A mature student's guide to CSM - part 1: Fashion Folio

Originally meant for mature students - as in students over 24 years old, whose first uni wasn't Central Saint Martins, or people who were in a different course, a different career or even those who already have their own brand and decided to go back to a famous Fashion school to polish their skills and be at the same level as their favourite designers.

All the content's based on my first-hand experience, so I'm covering two courses: Graduate Diploma, a one-year course for people who already have a degree or some work experience in Fashion or a related industry; and Fashion Folio, a full-time portfolio course meant for both BA applicants and graduates applying for the Graduate Diploma (very rare to get accepted straight into the MA from Fashion Folio these days).

For updated information on term dates, application requirements, deadlines etc, please visit each course's page on the CSM website.

Fashion Folio - Boro project

Unless you're a banker doing an MBA, it's very hard to be moved by the permanent sale rack in any Fast Fashion mega-store or the watered-down runway copycats produced in record speed by Zara.

You got here because you always had your own sense of who you are and how you want to express yourself in the world.

You just got into the coolest trends before they were cool, and it all made sense when you finally watched your first runway show (Dior Haute Couture, back in Galliano's "good" days - now that is a reason for goosebumps), or finally touched the most perfect plain sweater by Maison Martin Margiela: you had to become a Fashion Designer, you wanted to be the one creating those moments.

But it's easy to get into a school focusing on teaching what you'll need on the job without ever connecting the dots between technical skills and creativity.

Even worse, most schools don't even go deep enough on the technical subjects - so you end up graduating as a Fashion Designer who kinda knows how to draw; kinda knows pattern cutting; sorta knows some sewing techniques but only in theory; and can get away with your Photoshop - Illustrator - InDesign skills.

You know you're in this situation if you're stuck in dead-end jobs, doing really boring work that's never gonna push you to develop yourself creatively, never gonna help you build a portfolio that'll get you closer to your dream job at your favourite brand.

Your portfolio sucks, but you don't: Fashion Folio to the rescue!

Already applied to many jobs, contests or courses and got no replies?

Newsflash: your portfolio SUCKS!

You'll wanna argue with me, saying you actually know a thing or two. I get it.

I went to a reputed Fashion school (Bunka Fashion College, in Tokyo), I have a solid technical foundation and know how to make patterns and sew very well;
I've taken drawing lessons since I was 10 and used to copy my favourite anime characters, so I can also draw very well;

I'm a private school educated, multi-lingual and well-mannered person - it's not like I need months of training to make phone calls!

But still I couldn't get any work that paid a decent wage and kept putting up with soul-sucking jobs just to have experience on my CV (always hopeful that someone would finally see my potential and that a better job was just around the corner. Thanks, cheap self-help!)

I had all the skills but I didn't know how to present them, meaning: nobody could see me as a worthy addition to their team.

Applying to Fashion Folio - what you need to show

While job recruiters and MA course leaders ain't got time to look for raw potential, the tutors on Fashion Folio do: they're the ones with clinical but loving eyes to see there's something to be polished between all the not-so-fabulous work we submit with our application.

The catch: that also means you need to already have some skills to be polished.

Between all the full-time courses at Central Saint Martins, Fashion Folio can be considered an "entry-level" course, but it's not for total beginners: you won't get basic Fashion figure drawing lessons, you won't have regular classes for sewing, Fashion History, Colour Theory etc.

You should send in work that shows:

  • what kind of artistic skills you have: paintings, illustrations, sketchbooks, collages, sculptures;
  • You have an interest in Fashion: moodboards, photoshoots, previous projects;
  • Any useful Design skills you've picked at a job or internship (Photoshop, for example);
  • Any work that you find relevant: you can't assume you know what the tutors want to see! They may be fascinated by your collection of pictures of dog turds (true story), while they may be put off by an attempt to make your portfolio too professional (aka over-editing).

What you'll learn

To repeat what I wrote on the previous post:

As for any full-time CSM course, what you learn and what they teach you are very different things.

You'll usually get a briefing for each project then all the work will be self-directed apart from 10 to 20-minute tutorials with one of the tutors, up to 3 times a week.

It's important that you show up and work in the studio as much as you can, as the course leader - Patrick Lee Yow - will frequently ask everyone to gather round and show examples from previous years and from the current group: these were the only times we'd get some sort of lecture, when we could learn from Patrick's razor-sharp and brutally honest feedback (spoiler alert: if it's your turn to be used as an example for the class, and there's good chance it will hurt).

Term 1

If you have the option, do join Fashion Folio from the very first term.

This is the time everyone's application portfolio (and personal appearance, sometimes) will be critiqued for sh*t - so there's an overall mutual sympathy, before the cattiness and competition begins.

Then you start working on your first project step-by-step:

  • a week dedicated for research, and formatting it, presenting it as collages, drawing over it…
  • Another week dedicated for fabric, materials, trimmings, colours - and making something with them: paint over them beads, distress your fabrics, combine fabrics with non-Fashion materials...your work here's not cutting fabrics in neat little squares with Pantone codes!
  • Another week for developing silhouettes;
  • Then sketching as many designs as you can - aka Design Development (although any work you do based on your research can be called Design Development)
  • Then finally choosing a final lineup and putting your work together in a cohesive way that shows your creative process - aka your portfolio.

This was also the only term with life drawing sessions, with a (stylishly dressed) model and conducted by a Fashion Illustrator - he was only available for tutorials once a week on the remaining terms.

Term 2

Many new faces will join the course on this term - more or less depending on how many people were kicked out of the course by the end of the first term.

There isn't as much step-by-step instructions as term 1, not as many teaching moments by Patrick, and you're also expected not to need more than 2 tutorial a week.

In fact, you know you're doing well if, by the end of every tutorial, the tutor asks you what your next steps are.

Now you're aware of your own creative process, and on your way to becoming a designer.

Most of your portfolio will be produced in this term, to be completed during the Christmas break and then polished during the first weeks of term 3, before the internal interviews.

So if by the end of this term you still haven't found your way, you'll only be accepted into term 3 for personal development or employment portfolio creation.

Term 3

This term's all about getting ready for the internal interviews.

If you're not applying to any courses, do not join from/ continue on to term 3: you'll receive very little attention from the tutors, with no money-back guarantee.

If all goes well, you'll have your portfolio analysed by one of the BA or Graduate Diploma course directors, then invited for a quick interview, and hopefully admitted into one of the courses you applied to.

If you don't get invited for an interview, tough luck. Game over.

This will all happen in the first 2 months, then you'll have a month of...pretty much nothing. Unless you were asked for extra work during your interview.

Otherwise, bleh. Fashion Folio over.

No diploma, no ceremony, no alumni association.

See you next year around the main building, or see you when you finally get in. Or see you whenever.

Work load

Most courses require you to show up, pay attention to class, apply 2-4h daily for homework or projects and study your subjects for exams.

You wish.

Since we can never assume we know what the tutors want to see, you need to work hard at least to get all the wrongs out of your system.

Consider a healthy average of 7h/day during the week plus 4h either Saturday or Sunday, but be aware that you'll probably be working at least 50h/week.

Plus all the time you'll spend looking for materials (you're not gonna show up with boring fabric samples, are you?).

And money. Oh, you'll spend so much money.


Besides spending money on different art supplies, printing, fabrics and trimmings, you'll also have to fork out:

  • Tuition fees for Fashion Folio - 2019: each term = 4,999; no scholarships available, as of my knowledge;
  • Accommodation in London, food, transportation etc = consider at least £600 per month, if you can live with the bare minimum or can live at your parent's or with a friend, or up to £1,500 - 2,000/month, to err on the safe side;

Can you afford to spend this kind of money, knowing you may not get a job paying more than £1,800/month after you finish the course?

Exposure/ visibility

Fashion Folio is a great course but its official status is kinda funny: it's in a grey area where it's still considered a short course, and you won't get any diploma from it.

It also doesn't get a lot of attention from CSM's sort of in-house magazine, 1Granary.

Might get even less attention from CSM itself, as a for-profit corporation selling countless other short courses all over the world - Fashion Folio keeps being pushed to smaller studios and to buildings farther and farther from the main King's Cross campus.

You'd better do your research AND your soul-searching very thoroughly before you apply for the course - specially if you're hoping to find a job in a country other than the one(s) you're legally eligible to work in (as in, you're Brazilian and want to look for a job in the US; Korean and want to work as a designer in London; American hoping to be hired in Europe).

Work visas depend on a hell lot more than just how creative you are.

To borrow from Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: your Art's not obliged to earn you a living, that's not the deal.

DO NOT put the pressure on your portfolio to get you the dream job + the fringe benefits + work visa combo, or the Fashion stardom.

This will help you greatly with the last topic on this guide.

The aftermath: Future prospects & my mental health

Of course the CSM Fashion tutors love to brag about their students that went to work for Louis Vuitton and Céline, but their main goal is not to churn out good corporate workers.

Central Saint Martins will encourage you to always research and experiment further and further every time, to develop not only the skills you need to work as a Fashion Designer, but mostly to develop your own aesthetic, voice and point of view as a well-rounded creative - hence why I didn't shy away from the word Art when talking about your portfolio.

Are you allowed to work in the EU, or whatever other country you dream of living in? Do you have good connections in place that can help you get a job, plus a visa, if necessary?

All the growth you'll experience during Fashion Folio also means it'll be an extremely tough time, and if you add the extra pressure of guaranteed success after the course's finished, your mental health will suffer.

If you already have a history of depression and anxiety, like I did, even all the progress and adulation won't soothe the awful feelings of gloom, of being behind in life, and the dark catastrophic scenarios of never finding a job after years dedicating myself to this craft.

You'll already have tutors that are way too prone to yelling and/ or scorning; yourself and your course mates will be way too quick to judge and compare; the work load will be insane (plus possible lack of social life outside uni due to it) and accompanied by endless spending on supplies…

Be nice to yourself, AND take responsibility: what do you really want from attending CSM?