Flower in the hair or no flower – what do you think?" The team of young stylists stands back, frowning at their model as she gives them a little twirl. "I think the flower's too much," one says eventually. From behind the throng emerges an expensive-smelling, immaculately groomed figure: "I agree," says Gok Wan, almost too quickly, although sweetly he's not visibly recoiling from the, shall we say, bold ensemble in front of him.
Paisley tights, a flammable-looking black mini-dress, pillar-box-red patent shoe-boots and a matching padded patent-leather pendant necklace in the shape of a cartoon rabbit... It may not quite scream catwalk chic, but it's a jolly good effort, thinks Wan, who has given up his Saturday to run a workshop designed to teach a bunch of teenage fashion novices the art of putting together an outfit for the catwalk. Around 20 teenagers have been briefed and packed off in teams with a budget of £250 to conjure up their looks.
It's part of a scheme organised by the Alliance & Leicester Bank to show young people that they don't necessarily have to get a degree to get the career of their dreams. "I wish there had been something like this when I was young," says Wan. "I thought education was the only way to get a job, especially coming from an immigrant family. My dad pushed us all to be academic because he thought that, otherwise, we'd end up working in a takeaway." So Wan dutifully got himself a place at Central School of Speech and Drama, only to drop out: "I got in more on public funding than ability," he admits. "Fat, Chinese, gay – you know, the works. My local authority loved me. But I'm not academic at all – I wasn't cut out to study for a degree." He lasted a year. "My biggest skill was communicating," he says. "Styling is about justifying why you made this particular choice, picked that particular outfit: essentially it's about being really good at sales."
This is a point that will be hammered home to the teams when, after a frenzied few hours of shopping, they have finished dressing their models and have to "sell" their outfit choices to the rest of the group and, of course, Wan.
"Come on girls and boys: let's start committing to a look," Wan says clapping his hands authoritatively. The teams are back at the base (the Hospital club in Covent Garden, London) meeting their models to see their outfits come to life. Not all is going to plan, however; team one is grappling with stockings that have turned into knee-highs because of the model's long legs. "Sometimes the best fashion happens by mistake," says Wan encouragingly. He's in many ways a natural teacher – on the pad in front of him there's a checklist of questions to get the teens thinking; he is kind and gently picks on the quiet ones so that their opinions aren't drowned out.
The briefs the teens are following are very specific (see box, right). There's Cressida, who's "a size 12-14". She's the one in the paisley tights and red accessories. "We wanted her to look sophisticated but also quirky and fun to show her personality," explain team one, who also inventively use a vintage necklace as a belt. "Gorgeous," says Wan as Cressida sashays down the catwalk set up for the afternoon's "reveal", "...though a little overdressed."
Next up it's Emma Jane, "size 14, very long legs... Hates her stomach". Her team choose to put her in something corporate, but jazz it up to hint at her non-conformist personality. There's a "slimming" black skirt to take the eye away from her middle area, a bright shirt and a cheeky scarf attached to her conservative handbag. Wan is impressed. They followed the brief. "But," he points out, "not one of you would actually wear this, would you?" Team two shake their heads collectively. "When you're styling you have to commit your taste to that look," he advises.
Finally, it's Nina. Team three, with their uncluttered style (a silky grey dress teamed with a bag big enough to carry her music, work and college stuff) have hit the jackpot. "We chose diamond-detail tights to elongate her legs," explains Emma-Louise, 16, confidently. "Then a belt high under her bust to create an hour-glass shape. "That's the first 100 per cent," enthuses Wan.
After the catwalk show it's time for the moment of truth – what have they learnt? The teenagers are endearingly evangelical and answers include: "Not to be scared to try things"; "To listen to others and be prepared to compromise"; and "If something goes wrong, it's not the end of the world."
In typical Wan style, it all quickly becomes more self-help than fashion and he runs into extra time sharing tips with the teens. It's no wonder that, on top of the 75 hours a week he already works, Wan finds himself putting in overtime dispensing advice in the aisles of Sainsbury's when he's trying to do a weekly shop. He brings it on himself.
That said, his touchy-feely persona took quite a knocking from the Daily Mail back in April, when a model from How To Look Good Naked claimed that Wan had reduced her to tears with his "misogynistic and foul language". It's hard to imagine. "That was so awful to read," says Wan. "I don't know where it came from." Whatever the truth, it's hard not to imagine that being called a "dirty slut" by him would be intended affectionately, even if it wasn't taken that way. A fact he pointed out himself in an apology email to the model concerned. The worst thing you could say about his behaviour today is that he doesn't remember everyone's name ("I'm going to call you all darling from now on," he laughs).
In fact, he's been so utterly warm and charming that even The New Review's photographer is moved almost to tears "spending such an inspiring day" with him .
Perhaps the best thing the kids have come away with is a confidence boost. A bit too confident, perhaps? "What I've learnt," says one cheekily, "is that in 10 years' time, we're all going to be better stylists than you, Gok!"
We think he can relax – these youngsters have still got a little way to go. But, as Wan says, "The best fashion often comes from mistakes." Watch this space...
Wan's winners: Gok delivers his verdict
Emma Jane is a size 14, with very long legs. Her parents were hippies and she's very holistic and likes to be naked, but is carving out her own style and ethos and wants to be a lawyer. She hates her stomach.
Students' solution: Turquoise blouse, black pencil skirt and boho scarf.
Wan's verdict: "I'm impressed. They followed the brief carefully as she needs something tailored and corporate but not stuffy – a bit boho and ethnic. However, I don't think any of them would wear this outfit and that's where they went wrong."
Cressida is a size 12-14; she's feisty, creative and interested in getting into advertising. She's also adopted.
Students' solution: Red flower in hair, pendant necklace and paisley tights.
Wan's verdict: "They clashed textures beautifully, which gives the outfit a richness: you instantly look at her and think 'you're not boring'. But... it is slightly overdressed and I did give them a hint in the brief: she's adopted. She might not want to stand out too much as she's probably felt 'different' all her life."
Nina is a blonde, curvy 21-year-old who's just left her job as a recruitment consultant to study music as she wants to be a singer. She's newly single.
Students' solution: Coat, oversized bag and silky silvery dress.
Wan's verdict: This is the first 100 per cent: it's bang-on trend and hit all the points in the brief – she stands out but isn't too sexy. The bag is perfect and she could dress this up or down with accessories. It's understated. Gorgeous. KB
To find out what happened on Gok Wan's Alliance & Leicester Bank's Premier 21 Fashion Master Class, go to www.prem21.co.uk
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