McQ buyer and Central Saint Martins graduate, Evie Gurney spoke to Madame Soho recently about the college’s creative spirit, Soho’s former countercultural identity, and the significance of the area’s spatial positioning in London. The sharp, fashion obsessive recalled her memories of Central Saint Martins when the college was situated in the world’s most famous square mile and, simultaneously, was the number one epicenter for fashion and art on the globe.
Gurney, born and raised in Islington, north London won a place at Oxford but dropped out after a year when she realized she wanted to remain a teenager in the city where she grew up: ‘I went to Oxford to read philosophy and economics when I was 18, but dropped out because I wanted to be in London going out with my friends, dressing up and having fun.’ The Londoner then realized she wanted to study fashion and, coming from Oxford, wasn’t going to settle for anywhere less than the most creative, cutting-edge space where she could go to express herself : ‘Saint Martins at that time was the best in the world. John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Matthew Williamson and Stella McCartney had all graduated from there.’
The fashion enthusiast lit-up when she recalled her experience of St Martins’ countercultural, collective spirit – a vibe that mirrored Soho’s own ambience during the late nineties and early twenty-first century: ‘The whole building was buzzing with creativity and ideas. One thing I loved about it was, you know you get the odd fashion enthusiast from the small town who was like the odd one out – you know like the only goth in Bournemouth? When they arrived at St Martins with all the other obsessives and misfits, the relief they experienced from their sense of belonging was incredible. For me and everyone else there was a real sense of identification and community.
It was great being around people who understood why you would want to look at old copies of Vogue from the 1950s. I remember when Comme des Garcons did that All Black show and it was in the news. ‘Crazy Japanese fashion designer does All Black show.’ Nobody understood that in wider society, but then you got to St Martins and people did understand what it was about, and why it was important. It was a creative expression that was sought, and those are the two things that I really remember about that. Just being around all those creative people, being in the building and just knowing the history. The people that had been there before, not just fashion designers, but painters and artists and that feeling of ‘this is where you come when you want to express yourself.’
It’s fitting that, during this period, Central Saint Martins was located in Soho – both the college and the area embodied a subversive spirit outside of the mainstream. Gurney reflected on the significance of Soho’s spatial positioning: ‘What I’ve always loved about London is the spontaneity that comes from the conflict of cultures coming together, and Soho is separated by its boundaries. You have Oxford Street on one side, Charing Cross Road on another then you’ve got Chinatown and Regent Street. You’ve kind of got this intersection and Soho really is geographically boundaried like no other district in London. Hackney, for instance, has Shotredith, Dalston and Clapton and all these areas that blur into each other, but Soho is boxed off by all the main roads that surround it. You’ve got all these different things going on and when I think about it I find it really hard to separate my experience of St Martins with being in that intersection of London and how that feeds the imagination, and how that feeds creativity.’
Words by Ray Kinsellla Photo by Ki Price