As Graduate Fashion Week approaches, Katie Kilgallen finds out what more retailers could be doing to help fashion students launch their careers

High street fashion is moving at a faster pace than ever before. The turnaround from catwalk to high street has never been so quick and retailers need to keep ranges moving forward all the time to satisfy the hunger for new product among consumers. In this climate, the demand for in-house designers has soared and buyers and merchandisers have to be sharper than ever before.

The fashion industry has always relied on a steady stream of fresh and vibrant talent, but with the rise of fast fashion, finding those graduates who are commercially aware and ready to make the leap from undergraduate to successful professional has become a priority. In reality, many graduates leave university bursting with creativity, but have relatively little idea how they will put that into practice.

River Island chief executive Richard Bradbury says: “It’s difficult to recruit because of how much the industry has changed in a short space of time. It’s changed faster than any of the courses can.” Students often have a narrow view of the industry when they elect to study fashion design and not enough is done during their degree course to rectify that. Bradbury adds: “The view is that fashion is frilly, woolly and gooey and about divinely inspired ideas – it’s actually hard work.”

Adrian Roberts, course leader for BA fashion at Epsom’s University College for the Creative Arts, agrees. “The media looks at the sexy, fashionable surface area,” he says. “Young people think that fashion is very frivolous – it’s about big business.”

As Alison Welsh, programme leader for BA fashion at Manchester Metropolitan University, points out: “They may never have heard of VM and don’t necessarily know what a buyer is at all.”

River Island menswear accessories designer James Lawrence was winner of the River Island Gold award at Graduate Fashion Week in 2006. He says the biggest surprise was the speed at which the industry works. “During university, every student has around 10 months from the research stage of their final collection to presenting it on the catwalk,” he says. “In the industry, you have four seasons per year and you have to take into consideration the different product groups, current trends, artwork, packaging and so on.”

Cut to the chase

Adapting to working in a team is another challenge. Paul Smith womenswear assistant designer Ella Jones, winner of the Fashion Portfolio award at Graduate Fashion Week in 2006, acknowledges that, after completing her course, she wasn’t prepared for the reality of working in the design industry. “They try and prepare you, but you can never really tell until you work in the industry,” she says.

Before joining Paul Smith, Jones did an internship at Burberry and was surprised by how little designing was actually involved. “It was more about technical things and paperwork than I imagined,” she says.

So how can retailers help prepare the next generation of fashion talent? Bradbury is strongly in favour of work placements. “When people have been on a work placement with a good company, they come back and they are no longer students,” he says. “It’s a real leg up the ladder – students can go into work and say: ‘I’ve been doing this, I know exactly what you mean.’”

Lawrence had to do a minimum of three months’ work experience for his course and went on placements in London and New York. “I would recommend to any fashion student that they gain work experience before, during and after their degree,” he says.

He adds that gaining a wide variety of experience is also beneficial and will help with decision-making when you graduate. “Completing placements at different market levels is a great eye-opener to how different sides of the industry work. I personally love working for the high street as it tends to be a larger team, fast-paced and constantly changing. Other students will prefer working at the higher end,” says Lawrence.

On Jones’s course, however, there was no time allocated for work placements. “I did some small ones in my spare time, but I was so busy on the course there wasn’t much spare time,” she says.

Welsh says poor payment is often a barrier to students taking on work placements, particularly if they have to live in London and are paid very little, if anything.

At Graduate Fashion Week next month, universities and retailers are coming together to draw up an employers’ charter that covers the payment of students on work placements and salaries paid to graduates when they first enter the industry. Marks & Spencer, River Island, Austin Reed, Patrick Cox, Mulberry and Browns are among those that have signed up so far.

Welsh argues that, far from being a prohibitive cost, paying students can be a cost-effective way of recruiting for retailers. “It costs money, but if they stay, which they often do, then it isn’t down the drain,” she says.

Events such as Graduate Fashion Week can do much to bridge the communication gap between universities, students and the industry. Students and prospective students can learn about different roles within the fashion business and relationships can be developed that will lead to work placements and recruitment in the future.

Bradbury views the event as being of real benefit to River Island, as it aids recruitment and promotes the brand to its target audience. “It allows us to see great talent at early stages. We recruit a lot of graduates as a direct result of Graduate Fashion Week,” he says.

River Island also seizes the opportunity to educate students about the industry. “It’s an opportunity to talk to graduates about different kinds of jobs. Their view of fashion is that it’s only fashion – but there are so many other areas where you can put creativity into the pot,” says Bradbury.

Graduate Fashion Week is going one step further this year and holding an Education Day aimed at 14 to 18-year-olds on Thursday June 12. The idea is to catch the next generation of fashion retailers even earlier, to give them a taste of what the industry is like and a better understanding of the different types of jobs available.

There is no shortage of talented individuals who are ready to work and hungry for success, but a great deal more can be done to ensure the industry gets the best out of them. Better relations between universities and retailers are vital if improvements are to be made.

Bradbury stresses that the industry needs to be proactive if it wants to address these concerns. As he says: “It’s no good moaning you can’t get the right talent when you don’t try and help with it.”

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