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The college, meanwhile, was founded by the Guild of Cordwainers at the end of the 19th century as the Leather Trades School, before being incorporated as Cordwainers Technical College in 1913. It merged with the LCF in 2000, a move that previous students said eased access to libraries and facilities and strengthened its quality of instruction.
The school’s access to interdisciplinary resources also contributes to its vibrancy and longevity, experts said.
“It’s very difficult to compete with a school that is more than 100 years old,” said Ellen Goldstein, professor of accessories design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“We have an exchange program with Cordwainers, so we recommend students go there over the summer to combine elements in their program with ours,” she said.
Cordwainers is one of the very few schools in the world to award degrees specific to shoe design. Aspiring designers of various experience levels can choose between a two-year foundation degree program in footwear design, a three-year Bachelor of Arts program in footwear or a 15-month master’s program in fashion footwear.
Other schools offering similar training include De Montfort University in Leicester, north of London, which offers a bachelor’s degree in footwear design.
Polimoda in Florence, Italy, also has an undergraduate degree program for footwear and accessories design, and the curriculum at Ars Sutoria in Milan features technical courses ranging in duration from a week to 10 weeks.
FIT awards degrees for accessories design, either an Associate in Applied Science or a Bachelor of Fine Arts. In addition to shoes, students must also study hats, belts and bags.
Paul McNicoll, dean of the School of Design and Technology at LCF, said Cordwainers receives more than 200 applications for just 45 places per year, and the admissions board looks for passion in candidates.
“Footwear and accessories are really quite unique areas. If someone is already interested enough to apply for the specialized course, we want to tease out where this excitement and ambition is coming from and going to,” he said, adding that 11 students — or nearly a third of the full cohort — graduated with first-class honors from the bachelor’s program this year.
But beyond simply helping designers hone their talents, Cordwainers offers something more: Alumni said connections made during their time at the school were invaluable.
“It’s a nice vibe because people are all very happy to share insight about the industry, which is quite small. It’s a chance to grow your network in a friendly setting,” said Lee, who has returned to teach some courses. “Ninety percent of the peers I’m in touch with still work in the industry.”
Cordwainers At a Glance
Tuition: 3,375 pounds, or $5,454, per year for a U.K. or European Union student; 12,700 pounds, or $20,527, per year for an international student
Admissions rate: About 1 out of 5
Average class size: Roughly 45
International student ratio: About 1 out of 3
Paul McNicoll, dean of the School of Design and Technology at LCF, listed five names to watch from Cordwainers’ 2011 graduating class of bachelor’s degrees in footwear.
Molly Pryke won the Cordwainers Cup for excellence and has interned at Alexander McQueen. “[She is] a very strong all-rounder.”
Min Song was one of the winners of the Jimmy Choo scholarships. Her designs pair materials in unusual combinations.
Sandra McClean is an Irish designer who is inspired by modern architecture and the sci-fi genre. “[She's] a very interesting designer to watch out for.”
Samuel Shepherd has worked for Kurt Geiger and Jonathan Kelsey and “is a perfectionist in every area he works on.”
Virginia Williams previously worked for Michael Lewis, Tom Ford, Versace and Jaeger, and is aiming to create an accessible luxury range.