Graduate Fashion Week has grown in stature since it was founded in 1991, but its new chairman wants more support from the industry and government.
The largest exhibition of fashion graduates in the world, Graduate Fashion Week is a spectacle that features work from more than 40 UK and 20 international universities and attracts over 30,000 visitors each June. It is also a recruitment vehicle, helping some students step onto the first rung of the career ladder. But there is work to be done to improve the event and grow its standing in the industry, according to Mark Newton-Jones, the chief executive of Mothercare, who took over as chairman of GFW in December 2014.
As the GFW team puts the finishing touches to this year’s event at The Old Truman Brewery in east London, which runs from May 30 to June 2, Newton-Jones is already thinking about 2016. His first priority is funding. GFW, which is a charity and relies on donations and sponsorship – and currently no government or private funding – has hired Lorraine O’Brien, co-founder of hairdressing business Josh Wood, as a part-time consultant to help raise funds for next year. “It’s not a commercial venture but we need to do a better job to attract more supporters in from different areas,” explains Newton-Jones. “We’re going to negotiate harder on [sponsorship] contracts. That is probably the biggest impact I will have this year.”
He points out that it is, in some ways, an uphill battle. “Everyone gets involved in London Fashion Week, but the designers there have already arrived, they are successful. GFW is where that talent comes from, but it doesn’t attract the same levels of support.
“One of the things I would like to do is get the government and [London mayor] Boris Johnson much more involved. We get virtually no funding from them, yet we’re trying to create jobs. Now the election is out of the way I have been making a few more approaches and I’m hoping we can tap into some of the enterprise funding. The more funding we can get the bigger the event can be.”
George at Asda has been headline sponsor of GFW for the past five years and offers £10,000 to the winner of the George Gold Award each year. “GFW does a remarkable job in helping people get that very important first step on the fashion ladder,” says Fiona Lambert, vice president of product and development design at George and Asda, who sits on the judging panel. “Each year the judging gets more difficult as the wealth of talent is so huge.” However, she shares Newton-Jones’ frustration about the lack of support in some circles, particularly among those in the fashion industry. “This is the best opportunity to meet the designers of the future and the fashion retail business should celebrate this as it is their future too.”
Students can also apply to take part in George’s summer design internship. George has altered the format of this year’s internship, splitting it into six two-month placements, two month-long placements and one year-long placement. “This new approach gives us the opportunity to provide a more tailored programme for the graduates who are selected,” says Lambert.
And there are more changes afoot. Newton-Jones plans to get more UK universities involved, which includes targeting the likes of Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion and Westminster in London. A spokeswoman for Central Saint Martins previously told Drapers its London location means it can host its own showcase. But Newton-Jones argues: “If people are travelling from all around the world, we need to have our talent under one roof. It’s also really important for students to see their work alongside others.”
He is looking at introducing an award for kidswear design in 2016, which would bring the total number of accolades to 17. “We let people select what they do and it’s predominantly womenswear, with some men’s, but there’s definitely an interest in childrenswear,” he explains.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of GFW, which was founded in 1991 by designer Jeff Banks, former buyer and now recruitment consultant Vanessa Denza and John Walford, founder of the Vauxhall Fashion Scout emerging talent event, to bring together UK and international universities. Newton-Jones says it will be “a big one” and “more of a spectacle”. In the meantime, he ends with a plea: “I want every CEO, buying and design director from every fashion retail business to come along this year and see what it is about.”