” is based around “the importance of quality and creativity, the passion for innovation.” This is gnomic language: watch its meaning dissolve amongst its platitudes, obfuscations and the “synergies” of Gaemperle’s own job title.

“I don’t think the students come to CSM just to refine the status quo; just to make what is there a little bit prettier,” said Till. “They’re using art and design to enter into a debate about how to make the world a better place.” On this point, Till seems astute. CSM has an enviable track record of producing subversive, independently minded students and no doubt this will continue, whether in spite of or because of LVMH’s involvement. What does seem clear however, is that engagement with LVMH is no great challenge to the status quo: if the world’s largest luxury group doesn’t represent the status quo, then what does?