Does Fashion’s Graduate Cycle Work?

Industry insiders reveal the importance of championing young talents, and what it takes to make it amid the thousands of yearly global graduates.

Every season a new generation of graduates ignites the fashion industry with sparks of creativity and passion. But with stiff competition and a saturated market, the majority of young designers struggle to build a credible business beyond a couple of seasons: the recent suicide troubles at Antwerp’s Fashion Academy only illustrates the mounting pressure facing young graduates.

London’s Central Saint Martins (CSM), number one in the 2017 Business of Fashion Global Fashion School Rankings, has more than 700 enrollees each year across its various courses. “Designers have got to get in front of buyers,” says Christopher New, Central Saint Martins’ BA menswear course director. “Get into the iconic shops that other shopkeepers and buyers go to for visibility, where they’ll say, that’s a great label, maybe we should carry that as well.”

New firmly believes the key to success for emerging designers is to grab buyers’ attention, adding “Joan Burstein [the legendary founder of London boutique Browns] took risks on people. That’s why you end up with a lot of CSM students like Galliano who launched themselves there.” Indeed Burstein’s keen eye and entrepreneurship meant that Browns has long been an influential destination on London’s boutique circuit since the 1970s.

New knows the plight of the emerging designer, having ran his own menswear label for fifteen years prior to lecturing. Outlining the positives within a challenging environment, he tells ORDRE that graduating designers should establish a brand within the first four years of their careers.

“You’ve got quite a lot of positive things going for you, particularly if you are coming from CSM. No one can guarantee you’ll be successful for the rest of your life, but you’ve got a window”

“You’ve got quite a lot of positive things going for you, particularly if you are coming from CSM,” he explains. “No one can guarantee you’ll be successful for the rest of your life, but you’ve got a window and the perfect storm of good opportunities. So you’ve got to take it, you’ve got to run with it.”

London, the base of CSM, has rebranded itself in recent years as the home of emerging fashion designers. Despite the high rents, the city’s low tax rate has made it a hub of incubation, with dedicated networks of initiatives, platforms and pathways to market all helping graduates build businesses.

Richard Malone, CSM class of 2014 alumnus and Newgen recipient, cites the support from the British Fashion Council has been vital. “People don’t know when to support something. They often don’t trust their own taste. Getting the BFC stamp of approval means everyone else follows.”

On|Off also produce catwalk presentations for emerging designers during fashion weeks, alongside the BFC and Fashion East, acting as a springboard for graduates. “The designers we showcase have longevity,” says Lee Lapthorne, the platform's founder.

“Once a designer starts showing on the catwalk it’s incredibly hard to get them off that roller-coaster. So, I’m conscious that I don’t want to back up a horse that’s not going to make it.”

“They are trusting us with a huge marketing tool that can make or break their brand or career as an independent designer. Once a designer starts showing on the catwalk it’s incredibly hard to get them off that roller-coaster. So, I’m conscious that I don’t want to back up a horse that’s not going to make it.”

On|Off alumni include CSM graduates like Gareth Pugh, Osman and Roksanda as well as JW Anderson, graduate of London College of Fashion, which as well as CMS is part of London’s UAL.

Apart from securing high profile endorsement, the key to the success of the fashion designer is timing. We are now living through a digital revolution: brands have become more accessible, and greater visibility has changed the way they can emerge. According to a recent study by the retail consultancy firm, PwC, 36% of people now use social media as a way to discover brands and products, meaning it’s not all about good press or runways.

“Each interaction [online] is an opportunity to create a real change in how the brand is perceived,” suggests Ashley Smith, founding director of the Lobby, a London based PR agency that works with CSM graduate Mimi Wade and Fashion East recipient.

“Working with these brands, there’s no baggage or preconceived ideas among consumers,’ Smith continues. “We’re writing their stories with them from scratch. A tight-knit, small in-house team in the studio also makes young brands flexible and agile, able to respond quickly and capture opportunities that larger, slower competitors often can’t.”

Valentina Galbiati, visual merchandiser and store manager of Milan’s leading concept store 10 Corso Como, agrees. “Designers always have a fresh vision and a new way to approach the fashion system.” She outlines how young designers can co-exist, and therefore compete with established brands by having different price points, but adds that they should be, “smart, fast and close to the behaviour of the people.”

“I think you have to question what success is.”

Fresh from graduating from CSM’s MA Fashion Design, Liam O’Sullivan reflects on the pressures and expectations designers like him are facing. “The problem is mostly how fast people are catapulted into a new system,” he says. “I think it’s dangerous that everyone’s hyped so quickly. Especially when you’re here, there’s added pressure too, it feels like the world’s watching you.”

Awarded the Christopher Kane scholarship in memory of Louise Wilson, surprisingly O'Sullivan failed to be included in the final graduate line-up. “There’s lots of different types of success,” he continues, adding, “I think a lot of people, especially on the design course here, think the mark of success is getting into the CSM show, graduating, then getting Fashion East or being on Newgen with your own brand and then finally being bought by LVMH. I think you have to question what success is.”