With less than a month to go before Graduate Fashion Week, chairman Terry Mansfield and director June Barker explain why the UK’s fashion industry should give more graduates a chance
It’s a game of give and take. Fashion employers compete to discover the next big thing, be it a talented buyer, designer or merchandiser, but in these tough economic times, investing in young people can be both risky and expensive.
Graduates, too, are arguably working harder than ever before, taking on longer periods of unpaid internships and finding it increasingly difficult to land a full-time job.
Youth unemployment was at a record high at the end of last year, with the number of 16 to 24-year-olds out of work rising by 6,000 to 952,000 in the three months to October 2009, according to the Office for National Statistics.
During the past couple of years, many fashion businesses have cut the number of graduates they take on annually. But June Barker and Terry Mansfield, fairy godmother and godfather of Graduate Fashion Week (GFW), the annual showcase of up-and-coming fashion talent from some of the UK’s best colleges, believe they can offer a helping hand.
“For us, it doesn’t end when students graduate,” explains Barker, director of GFW, which takes place on June 6-10 at Earls Court in London.
“The mentoring team that works with our winners gives these graduates access to senior people - that’s so unique. And Project Protégé, which launched last year, gives graduates a proper, paid job for at least six months.”
Businesses, such as John Lewis, Karen Millen, designer mini-chain Matches and Pentland Brands are all part of Project Protégé, which started with 10 companies last year. In the case of John Lewis, it discovered a young designer who has since gone on to earn a permanent contract, pay rise and head up a design area at the store chain.
Designer mini-chain Matches, too, will be keeping its protégé from 2009, after she impressed with her ability to design digital prints, source fabrics and pattern cut.
Barker, who before joining GFW ran events business Barker Brown whose clients included the then BBC-run Clothes Show Live, hopes to eventually increase the number of partners from 20 this year to 100.
“The interesting thing about Project Protégé is that the companies may say: ‘Oh, we don’t need a designer at the moment,’ but then they see the breadth of the skill set and think: ‘But yes, we need someone in marketing.’”
Embracing young talent
Mansfield, chairman of GFW, praises these businesses that embrace the nurturing of young talent but admits that more could be done. “We have a serious issue with management in the business, where they see young people as a cost rather than an asset,” he says.
“I’ve always been involved in the creative industries, and if creativity is in your DNA you just have to do it - you can’t do anything else. The creative industry is extremely important to the economy. It brings more revenue than the financial and pharmaceutical industries. And fashion is the core of creativity; it moves faster than any other industry. I’m very proud of this country’s creativity - it’s the best in the world.”
Mansfield made his name in the publishing industry, rising to president and chief executive of The National Magazine Company before becoming co-chairman of GFW with designer Jeff Banks in 2004. He admits that the competition for jobs for young people has generally intensified since his early days working for London advertising agencies DH Brockelsby and SH Benson in the 1950s. “When I got my first job, I was the only one who applied, but then when my daughter went for a job at the BBC there were 1,000 applications,” he says.
Mansfield insists that standing out from the crowd will help graduates get that all-important first job. “I have strong views on CVs,” he says. “Many are not good enough; they are standardised and don’t show creativity. Sometimes I have 70 CVs on my desk. Why not print yours on a T-shirt, for example? I’ve had people chain themselves to my office door with a Post-it note on themselves saying ‘hire me’. I admire that.”
Barker adds: “Sometimes CVs are written in text speak - the grammar is appalling - and at other times, graduates forget to take their portfolios to interviews.”
But both agree the financial burden on graduates is too heavy, and is unlikely to change in the near future as tuition fees continue to rise.
“What troubles me so much is the amount of debt young people have, so it’s harder for them to get going,” says Mansfield. “I know families that have had to take a second mortgage on their houses [to support their children]. The government is supportive of the creative industries but it could do more.”
GFW itself is wholly reliant on generous sponsorship from the industry, with young fashion chain River Island now in its sixth year of headline sponsoring the event.
Other sponsors include Mulberry, Lyle & Scott and cosmetics and beauty firm L’Oréal.
“We rely on this,” says Mansfield, adding that it costs £1m to run GFW each year. “And the result is huge respect from the industry for the event. People like [photographer] Rankin are giving their time to it [to create this year’s campaign images]. To me, the event looks as good as London Fashion Week.”
As well as helping young people beyond graduation, GFW has been nurturing talent before it reaches college, with its Education Day, now in its third year. School pupils aged between 14 and 18 are invited to watch fashion shows and attend career clinics. Last year, more than 3,500 students from 140 schools attended - despite the tube strikes that left most of London at a standstill - and this year attendees can put their questions to Erin Thomson, head of visual at Selfridges. The rest of the line up is yet to be announced.
Barker says the great thing about the education day is that it opens students’ minds to the wider world of the fashion industry, one that isn’t just made up of the likes of Stella McCartney and Christopher Bailey. “They find out what an art director is, for example, and the feedback from the teachers is great,” she says.
For an industry that relies on newness, youth and creativity, fashion - maybe now more than ever - needs to invest in its graduates.
“The great joy of working with young people is that this is where ideas begin. Without our colleges, fashion wouldn’t be so fast,” Mansfield explains. “If you can’t be experimental at college, when can you be?”
2006 Chairman, Graduate Fashion Week
2004 Co-chairman of GFW with Jeff Banks
2002 President and chief executive, The National Magazine Company; awarded the CBE for his services to the magazine industry
2000 Vice-president, The Hearst Corporation
1995 Chairman, PPA
1984 Chairman, COMAG
1982 Managing director, The National Magazine Company
2001 Director, Graduate Fashion Week
1989 Managing director, Barker Brown
1980 Fashion director, Blenheim Exhibitions
1976 Merchandiser, Clothing Export Council (now British Apparel Centre)