The loneliness of a first-year designer

Fashion students show their worth
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NINE MONTHS ago, Mercedes Bermudez, a third-year fashion student at Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design, graduated with a first. Her collection of romantic, artsy, rather distressed clothes was well received by the press. In June she was listed under Time Out's heading of "Hot New Talent". In July she was interviewed by BBC radio. In August she was commissioned to design the uniforms for all the women staff at the media-friendly restaurant, Granita, in north London. In November she was picked to represent the contemporary fashion student as part of a show for the 50th anniversary of the Design Council, and in the same month her work was included in an exhibition at the London Institute called "Top Marks", which featured students who had graduated with the highest marks. This month, her entire final-year collection (part of which is shown here) will be shown as part of the Alternative Arts fashion week (March 20-24) at Spitalfields Market in Brushfield Street, London E1. So far so good. But there's one problem. She hasn't got a job. Backers are hard to find. Retail buyers, so often the first port of call for new designers, are taking less risks than they used to. And though Mercedes has trudged round to see them with her clothes, nobody so far has offered any concrete business. "When you take your collection round you feel like a number, just another new designer," she says. "Even if you're lucky enough to get an order, some retailers are nervous and will only take it on a sale-or-return basis. This can mean that you plough a lot of money into production, with no guarantee of anything in return." Lucille Lewin, owner of the Whistles chain, has been responsible for helping many fledgling designers on their way, "but I don't buy from less well-established designers any more because I found it too uncommercial. And I never do sale-or-return. If you have a collection in your shop you should believe it will sell." Her advice to anyone leaving college this year is typically sensible: "Don't go into business on your own straight out of college. It's a bore - but do work experience and make your mistakes in other people's businesses and with other people's money!" But for those designers who take the time- honoured British route and set up on their own, there are people prepared to help. David Jones, a business consultant, runs courses geared to the fashion industry (Bermudez has now signed up) and already works with young design companies such as Sign'o'The Times, Copperwheat Blundell, Sonnentag Mulligan and Xavier Foley. Jones says: "Although it's improving slightly, there is a huge problem with students leaving college not knowing anything about business." Wendy Dagworthy, head of St Martin's and a former designer herself for 16 years, disagrees. "We bring people in from the outside to talk to our students and they come from all spheres of fashion, from designers and journalists to factory-owners. Most of the people here are, or have been, involved in business themselves. As for production, we cover that in our fashion and marketing courses. We try to ensure our students leave with a realistic view of the world. All the help they need is there if they want it, but some of them are in the clouds."

Mercedes Bermudez, whose feet are planted firmly on the ground, is determined to make a go of it. "I want to learn as much as possible about the industry. I don't want to give up. But the scary thing about fashion is that so much of it depends on who you meet." Annalisa Barbieri

From left to right above: long burnt-silk chiffon coat with hand-dyed cotton skirt and pink satin top; white silk one sleeved dress; long burnt silk chiffon skirt with hand-dyed cotton jacket.

Mercedes Bermudez: 0171 289 3659