Join forces, or stand alone?

...GFW Vs the independent show

by Sara Wilson
In the blue corner, we have the Independent graduate show. Five big wins this year with strong candidates like Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion. And in the red corner, we have Graduate Fashion Week, with an 18 year career and a major sponsor in the high street retailer, River Island. With our British universities pumping out more than a thousand talented graduates every year into our ever expanding industry, it’s important for students to gain exposure during their 15 minutes of fame. A daunting question for every fashion university is “if you can’t beat them do you join them?”

Over the past month fashion courses all over Europe have been showcasing the best of their talent, with the student’s final step to graduating into the exciting world of fashion. Attending GFW this year had me thinking about the debate many universities have to go through, is the cost of showing at River Island’s annual event really worth it, or is the exclusivity of an independent show more appealing? I’ve certainly enjoyed both kinds of shows but I can see the downfalls for each. On the one hand GFW offers a professional show most students wouldn’t have the chance to take part in, and an opportunity for industry folk to see all the talent in one place. However, it lacks in creative freedom with many restrictions on time and styling. Independent shows have a more personal edge to a collection and gives the student more control. However, funds may compromise the professionalism of the models and industry appeal fluctuates with “how popular the University is.”

Graduate Fashion week is certainly seen as in institutional event with its 18 year career, but since River Island made its stamp on it 5 years ago, there has been a lot of speculation on where it is heading. Having a sponsor like this allows the event to be bigger and better each year with more opportunities for students to kick start their careers; it was a hub of creativity with an in-house studio and style insider covering every show. Yet, some students felt the high street retailer brought exactly that to the event; high street. We must agree the high street does offer more jobs and steady income for hundreds of designers, but we must also agree high street brands do not often do a catwalk collection, or have opportunity to explore high end fashion.

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, put up an impressive fight for industry interest this year, proving that the European students are a major force to be reckoned with. The geometrics of Alexandra Verschueren started the show with a bang, leaving much to live up to. And the pristinely tailored menswear from Julia Kim wouldn’t look out of place in any fashion conscious city. With major graduate showcases, like the Parisian Festival D’Hyeres generating a global buzz, the next logical step for British graduates would be to raise their game in the European market. Central Saint Martins has managed to achieve this status, but how easy would it be to gain European recognition without the reputation? And would the universities be prepared to take this gamble?

The Independent fashion show is a bit of a trend in London, well if CSM, LCF, and RCA are doing it then why not? I had the pleasure of viewing the Middlesex show. The personal touch of an Independent show definitely added a stroke more excitement, I felt the theatres at Earl’s court became slightly banal by the end of day three. There was no lack of industry folk and a queue snaking around the Truman breweries to begin with was a good sign. I managed to speak to a graduate from the university and got the low down on ‘behind the scenes’. Elena Picone explained “students were fully involved in the organising of the show right from the beginning; they had direct contact with the production team and even had the responsibility of street casting their own models.” With the students being back stage during the show, styling was achievable and the clothes were put on the right way round – we’ve all seen those dressing malfunctions where a first year in blind panic has managed to mistake a centre front zip as a centre back!

In conclusion, the cost of putting on a graduate show cuts into the student money pot by a colossal amount, whether it is part of GFW or independent. The question is whether it is worth the risk of not achieving industry recognition. GFW offers an appealing event for people in the industry to view and pluck a mass of talent in one space. This could be a double edged sword as it showcases hundreds of others to compete with in the same place. The independent show offers the student more control. However if the show wasn’t in London I’m not sure how much industry and press coverage would be generated outside of the local bubble. Basically there is no winner…just a lot of rambling!