The race to sew up catwalk success

June 18, 2004

Lecturer Julie Pinches relates the highs and lows as her students put together a fashion show and hope for selection to London's Topshop Graduate Fashion Week

Week One: End of January. In the final-year design studio at Nottingham Trent University's School of Art and Design, 38 students look nervous but excited about the task that lies ahead - they have to design six outfits for a catwalk collection that will represent the culmination of two and a half years of learning.

Ahead lie endless late nights as students design and re-draw the range, cut out fabrics, machine and finish their work - all for the opportunity to be part of a live catwalk show, two minutes of fame and the dream that drives all fashion design students, that they may be the next rising star, the next John Galliano or Alexander McQueen.

Questions fly around the room - "Is it OK to develop ideas from my portfolio project?" "Where can I get linen fabrics?" "Are we going to get good models for fittings?" A troubled voice at the back sounds desperate about sewing the silk satin he plans to use: "Is there any chance the technicians can make it for me?" There are also worries about the cost of materials, which will add to students' mounting debts.

We discuss guidelines: how to plan and manage time, how to approach fabric companies for sponsorship and how to be professional and communicate any concerns and problems. After going over common pitfalls from previous years, we reassure students that the task is achievable.

Week three

The students have to present the research they have done in tutorials. For some, portfolio projects and competition briefs have already generated ideas that they will develop into further designs before moving into 3D experimentation and fabric choice. Some want to use their cutting skills to experiment with fabric and form on the body. Others prefer to start with fabric design, including print and stitch detail.

The students swap ideas about research methods. It is reassuring that the mood of anxiety has quickly been replaced by sketchbooks full of ideas and enthusiasm for the work ahead.

Pre-Easter: week eight

All students must produce prototypes of their garment ideas in calico fabric to be fitted and adjusted on student models. Design decisions are finalised as the students analyse the accuracy of the 3D toile against their 2D drawing and amend as required. We have a "buddy" system in which students are organised into pairs to record the fitting process, share problems and support each other.

The pattern cutting tables in the studio outside my office are a complete mess over the Easter vacation as students labour away. The mound of discarded calico toiles - mixed with discarded pattern paper, threads, scissors and the odd mouldy Coke can - grows ever higher. This cohort gets the prize for the untidiest year, a reputation they have carried since their first year. I think the cleaners have given up. We decide to turn the electricity off until they tidy up.

Emerging themes and concepts become clear as students begin manufacturing their outfits. Most have opted for womenswear design, understandable as most of their learning is through understanding the female form. Just one student has chosen menswear, which is disappointing because the course encourages menswear design through a teamworking module with George at Asda. Three have opted for childrenswear - a strategic choice that may offer good employment prospects.

Students are encouraged to be creative but to bear in mind their potential market and proposed customer. Many opt for a "designer-level" market, which allows them to push the boundaries in terms of conceptual design and cutting, quality fabrics and potentially expensive manufacturing techniques.

Femininity, a dominant trend for the past few seasons, remains strong with collections ranging from the flirty and girly (think Lolita), the trailer trash (think Pink) and the soft and homely (think Scandinavian homestead) to the grown-up and glamorous (think celebrity). Most still reflect the contours of the female form, but the spotlight is finally moving away from the navel.

In cloth, the trend of luxury, tradition and quality continues as natural fabrics such as soft wools, worsteds, jersey and silks predominate. Some students use "performance" and sportswear cloth, but backed with jersey and cut in more rounded, softer silhouettes. Leather, suede and shearling are still popular, and one student wants to use dyed rabbit skins. One of the childrenswear designers has set herself a strict brief to keep to rules set by the Organic Society - 95 per cent of her materials will be organic. Her trims of antique Nottingham lace meet these requirements, and we advise her to promote her collection via the society for maximum publicity.

Print design - motifs printed on traditional fabrics such as worsted wool pinstripes - remains a strong trend. One collection is a melange of different coloured prints that the student has designed and paid a specialist company to print digitally. The design includes several colours of other plain fabrics, tailored pinstripes, spots and gold leather. Will it work?

Post-Easter: week nine

The countdown notice "30 days to the show" is posted on the wall. It's a cruel motivator, but it works - every day the number drops and the pace picks up. The workshops become a mini-factory as students start to manufacture 38 collections of more than 290 outfits (some do seven or eight outfits) and about 850 sample garments. Many test the skills, patience and knowledge of the technical support team, who advise on complex construction and unusual fabrics.

The Nottingham show committee, which is now holding weekly meetings with the year group, delegates responsibilities for everything from booking models to organising sponsorship for the VIP goody bags.

Everyone has to chip in on top of their own workload, but those keen for a career in the fashion press and PR see it as a valuable experience. Their entrepreneurial skills have been honed since they started the course, and they have now perfected the art of "professional scrounging".

Week 15: Nottingham show

The Nottingham show is held at a large club. My role is show producer. Others offer backstage support, organise dressers and models and generally deal with the backstage mayhem of broken zips and split seams.

Garments are sorted by student dressers and checked for fitting problems on models. Changes to models and music are made after the first afternoon rehearsal show. In time for the main evening event, John Walford, producer of the TopShop Graduate Fashion Week, arrives to select for his event, along with designer Tristan Webber.

The show begins. Some of the students can hardly look.

The shrieks of support from friends and family resonate above the music.

When it's all over, there is a meeting to decide which collections should go to London and who stands a chance of winning an award. The selection has to be balanced and varied, showcasing the best Nottingham Trent can offer.

Many students will be disappointed, but after three years they know the score. If they have what it takes to survive, they'll bounce back, carry on and eventually find their own niche.

Julie Pinches is course leader of BA (Hons) in fashion design at Nottingham Trent University.

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