Britain's got talent: This year’s graduate collections

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We're riding high in the international style stakes, and this year's graduate collections show why our home-grown designers are wowing the rest of the world. Harriet Walker checks out the class of 2010

The man in the street might be waving the flag for the England team, but those in the fashion industry have come over all patriotic too, with the latest round of graduate collections celebrating the best of young British talent.

Graduate Fashion Week 2010 comes after a year of British success stories: Burberry's triumphant homecoming to London Fashion Week; Phoebe Philo's Zeitgeist-defining collections for Céline; Giles Deacon's recent appointment at the helm of Ungaro – and 25-year-old Rachael Barrett, who graduated from the Royal College of Art MA course this time last year and has since seen several pieces from her degree collection worn by singer and clotheshorse Lady Gaga.

"After graduating, it was a very difficult time," says Barrett. "We all felt the effects of the recession; we'd been told not to expect too much too quickly, and to give it time. It forced us to start thinking about maybe not going straight to work for a label, but to start working on our own pieces – which is what happened during in the Nineties too."

The last recession, of course, provided a backdrop to rising London talents Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. "There was a burst of creativity," says Willie Walters, BA course director at Central Saint Martins, "Students understood there were no jobs out there – they started out with a hope and a prayer, and their creativity began to be appreciated."

This recession is very different of course, underscored as it is by the internet and new fashion media. In a digital age where every outfit is picked apart online as soon as the papparazzi spot it, graduates provide a vital source of fresh, directional and, to some extent, anonymous design. Designer David Koma, who graduated from the Central Saint Martins MA course in 2009 and was on hand to present an award to this year's BA crop, is known for his body-con dresses adorned with metal tubing – as seen on Cheryl Cole and Beyoncé. There's an age-old tradition of couturiers being overtaken by their assistants, but in the world of bloggers and twitterers could graduate fashion be the last word in the Next Big Thing?

Stars are in on the secret, and so are their stylists. Rihanna's creative director Simon Henwood attended the London College of Fashion (LCF) show this year, reportedly on the lookout for show-stealing looks for the fashion-fearless singer's next tour. The college was also the first to livestream its graduate show on their website, so keen are the educational institutions to engage in the new rules of play. But the grads themselves seemed unsure as to whether they were reaching for fame or for fortune, with collections that were divided between outrageous colours and shapes and those that were more muted and commercially viable.

Womenswear took a sophisticated turn, with graduates reflecting the minimal styles that are so ubiquitous right now, and plenty of Forties silhouettes appearing. Timur Kim from Central Saint Martins showed a collection of floor-grazing pieces in red and slate grey – some tailored, some free- flowing – which looked at once modishly ascetic and glamorously arcane. LCF graduate Jennifer Hockenhull's collection of elegantly shoulder-padded sportswear was a new take on a received trend and made athletic garb suitable for even the most formal of cocktail parties. Sheer chiffon gym knickers layered with platinum cycling shorts never looked so chic.

Structure was also key, with many designers choosing to make their statements with volume and dimension rather than vibrant prints, colours or graphics. It's a clever strategy that showed graduates were at ease with 'concept' – one of those fashion words that often makes people nervous.

Over at Saint Martins, Zoe Cheng's grown-up silk evening gowns were slanted and off-kilter, with jutting, asymmetrical geometries that, along with leather trim and elbow-length gloves, added interest and edge to traditional pieces.

The show-stopping finale however was Sorcha O'Raghallaigh, who showed her eclectic and idiosyncratic layered-lace and floral dresses – adorned with hundreds of jingling charms, beads, flowers and crochet shawls – on models atop vast stilts. Her 15ft-tall veiled bride was an ethereal stand-out look from a new designer full of imagination and innovation.

But it isn't all about the spectacle, of course. "The students know they must show their visions among pared-down pieces to lure the customers and buyers," says Rob Phillips, creative director at LCF's School of Design and Technology. "They also know how to restyle pieces off the catwalk to make them more wearable."

And there were plenty of more practical, street-style collections around, from Didier Wong Kung Fong's skater bride in a leather miniskirt and sweatshirt at Saint Martins, to Courtney McWilliams' Stella Artois- inspired urban sportswear and Astrid Andersen's wittily pimped-up leopard print parkas and mega-puffa jackets at the RCA.

These pieces were ready-to-wear in its most literal sense, just a few of the many collections that could have easily sped off the catwalk and into someone's wardrobe.

Likewise, the overarching trend was full-length (for men and for women) and the garment du jour was the column dress – in tattered wool, sheer chiffon, malleable suede and, from the RCA's Nabil El-Nayal, embellished with the sorts of elaborate curlicues and embossed bas-reliefs more normally seen on antique ceilings.

Others opted for more challenging pieces – LCF's Ming Si Ruan had fashioned cocooning, shoulderless and sleeveless dresses from rough oatmeal and duck-egg blue boiled wool, with box pleats embossed on the front. The result was startling modern but with a rustic edge.

Many other graduates also chose to take a more rural and pastoral route, with plenty of pastels and whites, artfully holey and loose knits decorated with deliberately distressed pilling and a preponderance of hessian, worsted cotton and linen. Yi Fang Wan, winner of the Central Saint Martins L'Oréal Young Talent award, showed voluminous and baggy smock-shirts and skirts, worn over trousers and deconstructed so that the front-facing looks bore little resemblance to the back. Rebecca Thomson, of Manchester University's School of Art, winner of the River Island Gold Award and recipient of a helpful £20,000, mixed citified tailoring with outrageously sized ruffled white shirts, which seemed frothy and innocent after so many seasons of dark and heavily structured body-con pieces.

Menswear continued to dominate too, with many collections winning some of the most sought-after awards of the season. Nattaphon Sampataphakdee won LCF's prestigious Collection of the Year prize for his range of slick but nostalgic tailoring and panelled blazers worn with striped, almost pyjama-esque shirts and chinos. In general though, menswear seems to be the forum in which graduates feel at liberty to unleash their creativity: Craig Green's models at the Saint Martin's show wore architectural headdresses and balloons with their chunky, colourful knitwear, while the RCA's Tomislav Mostecak showed a collection of rubber coats, gimp masks and religious iconography printed on casual wear, finishing with an ingenious 'crown of thorns' coat.

At the official Graduate Fashion Week gala, meanwhile, Thomasin Gautier- Ollorenshaw of Birmingham City University showed a bright, cold and cartoonish mix of chunky knitwear referencing early Nineties cult board game Dream Phone, and partnered with shearling jackets, comically fur-patched trousers and a balaclava shaped like a bomb – right down to its knitted fuse. It was a suitably explosive end to a week of exhilarating collections from the next generation of designers set to knock the fashion world for six.

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