A mature student's guide to CSM - part 2: Graduate Diploma

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.

Grad Dip - McQueen project

"One of the most intense courses in Central Saint Martins."

As described by the staff conducting a Powerpoint presentation in our induction day.

Or to use the unofficial description by my classmate's sister, who was in BA Knitwear, next to out studio: ‘Why do you wanna do this course? Everyone there looks like they wanna kill themselves.’

Just like Fashion Folio, Grad Dip is another CSM course doing zero-to-hero transformations for aspiring designers who want to get to the same level as the designers they worship, but whose true quality is offset by its funny status and little visibility.

This is a course for graduates, so you'll get even less teaching moments, even nit-pickier critiques, the more than occasional yelling...for the equivalent of a BA diploma.

Minus the chance to take a year off for paid internships at famous Fashion houses to build your CV and make valuable connections;

Or the official internal runway show and then the chance to be in the press show with tons of coverage from all sorts of Fashion journalists and magazines;

Or the premium location to showcase your portfolio during the Degree Show.

So why would anyone even do this course?

"I know you're all going to apply to the MA by the end of the course."

Grad Dip used to be a course only for international students, to brush up their skills but mostly to whip them into shape for the MA.
David Kappo, the course director, knows this very well, so his efforts will always be towards keeping the high rate of students accepted into MA courses - at Central Saint Martins, Royal College of Art or London College of Fashion, meaning:

  • He's not there to help you get your dream job at your favourite brand;
  • There's no guarantee you'll get a place in the MA Fashion CSM afterwards.

My year, 2015-16, had an exceptional rate of 25% acceptance (6 out of 20-22 students) at CSM, then 5 at the RCA...then who knows/ cares about the people who didn't apply (me and a couple other) or couldn't even get an interview at LCF.

Our work's still featured on the course webpage (as of March 2020)  so look us up and see how many names you recognise or how many people you'll find on LinkedIn with the job position you'd kill for.

Now do the math:

How much of your money and mental health are you willing to sacrifice - excuse me, invest - for a 30% chance?

Applying to Graduate Diploma

If you're still there after the proverbial bucket of icy-cold water, let's go through the Selection Criteria from the link two paragraphs above:

Evidence of research skills

  • You should provide evidence of your creative exploration of research (research sketchbooks, examples of materials/images that you collect for inspiration).
  • Ability to develop ideas in visual form
  • Please evidence your ability to produce design solutions which make an imaginative use of imagery, colour, materials and technical skills shown in sketchbooks, illustrations etc.

3D sense

  • Please provide examples of your ability to translate two-dimensional design into three-dimensions (actual garments are not required – photographs or digital images will be accepted).

Sensitivity to fabric and colour (including digital images of fabric samples where appropriate)

  • Evidence of use of fabrics and colour application e.g. swatches either attached to design drawings or on a separate sheet.

Technical skills

  • Specification drawings to show in detail your understanding of garment construction e.g. seam placements, darts etc. and design details e.g. collar, cuff details.

Besides Technical skills, what all those requirements mean is frankly not very clear if you're coming from your run-of-the-mill Fashion school.

Actually, whatever you learned at them regular Fashion courses or on your non-dream job is the very opposite of what top Fashion schools would consider "evidence of creative exploration " or “imaginative use of imagery, colour, materials”.

It then gets super corporate when you get to the end of the list:

in addition to the skills demonstrated in the portfolio, you should demonstrate by means of your personal statement in the application, your:

  • Reason for choosing the course: why do they even ask? How many times did we listen to staff describe Grad Dip as "the course for people who want to get into the MA" on Open Day tours!
  • Motivation and commitment: how? Should I write "I am motivated and committed"? This is CV Dos and Don'ts 101;
  • Awareness of contemporary fashion design: alright, that means you're not a fit for Grad Dip if you're more interested in historical costume and research, or if you're looking for a more niche course, such as Lingerie or Shoemaking;
  • Capacity for self-reflection: A 3-month mindfulness and yoga certificate from an ashram in India;
  • Communication skills: Eh… Many of your classmates will barely have an intermediate level of English, and even a native speaker will falter under the crazy, caramel-eyed stare of David Kappo.

Don't stress too much about the statement, but be aware that you'll probably need to get some portfolio advice or take a portfolio-making course before applying.

Plus, beware of international offices when you're thinking of applying to CSM!

They don't know what the courses are really like, they're not career counsellors and they're not even good salespeople who are whole-heartedly interested in matching you with the best products. They want quick sales, and if they think you're not CSM material because 'you don't have talent', they'll kinda tell you to give up (aka ‘you should consider LCF’, a go-to insult, even though both colleges belong to the same organisation).

What you'll learn

Why sound repetitive when I can just copy-paste from the first post of this series:

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

You won't have proper subjects or proper classes, like a Fashion Sketch 1 class where a teacher will stand in front of the classroom and teach you step-by-step on a blackboard how to draw a 9-head Fashion figure.

(p.s.: you shouldn't draw 9-head models, that'd be a gigantic freaking woman. Make your life easier and design for real humans with the tips on my ebook.)

You'll have projects to make, and after you received a briefing, all the work will be self-directed apart from a couple of 10 to 15-minute tutorials with either the course director, tutor or guest tutor.

The difference from Fashion Folio is that you'll have tutorials with different guest lecturers for each project, and they'll have tons of industry experience.

They're also CSM graduates, so not only have they seen it all, they've seen it finessed to the nth degree, so the only way to impress them is by working hard, showing you listened to their feedback and being authentically you ✨.

Oh - and you only get 3-4 weeks for each project! Which sounds reasonable until you're in the pressure-cooker, all or nothing, do or die environment of CSM.

Here we go!

London Project (aka Shoreditch project)

Go out and about in a hip neighborhood, take pictures of whatever you find interesting, show your research to the guest lecturer and get one feedback.

Then keep working on your research to show David a few days afterwards and receive a completely different feedback, as he enquires you: "But what is it A B O U T?"

This project's there just to tear down whatever preconceived ideas you had about your creative process, and the outcome will probably be sh*t.

I'm at a comfortable distance now, so I can tell you: don't worry. It really doesn't matter that much.

(Newsflash: this advice is me being full of crap. I was already having a nervous breakdown at week 2.)


Cutting Project

Consider it a Creative Pattern Cutting project.

The focus here is to research and experiment with a technique to come up with interesting silhouettes AND a properly cut, sewn and finished garment in the end.

According to David, our class did very well compared to previous years. I'm guessing the following years didn't do so well, as the website now shows a different structure for the first two projects.

Industry project (or McQueen project, in my year)

And then I tanked again...

Here you'll get very little guidance from a very busy designer working in one of the famous Fashion houses with close ties to CSM.

Our year's briefing focused on textile development - fabric manipulation, embroidery, printing, textures, textures, textures - and using the samples we created on a final lineup as if we were designing for either Alexander McQueen or MCQ, without losing our own creative identity.

My textile samples were not the best, therefore my project wasn't that great. They did like the way I presented my portfolio, so have a look at some of the pictures here.

Muse project (or Project Me, in my year)

Fashion's not created in a vacuum to be exhibited in a museum, so investigating who's the person you're creating for is actually a very valid task.

There's even a whole BA course under this premise, poorly named Fashion Design with Marketing, a title that makes people think it's meant for getting a job doing ads at the PR & Marketing department of a brand.

David was tired of seeing people creating Fashion-y looking Fashion for famous Fashion models who we had nothing in common with, so that year we had to shine the spotlight on ourselves and what our life's about as a person, not a designer.

Wait, whaaaaaaa..?

We were caught completely off-guard, and mostly we sucked.

No biggie, most Grad Dip students will only find their way in the very end of the course.

And for me,

this project was when I finally got to show David who I was besides being a Fashion student who was back to Fashion school because I wanted a career in Fashion.

Final Project

Finally! This course's about to end!

And now there's 3 months to make it - which seems like plenty of time but at this point you're so used to quick projects, you have to catch yourself either jumping the gun on the research stage, or spending time fiddle-faddling and calling it “experimentation”.

You'll quick enough realise you still ain't got a lot of time to finish your project: even though Grad Dip students only have to make 2 completed looks (instead of 6 or 8, as in the BA and MA, respectively), you'll be taking over the responsibilities of an entire studio - as in doing research, cutting patterns, sourcing materials, making samples, scouting a model, conducting fitting sessions etc - without any help from your juniors.

It's quite common for MA students to get some of their garments sewn by machinists outside of uni, but most of us either didn't think of this option or didn't want to spend more money on a collection that wasn't going to be featured anywhere relevant: once this project's done, you'll make a portfolio and have a banner showing one of your looks in a tiny, poorly lit room in the end of a corridor most people won't bother going to during the Degree Show.

Work load

8h/day minimum. This considering you know what you're doing.

Hard work beats talent anytime, and every tutor will respect a serious commitment to their course even if you're not one of their favourites - yes, that's a thing. They're human, it's normal they'll relate to some students better than others.

But overwork's highly encouraged in our industry and you'll also be under the spell of “it's all or nothing”, so consider 10-12h per day + an average of 3h/day on weekends.


Fixed costs = tuition fees:

  • Home/EU: £10,890;
  • International students: £19,930

Payable in up to 3 instalments.

Variable costs:

  • accommodation in London: consider a comfortable amount of £500 per month, unless you're living with your family or with close relatives for free;
  • food;
  • transportation: consider at least £80 per month, unless you're living close to campus (in this case, consider WAY more than £550 per month for rent);
  • art supplies, printing, fabric etc: consider at least £500 for the entire course, but be ready to spend £1,000.

Translation in plain English: £17,000 for Home/EU, £26,000 for International students = THE BARE MINIMUM.

Exposure & Future prospects

Aka ‘Is it worth it?’

Let's go through the pros and cons.

Graduate Diploma in Fashion CSM:

  • is a very intense course where, in only one year, you can elevate basic skills acquired in regular Fashion courses and uninspiring jobs to match the level of BA graduates who've studied at Central Saint Martins for 3 to 5 years;

That nonetheless:

  • doesn't get a lot of attention from 1Granary or other Fashion publications;
  • is frequently labeled as "the course for people who want to get into the MA" by the university staff;
  • won't offer you support to find internships on your holiday breaks, or jobs after you graduate.

Don't take me wrong, I'm not hating on CSM and my tutors because I didn't get a corporate job after I graduated.

A diploma isn't a guarantee of anything these days (if it ever were at any point), and job selection processes and work visas are completely outside of their reach. So you are the only responsible for deciding whether the course is worth £17,000 to £26,000+++.

Are you in to develop yourself as a well-rounded creative, with not only your very own aesthetic, but also a unique voice and point of view?

Are you okay with the discomfort of being critiqued quite harshly, and putting on hold your “normal” life (quality time with friends and family, a regular job with a regular paycheck, going to the gym…) while you work towards a bigger dream?