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Amanda Wakeley

As one of this year’s Graduate Fashion Week judges, the womenswear designer was impressed by students’ commercial nous and dedication, both of which she knows all about.

Commercial. If there’s been one buzz word at this year’s Graduate Fashion Week, then this is it. The majority of the graduate collections on display had undeniable commercial appeal, which turned out to be a pretty good thing as this is exactly what the judges were looking for from the students.

“What impressed me most about this year’s graduates was their awareness of needing commercial versions of their original concepts,” says GFW Awards judge and London Fashion Week designer Amanda Wakeley. “It is important that they push ideas to the limit but then have the skill to make those ideas work for real men and women. It is one thing to be able to design and sketch something beautiful, it is another (but equally important) skill to be able to interpret that design into a garment that is as desirable as the sketch. Graduates need to have original yet believable talent, with a clear vision of who they are designing for and the ability to translate that into beautifully crafted pieces that are cleverly cut and fit. And last, but not least, a true passion for their craft.”

Commercial is in

And it is precisely because of this combination - of creativity, commerciality and passion - that Wakeley and the judges presented Rory Langdon from Nottingham Trent University with the prestigious Gold Award. “He presented the complete package,” Wakeley says. “Clever concept, research, strong portfolio, and beautifully conceived and crafted pieces with innovative construction. The pieces are modern, strong and well styled.”

Wakeley stresses that the judges were unanimous in their choice of Langdon, who had to set aside nerves to present to a panel including Wakeley, Patrick Grant, creative director at tailor Norton & Sons, Harper’s Bazaar editor Lucy Yeomans, and Fiona Lambert, brand director of George at Asda, which sponsored the event for the first time this year.

Wakeley says: “Rory spoke eloquently and confidently about his collection and clearly has a strong technical knowledge as well as being wonderfully creative.”

Wakeley believes she has seen a marked difference in this year’s graduates, who have not only cottoned on to the fact that commercial collections sell to the consumer and to the prospective employer, but also that the world of fashion is filled with opportunities that go far beyond just design. “This year’s students seem to be more aware of the reality. They need to be able to create commercial clothes and hopefully they are more aware that there are many varied, yet equally rewarding, careers in fashion beyond being a designer.”

But she warns that future will be tough: “There are never as many jobs as there are graduates. The key is to get as much work experience as possible, hone your craft, be the best you can be and do it with a passion. Passion always shines through. And don’t give up. Perseverance and dedication are key in this industry and you will need these qualities to succeed.”

In the driving seat

Wakeley should know. In 2008, she stepped down from her eponymous label after it was sold to serial investor Jason Granite’s Arvoco vehicle. But in April 2009 she bought back the business for a reported £1m, giving her full control of the company for the first time in over a decade, and what she refers to as the “major high” of her career.

“The lowlight was stepping down from the business I had founded,” she says, of a situation many designers fall into; notably Roland Mouret, who last year bought back the rights to his name with the help of business partner and pop mogul Simon Fuller. “However, every cloud has a silver lining and, as hard as it was at the time, it has allowed me to regain total control of my business again, with my partner [financial PR] Hugh Morrison, without whom I could never have done it and who is a daily inspiration to me,” she recalls.

A self-taught designer, Wakeley began her career at Go Silk, an independent designer based in New York’s Garment District, before coming back to the UK to launch her label in 1990.

“Working in the US in the mid to late 1980s gave me an insight into the American work ethic and customer service, as well as a passion for understated luxury,” she says. “All of those aspects I incorporated into my brand. I returned to the UK at the end of the 1980s and felt there was a gap in the market for understated luxurious fashion that I have always aspired to create. I started with a small collection that was made to order so I didn’t have a huge capital outlay. The product caught the mood of that moment and very quickly was being featured in all the top glossies and I had a waiting list of clients.” Wakeley has become a favourite of the red carpet, boasting clients including Scarlett Johansson, Demi Moore, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren and Kate Winslet.

Of the current challenges, Wakeley points to a cautious consumer who is no longer content with splashing cash around: “I think the consumer has product overload and so it is imperative that you stay true to your brand DNA, produce an exceptional and desirable product at the right price, with outstanding customer service,” she says, advising today’s young talent.

In her own collection for spring 12, Wakeley has taken a “much cleaner approach in terms of silhouette than previous seasons and the overall feeling is very contemporary”. She adds: “However, you should still expect signature elements of fluidity, drape and sharp tailoring.”

Like most industry figures, Wakeley is concerned about tuition fee increases for students next year. “I think it is worrying for students to anticipate graduating with a mountain of debt even before they have started their careers,” she says. “I think there is a possibility of fashion students finding this increase particularly difficult, as without sponsorship it can be a financially demanding subject to study.”

Having said that, Wakeley says she learnt a lot of her lessons “the hard way”, pointing out that there is far more support for young people today than when she started out. “There is now huge support - financial, from the British Fashion Council, as well as business mentoring advice, something that was not available when I started,” she says. “The fashion world has evolved hugely in the last 20 years.” No doubt it will continue to do so for the next generation of fashion talent.

CV

2011 GFW judge

2010 Receives OBE 2009 Buys back the Amanda Wakeley label

2008 Wakeley steps down. Jason Granite buys the label

2005 Saudi billionaire Walid Juffali buys the label

2000 Fashion supplier Richard Caring takes over Wakeley’s business

1990 Sets up the Amanda Wakeley label

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