Rising tuition fees and fewer jobs mean choosing the right access route is crucial if you want to make it in the fashion industry.
With fees set to soar to £9,000 among many colleges and universities this year, it’s no wonder young people are questioning whether there are more cost-effective ways to land their dream job.
The high fees are likely to deter one in 10 potential students, according to a BBC survey, while the number of 16 to 24-year-olds out of work in the UK has risen to nearly one million this year.
Success Appointments operations director Kate Barron says: “Regardless of the state of the economy, I think the pressures on candidates wanting to get into the fashion industry will stay the same. There are always going to be more people competing over a small number of highly sought-after jobs.”
She adds that a fashion or business degree will always stand candidates “in good stead” and is especially important for those looking to get into buying or merchandising, where analytical skills and a head for numbers are essential.
Bloom Retail senior consultant Lucy Killian says candidates interested in buying and design have usually known from a young age that this is their dream career and mapped out their education accordingly. She says: “Often, those that are looking for their first buyers admin assistant post, have a buying degree and internships on their CV before they even get to interview stage, indicating that the buying and design arenas at entry level are super-competitive.”
Merchandising, however, tends to attract graduates from a wider range of disciplines, including law, geography and history, who have perhaps not considered a career in retail before leaving university.
Retail experience is also a must, whether this is working on the shopfloor at weekends or head office placements as part of a university degree.
For budding designers, who need to build up a portfolio, apprenticeships can be a viable option, although they have to be prepared to work for free.
Della Swain, course leader for BA Hons Fashion Design at De Montfort University, says a university course helps students develop a range of skills from illustration and design to pattern cutting and garment manufacturing. Students also develop organisational and time management skills, and the ability to multi-task.
Getting on the ladder
De Montfort works with organisations such as the British Fashion Council, and Graduate Fashion Week where students have the opportunity to design for competitions run by the likes of Burberry, River Island and Warehouse. Along with work placements, these projects help students gain industry experience and build up their portfolios.
“The strong reputation of UK fashion designers clearly helps encourage talented students to continue with their studies,” says Swain.
However, while graduates tend to command better starting salaries than those without degrees, a university education is not an essential requirement for a career in fashion retail.
Karen Dennison, principal of the Fashion Retail Academy (FRA), says what the industry really wants is “job-ready people”. The FRA offers a range of courses to prepare students to enter the workforce or go on to higher education. While the number of applications for the FRA has risen this year, Dennison says it is too early to tell if this is as a result of the rise in higher education fees.
“I think the view that you need a degree is outdated. We work with 90 companies on the high street and we have students who have been at the FRA for one year and then go into entry-level merchandiser’s and buyer’s admin assistant roles. We teach the skills required for those roles and the students are well versed in what the job is about.”
Experience vs education
Following the Government’s announcement last year that it will help fund an additional 100,000 apprenticeships, the FRA is adding apprenticeship schemes to its portfolio and will work with fashion retailers to deliver the right ones for their needs. Dennison said it is likely that the FRA-run apprenticeship schemes will include higher-level skills such as buying and merchandising.
Debenhams learning and development manager Sophie Hosier says the most important thing is for young people to gain as much experience as possible: “NVQs and apprenticeships are becoming a more accepted route into the industry as these offer a great hands-on experience, not just an academic understanding.”
Similarly, Sophie Adams, head of graduate recruitment at John Lewis, says when recruiting for entry-level positions, she is “far more interested in an applicant’s work experience and interests [than in their degree], as that is what makes someone stand out.”
While John Lewis doesn’t offer any head office apprenticeships, it is trialling an in-store apprenticeship scheme. Aimed mainly at those who want to become department and store managers, the scheme was launched internally last year, with a view to opening it up to external applicants this year.
John Lewis’s merchandising graduate scheme, which was launched in September 2010, attracted about 900 applicants for three places. Last year, the figure rose to 1,300. John Lewis is currently recruiting for this year’s intake.
It may look glamorous, but building a career in fashion requires both passion and hard work, while a thick skin and sharp elbows may also come in handy.
Barron says: “People don’t tend to fall into fashion. Those who get the most sought-after roles have got a real single-minded determination and CVs that really stand out.”
Julia Yates - careers consultant, University of the Arts
People make it into the fashion industry through a variety of different routes, but there are two well trodden paths. You can work your way up from the bottom, finding an apprenticeship straight after leaving school, or you can continue in education to gain a degree and then find a job after graduation.
Have a think about which route is going to suit you better. Do you enjoy the freedom of being able to make mistakes in a classroom, or does it make better sense to you when you can see it all in the real world? Most people entering the fashion world at the moment are educated to degree level, so if you want to go straight in from school, you are likely to have to show them something special, whether that is amazing dedication, raw talent or superb people skills.
But above and beyond all that, it’s about your attitude. You need to be brimming with self-confidence but aware that you have a lot to learn, focused but flexible, enthusiastic and extremely passionate.