Gone are the days when young designers would aspire only to work with a handful of top-end labels. The boom of on-trend high street offers means the unfashionable stigma attached to these multiples has disappeared. In its place, junior creatives now have the chance to join influential high street design teams with a fresh fashion focus.
"The high street is definitely a more desirable place to work now," says Alice Pye, co-founder of fashion recruitment company Smith & Pye, which recently placed most of Gap's 65-strong European design team. "Whereas 10 years ago designers would travel abroad to work for the likes of Gucci and Givenchy, the high street now commands much more respect and its design is actually taken seriously."
High street fashion has real benefits for encouraging a young designer's creative flair. Capsule collections offer an opportunity for those who aspire to work with big-name designers - Giles Deacon is working with New Look, and Stella McCartney has collaborated with H&M - while giving graduates a chance to explore innovative ideas within a structured training programme.
"There are two areas in particular where graduates really benefit from working for a big high street store," explains New Look trend director Barbara Horspool. "First, they get a huge awakening into commerciality. I don't mean dumbing down their designs, but finding a way to make them appeal to a wider audience and really understanding about their customer base. Second, graduates are able to get to grips with the ins and outs of manufacturing that they cannot fully understand at college. This includes sourcing materials, fabrication, costing and the production process - all essential to becoming a well-rounded designer."
However, competition for high street design positions is now fierce. "We are inundated with CVs from graduates and we welcome as many as we can manage," says Horspool. Unfortunately these are generally work experience placements and, while this is essential to a CV, it doesn't help the bank balance at the end of the month.
The key to securing a permanent paid position is to put together a brand-specific portfolio that will wow retailers with your knowledge and suitability to work on their team. "There are bags of opportunities out there, you just need to look at all the options," explains River Island womenswear buying director Farida Kaikobad. "Besides the obvious route into menswear, womenswear, footwear and accessories, there are other creative roles that are perfect for graduates, such as visual merchandising and display, brand development or graphic design."
New Look started its own design arm in 2005 with just three designers, and the now 22-strong team works across three areas - trend research and forward thinking, collections, and buying lines. While most graduates dream of having their own collections, experts advise finding out more about these areas and considering how you want your career to evolve. "Buying is popular for those who want to create that one signature piece that sells and sells," says Horspool.
She is interested in attracting students from colleges near to New Look's base in Weymouth, Devon. "Being based away from London is one of our main sticking points and it's why we have to work harder to attract graduates," she says.
River Island has always had a strong design focus, launching its first design studio more than 35 years ago. It now employs 70 people across design and production, many of whom are graduates keen to develop a design career with a commercial business. "High street retail is fast and furious," says Kaikobad. "Because of the pace of the business, people develop their skills quickly. They work with large, diverse teams and have responsibility for their own ranges early on in their careers."
Value retailers are a great option for young designers, and George at Asda is leading the way with a graduate design programme that has played a big role in Asda's fashion-forward supermarket offering. Founded five years ago, the programme offers just one coveted position each year, and the team receive more than 100 applications for that single role. "Our fast-track plan offers a way to progress from assistant to designer in three years," explains George people resourcing assistant Sarah Lacey.
The first year is spent learning the design tools of the trade, before moving on to a junior design day job, working on business-focused projects. "We offer graduates a realistic look at the value market and allow them to work across all areas of the business," says Lacey. "Recruiting the right graduate is vital - we are trying to create the design management of the future."
The main aim of high street design teams is to find talent that can be developed in the future to keep fashion multiples at the top of their game. "When we started in 1992, our aim was to place better designers on the high street to improve their offer," says Smith. "There are a lot of technically good designers out there, but we wanted to encourage the creative talent to come through. Now the high street is much more attractive, and with the added designer-high street collaborations, fashion has definitely given the high street its nod of approval."
Lizzie Baldock, assistant designer for women's footwear, River Island
"I was lucky enough to get my job at River Island directly from showing at Graduate Fashion Week, but it can be very competitive. Identifying which brand you want to work for is key, and you should adapt your portfolio accordingly. Work experience will give you a taste of what it's like to work in a busy fashion environment - understanding the speed at which you need to produce designs and how to make your product user-friendly will impress prospective employers.
"In a high street team you have to adapt to what your buyers want, yet still produce exciting, fashionable product. I've had to learn about materials, pricing and trend analysis, and perfect my negotiating skills to persuade colleagues that what I'm producing will sell."
Jenny Hudson, assistant designer for knits and sweaters, Gap
"I've worked at Gap for a year now, and secured my job through a recruitment agency. The role has given me great opportunities to learn, especially from the design team, who are a real mix from a wide range of design backgrounds. My confidence has grown and the great mentoring I receive has helped me to develop my own style.
"When taking on a high street design role, you need to be flexible and must respect every person in the company. Listen to everything and involve yourself as much as possible. Don't be afraid to ask questions, otherwise you'll never learn. My advice is to do as much work experience as you can. Even if you want to work on the high street, vary your experience and keep your portfolio personal yet commercial."
Layla Zaa, assistant designer for woven bottoms, Abercrombie & Fitch
"I secured my current job through a recruitment agency, and have been here three and a half months. Before this, I began my career as a design assistant at Miss Selfridge where I worked across several areas, which helped me focus on what I wanted to specialise in.
"The main thing I've learned is that although a lot of what you do at college won't be relevant to your day-to-day job, some areas will be vital - you should try and find these out while still at college. I wish I'd spent more time working with Photoshop and Illustrator because I spend most of my time designing in these programs now.
"My main advice is to be open to all companies who are interested in you. You never know where a job may take you."