London's Fashion Retail Academy offers the master class you need, says Emma Fripp

If you've always viewed high street fashion stores simply as the hosts to your favourite shopping experiences - think again. Employment in fashion retail has grown enormously in the last five years, providing a wide range of career options. According to the Annual Business Inquiry, there are 464,000 people employed in the retail clothing and footwear industry in the UK, accounting for 15 per cent of the total UK retail workforce. It's no wonder then that more and more people are realising the scope of opportunity that exists in a career within fashion retail.

The attraction of the fashion industry is that it offers work within an area that many individuals call their "passion". Furthermore, there is endless scope for variety and change within a fashion retail career.

Lindsey Gilmartin, a student at London's Fashion Retail Academy, explains the appeal: "I want to work in this industry because it's fast-moving and there's always something different to do. There are new challenges every day and this is what really attracts me to fashion. There's also lots of potential for development, so there's scope for moving up the ladder."

Despite the attraction, many people still have misconceptions regarding career opportunities, imagining that careers exist only on the shop floor. In fact, there are a wide variety of roles behind-the-scenes, including buying, merchandising and finance.

Fashion Retail Academy student Sam Lobban has ambitions for a head office career: "I've always had a love of fashion and I want to go into buying and product development because you can get a real sense of achievement when you see something you've worked on going into the stores."

Open since September 2005, the Academy is the first in the UK. Its curriculum was developed in association with the industry's sector skills council, Skillsmart Retail, to meet the needs of fashion retail employers.

The Academy aims to encourage students to join established fashion retailers or run their own retail businesses by teaching and developing the fundamental skills required in the industry. Students are selected on the basis of their flair and enthusiasm rather than academic ability, and study for diplomas equivalent to GCSE's or A-Levels. The curriculum is vocational, with students spending approximately 40 per cent of their time on work placements and attending regular master classes with industry experts.

James Randall, regional visual manager for Topman, who ran a master class at the Academy, believes that the fashion retail learning environment fulfils a great need. "Without this type of academy, you lose that degree of practical skill and customer understanding that is essential," he says. "For example, graduates have an academic background but may lack the necessary practical skills that a fashion academy provides. I expect that that this academy will open more avenues for career progression for its students."

Lobban says his fashion retail training has certainly supported him with his long-term career goals: "The Academy has opened a lot of doors for me and given me a realistic view of the industry. I have also made good contacts through work placements and in master classes."