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Only a few can really let rip

INDEPENDENT CAREERS: Most fashion work is for the high street.
Sean McGowan, a student at the Royal College of Art, is the latest graduate to be snapped up by a Paris fashion house. The talented McGowan had worked with Karl Lagerfeld as a student and will now work on the designer's label and for Chanel. He follows a stream of UK fashion graduates such as John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Stella McCartney at Chloe who have stormed their way into high profile couture jobs.

More than 1,000 students from 37 colleges took part in BhS Graduate Fashion Week at the South Bank Centre in London last week. Scouts were out in force to sign up the best talent, though few will be as fortunate as McGowan.

"The Stella McCartney's and Alexander McQueen's happen very rarely," says Professor Ian Griffiths of Kingston University. "We are trying to provide jobs for sound designers. Companies like Marks & Spencer and Calvin Klein are the important employers in fashion, not the haute couture houses. If people get on to a fashion course with the aim of doing that then they may be barking up the wrong tree."

Louise Wilson, MA course director at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, agrees. "There are those such as Alexander McQueen who get high profile jobs but most go out into industry and work for Donna Karan or Marks & Spencer," she says.

The prospect of a job in fashion is pulling in more students than ever before, but competition for places on fashion courses is fierce. The London College of Fashion has an average of 600 applicants for every 40 places.

Colin Renfrew, fashion course leader at Ravensbourne College of Design, says: "We only take around 30 students a year and we are fortunate that within six to 12 months of graduating, 85 to 90 per cent are in full-time employment in the fashion industry. We have not expanded the way that some other courses have, but have kept numbers down to enable us to pick the best potential students."

Of the students on Central St Martins MA course, around 87 per cent each year find a job in the fashion industry. "The employment record has been pretty good and I'm thinking of doing the course myself if it could get me a job at Gucci," Wilson says.

Not all fashion graduates become designers. Some end up in fashion related fields such as fashion buying, public relations and journalism.

But increasingly what all fashion graduates have in common, whether they are concentrating on designing or on becoming a fashion publicist, is that they have at some point during their course come into contact with the real world of fashion through an industrial placement.

Kingston University has had a relationship for the past seven years with Dewhirst, a company which produces clothes for firms such as Marks and Spencer.

"Industrial placements help students to understand their market and to understand the customer," Griffiths says. "It's not about design egotism. It also helps students to understand how to work within a large organisation."

And it not only helps students. Nigel Luck, fashion course director at the University of Westminster, says: "Industrial placements can also help the companies taking part. Not only can they spot talent, but fashion students can keep them abreast of what's exciting and new and can provide a fresh eye."

Michael Terry, Dewhirst's design and product development director, says: "We have built a long-term relationship with Kingston University and we know and understand the culture there. We get to know the students over three years and during their placements can assess how well they would fit in with the organisation, if it is the sort of work they are totally suited to and if they are team players. We generally take on two to three Kingston graduates every year." Building up a long term working relationship with potential employees is "much less of a risk than trawling around the degree shows and thinking, great show, great dress, and giving someone a job on the strength of it".

While last week provided graduates with a chance to let their imaginations run wild,in the coming months many will put away the outrageous hats, the aluminium foil skirts and Star Trek outfits and knuckle down to high street work