Inside Condé Nast's Expanding Education Business

With enrollment in its London course nearing capacity and classes beginning in Shanghai this fall, Condé Nast is laying the groundwork for an international network of fashion schools.
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With enrollment in its London course nearing capacity and classes beginning in Shanghai this fall, Condé Nast is laying the groundwork for an international network of fashion schools.
A rendering of the Condé Nast Center in Shanghai. Photo: Condé Nast

A rendering of the Condé Nast Center in Shanghai. Photo: Condé Nast

Once upon a time, Condé Nast International was a publisher: the international arm of New York's Condé Nast, responsible for producing the rest of the world's Vogues, alongside dozens of other titles. All of the above is still true – but it’s no longer the full story.

The company’s non-publishing ventures – money-spinners that capitalize on its association with glamour, style and retail – are numerous. There are the restaurants, which started with Vogue Café Moscow in 2003, and now globally include three more cafés, a slick GQ Bar and a Tatler Club, with more openings imminent. There's Vogue Fashion's Night Out, which now takes place in 23 cities around the world, from Sydney to St. Petersburg. There's an annual business event, the CNI Luxury Conference. And there's the pending relaunch of Style.com, which, from early next year, will be an e-commerce business, using all those magazine titles to endorse products for sale.

But perhaps most intriguingly of all, CNI is now firmly in the business of education. The Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design opened in London in 2013, offering the year-long Vogue Fashion Foundation Diploma and a 10-week Vogue Fashion Certificate to a student body of mostly high school and university graduates. Since then, it's expanded to offer short courses in styling and journalism, and Miss Vogue weekend courses for 16- to 18-year-olds.

The opening of the London college was treated with a mixture of interest and skepticism from the industry. The location is a chic, high-tech building in Soho: it looks more like a luxury brand's HQ than the kind of shabby premises in which British fashion students have traditionally worked. The fees are high – this year the Diploma will cost £24,540, which is around $38,000 – partly because the college receives no public funding. But though it may be a college for the wealthy, there's no questioning the fact that the money has allowed CNI to provide high-end facilities, and even better networking opportunities, with a long roster of famous visitors including Alexandra Shulman, Victoria Beckham and Tommy Hilfiger.

Last year, 152 out of 180 places in the Diploma program were filled, but not, says a spokesperson, because of lack of applicants — there were six applicants per place — but because the school wanted quality candidates they could confidently recommend for jobs at the end of the course.

Two years into the college's life, those students appear to be flourishing. Graduates and students have landed jobs and internships at companies including Net-a-Porter, Asos, Hermès and Céline. "They're going into the luxury brands, the media, production, trend forecasting and model agencies – a kind of scattering across the industry," says Principal Susie Forbes. Many others have used the college as a springboard to help them decide what to study next.

CNI is clearly happy with how it's going. Earlier this year, the company announced that a new operation would open in Shanghai: the Condé Nast Center of Fashion & Design. The new institution, where classes are starting in November, is likely to take a slightly older demographic: some students will be recent university graduates, but others may be in their 30s or 40s. "Here, [studying] is really for one main purpose: to get a better job, and get a better life," explains Executive Director Dominique Simard.

Simard has been working on the creation of the center for almost two years. "Part of it was talking to the industry and to potential students," he says. "What are they looking for? What is blocking them from getting the jobs they want? There are graduates and young professionals who are saying it's hard to get a job, and on the other side you've got the industry telling you, 'We’ve got to find people.' There's a gap in the middle, and part of our mission is to try and fill it."

Rendering of a classroom at the Condé Nast Center in Shanghai. Photo: Condé Nast

Rendering of a classroom at the Condé Nast Center in Shanghai. Photo: Condé Nast

The center will comprise two departments: Business and Communication, and Design. The latter is notably missing from the syllabus at the London college, but then it's tough to compete with the UK's existing design schools. In Shanghai, the market is not yet saturated: "There's such a huge demand and interest," says Simard. "And we feel it's a good time to be supporting design in China." He hopes to get local people into the industry's most exciting roles, rather than seeing them filled by workers from other countries. "We're teaching visual merchandising, for example, because most of the leading visual merchandisers are coming from outside – they are still flying people into China from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan to do the work."

The center sits at the end of one of Shanghai's most upmarket retail streets, alongside Lane Crawford, Hermès, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Cartier and Prada. The building includes a huge atrium, which Simard plans to lend out to magazines for their events, in exchange for their help in introducing potential students to the center. He already has the support of Chinese Vogue, GQ and Self: "We are able to use them to promote ourselves, and they're proposing potential tutors and guest speakers. Angelica [Cheung, editor-in-chief of Vogue China] is building up a small team of industry advisors."

The London College counters criticisms of its fees by offering three scholarships a year – and in Shanghai, this charitable element will be even more important. "In all of our classes, two students will be studying for free," says Simard. "And we’re keen to have companies paying for students. In China, luxury fashion brands don't really fit with the socialist system. So for a high-end brand to be involved with helping the local design industry – it's extremely positive." He aims to find relevant business partners to sponsor students in different subjects, from sportswear to lingerie.

One of the most high-profile partners is Swarovski, which is sponsoring the six-month, weekend-based 'Crystal Course.' "Swarovski will create the crystal elements that the students want, for free," says Simard. "We're also discussing something similar with Elite Models, to help young designers to do photo shoots of their collections. We're really trying to make our courses more hands-on than traditional education, especially in China where university is super formal – you listen to somebody for four years, and you have nothing to do and nothing to say."

As in London, CNI is bringing some of its magic to the learning experience: the starry guest speakers, the high-spec facilities and the reflected glamour of a media giant. One major advantage for students could eventually be the opportunity to travel. "These are all graduates who are going into what is now an unavoidably global fashion industry," points out Forbes, and Simard agrees. "The ideal would be to create joint courses where you've got a chance to spend time in both London and Shanghai," he says. "Definitely, it has to be done."

In years to come, CNI will likely open colleges in other locations. "Singapore could be an amazing space, and in some ways South Korea is extremely attractive too, but other leading fashion capitals would also be great – Paris, Milan, New York," suggests Simard. If these big ideas pan out for the company, who knows what it could become? In 20 years, Condé Nast might be known as much for its glossy colleges as it is for its glossy magazines.