Christian Dior, of course, had no formal college training at all. It may seem ironic at a time when many of our colleges are over-producing 'designers' with huge prodigality, but some of our most successful fashion figures did not: Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Gianni Versace: this list is random but it is not exactly a roll call of duffers. All were basically self-taught or learned on the job, either in their own fledgling company or by working for someone else. Many of them could neither draw nor cut.
What they all had was a vision and a belief in themselves - and a conviction that the two things could be brought together by determination, hard work and self discipline. You could say that these qualities are standard in anyone who makes it in business, including the creative. But what I find most interesting is that they, and other truly great designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, had a philosophy and a cultural knowledge that informed every thing they did and was so strong that their fashion statements – to use a very silly modern expression - have always been unlike any other. And, with the exception of Dior, who changed his shapes and proportions every season without radically altering his aesthetic, they were and still are steadfastly consistent. They didn't have a muse: they had a period, a civilisation to inspire them not only through visual stimuli but also through literature, music and history. They were aware of the past even if it didn't appear overtly in the work of their own present. In other words,they had – and have – a developed point of view that informs all their work whether skirts are high or low, colours bright or dark. So, you can always tell which garments they created and which ones they didn't, something that high street economics has almost removed for less-grounded, younger designers as part of the increasingly desperate need for something totally new each season to stimulate buying.
As Balenciaga said of his customers, a woman who can wear any and all designers knows nothing about fashion, or herself, at all. It is the same for designers. If they produce any or all styles they have no personal style at all.
And perhaps it doesn't matter. Maybe the past is irrelevant at a time when money is made by variety: opera singers giving us pop very badly or vice versa, or footballers dancing even more badly on television (no dancers playing football … yet). All of which is why, although I have a high regard for many fashion colleges, I just occasionally wonder if they have the right people teaching the right things or whether those things are so instinctive that they are beyond teaching. Certainly, I find it as hard to imagine any teacher telling Chanel how to design as I do Balenciaga in Big Brother.