As Charlotte Simpson sat down to produce her final collection for her BA in fashion at Northumbria University, she conjured up memories of the Golden Horn, the Blue Mosque and the spices sold on the teeming streets of Istanbul.
She transformed those thoughts, based on a visit to the city by the Bosphorus, into a series of garments paraded on the catwalk at last year's Graduate Fashion Week at Earl's Court in London. The show won her the Zandra Rhodes Catwalk Textiles Award and led to her being commissioned to produce a series of prints for River Island. "I enjoy working with colour and pattern," says Simpson, 22. "I get a lot of my inspiration from travelling and experiencing the arts and architecture of different cultures."
Simpson's work, along with that of scores of other fashion students, now has a more permanent showcase on Arts Thread website, which has been set up in partnership with Graduate Fashion Week to highlight the skills of emerging young British designers.
Rather than lugging their portfolio around the offices of potential employers, graduating students can upload their collections so that designers who are looking to hire new talent can view them at any time in their crowded schedules. Importantly, Arts Thread is a platform for overseas fashion houses to find talent in a sector in which the British higher education system excels.
Like Simpson, Myrto Stamou is working on a collection for River Island after winning last year's Gold Award at Graduate Fashion Week for the clothes she designed at University for the Creative Arts, Rochester. Mehmet Ali, a graduate of Ravensbourne College won the menswear award and is working for Reiss. Terry Mansfield, chairman of Graduate Fashion Week and the former chief executive of the National Magazine Company, the publishers of Cosmopolitan and Harper's Bazaar, says Britain is unparalleled as a creative hub. "We have the best fashion education system in the world," he says. "Before universities there were polytechnics that served the needs of the fashion industry up and down the country. It goes back to the days when we had a large fashion-related manufacturing industry and that's why you find courses in places like Lancashire and Somerset."
There are more than 50 British universities with fashion courses and 22 of these are chosen each year to produce a catwalk show for Graduate Fashion Week, which will be featured on Arts Thread. Famous designers who have passed through Graduate Fashion Week include Christopher Bailey, Giles Deacon and Stella McCartney. Mansfield says the graduate shows are a great opportunity to take creative risks. "It's the only time in your career where you are able to be experimental without worrying about whether it is going to sell." Arts Thread, which also exists in magazine format, was set up by former lingerie designer and fashion journalist Katie Dominy and her business partner Alex Brownless, who formerly worked in fashion recruitment. "There was a need for graduates to show their work in one place online because the designers are overworked and it's unlikely that they can all jump on a plane from New York to go and see a graduate fair," says Dominy. "This way they can do it in their own time, scroll through some portfolios and decide which ones they like the look of."
Dominy says that she hopes that over 2,000 digital portfolios, for which the students each pay £30 a year, will have been uploaded on to the site by the summer. Universities pay £200 for a space on the site, which allows them to promote their courses to future students. Elinor Renfrew, course director for fashion at Kingston University, says Arts Thread has filled a gap left by the closure of the specialist magazine International Textiles, which previously showcased the work of graduates. "It's very valuable and we have had a couple of students recruited through the website," she says. "Arts Thread is different from showing a [physical] portfolio and some of the students have to change drawings that are too small or have too much detail. But they are all working online and doing blogs anyway, so this is very on-trend for them and should be second nature."
Some 20 per cent of fashion graduates are non-residents of the UK, meaning the courses have an international outlook. Mansfield says Arts Thread will help many British students to find work at fashion houses overseas. "The reason I'm so enthusiastic about it is because fashion is a global business and the website will give young people an opportunity to work in other countries after they graduate."
Graduate Fashion Week runs from 6-10 June