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Design talent on demand

Alice Smith set up London designer recruitment agency Smith & Pye in 1992 with business partner Cressida Pye. Their aim is to introduce fashion companies to UK design talent, and they have placed designers at some of the most prestigious fashion houses and high street stores. The firm is now branching out by opening a New York office

How do you decide who goes on your books?

We are the only recruitment agency that focuses on design, which makes us highly specialist in what we do. Placing designers is different to recruiting buyers and merchandisers; we have to be able to assess a portfolio to tell whether it is good or not and work out what job a designer would be most suited to. We receive so many applications each year that we can only accept about 10% of them. Initially, we look at the CV to see where an applicant has studied and who they have already worked for, but it is the portfolio that is particularly important, especially for graduates. We have become very skilled in knowing what makes a good portfolio; we receive roughly five a day, and the 15 years we've been in business has given us plenty of opportunities to understand what we're looking for.

Who are your most important clients?

We pride ourselves on having every blue chip retailer as a client, as well as the luxury brands. So we recruit for everyone, from Topshop and River Island to Gap, Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch, to Givenchy, Gucci, Burberry and Mulberry. There is about a 60/40 split for placements between the high street giants and the luxury brands.

How did you become involved with graduate shows?

We go to the graduate shows every year to scout for the best talent. There is nothing better than finding a graduate their first job, then helping them progress and develop. Smith & Pye set up the Kingston Award for Best Portfolio a few years ago, and we are in talks to roll out a similar award across all the colleges involved in Graduate Fashion Week. We automatically take all MA graduates from the Royal College of Art, University of Kingston and Central Saint Martins on to our books, as well as picking the best from the other UK colleges.

How has fashion recruitment changed since you have been in the business?

There is definitely more focus on the design side now than 15 years ago, and the creative element is taken more seriously by employers. You wouldn't believe it, but some firms used to send their buyers first class on international travel and put designers in economy. Customers are more sophisticated and high street stores have had to respond. For example, Topshop's design team began with seven designers and now has 25. The high street is a much more popular career destination for designers too, because it is so quick to respond to trends. When I talk to designers who are working for top brands in New York, they all say that if they were to come back to the UK, they would want to work at Topshop.

Which have been your most memorable placements?

We placed Stuart Vevers at Calvin Klein, and he moved on to Next and Givenchy, and is now design director at Mulberry before he goes to Loewe in January. We were also involved with Alexander McQueen. We didn't place him because he didn't work for anyone else before launching his own collection, but he used to house his clothes in our first offices and he would come in and make trousers for us.

THIS FASHION LIFE

What is your biggest fashion weakness?

Buying clothes for a more glamorous alter-ego. I have many cocktail dresses that I have never worn.

What was your best fashion moment?

While travelling in Mississippi I wore a great sequined dress, and ended up completely overdressed at a cookout in the back of beyond. It cheered everyone up though.

And your worst?

Cressida and I got lost coming out of the Alexander McQueen show in Paris. I was wearing a tweed cape and silver boots, and we ended up getting snowballed by a bunch of kids.

Who is your industry icon?

Alexander McQueen.

What would you be doing if not fashion?

Running a chain of eco-friendly dry cleaners.

Which is the best retailer on the high street?

At the moment, Gap. Its fast turnover keeps you interested and it sticks to high- fashion basics.

What are you reading?

In Your Garden Again by Vita Sackville-West and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

Who is your style icon?

Patti Smith.

Who is your pop idol?

Nick Cave.

Who is on your mobile's speed dial?

Cressida, the gardener and my garage - my car keeps breaking down.

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