Young designers dress to impress at Graduate Fashion Week

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Scruffy students and glamorous catwalk shows aren't the most obvious bedfellows, but the two will come together this Sunday on the first day of Graduate Fashion Week, when design students from around the UK show their final year collections.

The event is distinct from other ceremonies at graduation time as the audience will be made up not of proud parents but of rows of fashion insiders in dark glasses, including Victoria Beckham, a judge this year, who come to check out the young talent. If all goes to plan, a few lucky graduates will be offered the kind of job that is hard to come by in this cut-throat world of tantrums and tiaras.

The four-day event, entering its 16th year, will showcase clothes designed by 1,000 students from 48 universities. "It's their moment," says Jeff Banks, the fashion designer behind the Warehouse chain, who presented The Clothes Show throughout the 1990s. "Imagine spending three or four years of your life studying and condensing it into two minutes. It makes my stomach go into my mouth, and that's what makes creativity work."

Banks set up the event in response to a plea from the head of Brighton University's fashion design course, who pointed out how unfair it was that all the London colleges had future employers turning up to their shows, while nobody took the time to go to Brighton.

The first show set the standard by crowning Christopher Bailey the winner. He is now creative director at Burberry, the luxury fashion brand with an annual turnover of £850m. Last year's event saw representatives from Hermès, Missoni, Abercrombie & Fitch and sponsors River Island scouting for talent.

"It's a real plum prize to show in London," says Banks. "It allows all of the universities to show alongside one another, so it has increased the standards by creating a league of colleges who look to what the others are producing each year. Over the years I've seen the standard go up and up. The icing on the cake is that employers such as Donna Karan and Gap actually come into London for four days and get a view of which students have potential."

River Island has employed 20 new graduates on their design team over the past two years, but students are realistic about their chances of finding work through the show. The fashion industry demands new designers complete months of unpaid work experience before they land a job, which might then have a starting salary as low as £15,000 in central London.

Pascale Pinxt, 23, is coming to the end of three years at Middlesex University and is the only one out of around 25 students on her course who has already found a job. Pinxt found a placement at Margaret Howell during her second year and has worked there part-time ever since. Her dedication has paid off and the company has offered her a junior design position on graduation.

Kelly Lupson is finishing a three-year course at Westminster University, though four-year courses with a year out to work in the industry are also common. She found a work placement at Alexander McQueen.

"It was exciting but really intense," she says. "I would go in at 9am and sometimes finish in the early hours of the morning. But the workload has prepared me for what I'm doing now in my final collection."

Lupson has not yet found a job and is planning to do more work experience when the show is over. But she did impress McQueen, who asked her to stay on after her placement and are paying her to work with them at Paris Fashion Week.

Lupson has the sort of passion that Banks believes is imperative. "Without fashion I'm kind of lost and bored," she says. She is preparing six outfits for her Fashion Week collection, which she describes as "womenswear with a romantic feel to it, with studs to give it a modern edge".

Alice Smith is one half of design recruitment agency Smith & Pye, who found Alexander McQueen his first job and source designers for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Mulberry and stores including Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins. Her company tries to see all the students chosen to show at the Fashion Week but, Smith says, it is difficult to place a new graduate.

"We really encourage our clients to take on graduates," she says, "but to be honest they usually find their own first job. They go away to Italy or New York and then phone us up and say, 'I've done six months at Armani and now I'm looking to move back to the UK.' If they've got six months to a year under their belt, they're employable."

Although starting salaries are low, designers with two years experience can earn around £30,000, according to Smith. With 95 colleges churning out fashion graduates, though, the competition is fierce.

Lupson says she has spent around £3,000 on materials and equipment to produce her final collection, so it clearly pays to look on a fashion degree, just like that £800 Prada coat, as a long-term investment.

Stepping into fashion

James Lawrence, 25, won last year's Graduate Fashion Week award and the top prize of £20,000. He studied at Northumbria University in Newcastle and is now a menswear designer at Closed in Hamburg, where his starting salary was €40,000 (£27,000).

"Graduate Fashion Week gives students something to aim for. You want to be proud with what you have accomplished over the previous three or four years. It lets you see what other universities have been doing and the chance to show your work to employers. I know many people who have received work from their portfolios being displayed, which is a huge bonus.

I couldn't believe it when I won. I was flattered that my lecturers wanted to put my collection forward in the first place. When I received the text saying I was in the final 10, it was amazing.On the night of the gala I was nervous because my collection was being shown to very important people in the industry. There are so many fashion students graduating every year it would be naive to think you're going to get a job from the Fashion Week, but it is a perfect showcase. There are many employers looking for new designers and many companies looking for freelance workers.

I have been in Germany for 10 months and it's been a fantastic experience. Closed is a luxury sportswear brand and I only got this job through winning the award."