Dressing to impress

Graduate Fashion Week, which begins on Sunday, is the highlight of the year for Britain's wannabe designers. It's where they hope to be discovered - or find a job
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The Independent Online

The designer Jeff Banks remembers how Graduate Fashion Week began in 1991. He received a letter from Roy Peach, now the fashion course-leader at the London College of Fashion, who was then teaching at Brighton Polytechnic.

The designer Jeff Banks remembers how Graduate Fashion Week began in 1991. He received a letter from Roy Peach, now the fashion course-leader at the London College of Fashion, who was then teaching at Brighton Polytechnic.

"He said it was unfair that people in the industry couldn't be bothered to come and see the Brighton students' work - and they were only 50 miles form London," Banks says. "I got another letter from Newcastle Poly and one from Vanessa Denza, of Denza International [the recruitment agency] saying exactly the same thing."

At the time, Banks was working on a big fashion show sponsored by the vodka company Smirnoff at the Islington Design Centre. He discovered that Smirnoff was interested in doing something for young people. Banks struck a deal with the company that it would let the students use its catwalk after the spiffy show was over. And that is how it started.

Fourteen years on, Graduate Fashion Week, which opens on Sunday, has grown hugely. The polytechnics are now universities, the venue is the Battersea Park arena and at the moment the event is sponsored by River Island, the fashion store. Moreover, there are now many more fashion students, so only the best can show their collections.

"In a student's calendar, it's become the thing to do," Banks says. "It's amazing for those who can show their work. But it's disappointing that only 25 students from each college are able to do that, especially when they have run up debts at the end of their degrees and are on the cusp of their creativity."

One leading college, Central St Martins, has dropped out of Graduate Fashion Week rather than disappoint its undergraduates, according to Banks. That's a shame, he says. Another university, Kingston, stayed out because one of its sponsors objects, Banks says. "Their prestige slips as a result. We would like them in."

But, for the rest, the week is the highlight of the year. "It's a wonderful showcase for graduating students from the good colleges," says Gillian Charles, programme leader for the BA in fashion at Middlesex University. "That has to be a good thing. It's a way of saying to whoever, 'Look, it's all here for you on a plate.'"

It gives students something really big to aim for in their final year, says Wendy Malam, head of the department of fashion, film and music at the University of Westminster. "They know that the media come, and the trade come, and they might be interviewed for a job. Last year, we had six students interviewed during the week. It gives kudos to the students, which is good for them."

For the colleges, it's a way to promote themselves. They get media coverage and are seen in the company of other good higher education institutions, all of which are busting their guts to do their best with the talent they have got. That has to be good for their reputations. "We teach our students to aspire to the very heights," says Gillian Charles. "Not everyone is going to get there, but I am a huge believer in pitching yourself as high as you can possibly go."

In addition, Graduate Fashion Week is a fantastic learning experience, according to Professor Maureen Wayman, pro-vice-chancellor and dean of the faculty of art and design at Manchester Metropolitan University. That's because students can look at the work of their peers from other universities and staff can see how the work of their students compares. "That has made a considerable difference to the working relationship that exists between each institution," Wayman says. "Of course we are competing, but at the same time we are also collaborating."

Most university fashion departments doubt whether they would be able to hold graduate shows on their own any longer. That is what used to happen before 1991. They would put on end-of-degree shows locally in their own towns and cities for people in the industry who were prepared to travel from London, or for local firms and media.

Fashion staffs are smaller in the universities now and the student groups are larger, which means that organising such events would be more difficult today.

Douglas Maclennan, final-year tutor for fashion at the University of Northumbria, remembers that he used to do seven shows over three days in Newcastle for the graduating students. Occasionally they would show in London.

He doesn't see how it would be possible for schools to do separately what Graduate Fashion Week achieves today. First, there's the cost. Second, there's the fact that companies will turn up to a big event where they are going to meet a lot of people. They wouldn't do that for one college. "Last year, Adidas, who are based in Stuttgart, came to Graduate Fashion Week," he says. "And Abercrombie and Fitch came from the US. You're not going to have the clout as an individual college to do that."

Alice Smith, director of Smith and Pye recruitment consultants, confirms that. "It makes it much easier because you all go to the same place," she says. Smith and Pye places designers with companies around the world, including Louis Vuitton and Givenchy in Paris, Gap in New York and Topshop, Marks and Spencer and Alexander McQueen in London.

The recruitment firm attends Graduate Fashion Week because it is important for it to get new graduates on its books. Although Smith and Pye cannot normally help a new graduate get a job immediately, it keeps tabs on them and helps them out when they have a couple of years' experience. "We nurture them through their careers right from the beginning," Smith says. "At first they may get a job in New York, Milan or Paris, but we are in touch with them all the time. After two years, they might come to us and say, 'I want to move on now,' and we can help them."

The colleges are hugely grateful to River Island for sponsoring the event and for launching two new awards: a £20,000 Gold Award for the winning student and a Brand Development Award, worth £5,000. "We are excited about the new brand award," says Jacqui McAssey, senior lecturer in fashion at the University of Central Lancashire. "The awards are so important to the students because they are pitched against their peer group in their final year."

River Island has a number of motives for its generosity. "It is a great opportunity for us to invest in the future of our potential employees," says Richard Bradbury, River Island's managing director. But he also wants to introduce students to the range of jobs in fashion, particularly as most will not end up as designers for Gucci or Prada. Talking to the graduates he hired last year, Bradbury found that most of them did not know the great variety of careers that exist in fashion. This year, he hopes they will.

Graduate Fashion Week, 5 to 8 June, Battersea Park Arena, London SW11. For tickets call 01903 885 748 or go to www.gfw.org.uk for further information

'Eventually, I would love to have my own label. I could do it in about five years, I think'

Like all graduating students, Marie Gibson, 22, is hoping that she'll be discovered at Graduate Fashion Week. But that hardly ever happens.

Alexander McQueen was famously discovered as a postgraduate by Isabella Blow, who bought up his entire collection. But Marie, who has done her training at the University of Middlesex, is sanguine about the competitive world she is about to enter. If her wildest hopes are not fulfilled, she'll settle for a job as part of a creative design team working for a large company. "Eventually, I would love to have my own label," she says. "In five years I think I could just about do it." Anyone interested in Marie's garments inspired by the Russian Revolution should hurry along to Battersea Park Arena.

Another student who has taken her inspiration from the past is Emily Freud, 22, a student at the London College of Fashion, whose designs are based on the photography of August Sander. He rode around Austria on a bike in the Twenties and Thirties taking pictures of all kinds of people, rich and poor. Freud has tried to replicate his black-and-white photographs by making her clothes look worn and used. Like Marie, she made all the patterns for her collection, sourced the fabric, cut it and made up each item. It cost her more than £2,000. "Luckily, I have a very understanding father," she says.

Siri MacDonald, 21, from the University of Northumbria, has already won a River Island award for her packaging design, which has come with a work placement at the company. This month, River Island customers will have their purchases put in bags designed by Siri. Her collection is made up from bold, multicoloured, abstract fabric inspired by the artist Ben Nicholson, she says, and by the fact that both her parents are artists.

Like Emily's, Siri's collection has cost a small fortune because she decided to use expensive silk for the clothes. "I think that what I have achieved is very different and new," she says. "I have not seen anything like it."