As the lights dim in the atrium of the Fashion Retail Academy, Sir Philip Green takes the stage, illuminated by a spotlight. The chattering teenagers in the audience are silenced, as the class of 2007 prepares to pass out.
This is the first graduation ceremony at the Fashion Retail Academy, held last Wednesday at the organisation's gleaming six-storey headquarters at Gresse Street in London's West End. A total of 130 students completed the Diploma in Fashion Retail course this year, with 13 achieving a distinction. A good number are likely to head straight through the revolving door into a job at the head office of a high street fashion retailer.
The Fashion Retail Academy is a joint initiative between the government and private sector, with a 50:50 investment split. It was opened by Tony Blair in October 2006 and aims to furnish students with the skills needed to break into fashion retail.
Green reportedly put up £5 million of the £20m cost and another £5m was provided collectively by Marks & Spencer chief executive Stuart Rose, Next boss Simon Wolfson and GUS chief executive John Peace, with the Department for Education & Skills and the Learning & Skills Council making up the rest.
With the support of five major retailers - Arcadia Group, M&S, Next, Tesco and Home Retail Group - students have access to a wide range of facilities and industry mentoring.
As a result, a number of this year's Academy graduates have already been snapped up by the retail sector, filling what would appear to be a dearth of candidates who can bridge the gap between shop floor and head office.
Last year's pilot course was run by the London College of Fashion, and this year the academy held its first standalone examinations.
Fashion Retail Academy head Karen Dennison is confident about the initiative's success for the future. "My gut feeling is that these results will set the standards for the other skills academies around the country. In three to five years' time, we will have built up data to measure ourselves against," she says.
One of the academy's most successful students this year was Liam Price, winner of the Arcadia Award, which celebrates the most outstanding all-round student. Price already has a job lined up at John Lewis as a merchandising assistant, starting in a few weeks. Green acknowledges that Price has been "committed, handing his work in on time and performing well in all subject areas", adding that he has "the skills that an employer needs".
However, perhaps the most impromptu hiring is that of one particular female student, whom Green recruited at a student conference earlier this month. When he asked for feedback on the course, she stood up and boldly stated her opinions. When asked why he should hire her, she replied bullishly: "Because I'm wicked - I'm great." For being confident and honest, Green snapped her up on the spot.
The uncompromising attitude of Green, who engineered the Academy from the beginning, is reflected in the ethos of the school. Retail is, after all, a trade and some argue it cannot be taught in a classroom.
"I'm sure success in the industry involves both teaching and natural ability - the same as with any vocational area," says Dennison. "But the Academy is preparing students to make an informed decision about their career path in fashion retail. Entrepreneurs will always be there, regardless of what is available, and they do what they do very well. But people like Sir Philip recognise that the young people of today need preparation."
Former Topshop boss Jane Shepherdson, who is on the board of Academy governors, believes the art of retail can be learnt. "Would I have gone to an academy for retail? That is a tough question, but you can certainly be taught retail," she says.
Green has said in the past he is not interested in seeing a CV when interviewing prospective staff, because he argues a candidate is unlikely to produce a bad resume. Instead, he sends candidates out shopping with £1,000 to buy commercially viable products for his store that are not already on offer.
As a result of Green's hands-on approach to retail, next term the school is to introduce more practical aspects to the course. Speaking to Drapers, Dennison says there has been too much academic-based work this year. "We are consolidating that in future and will be using more live industry projects to assess the students work," she explains.
Arcadia's brand directors are among those who have chaired seminars for Academy students. Dorothy Perkins brand director Malcolm Storey, who was at the graduation ceremony, says Arcadia expects to hire about 15 students this year, with Dorothy Perkins likely to get four of the new arrivals.
"One of the toughest things is trying to get through to the students that there are other things to do in retail aside from buying," says Storey. "That, of course, is glamorous, but there are other options."
The Academy is opening a mock shop for September's intake of students, which will allow them to see their merchandising efforts in practice.
Dennison admits that her key task over the past year has been encouraging students to take their role at the Academy seriously. "The biggest challenge is for them to recognise that it is the first step on the career ladder," she says. "It's not like going to college - it's about developing their work ethic and taking it seriously." The Academy has a target student intake of 450 in September 2008, against 350 starting next term.
As Stuart Rose delivered the penultimate award at the ceremony, he wished the students well for the future. "You have all been guinea pigs for this Academy and are all now going out to work for 20 to 30 years," he said.
As laughter broke out, he added: "Yes, it's long as that, guys. I'm nearly at the end of my career - you are just at the beginning of yours."
Arcadia Award for Outstanding Student
Winner: Liam Price
Arcadia Group owner Sir Philip Green on Price: "A genuine all-rounder. He is commercial, numerate and good with people."
M&S Award for Enterprise
Winner: Thom Scherdel
M&S chief executive Stuart Rose on Scherdel: "Innovative and determined. He took advantage of every opportunity to gain knowledge and skills"
Tesco Award for Progress
Winner: Francesca Spencer-Gray
Tesco clothing boss Terry Green on Spencer-Gray: "She was playing for the long term, soldiering on to make it."
Next Award for Commitment
Winner: Sherene Russell
Next marketing director Christine Gerrard on Russell:
"Positive, proactive and ready to go the extra nine yards."
Home Retail Group Award for Best Project
Winner: Beth Skinner
Home Retail Group managing director for customer services Eugene Brazil on Skinner: "The project demonstrated a tremendous understanding of the total strategic approach to retail."