Over the past few weeks, the fashion studios at Kensington Gore have been a hunting-ground for the world's biggest names in fashion. Donna Karan, Gianfranco Ferre, Valentino and Levi's are just a few of the names who have sent talent scouts to weigh up the new prospects. Already, ex- RCA students, along with other British graduates from fashion BA courses, form the backbone of the international design teams, including Prada, Versace, Valentino and Gucci in Milan, and Calvin Klein and Donna Karan in New York.
Among the students showing on the catwalk are two finalists of a joint project set up by the International Wool Secretariat and the Italian menswear label Ermenegildo Zegna. James Spreckley, 23, and PJ Kim-Warren, 25, have been chosen as finalists. On top of their own degree collections, they have been working on a capsule collection that could go into production with Zegna as a new concept to take the brand, and men's clothing, into the 21st century. Both have come up with surprisingly realistic collections, with an eye on the existing Zegna customer - a professional working man with upwards of pounds 500 to spare on the price of a suit - and on future innovations in menswear design.
James Spreckley's collection was influenced by the face of a watch - the intricate construction of a tailored garment hidden, like the workings of a clock, behind a clean exterior. "I wanted to push the boundaries between tailoring and sportswear, but keeping in mind the customer who has to juggle family, social time and business. He will wear these clothes to represent an outer calm."
The collection uses traditional Zegna checks and suitings, but in a more unstructured, sporty way. When he graduated from a fashion degree at Ravensbourne two years ago, Spreckley did not have to worry about job hunting after accepting a place at the RCA. But after he leaves this week, he hopes to have a short break before employment. "My ideal job would be to use both tailoring and sportswear," he says. "I wouldn't mind being an anonymous designer for a big company for two or three years, because I want to learn about the business side of things." Eventually, he plans to set up on his own.
Like most of the graduates who will find work with a big company, Spreckley will probably go to work abroad, in Milan or New York. PJ Kim-Warren, who did her BA at Central Saint Martin's, says she is living on hope. "Jobs in fashion are like gold dust," she says. She would like to work abroad, as there simply are not the same opportunities for a menswear designer in London. As far as she can see, Katharine Hamnett is the only company producing exciting menswear in this country.
PJ Kim-Warren's collection for the family-run Italian label is called "2001 - No time for nostalgia". She has geared the collection around the man who will be working at home by the new millennium. "Comfort was the key to the whole concept," she says. There is a cocoon-like silhouette to her knitwear, which has polar fleece linings and padding between layers of wool. Trousers have zips, like track suit bottoms, so that the wearer can unfasten them in the comfort of his own home and zip them up again if he has to go out to a business meeting. PJ Kim-Warren thinks working practices will change, so that soon it will be the norm to be hooked up to a laptop and working from home. Her collection emphasises natural fibres and comfort, as a counterbalance to new technology.
Projects with companies in industry are increasingly encouraged at fashion colleges. They introduce students to the realities of designing a collection with a set market and customer in mind and give design companies such as Zegna a new perspective on their existing collections. As Gildo Zegna, president of the company, stresses: "We aim for a balance between continuity and innovation." The winner, who will be announced on Thursday night, will receive a placement with the label which will no doubt add a spark of fresh thought to the design team. After the project with Zegna, PJ Kim-Warren says, "I'd be happy to do some work with them, but I don't want to build up my hopes too much".
The RCA fashion show is open to the public tonight, 7.15pm for 8pm. Tickets cost pounds 10, to include a glass of champagne. For tickets, ring Margaret Manley (0171-590 4373) or buy a ticket on the door at The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, Camden Town, London NW1.