As London Fashion Week closes for another year, students are embarking on courses that could launch the fashion stars of the future.
As the tent at the National History Museum is dismantled following London Fashion Week, where this year the city re-asserted its reputation as the incubator of global fashion talent, hopeful students the length and breadth of the country are enrolling at college in the hope of one day staging their own show in one of the world’s fashion capitals.
Starting your own label or securing a design role at a fashion house, fashion brand or high street retailer is notoriously difficult, with an estimated 3,000 fashion students graduating from college every year.
The UK’s fashion colleges are among the best in the world and their alumni can be found at the head of many international fashion houses, either continuing the legacy of former greats (such as John Galliano at Christian Dior) or designing under their own name, such as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney or Matthew Williamson.
While our colleges’ ability to develop design talent is unquestionable, it takes much more than pure design ability to be a success, says Elinor Renfrew, BA (Hons) Fashion course director at Kingston University, London. Kingston, which earlier this year won the Drapers-backed British Fashion Council Colleges Council Portfolio Award, places a great deal of emphasis on working with the industry to ensure its students are employable at the end of their BA. “Our main priority is the students’ experience and their destination. Students from Kingston get employed because they’re professional and work well in the workplace. They’re realistic and ambitious and we promote that all the way through [the course],” she explains.
Kingston, often through former students who work in the businesses, retains strong links through design competitions and work placement schemes with a number of global fashion brands and retailers, including Brooks Brothers, Abercrombie & Fitch, Topman and Banana Republic. It’s no accident that a number of its major sponsors are American because “that’s where the jobs are and that’s where the money is, as well as on the British high street,” explains Renfrew.
About 70 students start Kingston’s BA course every year and about 20 drop out by the end of year three. Of the remaining 50 students about 40 go on to become fashion designers in some form, but it usually takes a year after graduation for most students to find a job. To equip them for the competition in the jobs market, Renfrew encourages students to develop their own style as early as possible and to focus on the branch of fashion, be that womenswear, menswear, kidswear or accessories, that best suits their skills.
There’s a tendency, she says, for groups of students to stick together and form design cliques. While it means they’re supportive of each other during their studies, it can be a disadvantage when they apply for jobs.
“I tell them that there’s no point in them all being the same as they’ll be in competition with each other for the same jobs,” she says. “We’re quite nurturing, but we’re quite tough as well. You’ve got to keep them going through the course and you’ve got to prepare them for what happens afterwards.”
Spotting those students who will break through and become real successes is easy, Renfrew claims, and is often evident from a very early stage. “It’s about having something special and you can spot it from very early on. They’re earnest and totally absorbed in what they do and they’re not interested in anybody else. They’re very self-contained. They’re almost like a package, you could drop them anywhere and they would produce work.”
“They’re very self-motivated,” Renfrew continues, “and they’re bringing things to you and challenging what we’re about. When the studio opens, they’re there and they’re there until it closes. They’re very resourceful and they’re organised early.”
The first year of study is about students finding their feet but by the time they reach the second year, it’s time to “sharpen up”, says Renfrew. “They need to be professional with the sponsors who come in and interview the students. It’s like a dry run,” she says. By the third year, it’s all about “survival”, she says.
A number of truly talented designers (see box for Renfrew’s pick of the future stars from Kingston’s recent graduates) may go on to study an MA at the Royal College of Art or Central Saint Martins, both in London, if they wish to refine their design skills. But for those wishing to take a more holistic approach Kingston has just launched its first MA, which covers a range of disciplines, such as fashion film, photography, illustration or promotion.
While it’s tough out there, there are opportunities, says Renfrew, that are still there for the taking, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the students whether they make it. “At the beginning [of a course] everyone has some chance but in the end, they won’t all end up in the same place.”
Cream of the crop
The London College of Fashion and Edinburgh College of Art – both runners up for the Drapers BFC Colleges Council Portfolio Award offer their tips for the top from their recent graduates.
Edinburgh, which runs BAs and MAs in fashion, textiles, performance costumes and an MA in fashion illustration, predicts womenswear designer Abyssinia Sollitt will be their next big designer. Her vibrant designs, including bright striped slouchy blazers and dramatic zig-zag patterned maxi dresses and skirts, put her in the final 10 for the gold award at Graduate Fashion Week.
London, whose many fashion courses range from design and textiles through to management and journalism, picks MA graduate Tim Dickinson who presented a show comprising navy and black tailoring, coats and dresses at the college’s annual MA presentation. His pattern cutting skills demonstrate his “knowledge of purity and quality” says course director Darren Cabon.
Kingston’s future stars:
Laura Harvey took the brave decision to show a kidswear collection as her final year project and it was a gamble that paid off – it was one of the best-received shows of the year. Her collection has a South American flavour and was inspired by the way her target market of six to seven-year-olds combine colours and textures. “Some people raised their eyebrows when I began this collection, I hope even more are raised now I’m finished,” she said.
Womanswear designer Rodova has been selected to show her collection, which contains designs labelled as “Barking”, “Bonkers” and “Loony”, at Bangkok Fashion Week. She is setting up her own label THoR – The House of Rodova – and has a passion for designing and making coats. Rodova is an experimental designer who used foam to mould coats for her final collection and explored different uses of fabrics such as spray-painted lace.
Menswear designer Peter Perrett is freelancing with Kingston graduate, Sophie Hulme, who Renfrew also tips to go on to great things. Perrett, who is likely to set up his own label, produced a final year collection that featured traditional garments re-engineered to create another purpose, such as Harrington jackets converted into Parkas or flight jackets made into tailored jackets. This transformation means they “purposefully lack true purpose” he says.
Womenswear designer Poppy Dover is working with MaxMara diffusion line Max & Co in Italy. Her final collection in 2008 took the theme of “temptation” and the 1980s provided inspiration for the silhouettes. “Burnt orange and paprika; the rising and falling hues of passion and fear. Icy silver and grey, black on black; the deep unknown. This is the armour of a woman softly endearing but frighteningly courageous,” said Dover in her show notes.