Graduate Fashion Week has always provided fresh talent for retail businesses. Anna Richardson Taylor explores how retailers can benefit from meeting the graduates.

The impending graduation season should be a busy time for the retail industry. As one of the largest employers of young people in the UK, retail plays a key role in providing career opportunities for graduates. That role could not be more important in the current economic climate. The rate of youth unemployment in the UK is 22.2%.  

But the graduate shows and fairs popping up around the country this summer aren’t just about graduates touting their creative talent. Savvy retailers realise they can be the ideal environments for attracting the most innovative students for all areas of the business, and highlighting retail as a career path.

Graduate Fashion Week (GFW), which runs from June 10 to 13 in London, is one event that is ramping up its efforts to attract more retailers. Showing work from more than 1,000 students from 40 universities, alongside workshops, talks and recruitment initiatives, as well as high-profile awards, it boasts illustrious alumni. Those don’t just include celebrated designers, such as Stella McCartney and Julien Macdonald, but some of the top brass in fashion retail, including Selfridges buying director David Walker-Smith.

New team

Celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, GFW has a new team at the helm, including Martyn Roberts of Vauxhall Fashion Scout as new director and Rob Templeman, former chief executive of Debenhams, as new chairman. Templeman is keen to attract more retailers over the coming years in order to raise awareness among students about all aspects of the fashion industry.

“We need to make the students realise that there is a lot more to the fashion industry than being a designer,” he says. “Over the years, retail attendance at GFW has been good, but there is a lot more we could do.”

George at Asda is the key sponsor of GFW for the second year, and its brand director Fiona Lambert agrees that students should widen their horizons when it comes to securing a job. One of the core planks of the retailer’s involvement in the event is to showcase that there are “a whole host of careers that you can find with a fashion-related degree”, says Lambert.

GFW gives students a good insight into the commercial side of the industry, believes Sarah Curran, founder of My-Wardrobe.com. “Many [graduate designers] need to understand that the industry is not just about hitting headlines with a collection. Understanding the customer, finding the right price point and securing a slick production team will ensure they can create a brand and build a solid business.”

While raising awareness among students is vital, retailers could also take more advantage of the opportunities available at GFW – apart from the obvious one of spotting new design talent, according to Templeman. “Retailers get access to a lot of talent and a lot of ideas. There is no better place for fashion-conscious youngsters, all in one building, that you can get market research from,” he says. “And in terms of recruitment, you have [access to] the next generation of business leaders.”

Ruth Chapman, founder of Matches Fashions, agrees that the graduate fair is “a great place for us to pick up all sorts of different talent”. “We’re always looking for people who either learnt at design level, or to just see what’s new and how that talented age group is thinking,” she says.

Fresh ideas

Meeting fresh design talent is of course an integral attraction for retailers.

For example, George has produced collections with some of last year’s students, including knitwear with Rory Longdon, a babywear range with Emma Byford and  girlswear with James Bruce.

But, as Lambert points out, the brand has recruited students for placements across fields as varied as buying, PR, marketing and visual merchandising, with more than 60% returning to work for the retailer.

GFW can also be an ideal platform to convey a retailer’s brand, says Lambert. “Whether internally, within the industry or for our customer, [it is important to convey] that we are a business that believes design is at the heart of what we do and supporting young talent is a key part of our business.”

Equally keen to support – and snap up – emerging talent is Gemma Metheringham, joint managing director and creative director of Karen Millen. She attends the event alongside most of the retailer’s designers, to “meet as many graduates as possible”.

The team, four of whom were themselves recruited at GFW, aims to recruit up to four graduates per year, and while generally the internships have been in the design studio, the company has also created roles in PR, marketing or ecommerce, where appropriate.

“We look for a high level of creativity along with a practical approach to the industry,” says Metheringham.

“We like to see an understanding of the importance of balancing creativity with commerciality.”

For Chapman, inspiration is the key focus of a GFW visit and is not all about filling positions. “We go with a very open mind and just look for anything that captures the imagination, or somebody who has a sense of what might work for our business,” she says.

Despite the talent and inspiration on offer, retailers still don’t make the most of events such as GFW, believes Chapman. “I don’t think enough retailers attend,” she says. “But there’s something for everyone. It’s very modern, because it offers such a young talent pool and [the students] have such modern ideas. It’s about harnessing them and keeping an open mind about where they can fit within your business.”

This year, there is more focus on jobs, but Templeman is keen to attract more industry involvement across retail, manufacturing and design.

Subject to funding “next year will be a change year”, he promises.

The student view

Leigh Gibson Assistant buyer, ladies formalwear, George (Northbrook College, Brighton, fashion design)

“My studies were always focused on the design elements [of the fashion industry] and how to source inspiration. After leaving university I was attracted to the commercial aspects, and working for a retail company was the best way to learn about it.

I don’t think students always know what opportunities are available when graduating. Students need to gain confidence and know how to gain experience in order to secure permanent roles.”

Jennifer Sidaway Assistant buyer, baby basics, George (Manchester Metropolitan, fashion marketing)

“My top tip to graduates would be to gain as much work experience as possible. You really do learn a vast amount on the job. Even if it is not the area or company that you want to get into, it’s worth having on your CV – and you never really know what the job role entails until you do it.”

Laura Searle Graduate designer, womenswear, John Lewis (Kingston University, fashion design)

“At Kingston you have a balance between learning about retail and more independent designer brands, which couldn’t have been more valuable. Although students may be exposed [to different aspects of retail] more than in the past, there’s still potential to advertise more opportunities. More retailers need to get involved in graduate schemes – they provide a huge learning curve compared to university, and there’s nothing like ‘learning on the job’.”

Kimberley Dines Trends assistant, Karen Millen, (University of Central Lancashire, fashion promotion)

“I did not realise until working at Karen Millen’s head office how closely departments link with one another. I love working for a global brand, across a number of different departments, as it gives the job lots of variety. I work with the trends manager, and seeing trends we have forecast coming together in a collection is really satisfying.”