Fashion graduates are far from fluffy. They are one of this country's unsung creative and commercial success stories, as Jo Entwistle explains
June is the month in which final-year fashion students face their biggest test. Up and down the country, the culmination of their studies is on display. With Graduate Fashion Week at the beginning of the month and the New Designers show at the end, it is a good time to reflect on the nature of UK fashion education.
Fashion students tend not to have a good image. They are seen as superficial or trivial. Even in comparison with those on other art and design courses, they come off badly: it's hard to imagine architecture students being treated as fluffy. If fashion gets any sort of serious treatment in the press, the focus is all too frequently on the UK's lack of a proper fashion infrastructure and on how students will, at the first opportunity, flee to jobs overseas, with the obvious examples being designers such as Julien Macdonald, Stella McCartney and John Galliano.
But below the surface of this stereotype the reality is very different. Fashion education is an unsung British success story. British fashion is held in high esteem abroad: that exodus of UK-trained designers is itself a sign of the high value placed on our students, many of whom are snapped up by companies in New York, Milan and Paris. The courses are well thought of and attract large numbers of international students, who see a degree from a UK institution as globally recognised gold standard. "Art and design education in the UK is the best in the world," claims Audrey Cresswell, academic chair of Graduate Fashion Week.
Since 1996-97, there has been a seven-and-a-half fold increase in the number of international students enrolling on the womenswear design course at the London College of Fashion, and the increase is fivefold on menswear.
This is repeated across the country, although, according to Colin Renfrew, associate dean of the honours degree at the LCF, London is the centre of gravity because it is the hub of Britain's art and creative industries.
Graduate Fashion Week, which celebrated its 15th birthday this year, is itself a success story. The event, once a small operation promoting the work of fashion students by consolidating all the college shows under one umbrella event, is now an important fixture in the fashion calendar that is attended by international buyers and press and industry insiders scouting for talent. Roy Peach, dean of postgraduate portfolio at the LCF and a founder of Graduate Fashion Week, credits companies such as BHS, Topshop and River Island, which sponsor the event, for making it so successful.
The traditional view of British design education is that it turns out people who are creative and can think conceptually about fashion but who lack a commercial edge. Times are changing, however. While it is true that British design is famed for its creative edginess, it is also the case that many students graduating with fashion degrees today are focused less on creating outlandish garments that propel them to mega-stardom than they are on learning their craft.
Two graduates of Westminster University at this year's fashion week provide an example of how aware students are of the business side. Emma Downing and Nicola Stewart both chose to rework the classic trenchcoat, Downing by customising second-hand coats, with stains and marks included. The reworking could be described as conceptual, but both students are clear that they want to learn their craft by working their way through the industry from the bottom up.
For Caroline Evans, professor of fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, the most interesting thing about contemporary British fashion students is the incredible diversity and range of talent they show and, in particular, the exciting ways in which students are cutting and draping cloth. What also strikes her is how hard-working they tend to be and the significant economic impact they make. Many courses have strong industry links and offer sandwich courses and resource centres, such as the Fashion Business Resource Studio at the LCF, that embed business and entrepreneurial skills in the curriculum. They run competitions for students to gain experience in the fashion industry.
But the real success of British fashion design - and perhaps what sets the UK apart - is the way that students are encouraged to think. Renfrew says that students graduating from US institutions are trained to go straight into industry, but UK students are taught to "push at boundaries of aesthetic and business practices and question them". Ursula Hudson of the LCF agrees. UK fashion education "does not set out to merely train students but (to teach them) how to think and reflect on their practice", she says, which means that students develop the ability to combine creativity with strategic design. The result may be, for example, a dress made of hair that is uncommercial but demonstrates a designer's ability, Hudson says, to "challenge conventions and work with new materials - skills demanded by fashion".
The kind of conceptual approach associated with UK fashion students is essential to the lifeblood of the fashion industry, which is constantly in search of new ideas and lateral thinkers. It is, Renfrew says, all about contexts: a grass suit may not appeal to Esprit or Gap, but it may excite a high fashion house. Alexander McQueen's departure to France is evidence that even the big fashion houses such as Givenchy value conceptual and challenging work. This may explain why, according to Cresswell, most UK fashion graduates are still working in the industry five years after graduating. The same cannot be said of those graduating with other vocational degrees. Maybe fashion students are not so fluffy after all.
Jo Entwistle is a senior research fellow at the London College of Fashion.