Kate Brittain, University of Westminster (Catwalking.com) / Catwalking.com

The fashion graduates of the class of 2015 are remarkably upbeat and impressively assured, says Rebecca Gonsalves

That London fashion designers strive to strike a balance between creativity and commerce is well known. And it’s true not only of the emerging and established names that bolster the capital’s reputation as the home of risk taking and new ideas, but also of the fashion students who are poised to take over that mantle. That was the take-home from the recent run of graduate shows in London, in which the level of talent, ability and ideas on display was once again cheering.

But forget the cheerleading for a moment – back to that dilemma – as much as studying fashion may seem to be fun, it’s an education that doesn’t come cheap, a fact understood all too well by this year’s BA graduates, who were among the first to be charged up to £9,000 a year in fees. Whatever your views on the fairness of such fees, it’s hard not to imagine that the prospects of the debt they incur are enough to focus the mind, and never more so than in the final year, when the prospect of the “real world” looms.

Perhaps that’s why Graduate Fashion Week – a trade-show-style event with national and international fashion courses and colleges showcasing the best of their alumni – seemed to show a marked improvement this year. Many graduates may once have considered an MA to refine their skills, but it is now seen as a luxury rather than the automatic next step. “I think the overall standard at Graduate Fashion Week was much higher than in recent years,” agrees Graeme Moran, the fashion editor of Drapers, a retail industry trade magazine and sponsor of the event. “There was lots of fresh ideas and innovation on the catwalk, and I was particularly impressed by the finish and quality of several ranges – there were some that I could imagine hanging on the rails of certain stores, straight off the runway.”

While the graduate collections that are snapped up by stores straight from the catwalk are so rare as to be notable, more recently, Lulu Kennedy has been looking to BA graduates to talent-scout for her development programme, Fashion East. And you can see why. There was an unmistakable sense of professionalism around this season’s graduate collections. Compared with the art schools of the capital, which host their own graduate shows, Graduate Fashion Week is known for its focus on the employability of its participants. Its mission is to connect companies in need of new staff and ideas with graduates in need of jobs. In fact, at last Tuesday’s gala show, Mark Newton-Jones, the chairman of Graduate Fashion Week, announced that two students were to be offered jobs by the British brand boohoo.com.


There are many qualities that make a good design graduate – imagination and innovative ideas, technical expertise and an understanding of the commercial realities of the industry – but paramount among them is originality, or so Moran believes. “Employers aren’t looking for someone who can reproduce other people’s ideas; they want someone who can create something new and give their business a point of difference. But there does need to be a balance – there’s an element of needing to show an understanding of the business side of the industry and your ability to make clothes that someone, somewhere, will actually want to buy.”

The Gold Award, which comes with a £10,000 stipend courtesy of Asda’s fashion label, George, then, can be seen as an investment in a student with bright ideas, and the skills to match. Interestingly, this year’s recipient, Hannah Wallace of Manchester School of Art, won for a menswear collection. That this reflects a shift in focus to the menswear arena by the industry as a whole is indicative that these students are aware of the overriding trends in the industry as well as on the catwalks.

“Menswear has become more exciting over the past few years and the desire for more exciting product is out there,” Moran says. So perhaps the new focus on menswear and more  gender-fluid ideas is the result of a shrewd decision on the part of students, or maybe it’s just young, creative people being swept up in the excitement. Zowie Broach, the head of fashion at the Royal College of Art, certainly believes it’s the latter – among her MA students, at least. “It’s an interesting time: men are really finding themselves.” Speaking before the Royal College of Art’s catwalk show last Wednesday, Broach was excited and apprehensive – this is her first year in the role and she was eager to see the way the changes she’s implemented would be received. “Everything we hear on the news is related to money somehow,” Broach says of the dilemma facing her students. “Culturally, everything’s about a price point, a strategy, and that’s fine – we understand that we’ve got to live in the real world – but if our students are going to afford those two years it has to be luxurious, and that luxury is freedom.”

But what of the clothes that these conditions have led to? As ever, graduate collections show ideas and experiments on a grand scale – which translates to oversized silhouettes, sculptural inventions and seemingly tangled creations that are multiple ideas and materials knitted and fused together. Kate Cockburn of Edinburgh College of Art skilfully blended tropical florals and arcade-game graphics, while at the Royal College of Art, Nneka Okorie’s use of billowing shapes was a fresh take on something familiar. Print and knitwear disciplines can always be relied upon to produce some inventive ideas: the conceptual collection of Gabriele Skucas of Central Saint Martins was impressively realised, and Kate Brittain of the University of Westminster struck the right balance with her leather and crochet designs.

While some students were a little derivative in their ideas and execution, there was plenty in these collections to get excited about – promising new blood that the industry so needs right now. But whatever the next step for these  students, let’s hope that for now they really can revel in this moment – before there’s more to life than fashion.