As her students work away in the background, Alison Welsh has good reason to feel proud of each and every one of them. "It is fantastic when one of your students wins an award for something they've created, but when all of them achieve an accolade for their collective design effort, that's really something," she says.
Welsh, the programme leader for the BA (Hons) Fashion course at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), is talking about the Drapers Colleges Portfolio Award. Launched this year in association with the British Fashion Council, the award recognises the higher education institute that displays the best portfolio of students' work at the annual college open day, held at the BFC headquarters in London's Portland Place.
"The open day for colleges has been running for a number of years, but the BFC thought it would be nice to award a prize for all the hard work that goes into it," says Drapers editor Lauretta Roberts. "The plan is to encourage colleges to think about the work they show, which is vital because a lot of buyers come to the open day to scout for talent."
The 14 UK colleges showing their work were automatically entered for the prize, which was judged by BFC Colleges Council chair Anne Tyrrell, Topman design and product development director Gordon Richardson, Liberty womenswear and accessories buying manager Olivia Richardson, designer Giles Deacon and Lauretta Roberts.
"Winning this award is so important to us, because it gives the students real confidence in their work," explains Welsh. "It is evidence of our quality and credibility and the high level of work that our whole student body produces."
Although the content of the portfolio was created by the course's 46 final-year students, it was up to Welsh to compile the perfect balance of designs to best reflect their talents. "I had to be selective because I wanted it to show their breadth of ability," she says.
It certainly achieved this aim. "MMU stood out because the standard of illustration was so high," says Tyrrell. "We want to encourage the art of illustration, and the MMU portfolio really showed strength in that area."
Welsh has run MMU's fashion course for almost 16 years. Born in Scotland, she grew up in Yorkshire and studied fashion at Newcastle Polytechnic, before moving to London to work for a design consultancy. Later, Welsh and two of her former colleagues started up Index, producing trend books for the fashion trade, but after six years she moved north to Manchester.
"I was ready for a change, and the job at MMU sounded like a perfect opportunity," she explains. "But nothing prepares you for being a course leader. Being there for every one of your students when they need your guidance and support - it's a big undertaking."
Welsh has seen many changes since she began teaching back in the early 1990s. "The course has really grown over the years," she says. "From having 13 graduating in my first year, we will have 46 this year. That includes six boys, as well as international and mature students."
Ambitions are different too. "Initially, all students were super ambitious, wanting to work on high-level brands," she explains. "Gradually they learn there is a whole world of options that may be more achievable. The high street is a big draw. Any students that make it to Graduate Fashion Week are able to make great contacts with sponsor River Island, and any that get an interview are over the moon."
Technology has also had an impact on today's design intake. Today, computer-aided design (CAD) is taught on most design courses, helping students to create millimetre-perfect patterns and iron out freehand glitches in their work.
However, Welsh does not believe digital designing is necessarily the way forward. "It doesn't seem to have made the impact you might have thought," she says. "Companies are more interested in the individual designer, and we teach enough basic CAD skills for all our students to get by. We have so much amazing equipment here aside from the computers."
Ask Welsh to expand on that equipment and her eyes light up. Boasting one of the biggest art and design faculties in Europe, MMU had put much of its older specialist design equipment into storage, but Welsh has worked hard to bring it back into the studios.
"It is so important to hold on to the craft of making," she says. "Some of our equipment is so old it is tempting to chuck it out, but some of the machines will never be made again - they are like precious gems." Among the items she has had reconditioned are Victorian sewing machines, button holers and a sock maker.
Welsh is keen to keep an emphasis on making and construction. "Our embroidery machines may look like antiques but they work perfectly and do jobs that enhance our students' work.
"I want the students to be able to do justice to their designs, especially now we have the award to show how great their ability is."
ON A FASHION LEARNING CURVE
Manchester Metropolitan University's BA (Hons) Fashion course is a three-year mix of hands-on and written design work, and students need to have completed a foundation art course to apply.
Year one mostly teaches pattern cutting and garment construction, and familiarises students with the fashion industry. In the second year, students form their own design philosophy, and begin focusing on the area in which they wish to specialise. They also begin creating industry contacts.
The third year involves analytical and written work, alongside competition entries and the creation of the students' final collections.