The Next Generation

...post-graduation

by Li Yin Soh
Prominent for its vibrant fashion scene as one destination of the big four Fashion Weeks, London is constantly spotlighted for its abundance of young creative talent. Although its current economic climate is far from ideal at the moment (youth unemployment rates are at an all-time high of 23.7%), fashion’s most creative minds are finding ways to adapt. NJAL speaks to London’s rising designers to find out where the future of fashion lies in bleak times.

The commonplace altruism ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ at a time like this means that most middle-wage earners have either hit rock bottom or are predominantly cash-strapped. The outlook seems bleaker for this year’s fresh crop of graduates, especially in an economy where getting work experience can be a bit of a challenge, even more so now that stipends are ‘compulsory’. Growth is only minimally predicted for next year and Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has recently announced that the country will have to ‘earn its way in the world’. And it will have to, that is, if you’re not in fashion.

For despite its billions in commercial revenue, jobs in fashion design are becoming scarce. Careers in cut and sew manufacturing are declining as more and more companies outsource the production of their clothing overseas. And while there are plenty of jobs available in the industry, with well over 5,000 fashion students graduating in London alone, finding employment can be a daunting prospect. Overcrowding overrides the graduate employment search. This often leads to a sense of feeling overwhelmed as there are evidently only a number of ways to stand out from the crowd. Added to which, rising costs and an increase in competition have led to fashion in London becoming one of the most challenging industries to secure employment in today. For the future fashion talent, success is much less of a guarantee now that the economic climate lacks optimism. And without talent, where is the industry headed?

Craig Green, London Fashion Week designer and Central Saint Martins graduate, says: ‘I think it worries everybody - plus fashion has always been a tough industry and now it’s just tougher.’

Designers are constantly seeking new ways to market themselves, designing commercially viable goods whilst remaining fresh. The ultimate goal is often to generate interest within the profitable luxury sector. And while it seems that there is no better city to do so than in London, it is in times like these that it most certainly helps to have a bit of financial support, be it from parents, generous benefactors or big buyers.

‘I am still in the middle of setting up my business. So far, the most difficult task is getting funding’ says Cherry Chi Yuen, a shoe designer and a showcasing graduate at the London College of Fashion (LCF) MA Graduate Exhibition in February (she was one of the most talked about exhibitors this year, constantly being enquired about by interested PRs and buyers).

In this country, while there are various organisations like the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, Cordwainer’s Trust, Fashion Fringe, Fashion East, Prince’s Trust etc., available to designers or fashion entrepreneurs seeking funding, not all will get it. Funding and mentorship is as good as it gets with regards to having substantial advantage. Today, having talent, skill, luck and determination are not all you need to get one step higher on the ladder. And being too inflexible in aiming for one’s goals has its own setbacks for graduates are expected to carve a niche for themselves whilst remaining flexible and versatile. Striking that balance can be difficult. ‘If you set your aim too rigidly then you end up missing good opportunities along the way’, notes Green, who eventually wants to set up on his own too.

At other times, it’s the extra push that is lacking as designers require the drive to create opportunities for themselves. Taking the first step and getting work out there is often intimidating, not to mention a big challenge. What’s more is that for those who may not have appropriate platforms as support, i.e. exhibitions or catwalk shows, from colleges to promote their work, it is different game altogether.

Graduates who have these showcasing opportunities simply lack the assurance of age and experience: ‘I’m just dying to get out there and get working and get more experience and eventually set up on my own… I feel like we’re in a little protective bubble in college’, says LCF fashion artifact graduate Ruth Holland. It actually brings us back to the perennially paradoxical problem of work experience: how does one get it without the relevant experience starting out and at times when only those who can afford to work for free are able to?

Perhaps it is a problem that every industry and mode of work finds parallels with, designers share a similar problem in their work too: creativity and commercial viability are often seen at odds with each other. ‘A lot of my work has to be commercial but there must be room for both. For the brand to grow, I need to be able to do commercial work to support it financially but my ultimate interest lies in making creative, sculptural designs which will give my brand credibility - driving sales and sustaining growth in the long term’, explains Ms. Yuen.

Whether or not it’s just a commonplace situation most find themselves in, starting out remains a rather moot point. If it’s freelancing or free (i.e. unpaid) jobs, the current climate simply fails to provide a level of stability and security necessary for growth for graduates to feel less uneasy.

Despite all, levels of optimism remain high for the fashion industry’s young talent. And with industry informant Drapers Record noting that ‘there are still plenty of opportunities for those with talent, determination and the knowledge of how to stand out from the crowd’, one might be confident that London’s fashion future is clearly cut.