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Frances Corner

As the Head of the London College of Fashion and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts London, Professor Frances Corner OBE understands more than most how creativity and education have the power to transform people’s lives. For Cutler and Gross Visionaires, she tells us about the challenges facing the fashion education system today and the lessons she has learnt from her own creative life.
Photography by Hannah Harley Young
 
Professor Frances Corner OBE, Head of the London College of Fashion, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts London, fashion activist, author… You’re clearly a multi-talented woman wearing many hats! If you had only 10 words to describe yourself, what would you choose?
Busy, committed, activist, educator, mother, wife, art, fashion, equality, Yamamoto.

Do you have a personal motto?
I am a fashion activist and I am committed to using the power of fashion to tackle social, environmental, economic and ethical issues.

You spent much of your early childhood overseas. Did the experience shape the person you are today?
Yes definitely, in my attitude towards diversity and equality, my curiosity about travel and interest in other cultures.

What made you want to pursue a career in fashion? What was your vision when you started out?
I didn’t really! The career I have chosen to pursue is one in creative education. I am now running the London College of Fashion, but I have over 25 years of experience working in creative higher education. My passion is the importance of creativity and education to transform people’s lives.

"My passion is the importance of creativity and education to transform people’s lives."

Do you think the power and significance of fashion is undervalued? In what way?
Many people see fashion as ephemeral and frivolous but I see it as a creative, enterprising, multi-faceted industry that is vital to our economic and personal well-being. Last year, the industry was projected to reach $2.4 trillion in total value. If it were ranked alongside individual countries’ GDP, the global fashion industry would represent the world’s seventh largest economy. It’s the second biggest worldwide economic activity for intensity of trade and it employs over 57 million workers in developing countries, 80% of whom are women. Now tell me fashion doesn’t matter.

London is a hotbed for young international talent. Why is this so?
It’s a combination of factors. I think you have a history of some of the great art colleges, who have taught fashion. You have museums, galleries, a lot of retail, technology companies, many creatives from other arts from, and these things really combine to give a great fashion experience.


"If it were ranked alongside individual countries’ GDP, the global fashion industry would represent the world’s seventh largest economy. It’s the second biggest worldwide economic activity for intensity of trade and it employs over 57 million workers in developing countries, 80% of whom are women. Now tell me fashion doesn’t matter."

Do you worry about its appeal and international standing in the future with changes such as Brexit on the horizon?
Yes of course, the danger with Brexit is that we become closed and we put up barriers. I think we have to see Brexit as an opportunity to ask: what sort of fashionable future do we want? Fashion knows no boundaries – we like what we like, wherever it comes from. An item of clothing shown on a runway in Shanghai or Lagos can be viewed as quickly as those from Paris or New York. Similarly, knowledge knows no boundaries- ideas and thoughts are free to travel, they can’t be tied down to national boundaries, they will always break through. But in a situation where we are being required to think about boundaries, the opportunity to redefine them for a subject such as fashion, based in a city and an institution where the exchange of ideas around the world is at its core, has to be seen as an opportunity.
 
"I think we have to see Brexit as an opportunity to ask: what sort of fashionable future do we want? Fashion knows no boundaries – we like what we like, wherever it comes from"

What are the other major challenges facing the fashion education system in the UK?
One of the challenges at the moment is the reduction in the number of young people studying GCSE creative subjects and that is having a big effect on reducing the pipeline of students coming through. That’s one of our big worries, that changes in the school curriculum have affected the number of young people willing to study creative subjects.

You pioneered the adoption of sustainable and ethical practice in the fashion education curriculum. Why is this so important?
In 2018, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion is celebrating its 10 year anniversary! When I started this work it was clear that climate change was going to become a major issue. The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter, second only to oil, and has major negative effects on the environment through water consumption, disposal of dye material and pesticide usage, not to mention the huge amount of clothing going into landfill. Many people hadn’t acknowledged the significance of these issues and fashion needed to change. So, I set up the Centre in response to this.

Graham Cutler and Tony Gross set out to design a product that was classic, stylish, personal, well-crafted and desirable. What are the top five things that you look out for in your students’ work?
Creativity, unique vision, strong aesthetic, link to contemporary culture, well-made.

Which recent graduates should we have an eye on?
Bethany Williams, because she has a great emphasis on sustainability and could follow in the footsteps of people like J.W. Anderson and Sophia Webster.

Do you feel you have achieved what you set out to do?
Do any of us? I’m not really sure I set out to do anything in particular and even if I did, life often has a way of making a mockery of the ‘best laid plans’.



What are you most proud of?
My family, my integrity and the college.

What has been your biggest disappointment or challenge in life so far?
This is not really the way I view things. Some of the most challenging situations have also been the most rewarding in terms of the things I have learnt. Once I have made a decision, I tend to move on. There’s no point in being regretful.
 
"Some of the most challenging situations have also been the most rewarding in terms of the things I have learnt. Once I have made a decision, I tend to move on. There’s no point in being regretful."

Who do you admire in life and why?
Yohji, because he’s an artist who happens to express himself through clothes.

What, who or where makes you happiest?
Chilling out with my family – anywhere.

What keeps you up at night?
Nothing! I’m knackered!

What lessons has life taught you?
Get a good EA! That you have to give everything 100% but in the end its not life or death, the most important things are your personal relationships.

"You have to give everything 100% but in the end its not life or death, the most important things are your personal relationships."


How would you like to be remembered?
I’ll leave that to other people to decide.

And finally, as a close friend of the brand, tell us about your relationship with Cutler and Gross. When did you discover the brand and what was the first pair you bought?
I got to know the brand through the exhibition that we had at the college on glasses, where I met Marie Wilkinson and she just inspired me through the glasses she wears to go and look at Cutler and Gross – I’ve been hooked ever since.

What do you love most about Cutler and Gross?
The quality, the forward-thinking and playful nature of the designs. Cutler and Gross glasses are always unique and instantly recognisable.

Shades indoors? Yes or no!
No – not unless I have lost my glasses!