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‘A lot of [student] designers come out thinking they’ll be a standalone label, but the high street has a lot to offer’

Fiona Lambert, brand director at Graduate Fashion Week sponsor George at Asda, on why multiples have plenty to offer those looking to break into the industry.

Fiona Lambert eagerly and gratefully reaches for the bucket-size Starbucks latte and heaves a sigh of relief. “Last Friday I went to Heathrow, flew to Toronto, did 24 hours work in Toronto, then on Sunday morning I went to St Tropez, came home at midnight on Monday, then went to Manchester to go on BBC Breakfast on Wednesday, then yesterday did filming for This Morning – all for Graduate Fashion Week. I’m going home to collapse. I did warn my husband.” And now, breathe.

Lambert, brand director at George at Asda, which sponsored last week’s GFW for the second year running, is undoubtedly committed to the cause. She looks immaculate too, dressed in a neat black dress, no hair from her short blonde bob out of place. “George is a business that supports finding employment for young people,” she explains, giving one of the reasons for George supporting GFW.

“And design and newness is part of what we do. We are a brand where design is important. We’re not just a supermarket selling clothing; we’re a clothing brand in a supermarket. Our heritage is about design, quality and value.

We know that putting newness in front of customers is really important and those graduates are the talent of tomorrow.”

This year, George will offer 60 graduate placements, slightly down on last year’s 68, making up 12% of the head office team. And while design is clearly important to George – and the fashion industry as a whole – Lambert is aware of the need to promote other roles in the sector, a task that was top of the agenda when George took on the GFW sponsorship last year from River Island. The glamour and sexiness of being a designer rather than, say, a finance director or allocator, means young people often have their sights set on – and limited to – being the next Christopher Kane.

This task continued to be a priority for Lambert at this year’s GFW and she, together with GFW chairman Rob Templeman, pulled together their contacts books to invite as many key individuals from the fashion industry as possible, across all disciplines.

When we meet, GFW is still a week away, so Lambert’s response to whether this strategy has been successful is cautious. “Ummmm …we did as much as we could do to promote [the variety of jobs in fashion] last year on our stand, with the speed dating [concept, where graduates came face-to-face with the George team],” says Lambert. “We’ve done a video this year called My First Year in Fashion, which showcases different graduates across different areas of the business in George.”

A week later, at Earls Court in London, GFW is in full swing and recruiters include Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren, Anthropologie, Stella McCartney, Asos, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Saks Fifth Avenue and Pentland, among others. But it appears a design career is still the favoured path of young graduates.

“I think up to 70% of the graduates want to get into design and the other 30% into buying,” says Mary Anderson-Ford, director of Bloom Retail, which earlier this month launched a division called Bloom Grad dedicated to finding graduates their first jobs in fashion.

“Yet we’re always looking for allocators. Merchandising is often seen as the boring, geeky function but that’s just not the case. You get much more involved in product than you think. And merchandisers are the people driving the commercial part of a business.”

Furthermore, fashion retailers often have more merchandising roles to fill than buying and design, adds Anderson-Ford. Graduates go into full-time employment as allocators after a foundation course, while wannabe buyers and designers go on to do further education as competition is much tougher.

“I would imagine because there’s less awareness of buying and merchandising, those are probably the areas where people don’t think about jobs,” Lambert suggests. “But if you think about the growing areas of fashion, like online where people have technical qualifications, that’s going to be a big growth area with all the photography and marketing that goes with it.”

Multichannel retailing is a key area for growth at George, says Lambert, who sees online as “easily being 10% of our sales in the future”. She adds: “Our initial trial of putting our basic George products on Asda Direct has been very successful, including it in the food shopping purchase.”

The week before our meeting was George.com’s biggest-ever week on basket size, driven by Jubilee merchandise, and 50% of click-and-collect Asda orders are for George. An online purchase collected in-store drives around £9 of additional spend in-store. Mobile, too, is a big growth area for the business. At the end of May, George.com and Asda Direct were both fully optimised for Smartphones. Asda expects more than one in 10 online orders to be placed via a mobile by the end of 2012.

Back to design and away from technology, kidswear is another area that Lambert believes is often overlooked, so George presented the Childrenswear Award again this year. Winner Harriet Simmons from Colchester Institute received a £1,000 prize and the chance to work with in-house George designers to turn her winning range into a collection for George.

“It’s not just for George though,” Lambert points out, when I suggest that kidswear is relevant to the supermarket brand, which is the largest retailer of kidswear in the UK by volume. “Some 26% of volume sold in clothing is childrenswear. It’s something that isn’t really showcased by universities or colleges as being a big job opportunity for students. I don’t think it’s front of mind. A lot of [student] designers come out thinking they’ll be a standalone label, but the high street has a lot to offer.”

Indeed. Cressida Pye, owner of recruitment consultancy Smith & Pye, says: “Jobs on the high street are looking very healthy. The big blue chip companies have continued to recruit through us at all levels despite the tough economic climate. Emerging markets such as China and Russia are continuing to grow. Companies in these countries are specifically seeking British-trained design talent in order to improve their product.”

And what must a graduate do to impress at interview stage? “Number one, graduates have to be really passionate and show their interest and hunger for it. Second, they’ve got to do their research and get work experience. Know your customer, know the person you’re going to interview, go into the shop – absolutely. It’s quite interesting, even someone quite experienced who I interviewed last week had never been to a George. Anyway, that’s another story,” says Lambert, rolling her eyes. “They’ve got to be prepared to learn. Be a human sponge, soak up everything and develop your own knowledge. An interview is as much about selling yourself as about your portfolio.”

The reward, in the future, could be rather nice. “About 60% of our placement students come back and work with us full-time. I’m sure they’re all after my job!” says Lambert, bursting into laughter. “I started as a designer and pattern cutter. They can be chomping at my heels, I don’t mind. I think any good business leader should hire people who aspire to their jobs.”

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