June 25, 2024

Apparel Creations Workshop

Crafting Fashion Trends

Nifty shades of grey: the fashion college where students inject the colour | Architecture

7 min read

It must be the ironing board with the best view in the capital. On the top floor of the new London College of Fashion, in a prime corner of the kind usually reserved for a boardroom, a student is busy pressing their garments in front of a rolling panorama of the Olympic Park and the towers of the City beyond. Behind the vertiginous ironing station, past serried ranks of sewing machines, a great void plummets down through the building, slicing past floors of pattern cutters and jewellers, shoemakers and prosthetics sculptors, as dizzying staircases crisscross back and forth, connecting this multistorey world of making.

“A mill building for the 21st century,” is how its architects, Allies & Morrison, describe the £216m new home for LCF, a 16-floor factory of fashion standing on the banks of the Waterworks River in Stratford, across from the London Stadium. It is an apt location for such a hive of production. Before the steamroller of Olympic regeneration arrived here, these riverbanks were home to belt-makers and sheepskin tailors, rag-traders and wig suppliers, housed in an assortment of sheds alongside car-breaking yards and aggregate crushers.

“We wanted to celebrate the area’s history as a place of industry,” says architect Bob Allies, explaining how his team took inspiration from the Yardley soap factory, a 1905 brick mill building that once stood on Carpenters Road nearby. “The college is not just about glamorous people in flowy dresses. It’s one of the few places where serious craft survives.”

Inspired by a soap factory … the exterior, designed by Allies & Morrison. Photograph: Simon Menges

Glamour isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you first see the building from the park. As the biggest block in the East Bank cultural quarter, it towers between the folded origami shell of the V&A East and the boxy forms of the BBC music studios and Sadler’s Wells East – which are all due to open next year. It looks a bit like a dour office block in comparison with the V&A’s dashing facets, which were apparently inspired by a Balenciaga dress. No such voguish allusions for LCF. “It had to be tough,” says Allies.

The sense of a corporate headquarters softens as you approach and notice details such as the finely scalloped concrete cladding recalling ribbons of needlecord, and the zigzag sawtooth roofline, a factory-esque symbol – as at the RCA’s new home in Battersea – that this is a place of making. A heroic 15-metre-high colonnade of hefty concrete columns marches along the front, hoisting the building up to preserve views of the V&A, while a steep cascade of terraced seating spills down to the towpath, creating an inviting place to sit on sunny days. In summer, the college plans to hold its catwalk shows beneath the colonnade – a spectacle that should help to bring some of the hoped-for bustle of the South Bank to these manicured riverbanks. Still, there remains something awkward about how this row of venues is joined together, like a cut-and-shut car, with a plethora of wind mitigation screens bolted between some of the buildings in a clumsy afterthought.

Step inside LCF and you forget most of these qualms. A great swoosh of concrete spirals down from the floor above, curling in a tight corkscrew as it plunges below ground, and billowing up in oval arcs that loop overhead like curling orange peel, forming one of the most dramatic new lobbies in London.

Echoes of Hogwarts … the Borromini-inspired staircase. Photograph: Simon Menges

“We had a lot of Borromini on our desks when we designed the stairs,” says project architect Bruno Marcelino, referring to the master of Italian baroque whose sublime interiors swelled with gravitational force. Here, the architects have created a kind of brutalist baroque, the structural elements stripped back to celebrate their tectonic heft. The curves are a product of structural necessity too: the taut arcs of the ceiling beams, for example, are the result of the way that internal steel bars had to be post-tensioned. It is a theatrical, multilayered space which you can imagine students using for their shows, outrageous outfits cascading down this three-dimensional catwalk. And probably not just at showtime.

“The students are visually very exciting,” says Marcelino. “So we didn’t want our architecture to compete too much.” A simple palette of exposed concrete, black steel and blond maple runs throughout the building, forming a neutral backdrop to the colourful inhabitants. The architects have refrained from applying too many fashion motifs: a textile pattern that was going to be cast into the concrete columns in an earlier design hasn’t materialised. But there are some subtle nods, such as window shutters perforated with a stitch pattern, and grillwork that recalls the geometric facade of LCF’s former campus off Oxford Street.

Founded in 1906, as the union of three trade schools, the college had been spread across six sites around the city, none of them purpose built. “It’s wonderful for all the departments to be together for the first time,” says head of college Professor Andrew Teverson. “We’re excited to see what synergies emerge. Our previous homes were all hidden away, but here we have a real public face.”

‘Full of thoughtful details’ … interior view. Photograph: Simon Menges

Unusually, the lower floors of the building are entirely open to the public to wander in. You can use the cafe, visit an exhibition in the waterfront gallery (currently showing postgraduate work), and even walk up the spiral stairs to observe whatever workshops might be taking place in the “maker square”. Vitrines showcasing student work line a public route at the base of the building, connecting a (forthcoming) bus stop to the river, and making it feel like a porous part of this emerging piece of city, rather than a gated campus.

Upstairs, teaching rooms wrap the “heart” space of stairs and open-plan work areas, with big internal windows allowing views of trainee cordwainers, milliners and makeup artists learning their trades. The rooms form long enfilades of studios and workshops, which can be connected and adapted as teaching needs evolve, and they are full of thoughtful details. Noticing how students used the windowsills of LCF’s Shepherd’s Bush campus as work areas, the architects designed the studio windows with deep tapered reveals and window seats that can double up as work benches. Several floors open on to outdoor terraces, where stairs allow you to walk between floors outdoors at the upper levels, adding to the feeling of a sociable courtyard campus that’s been flipped on its side – a rare quality to achieve in a 16-storey tower.

The students seem thrilled, commenting on how the open spaces are “refreshing and enjoyable to work in”, while another says the sense of departmental mixing “feels very special for collabs”. Waiting for the lifts is a pain, adds another, despite there being eight of them. All the more reason to take what have become known as the “Harry Potter stairs”, and enjoy the vertical promenade past body casting and cosmetics testing, hairdressing and fabric dyeing.

Heroic … the colonnade, which will also function as a catwalk. Photograph: Simon Menges

Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, after fossil fuels, and all the exposed concrete here makes you wonder about the building’s own carbon footprint (despite it achieving BREEAM Outstanding, the highest sustainability rating). The architects insist that timber would not have been feasible on this scale, and that additional carbon has been saved by leaving the surfaces exposed, avoiding the usual plasterboard linings. Allies says that, were they designing the project now, they would explore other options for the concrete cladding. Longevity, as ever, is given as the chief justification. “We’ve been around for 117 years,” says Teverson, “and we want to be here for another 117 at least.” As Marcelino puts it, the building is “a durable bookcase, where you can keep changing the books”.

Just like the incorporation of Central Saint Martins art college in the private real estate citadel of Kings Cross, as a catalyst of instant cool, it was a smart move to bring this buzzing fashion factory here, and will hopefully inject some subversive life into what could have felt like an overly sanitised area. It’s good for the college, too. Teverson says they are already plotting a new conservation course using their new state-of-the-art archive space in collaboration with the forthcoming V&A East Storehouse across the park, where the museum’s collection will be housed in an open-access archive.

With University College London’s new block to the south and Loughborough University’s base to the west, the somewhat disjointed vision for “Olympicopolis”, 12 years on from the Games, is gradually beginning to materialise. What makes it possible will become visible in the next few years, as four towers of mostly private flats rise on the end of East Bank’s £628m terrace of culture to help pay for it all. Such is the Faustian pact of Olympic regeneration.

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