The UK’s imminent exit from the European Union has created uncertainty for the future of fashion talent, while the industry looks for the “superhuman employees of the future”.
As the spiralling cost of studying and living puts pressure on the next generation of young talent, the skills gap facing the fashion industry risks becoming a gulf. Tomorrow’s product designers, merchandisers, manufacturing wizards and data crunchers are more in demand than ever before as retailers compete to fill roles.
An army of employees will be needed to plug the holes developing in the retail workforce by 2020, research published by the Fashion Retail Academy (FRA) last autumn indicates. It predicts a further 16,000 to 19,000 recruits will be needed in supply chain management, up to 14,000 in analytics and up to 8,000 in both merchandising and buying.
There is great concern about students from the EU and how much they might end up having to pay
Martyn Roberts, managing director of Graduate Fashion Week
And the problems could be about to get worse. Last month, prime minister Theresa May triggered article 50, officially starting the clock on the two-year countdown to the UK leaving the European Union. The UK’s fashion industry relies upon attracting creative people from around the globe, but the right to live, study or work here remains shrouded in uncertainty.
“There is great concern about students from the EU and how much they might end up having to pay,” Martyn Roberts, managing director of Graduate Fashion Week (GFW), tells Drapers. “The level of uncertainty is also a problem. Students are reluctant to commit to a three-year degree when they’re not certain what will happen at the end of those three years.”
Sarah Gresty, course leader of BA Fashion at Central Saint Martins UAL, shares his concerns: “We think of ourselves as an international community and we don’t know what the impact will be on our future French, Italian and Spanish students,” she explains. “It could change the dynamic of the cohort enormously.”
Even without the potential impact of Brexit on the UK’s ability to attract international employees, concerns have been raised about the challenges facing home-grown talent. In February, shadow culture, media and sport secretary Tom Watson warned that the fashion industry risks being hit by a fall in the number of talented British newcomers, as thousands fewer students study art and design at GCSE level or equivalent.
We rely on donors to offer scholarships to encourage different people from across the country to study here
Sarah Gresty, course leader of BA Fashion at Central Saint Martins
The same month, Sarah Mower, the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent, described rising rent, fees and living expenses as a “drain” on fashion’s creative gene pool during her speech at the opening of London Fashion Week.
“Living in London is incredibly expensive, so we rely on the generosity of donors to offer scholarships to encourage different people from across the country to study here,” says Gresty.
“As well as the cost of living in London, students have added expenses buying materials, sewing machines and computers. Things do add up, so we try to find ways to make it cheaper and the industry is very supportive – we have fabric donations, zips, yarns and buttons,” she adds. “Many students have jobs as well, so they might be doing a shift at a bar or club and be at college first thing the next day.”
The skills needed across the fashion industry are also changing, as retailers adapt to the shifting market and prepare for a digital future. Fashion Retail Academy principal Lee Lucas argues retailers are now looking for the “superhuman employees of the future”.
“Fashion schools have to evolve their curriculums as fast as, if not faster than, the industry is changing,” he says. “Retailers are looking for employees who can take a broader view across an entire business and are skilled in all the trends impacting retail, whether that’s interpersonal skills or analytical skills.”
But despite the challenges, it is also clear that retailers, universities and industry bodies are making a concerted effort to support young fashion talent. All of the universities Drapers spoke to stressed their strong connections to industry, including placement years, collaborations with retailers and employment seminars.
We needed to get more involved with the raw design talent within in the UK
Anna Clarke, Sainsbury’s head of womenswear
One retailer supporting new fashion talent is Sainsbury’s Tu. The supermarket has sponsored and worked with Graduate Fashion Week, and gave Northumbria University graduate Genevieve Devine a 12-month placement at its clothing arm. Devine has also designed a nine-piece collection for Tu, which went on sale at the end of last month and is available in 140 stores, as well as online. Sainsbury’s has been vocal about its desire to dial up its fashion credentials and the collection combines oversized shapes with feminine details and embroidery, retailing from £25 for cropped blouse to £45 for a boiler suit.
“Being responsive and reactive is becoming more and more important as we change some of the perceptions around supermarket fashion and move ourselves towards the high street,” Sainsbury’s head of womenswear Anna Clarke tells Drapers. “We realised that we had to be in it to win it, and that we needed to get more involved with the raw design talent within in the UK.”
She adds: “Genevieve stood out because of her unique styling and almost elfin design handwriting. She joined and was an assistant designer on the womenswear team since day one, where she’s worked on her collection and also had the chance to travel to Delhi to work with suppliers. We’re looking for gradates with real drive and raw talent, who also have that commercial eye and keep up with the pace of supermarket fashion.”
For the British fashion retail industry to secure its leadership in a global marketplace, more retailers will have to reach out and nurture the talent of the future.
The tutors’ view
Alison Welsh Head of department, Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University
“Increasingly, we’re seeing courses such as fashion promotion or fashion business management attracting large numbers of students. There’s been a definite shift, which is great because as much as fashion is great at design, what we want is a breadth of students going out in the industry with relevant skills that they can then apply. When it comes to Brexit, I think we will carry on as normal. Fashion is a global business that has always worked together and I don’t think for one minute that will stop.”
Mal Burkinshaw Fashion programme director, Edinburgh College of Art
“Rising costs are having an impact every year on what students can afford to do, but in turn that’s making them far more resourceful and imaginative. It feeds the industry, because students leave with the skills to use lower-cost materials. More and more, retailers are looking at students to see what they could bring in the future, even if they aren’t an exact fit straight away.”
Lawrence Zeegen Dean of design, Ravensbourne, London
“Our anxieties about Brexit are those that have been reflected across the capital, the country and creative education. Whether we have a hard or soft Brexit, and whatever that might mean, we will maintain strong links with European partners and international companies. It’s hugely important to have a mix of ideas, identities and cultures.”