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New kids on the block: Britain's graduate shows offer a tantalising glimpse of the future

A dress that resembles a giant wedding cake, and a skirt made of newspapers... it must be the graduate fashion shows. However, increasingly, the really crazy creations traditionally associated with student designs – think clocks coming out of stomachs – are giving way to a more commercially savvy approach. For some graduates, financial pressures and increasing competition mean that they want to show accessible collections that could attract employers straight away.

The designer Giles Deacon says that the tone has changed, and many students edit their collections to try to appeal to different members of the audience – an experimental piece to attract attention, a sellable piece for buyers, an intricate piece for recruiters, and so on.

In terms of winning prizes, however – and there are plenty on offer to graduates – showing a collection that is avant-garde enough to convey imagination, rather than too archly conceptual or totally mad, is a shrewd strategy. Or, as Alice Smith, of the fashion consultancy Smith & Pye, puts it, "good bonkers, not bad bonkers".

Giles Deacon, who was one of the judges of the London College of Fashion's new Collection of the Year award, says that, for him, the winner should be, "the most fashion-forward". He chose Matthew Innett, who showed a "good bonkers" collection that exaggerated the proportions on conservative garments such as skirt-suits, blouses and pencil skirts so that they looked as if they had been partially inflated. For Deacon, he had "the most concise and unusual aesthetic. The fabrics and the proportion looked really now, and a bit 'off', which I liked. He has a lot of potential and his work is very technically skilled."

Innett explained his thinking: "This is probably the last time I can do whatever I want. So I wanted my collection to be in your face."

Opinion is divided on whether a more experimental or pragmatic approach is preferable. Michael Hertz, one of the head designers at Aquascutum, believes that, ideally, college should be about having time to experiment, and agrees that many of the shows have become more slick and professional. "Now, you can see graduates deliberately aiming for a job at a particular design house," he says. Certainly, the spirit of labels such as Lanvin, Balenciaga, Prada, Yohji Yamamoto and Gareth Pugh moved through many of the graduates' pieces.

It's not always easy to identify trends at graduate shows, but at the Graduate Fashion Week gala show, at which most of the colleges across the country come together, and the London College of Fashion show (which is off-schedule, as are the Central Saint Martins and Kingston College shows) there were clear echoes of what is happening on the mainstream catwalks, with plenty of ruffles, reworkings of classic tailoring, draping and sheer fabrics. There were even some trends that are already past their sell-by date, such as new-rave neons, and clear-plastic fetish-style panels.

However, different design schools encourage different approaches, and Central Saint Martins – traditionally the source of the most "exuberant" graduate shows, as its BA course director Willie Walters put it – did showcase some extreme looks, such asVega Zaishi Wang's neon-lit pencil skirts, reminiscent of Hussein Chalayan.

Richard Bradbury, CEO of River Island, which sponsors Graduate Fashion Week, said that many of the clothes shown could go straight into store. River Island recruits around 10 people a year, but not just designers – they also look for pattern-cutters, buyers and visual merchandisers. Bradbury believes that, "the graduate show, and the event itself, has matured. The students are much more professional. What is the priority? Getting a job. Money is key. People are leaving with £15,000-£20,000 of debt." This is, of course, particularly relevant during a retail slowdown.

Certainly, Graduate Fashion Week is now a much grander event than it used to be, with more money from sponsorship and better production values. This year, there were talent scouts for Tom Ford's design studio, Ben Sherman, Paul Smith, M&S, and numerous others, and jobs have already been allocated. The celebrity element certainly raises awareness of new fashion – and Claudia Schiffer added glamour as one of the judges – but with Gok Wan and Pixie Geldof among the "faces" presenting awards, one can't help wondering whether they generate the right kind of buzz, or merely pander to the current obsession with celebrity in the fashion industry. Are overseas employers really more likely to come to the event and hire graduates because Pixie Geldof is skipping on stage to present an award?

However, whether or not the celebrity element enhances the profile of the event or distracts attention away from design, British fashion colleges are widely considered the best in the world. For the designer Matthew Williamson, who also judged for Collection of the Year, "they generate unique, fresh talent, and for those in the capital, just being in London is an advantage because there is such an artistic slant to the city. I get inspired walking down the street!".

And the fashion consultant Alice Smith agrees: "We can place people from the best British colleges at the drop of a hat. Overseas labels all want our designers. It might be a shame that some of the eccentricity has been lost, but you still see even more excitement and creativity on Graduate Fashion Week catwalks than you do on London Fashion Week ones."

The ones to watch...

* Sara Li Ratcliffe, MA fashion, Royal College of Art (RCA)

Ratcliffe gives new meaning to the expression "he's got the whole world in his hands" with a globe-like bag for men on a wrist strap. Other leather bags included a colourful satchel that resembled a compressed set of hat boxes. For when a man-bag just isn't fashion-forward enough.

* Ingrid Hass, from the BA fashion course at Central Saint Martins (CSM)

Knitwear was one of the strongest categories. Although there wasn't much new in terms of silhouette overall, students made subtle but intriguing statements through texture and pattern. Hass got the inspiration for her bucolic scenes and fresh land-girl styles from her farming background.

* Ria Thomas, from Nottingham Trent

Thomas showed feminine knit dresses in sack styles and swingy 1940s shapes, while texture came from ripples and swirls. She won the Pringle of Scotland Visionary Knitwear Award.

* Lea Carreno, from the RCA MA

Carreno's designs recalled those of Sonia Rykiel, but with a stricter spin.

* Craig Lawrence, BA fashion, CSM

It's knitwear, but not as we know it. No prizes for guessing that the creator of one the most eccentric collections has worked with Gareth Pugh. His outlandish creations, inspired by Indian street decorations, showcased his skilled craftsmanship.

* Alithia Spuri-Zampetti, BA, CSM, winner of first prize in L'Oréal Professionnel Award

Zampetti applied couture techniques and shapes to modest fabrics such as denim, for a sharp, modern result. Her headpieces looked laser-cut, but were actually entirely handmade.

* Fiona Broni, BA, London College of Fashion

There are echoes of Roksanda Ilincic in Broni's raw hems, and of Emma Cook in her use of appliqué. Ethereal and feminine without being sickly, and instantly wearable.

* Nicole Xie, BA, CSM

From China herself, Xie showed prints that evoked traditional Chinese designs fused with Art Nouveau. Moody burgundy and deep green were combined with dramatic black and white on fitted silk dresses and fluid jackets.