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How I #Made It: Frances Corner OBE
28 Nov 2016 7:07 AM
Some people are so high-functioning you can only assume they have a magic watch. Frances Corner is one of those people; she is the Head of London College of Fashion, UAL, an author currently writing her second book, an avid campaigner for sustainability in fashion, a mother, and an advisory member of the British Fashion Council. “I suppose sometimes it is like spinning plates,” says Frances modestly. “I just have to be organised.”
Frances’ primary passion lies in education, and she has more than 20 years of experience shaping creative higher education courses and institutions. She has been running LCF since 2005, placing a strong focus on developing its research department and steering the college’s forthcoming relocation from central London to east London’s Stratford.
The role is to oversee the vision for the school and its students, but Frances’ fashion standing helps; she recently did a TED talk on fashion and tech, has been named in the Business of Fashion 500, and in 2009 was awarded an OBE for services to the industry. Her book, Why Fashion Matters, dispels the tired idea that fashion is frivolous while offering industry insight and explaining the theory behind fashion as self-expression.
To find out more about Frances’ take on why fashion matters, as well as how to balance personal projects with a high-pressure senior role, we popped by Frances’ office at LCF. There, she told us what higher education means to her, as well as to her students. Were you interested in fashion and education as an adolescent or a student? Did you see yourself ending up in the role you’re in today? I wasn’t so much interested in fashion, but style. Truthfully, I had no idea I’d end up in fashion; I was more interested in the arts. I studied history, economics and art for A level. It’s interesting how I use aspects of all of those subjects now but I didn’t think about that at the time. The idea was that I’d go to Oxford and read history. But I did a visit to an art school with my college and thought, ‘That’s it’. So I decided to do an art foundation at Central Saint Martins, then stayed on there for my undergraduate. Then I went on and did an MA at Chelsea in printmaking.
It was between my BA and MA that I first did some part-time teaching, working on illustration, graphics and printmaking courses. I enjoyed that. Around the same time, I met my husband, spent a lot of time with his family in Elephant and Castle and began to see what creative education can give to people who might not have thought about higher education. I taught more in institutions part-time and things changed. I carried on teaching.
I thought I’d never get a full-time job but then, after having my son, I worked on a foundation course at Gloucester University and got offered the job of running the course. It turned out to be something I was good at: organising things, and listening to people to help the course develop. And I think that’s when I realised I could do this. It was a mixture of chance, intuition and following what I was interested in that led me to where I am today.
You then went back to studying alongside a full-time job, and while raising a family. Was that a lot to take on? Yes! As more senior roles became available, I stopped making art altogether and instead decided to do a doctorate at Oxford University, part-time. I chose to look at changes in higher education and their impact on a subject discipline. It was definitely hard work – it took seven years of my life. Weekends. Holidays. Without the support of my husband, there’s no way I could have done it. I think it was Sheryl Sandberg that said, the most important career decision a person can make is the person they marry and that’s been totally true for me – my husband has always been very supportive of what I’ve done, and encouraging, and I’ve learnt a lot from him about how to take things head on and deal with them when they’re not going OK. What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career so far? Halfway through my doctorate I moved to London Guildhall, which became London Metropolitan University, where I was running the John Cass Department of Art. That was probably the hardest job I’ve ever done because, six weeks after I got there, the university merged with the University of North London, which meant a massive restructuring. I learnt a lot about how not to do things from some of the things going on around me. I learnt what was valuable in a time of big change: staff motivation, keeping people on side, how you hold onto the things you believe in when an institution is changing around you.
You’ve been running London College of Fashion for 11 years. Why did you take the job? What does it entail? And what does a normal day look like? As part of my doctorate I became very interested in how higher education connected to local communities and industries – as well as what it offered as subject discipline, when the job at LCF came up it was the perfect example of subject matter, to look at how it engages with those things. I’ve always been interested in clothes and style obviously, but I think what I have brought was not ‘I’m a Chanel expert’, but a passion for creative education and using education to help transform people’s lives, and how we can develop disciplines to support industries. I don’t know how to hem a garment and I don’t need to but I know the framework you need to set up a course – so I make sure we are staffed properly, that research is there, that we are budgeting properly. I might say ‘We need to address sustainability research as a college’. I also ensure we have a big commitment to working with communities – our Making For Change Centre, for example, works with prisons.
There definitely isn’t a typical day-to-day. It’s more: What does a week involve? I start early at 8.30 each day with meetings and finish at 6 with meetings and then often some sort of dinner or private view function, so finish about 8 o’clock. I do that for three days and then on Thursdays finish a bit earlier and come back to where I live, Burford in Oxfordshire. Then, Fridays it’s phone calls, catching up, writing notes, that sort of thing. In London I can’t reflect – I’m in work mode – so it’s nice to be in a different place on Fridays, the sky is different, I can do a bit of exercise, chill out, that’s very important.
You’re on the British Fashion Council’s Advisory Board, are a Trustee of the Wallace Collection, a member of the International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institutes and Chair of Trustees at the House of Illustration. That sounds like a lot of work! Can you explain what it involves? And how it benefits you in your day job? I think important in your career is to always be connected to external organisations. I was chair of something called Council for Higher Education in Art and Design when I was at London Met (although I stopped when I moved to London College of Fashion and didn’t pick it up for a couple of years until I got to grips with the new job). CHEAD was important because I was networking and meeting people in similar positions. And never be afraid to ask people! I’m curious about how people do things, how they organise things, what their opinion is. That feeds you and you can bring it back to your work.
External perspectives are really important. Now I’m chair of the Fashion Technology Institute and a trustee at the Wallace Collection, too, and the chair of the House of Illustration. It’s not doing a job for somebody if you’re a chair, you’re JUST there to ensure probity, governance and financial stability. It’s going along to meetings and giving your input. You’re there to bring your expertise, challenge executives, look at strategic plan, finances, risk assessment. It’s very closely allied to what I do as a day job. And you’re hearing what other people’s perspectives and concerns are. It’s fascinating, you’re meeting people you wouldn’t normally meet. And that’s good. It's about influence for my own institution too, people get to hear about what we’re doing. It’s an important part of my role.
Once you’re at the top of the ladder, how do you keep yourself learning and progressing? Well, I wrote my book because I was fed up of people thinking that fashion’s not serious. And at the moment I’m writing one about what fashion’s future is. Next week I’m going to New York to the UN, they work with the Trust Fund with women. I’m a feminist and it’s really important to me to engage with things like Fashion Says No To Violence Against Women – a project we had for students from around the world. I can’t get very involved but it’s still creative to work on exhibitions that make the college distinctive, but also deal with serious issues. That feeds me and keeps me challenged. At the moment I’m trying to get to grips with Instagram and Office 365 – the banes of my life. And I make sure I’m always reading!
And finally, as someone who spins a lot of plates, do you ever freak out? And if you do, what’s your advice for anyone feeling overwhelmed at work? Sometimes I’m a headless chicken! But people say ‘I don’t know how you do what you’re doing’ and actually, if I had 250 essays to mark, a new lecture to prepare and emails from students, that would be a front line demand! I’m more privileged in that I have more help planning my time. It’s also been years building up to this particular point. I haven’t just been dropped in here. I work really hard and I try to make the best decisions I ever can but I don’t have regrets – I learn from my mistakes and move on. To be in a senior position, if you worried about every decision you made you’d be paralysed. I feel I’m accountable to every student and member of staff. But if I make a mistake I have to say ‘Sorry about that but let’s move on’.
My advice is: if you’re there morning, noon and night you’re in people’s way. I’m good at delegating and tracking. You can’t do other people’s jobs, you have to give them space to do it. Everything’s a calculated risk and you have to let people do things, because you’re not paid to do your job and their job. Whatever level you are. My diary is hellish really, I know that. But I work really hard. You can waste an awful lot of time. So I’m careful! You have to make a decision all the time, a decision about whether you want to put yourself under pressure. And it’s not for everyone, but I enjoy it.