Fashion class act: The joy of Graduate Fashion Week is under threat from student debt

There’s nothing uniform about British fashion schools, as evidenced by the talent on show at Graduate Fashion Week 2014. Alexander Fury salutes the best – but wonders if student debt is already stunting the industry’s future

Last Tuesday was the end of the most important fashion week you’ve never heard of. I’m not talking Zagreb or Transylvania – although both do host their own – but Graduate Fashion Week, showcasing a sometimes dazzling array of designs from a certainly dizzying number of UK graduates.

Eighteen universities in total paraded their wares, with auxiliary presentations by London-based institutions including the Royal College of Art’s MA course and Central Saint Martins’ BA. The Masters of the latter shows on-schedule each February at London Fashion Week, the only university to do so. It is considered the week’s hot ticket.

Why? For the same reason Graduate Fashion Week is so important: because it’s about raw talent, about the next generation of fashion names. Almost every label on-schedule at London Fashion Week has passed through one of the key UK colleges – not just the hallowed halls of Central Saint Martins, but the Royal College of Art (Erdem, Julien MacDonald, Christopher Raeburn), Manchester School of Art (Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen) and Westminster (Burberry’s Christopher Bailey).

There are also scores of designers working in-house. “Almost all of them go straight into jobs as designers either here or in New York and Paris,” Andrew Groves, the course director of Westminster’s Fashion BA, says of the university’s graduating students – although only a tiny proportion found their own labels.

These graduation shows, then, are pure distillations of designer identity, entirely unsullied by commercial realities or restraints of employers. They’re billboards for talent yet to come, statements of intent. Some statements are, of course, more convincing than others. The half-dozen collections above are a snippet of the best across the board: Gracie Wales-Bonner’s menswear snagged Central Saint Martin’s coveted L’Oréal Professionel Talent Award.

These graduation shows have propelled some designers to instant fame. John Galliano’s 1984 BA collection was bought immediately by the influential retailer Browns, which displayed the collection prominently in its windows (incidentally, there must be some kind of 30-year itch – there was a slew of 2014 Central Saint Martins graduates whose collections bore his imprint).

Stella McCartney’s 1995 BA collection was snapped up by the London boutique Tokio. She set up an eponymous label straight after, but shuttered it in 1997 to become head designer at Chloé. Her friend and fellow classmate Phoebe Philo joined, and is now creative director of Céline.

Nevertheless, most designers have traditionally viewed their BA as the first fledgling step into an industry career – usually followed by time working alongside other designers at a major fashion house, or an MA, before considering launching an eponymous label.

Today, however, a graduate emerges with a millstone of a roughly £30,000 debt – plus the cost of producing those all-important final collections, which frequently doubles that figure. Arguably, for many, that makes the MA an impossibility, even before taking into account the scarcity of prized places (Central Saint Martins received around 600 applications for just 45 or 50 places).

These realities of fashion design in 2014 seem to be pushing designers to found labels earlier and earlier, with designers Ashley Williams and Claire Barrow both emerging from the Westminster BA to start their own labels. “For our students, there is definitely a trend away from doing an MA,” says Westminster’s Andrew Groves. “All of our students work for a year in industry between their second and final year... when they return to us, the realities of the international fashion industry should be informing their own work and aesthetic.”

Financial restraints could feasibly be thinning the numbers of designers even considering an MA. “On CSM MA there are now some interesting bursaries for UK/EU students, which were founded by Louise,” Walters says, referring to the influential MA course leader Professor Louise Wilson OBE, who died last month.

The roll-call of bursaries reflects the international standing of the college: Chloé, Stella McCartney, L’Oréal and J.Crew all have lent their monikers, and their money, to supporting and nurturing fashion talents of the future. “These encourage students to apply,” Walters says. “Without this support, an MA would be impossible.”

A notable early recipient was the leading menswear designer Christopher Shannon, who received the first scholarship doled out in a decade for his MA. But is that support enough? Not in the eyes of many. “Everything I’ve done has always been out of a sense of outrage about the way things are going... when I was growing up, there was no question: if you had enough brains you would go to university.”

Those are the words of Sarah Mower, contributing editor for American Vogue and the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent. She is also a newly appointed “Pillar for Education” alongside Meribeth Parker, group publishing director of Hearst UK.

Mower’s role hitherto has been to spot  and nurture the talent of tomorrow, post-graduation: in her new role, she’s hoping to foster it even earlier. “We’ve recognised a couple of things – that education has got less affordable and that British fashion needs talent in all areas to keep thriving and developing,” Mower says.

To that extent, the bursaries and grants need to increase in number and offer support in earlier stages of education, covering BA and Foundation as well as MA, she says. “In fashion, in Britain in particular – I hate to say this – very rarely has privilege produced great designers,” Mower says. “It’s always the outsiders and the outcasts.”

And for Willie Walters, those individuals are precisely what make London fashion interesting. “London embraces the outsider,” she says. “Now in the 21st century London has become some sort of monstrous centre of the universe, a black hole sucking in all available talent that ventures within range.” She means that in a good way – and certainly intends to encourage it for generations to come

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