Fashion: Succeeding by degrees in the hothouse of fashion

As this year's students graduate; how are last year's crop faring? By Melanie Rickey
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THIS WEEK almost 1,000 fashion students are exhibiting their work on the banks of the River Thames as part of BhS Graduate Fashion Week. Of that number only one-third will present their clothes on the catwalk, perhaps five or ten will get "noticed", and possibly one will win the elusive accolade of being "discovered". Each graduate is impatiently waiting for the finger of fate - just like the one in the lottery adverts - to say "It's You".

Being a fashion graduate is the Nineties equivalent of being an Eighties dance/drama graduate, best portrayed by the television series Fame, where the students are constantly waiting to be discovered. It can happen, and in the Nineties it has happened a lot in fashion. Hussein Chalayan, Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro, Andrew Fionda and Ren Pearce, Sonja Nuttall and Antonio Berardi have all gone on to greater things. But success doesn't come that easily for most graduates, they have to work at it, and talent doesn't always mean instant success. We tracked down six of the class of '97, from five colleges, and found that top marks and prizes do not help in the grand scheme of things, but sheer hard work always gets results.


Fashion Design Womenswear, graduated from Central Saint Martin's with a first and got his first job last week at Louis Vuitton after a year of trying.

"After the show I called the Face pretending to be my own PR, and they gave me some press, but that was about it. I had no job offers, so I put together a CV and sent about 30 of them to the big fashion houses in Paris. Then I went to Paris myself, stayed in a youth hostel, and spent days in a phone-box trying to get interviews. I had done work experience at Jean Colonna, but there were no jobs. I got two interviews at Mugler and that fell through, too. I had to come back to England and work at Liberty as a sales assistant. In November last year I did it again, nothing happened and I felt really flat. Of the five students who got firsts in my year, two got jobs, one did an MA, one I don't know, and then there's me. I suppose St Martin's is a subconscious education, it teaches you to make the most of an opportunity. In all I've had about 30 interviews. I went back to Paris for the third time three weeks ago, and finally got offered a position at Louis Vuitton. I started on Monday. I suppose I'm excited about it, but Jean Colonna is still my dream job."


BA Hons Fashion Design, graduated from University of Northumbria with a First last summer. Now works as a designer at Nigel Cabourn and consults on the new Virgin range of clothes, to be unveiled in September.

"When I got my first proper fashion job it was the culmination of 13 years of trying. From 1985 to 1987 I did a fashion course, but ended up designing T-shirts for Asda, and was not happy. I decided I needed a degree that taught me hands-on technical fashion design, not high-end fashion, so I saved up for a few years, moved to Newcastle, and did the degree. I specialised in practical menswear. The Christmas before graduation Nigel Cabourn approached me with a job - I think someone recommended me - and I accepted. It had always been my goal to get a job straightaway. I began it two weeks before my degree.

College was like an incubation period, it was essential to me as a designer, but a year on the job has taught me so much more. It's a lot of administration and communication, not just sketching, and I also travel abroad to review fits of prototype garments. The best bit so far has been seeing the clothes I worked on being worn. My biggest lesson was realising how long it took to get where I wanted. I really had to believe in myself, and it eventually paid off."


Fashion Design Womenswear, graduated with a 2:1 from Kingston and started her first job at Name Workshop two months ago, after struggling on the dole.

"People thought I would do well straightaway. I won the RSA Masters Medal and the British Fashion Council Student Designer of the Year in 1996, and other smaller awards. When I graduated I had won almost pounds 4,000, but had not done a placement. Everyone thinks they are going to be spotted and swept off their feet, but nothing happened. I did a few interviews, joined a couple of agencies, and even thought about setting up my own label. Instead, I went on the dole and sent my CV everywhere. I think it was because I had no business experience that finding a job was difficult. I didn't know about clothes production, or office stuff, just the creative side, although I am learning now. I got my job at Name Workshop two months ago. It's been great. I've designed a capsule range of streety separates for women that go into the shop next month and I'm working on autumn/winter now. If I'd done anything differently I would have done a work placement. Now I really appreciate that I'm here. College was easy, but this last year has definitely brought me back to earth."


Fashion Print, graduated from Central Saint Martin's with a First last year, and won the Real Sheepskin Award at Graduate Fashion Week. She now runs her own label from home. She has just received New Generation sponsorship for her next collection.

"Ours was the first year who had to be selected for the press show of Graduate Fashion Week, and I was lucky enough to get through. I based my final collection on travels in Tibet, with lots of hand-printed sheepskin pieces, and afterwards I was selected for the big Gala show; from that I won the Real Sheepskin Award and pounds 500, which was really exciting. Three weeks later, Liberty came to see my clothes, and asked me to do a collection. I spent all summer sorting it out. In November, Liberty ordered seven new garments and some sheepskin from my graduation collection, which went into the shop last month. After that I had six weeks to get the next one ready in time for London Fashion Week last February. It's been a rollercoaster, but we got some orders. I was all ready to go to India and meditate after graduation, but instead I've had to learn how to run a small business; I haven't even had time to see my clothes in Liberty yet."


Graduated with a 2:2 in Fashion Design from Nottingham Trent and is now a trainee buyer within the designer department of Debenhams.

"I knew before I finished my degree that I didn't want to be a designer. I found the design room frustrating when I was on placement at Burton, and wanted something more solid, with good training, and I thought buying would be ideal. I started looking for a job in the final year. I had 10 interviews at places like Harvey Nichols, M&S, Next and Dorothy Perkins, but no luck. After graduation I joined a recruitment agency, they weren't much help either, so I wrote to every high street store I could think of telling them what I could do. I got the job here in August 1997 when Debenhams were just setting up the Designers' team, a department which deals with the diffusion collections from Maria Grachvogel, Ben de Lisi, and Pearce Fionda. My job title is buyers administration assistant. I love the job, it's interesting, creative, and I'm learning to use the computer, but you do have to work very hard. I'm glad I didn't pin my hopes on Graduate Fashion Week like so many of my friends. They thought they would be snapped up. I knew that wouldn't happen to me."


Harrow, graduated with a First in Fashion Design Womenswear last year and immediately began a job as designer at Clements Ribeiro. He also designs his own-label collection.

"I started to learn about fashion at home in Germany, but I was bored. So I came to England and entered the second year of the Harrow course. Almost immediately I got a placement with Clements Ribeiro, and I also won a commendation in an RSA competition, which was very encouraging. When I graduated I already knew I had a job at Clements Ribeiro. In fact I started working before I graduated, and they let me prepare for my show in their studio. After the show I took my collection to Koh Samui in Covent Garden. They put it in the shop and it sold out. The owner Paul Sexton then asked me to do another collection, so I spent evenings and weekends working at home. Everything is hand-made and finished, and most items are unique. The second collection went into the shop in February. This was very exciting. Meanwhile, I am doing a full-time job at Clements Ribeiro, which I love. I just want to be creative and to understand how a structured and organised business works. It is very professional at Clements Ribeiro. The most important thing I have learnt is that being a fashion designer is 20 per cent design, the rest is coping with the business."