Cutting it in the fashion world

March 5, 1999

Be careful. Should fashion students be taught to take risks in business or to play it safe? After London Fashion Week Wendy Dagworthy advocates being extraordinary, while Angela McRobbie counsels caution

In the British fashion industry, fluctuating sales, recession and bankruptcies are almost normal. So volatile is the industry that today's art colleges swing between encouraging students to go it alone when they graduate, to take huge risks to see their work on shop rails, to playing it very, very safe.

Currently the good-sense approach prevails - to get experience working as a company design assistant and rise through the ranks, or to look for opportunities abroad, working for Italian, French or American labels.

But what they are warned off is what students used to do ten years ago. Then small companies such as English Eccentrics and Ally Capellino started off small, with a stall in Camden or Kensington market. One of the English Eccentrics duo even remembers smuggling designs into launderettes and baking motifs on in the tumble-driers. It was on this basis that British fashion design hit the international headlines. The financial returns were small, but the publicity was invaluable.

This do-it-yourself brand of fashion came under attack when young designers found it virtually impossible to move from the markets to the high street without crashing. Helen Storey, Sonnentag and Mulligan and, most recently, Ozwald Boateng, all failed to make the leap into the brutally competitive international fashion market. Hence the change of direction in art colleges.

Students are now advised to avoid the precarious self-employed approach, while pressure has been put on high-street retailers to take responsibility for nurturing young talent. Big stores such as Debenhams and Marks & Spencer are now taking on designers on a freelance basis.

But chain-store retailers are not philanthropists. If they experience a downturn in sales, freelance contracts may be withdrawn.

So what is the solution? Should government play more of a role? Why not treat fashion graduates like fine artists and allow them to apply for the grants available to artists? This is how many of them see themselves and this is the way they want to work. With access to Arts Council funding and with government sponsorship for shows, young designers could make much progress.

Most fashion designers are conceptualists, they want to see their visions realised in a handful of garments. There is little point expecting them to compete with large-scale producers. What designers really want is for their work to be hung on a wall, first, and worn off-the-peg second.

Angela McRobbie is professor of communication at Goldsmiths College, London.

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