- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

LONDON (AP) - A shabby community sports hall doesn’t seem like the place for London’s fashion elite to gather for a show by a bunch of 22-year-olds.

But these aren’t just any kids _ and the host isn’t your basic local college.

It’s the slick and professional annual presentation for bachelor’s degree students at Central Saint Martins, one of the world’s best fashion schools.

Few fashion schools can claim the network of support that Saint Martins enjoys. It was the launch pad of Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton, John Galliano, Christopher Kane and Stella McCartney, and it’s those connections that help nurture future stars.

While the 40 designers dressing models backstage last month in their final-project collections are unknown students, there’s an impressive lineup off the catwalk eager to cheer them on.

Kane, Britain’s hottest young designer, is on the judging panel. Seated among the audience of proud parents and school friends is Burton, creative director of the house of McQueen and designer of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. They’re joined by executives from fashion giants Lanvin and H&M, not to mention the best of the industry press.

As the seats fill up there’s a buzz of excitement and anticipation, but the pressure seems to energize, not faze, the students.

“I always feel confident about my clothes,” said Nicholas Aburn, 22, moments before the show. Aburn, who came to London from outside Baltimore, won the first runner-up prize later in the night with his sharply tailored, 80’s-inspired feminine styles.

Although it’s best known as a fashion school (originally called just Saint Martins and founded in 1854) the London college has been home to a range of courses, including drama and music, since it merged with the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1989.

The school has an impressive list of alumni: actor Colin Firth, painter Lucian Freud, film director Mike Leigh and Sex Pistols bass player Glen Matlock to name a few.

The famous names not only burnish the college’s reputation but are key to its continued success.

In fashion, more than the other streams, Saint Martins graduates are everywhere at the highest level of the industry, including numerous others who work behind the scenes for some of the world’s most storied ateliers: Christian Dior, Chloe and Marc Jacobs among them.

The school’s prestigious alumni can offer to fresh graduates what few others can _ a paycheck once they complete their studies for one. The opportunities are a powerful magnet for the brightest, most ambitious young designers around the world.

That, in turn, attracts sponsorship for shows and student projects that feed the school’s reputation. This year’s undergraduate fashion show, for example, looked so glossy partly because it received sponsorship from beauty megabrand L’Oreal.

In an industry where you can live off your looks and connections for quite a while, that gives Saint Martins an extra edge.

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