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Graduate Fashion Week: 25th anniversary preview

Drapers celebrates 25 years of Graduate Fashion Week alongside an exclusive first look at some of the brightest design talent showing at this year’s edition.

Back in 1991, a University of Westminster student from Yorkshire took home the top prize at the very first edition of Graduate Fashion Week. That young designer – Christopher Bailey – has gone on to head up a billion-pound global fashion brand as the chief creative and chief executive officer of Burberry, while that student showcase, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this June, has continued to spotlight and celebrate the very best in graduate talent from across the UK and internationally.

“The aim of Graduate Fashion Week is very simple,” says founder and designer Jeff Banks. “It’s about harnessing graduates’ talent to enable them to get a position or an opportunity in the fashion industry. It was always the aim and it’s still the aim today: ‘Give us a job’.”

The charity’s chairman and Mothercare CEO Mark Newton-Jones agrees: “The sole intention is to give graduates the platform to display their talent and try and secure future employment. It gives them that first chance to step out of academia and into the commercial world.”

The first Graduate Fashion Week was launched after Banks received a letter from a lecturer complaining how London universities can easily present their graduate collections in the capital to a local audience of industry figures, but it was much harder for students at institutions outside of London to get the industry’s attention. Banks agreed, pulled in some favours and hosted the debut event “on a wing and a prayer”.

What started with a handful of universities now showcases the work of 40 UK and 20 international institutions to 40,000 visitors, and is not just womenswear or menswear, but an array of aspects from across the industry, including footwear, accessories, childrenswear and textiles through to marketing, styling, photography and brand management concepts.

“For any retailer, for any buying or design director, for any CEO, if you want to find the best up-and-coming talent and be inspired, this is the place to come,” adds Newton-Jones. “There’s a corporate responsibility in our industry to nurture talent, but Graduate Fashion Week also gives us an opportunity to recruit that new talent and get the first pick.”

This year’s edition has attracted a host of sponsors, with Oracle, Marks & Spencer and Tu at Sainsbury’s as leading sponsors, as well as the likes of Asos, Boohoo, Debenhams, George at Asda, Karen Millen, Matalan, New Look and Very. “This has meant that [this year] we can put into place serious mentoring programs, meaning that Graduate Fashion Week is no longer just a highlight week, but joining the dots across the whole year,” says Banks.

“We’re still here, 25 years on, when other organisations have come and gone,” he adds. “Not because of the endeavours of trustees or anything like that, but because the industry backs it to the hilt.” And long may that continue.

Graduate Fashion Week’s alumni stars

Christopher Bailey, chief creative and chief executive officer at Burberry

Stella McCartney, founder of Stella McCartney 

Matthew Williamson, founder of Matthew Williamson 

Julien Macdonald, founder of Julien Macdonald 

Giles Deacon, founder of Giles Deacon

Emma Hill, co-founder Hill & Friends

Karen Peacock, head of womenswear and accessories at M&S

James Spreckley, creative director at Reiss

Leonie Branston, head of womenswear at Margaret Howell

Christopher Raeburn, founder of Christopher Raeburn

Tessa Birch, head of design at Liberty London

James Lawrence, head of menswear design at Asos

Pip Jenkins, head designer at John Smedley

Frances Walker, design director at Jigsaw Menswear

Frances Stringer, womenswear design director at Pringle of Scotland

Clare Waight Keller, creative director at Chloé

Sophie Hulme, founder of Sophie Hulme

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