Fashion: DEGREES OF EXPERIENCE

Graduate Fashion Week begins tomorrow. More than a thousand students from 37 colleges will present their work in front of industry bigwigs on the look out for the Next Big Thing. But the week's shows aren't just about displaying the talents of future Alexander McQueens or John Gallianos: the clothing industry is the third-biggest employer in this country and eager graduates are likely to find themselves in any one of a huge range of jobs. We caught up with four of last year's fashion graduates from Central Saint Martin's College of Art, and found that students from the class of '96 have ended up in some unlikely roles - from trainee buyer for a high-street chain, to print designer, fashion editor and assistant at a prestigious Paris fashion house

PHOEBE PHILO

Phoebe Philo, 23, graduated last summer with a 2:1 degree in Fashion Design, Womenswear. In April this year she was began work as design assistant to Stella McCartney, now head designer at Chloe in Paris

"I didn't wake up one day thinking, `I want to be a fashion designer', but I did always love dressing up, and dressing other people up too. In my second year I assisted Stella McCartney with her final collection, but it didn't prepare me for my own graduation collection a year later. So much is concentrated into those three minutes on the catwalk, it's a huge anti-climax: one minute you're working to produce this collection, and in the blink of an eye it's over. Thank goodness the college makes sure we work hard on our portfolios because afterwards you're exhausted. It's life though, it's real.

I didn't know what I was going to do, but I had been working as design assistant to Pam Blundell of Copperwheat Blundell, so I said to her, `I'm getting a job with you', and I began to assist her two days a week. Then Stella asked me to help on her label. At the time she was designing from home, and we spent afternoons in her garage, or if the weather was good we would work in the garden wearing our bikinis. It was great. At the end of March Stella was approached by Chloe; I didn't think I was going to be involved, but she asked me to go to Paris with her. It was a difficult decision. A few weeks later I was here.

If someone had said to me when I graduated, `You'll be working in Paris assisting the head designer at Chloe next year', I would have said, `Pull the other one', but here I am. I'm on a proper salary now, and I've just found an apartment. It's very different here, we're regarded as these two girlies from London, but it's a challenging long-term commitment. I feel lucky. I didn't plan this, but I went with the flow and I'm happy."

MARIE HEPBURN

Marie Hepburn, 24, graduated in summer 1996 with a 2:1 BA in Fashion Print. Six months later, the Burton Group (which owns several high-street chains) appointed her as trainee buyer for the Principles Petites range

"From the start, I loved what Saint Martin's stood for. You could create frivolous, ridiculous work while you were there, but still get a valid qualification and a way into the fashion industry.

We spent the first year learning about design, the second working on fabric manip- ulation and print, which is far from glamorous. The placement year was my chance to discover what I felt passionate about. Initially I wanted to be a designer - I love catwalk hype, but it's all a dream. I worked at Red or Dead while they prepared for their Autumn/ Winter 1995 show. It was good, but it didn't appeal to me. I followed that with time at a company called Palm Studios, who sell patterns to high-street stores, then I worked with textile designer Timney Fowler. I did benefit from all this, but my final placement, at International Design Exchange, was the most exciting. IN.D.EX specialise in fashion forecasting: they predict colour trends and anticipate what a specific customer will want a year from now. I enjoyed that kind of work because of the risk element.

After showing my BA collection, I had a holiday to relax and returned ready to find work: I wanted to be a buyer. I wrote 40 letters, joined three fashion-recruitment agencies, and worked for Next to pay the rent. There were days when I felt like giving up, but I didn't. One of the agencies, Eaglestar, was fab. Within hours of calling them I had a mock interview and maths lessons (as a buyer, good maths is important). The following week I had my first interview with Principles and got the job! As well as trainee duties, my role involves knowing what our customer is about, what they'll want to buy in six months' time and why. The `why' bit has always interested me, so I know this job will keep me satisfied."

KARINA GIVARGISOFFKarina Givargisoff, 26, graduated from Saint Martin's last summer with a 2:1 degree in Fashion Communication with Promotion. The following February she was appointed fashion editor at the `Face' magazine

"The third year of the FCP course is set aside for placements and I wanted to go to New York: it was always my dream place. I sold my car, worked seven days a week in Whistles, and saved just enough to get there, with a bit left over for living expenses. I arrived alone and found a grotty hotel that cost $175 a week. The US version of `Marie Claire` was being set up at the time and they offered me a placement. When I asked, `How much?', they were like, `Whaddya mean money? There's no money.' Eventually a wonderful woman called Rory Gevis, the accessories editor at `W' magazine, helped me. I worked with Rory for three months, then returned to London.

At home my mum told me a woman called Alex had been calling. When I rang the number it turned out to be Alexandra White, the fashion stylist. Before I knew it I was in Paris shooting with Craig McDean and Nadja Auermann. It was amazing. I assisted Alex for nine months and nearly didn't come back to London to finish my degree - but my parents would have been furious, so I did.

Throughout my final year I assisted Karl Templar at `Arena`; when I finished my degree Alex wanted me again, so it was back to the jet-set lifestyle. The last thing I expected was a job offer from the `Face`, but when I was back in London for the weekend in February, Ashley Heath called and offered me the position. I couldn't refuse, but it was a big upheaval: I had just found a flat in New York.

I've been so lucky. I took risks in New York - I had no money and sometimes no food, but it paid off in the end. It hasn't sunk in yet - I've been too busy - but when I look at the masthead of the `Face' and I see my name printed there I think: `Wow, that's me.' "

RICHARD CAPSTICK

Richard Capstick, 25, graduated last summer with a first-class degree in Fashion Print. He now designs prints and accessories for the Ghost and Seraph labels, and has received a bursary to study for an MA in Menswear

"Arriving at Saint Martin's was an amazing experience: living in Tooting, south London, after growing up on a dairy and sheep farm in Cumbria.

It's a four-year course, and the third year is spent working in the industry. My first placement was with Intraport, a company which designs high-street florals for BHS, Littlewoods, Evans and Dorothy Perkins. Funnily enough, I saw a woman on the Tube the other day wearing one of the florals I designed for them. I enjoyed it, but I knew it wasn't for me. I followed that with four months at textile designer Harriet Anstruther's, where I dealt with adminis- tration. Afterwards I knew I didn't want to do that either.

Following my year out, the priority was my graduation collection. After, I really didn't know what to do. I had a problem with the fashion industry back then. Fashion is inces- tuous, when it should be accessible to everyone, not just the chosen few. I must admit after four years I felt disillusioned with it all. None the less, I had a qualification and a portfolio, so I went to see Ghost, who liked my drawings. I then worked on the RSPCA T-shirts that Seraph, their other label, brought out, and soon found myself designing prints for Ghost. I also went to New York with Ghost when they showed there in October, which was good, and I designed 58 pieces of leather jewellery for their Autumn/Winter 1997 collection. In between I decided to do a Masters in menswear. I want as many strings to my bow as possible.

I've accepted now that I'm in this business, and am prepared to make it work without compromising my morals, or prostituting myself. I never want to be `Richard Capstick - Fashion Designer': I'm much happier working for someone else." !

BHS Graduate Fashion Week, the biggest showcase for graduating student talent in the world, begins tomorrow in marquees outside the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank (nearest Tube station Waterloo on the Northern or Waterloo and City Lines). Shows take place from 1pm each day, and tickets can be purchased, subject to availability, from the box office on the day, or by telephone on 0171 629 2885. Tickets cost pounds 6 per show; `exhibition only' tickets cost pounds 5. The charity gala Awards Evening takes place on 13 June, and features the best graduates of the week. Tickets (which include a glass of champagne) cost pounds 20 each, from the number above.

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