Pretty Young Things: Graduate Fashion Week

Just over a week ago the heart of my beloved capital city beat a little faster as it hosted the annual extravaganza that is Graduate Fashion Week. The charity, founded in 1991 is akin to a vast fashion harvest, selecting and showcasing the premium crop of talent yielded from many UK and international fashion colleges each year. Crucially, it offers graduates potential employment opportunities and generates a huge media focus. The show transcends from the scaffolding of a staged corporate event and becomes a pulsating pastiche of creative energies, each one powering the cogs of the fashion industry in their own unique way. Designers, journalists, illustrators, media experts and visual merchandisers all represent a vital link in the lacertine fashion interlace; unpick one stitch and one risks unravelling the structure of industry. 
Upon arrival at Earls Court in the morning it was clear that the fashion massive were out in force. Parties of Amazonian models and eclectically attired individuals were patchily strewn on the paving slabs like flowers springing up from the urban concrete undergrowth.  I also accepted that I would be spending the day craning my neck and looking skyward to people two feet taller than me, (untimely confirmation if ever there was one of reasoning behind my affectionate nickname ‘shrimp’).
Once past the burly security guards I was greeted by a vast arena cloaked in fashionable gloom; the ceiling threaded with red iron lattices and spotlights beading these knotty briars like jewels. Sat proudly in the entrance were an array of award winning pieces from the class of 2011, including some stunning intricate knitwear from Rory Langdon. Gathered at the peripherals like courtiers paying homage to their monarch were the stands of the competing universities of 2012.

You may think that I would have made a beeline to the nearest stand to start snapping away at the fashion on show. However, I frequently betray youthful effervescence with bouts of illness and nausea, and this was no exception. Instead, I hunted down the tea marquee with all the proficiency of a bloodhound, where I curled up with a hot beverage like a deep sea crab and listened to the music thumping out of the catwalk tents. The organisers of Graduate Fashion Week clearly had had fun sourcing some innovative seating for the weary public; the tables and stools were rough, flat pack chipboard monstrosities; the kind that you like to assume are for display-only purposes and that splinter your tights when you stand up.
After an hour, and bent double like I was nursing some grievous affliction, I hobbled down to the George stand (George at Asda, the main sponsor) where a talk entitled ‘An Audience With…Best of British’ was scheduled to begin. Hilary Alexander, Fashion Director for The Telegraph and Brand Director for George, Fiona Lambert, were discussing how to improve employability, and what George looks for in potential new designers. As I was still feeling very unwell I failed to properly note-take; though the main points that were reiterated were the importance of being passionate, curious and well read on your business in order to succeed. And Hilary Alexander advised all hopeful journalists to keep writing.
Having recuperated slightly, I felt up to investigating the college stands, and was decidedly impressed by the innovation and individuality shown by certain young hopefuls; not just in their portfolio work, but in general presentation.  Patterns made from geographical maps, old army rucksacks hung jauntily from meat hooks and the billowing tents suspended over Northumbria’s stand like delicate parachutes were all beautiful touches. 

One designer who particularly caught my eye was the immensely talented and stunning textile designer Emeline Nsingi Nkosi. Emeline is a recent graduate of Ravensbourne College and was nominated for the Mulberry Accessories Award as well as the GFW Ethical Fashion Award. I was drawn to her striking, tribal inspired headwear incorporating her digitally printed organic fabrics. For her final BA collection, Emeline drew inspiration from her own heritage as well as Congolese culture. Trained in the traditional art of screen printing and with fabulous hand illustrations in her portfolio, there were so many parallels to be seen with another, legendary textile designer I had seen the week before, Zandra Rhodes. Emeline’s work simply radiated energy and individuality, but so too was it refreshing to see proficiency in many traditional skill sets sidelined in the technological age. I’ve no doubt that Emeline has a fabulous career ahead; it is little wonder Hilary Alexander tweeted her work on her preamble round the show.

After completing a circuit around the show I returned to the George stand, where a second talk ‘MA vs Employment' was due to start. I had no hesitation in looking a keen bean as I perched right on the front bench that everyone had stealthily circumnavigated. Hilary Alexander introduced Cressida Pye of Pye and Smith and Professor Wendy Dagworthy OBE from The Royal College of Art, which made me quite excited (black sheep though I am, some artistic family members did attend the college). I had already beadily spotted Professor Dagworthy earlier on; her elegant silver topknot, piles of silver jewellery and face full of wisdom cut a striking silhouette in the crowd.

A well balanced argument was presented for each case as to whether a student should choose an MA course or the employment route, and it was pleasing to see common ground between the two industry experts. Both Cressida and Wendy emphasised the importance of depth, not breadth in sketchbooks and portfolios, the eminence of illustration talent, and maintaining your individual work patterns.
Professor Dagworthy’s reminiscing on talent spotting Erdem and Christopher Bailey of Burberry proved immensely enjoyable. She proposed that there was something decidedly innate within these individuals that could hold the attention of an unsuspecting audience just as if they possessed magical powers; whose aura emanated talent, strength and determination. An air of mystery too perhaps. Using the label creative ‘genius’ here is tempting; though I do believe that once we assign an individual that status we can so often limit and damage their potential to do great things. But there is no doubt that those two were destined to do just that.
I’m not sure if I entirely agreed with Cressida’s statement that businesses don’t look at the venture of starting one’s own business as the best experience for future employment. Technical skills can be learnt on the job from other professionals, just like apprenticeships, and the environment of free, unbridled creativity and urgent pace can really catalyse the natural potential of budding designers. My favourite quote from Cressida, and from the whole day, was her philosophy on exactly why some of Pye and Smith’s employees were so efficient; because “a tough education makes students oven ready”. I couldn’t agree more with this statement, though you’ll be pleased to know that on this particular occasion, I won’t digress to exploring the limits of British education.

My day ended on a lovely high as I queued for the Northumbria Fashion Show at around five thirty, where I also met the lovely Jennivi Jordan, a young fashion stylist.The dutiful fashion students had gone to the effort of taping a little gift bag on the back of each seat. Much to my amusement my complimentary gift was a tiny pair of Gilly Hicks knickers, outrageously labelled ‘Medium’ even though they would have been a snug fit on a five year old.
Northumbria showcased a strong array of menswear, an indication of the scope emerging to rival the innovation and individuality shown abundantly in womenswear. The show opened with a breathtaking futuristic stance on menswear by Emily Edge, boasting vibrant digital printing and razor sharp tailoring which rightfully won her a Gold Finalist nomination. The return of Nineties chic was reflected in Chloe Horsfield’s menswear which featured technicolour patchwork sportswear, bomber jackets and knitted beanies. Meanwhile the influences of Russian architecture were clear in Amelia Smith’s sculptural womenswear collection, characterised by distinctive bell shaped dresses and intricate monochrome patternation, which resulted in a nomination as Textiles Finalist GFW 2012. On Gala Day, Sarah Murphy of Northumbria also won the New Ethical Award presented by eco-diva Livia Firth.

As the swell of the crowd tided out into Earls Court, I so too ebbed away into the warm evening sunlight; tired, achy, but somewhat reassured that the future of British design and manufacturing is surely set to make a comeback. It may just have begun. 

Mapping Modern Day Creativity: An Evening with Zandra Rhodes

Two weeks ago I was sitting bleary-eyed alongside my kind, personable morning friend, my mug of tea, as I ploughed through my Twitter notifications; until an excitable tweet from the Fashion and Textile Museum stating “We're getting ready to be In Conversation with @Zandra_Rhodes this Thursday 31st May!! Tickets still available..” shook me from my stupor.
I’ve been aware of Zandra Rhodes for as long as I can remember; a true iconic New Wave fashion designer famed not only for her creative legacy but her shocking pink hair and eclectic appearance. Scrabbling madly for my credit card and diving for my phone, I was soon begging the indifferent receptionist on the other end to reserve me a ticket; who gleefully rejoiced in playing me excerpts of tubular bells whilst she checked the legitimacy of my claim to be a student.
Eventually I managed to pre-book a ticket. Upon perusing Google maps I discovered that rather embarrassingly, the Fashion and Textile museum is literally two streets away from my apartment. So I have no excuses for not having previously visited this little educational haven before, considering I live in the capital city and culture seeps through every thoroughfare. Thoughts of possible outfits to wear when meeting the fabulous fashion maverick had flitted through my mind; but I know well enough by now that although London can nurture your identity and strengthen your style inclinations, there are times when you have to let sense occasionally reign over ones fashion fantasies. Seeing the headline on the Southwark newspaper booming “Could this be the Bermondsey rapist?” only that very morning in Tesco, coupled with the inevitable strained pleas from my mother on speakerphone imploring me not to wear anything “strange” meant I donned my much loved ensemble of white shirt, jeans and blazer, and trotted off in the evening sunlight.
For anyone that's ever visited the Fashion and Textile Museum, you’d know that the building is no shrinking violet. I was beadily scouring the boutiques and restaurants on Bermondsey Street like it was going to be carefully concealed in side alley brickwork like Diagon Alley. Until I saw a bright orange and pink building that stands in rather provocative contrast to the beautifully married muted pastels and red brick buildings surrounding it; almost an asymmetric sister building of the Weasley household.
Once inside I was given a programme for the current exhibition on ‘Designing Women: Post War British Textiles’ and a complimentary glass of wine (which I politely declined after I was obliged to nurse Tom recently after typical overindulgent fresher consumption of Rosé) Incidentally, the exhibition features some incredible modernist textile works from some pivotal female designers of the post-war period, such as Lucienne Day, Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag. I bought a copy of ‘Textile Revolution: Medals, Wiggles and Pop 1961-1971 Zandra Rhodes’ by Samantha Erin Safer and nipped up the glass staircase to get a good seat in the conference room. 

As I sat eagerly with my notepad and camera poised on my lap waiting for everyone to arrive, I occupied myself by gazing at the array of fabric montages and inspirational quotes on the walls; only vaguely aware of colour and movement shifting on my peripherals. Until I looked around me and saw fabulously eccentric individuals (of a more mature age) materialising through the cream doorway almost like it was a magic portal connected to another world. I’m positive they had equally creative personalities to match. The room was a melange of dyed hair, feathers, fascinators, tie-dye and the soft jangle of Indian bangles. There I was sat in the middle of the room, forty years younger and looking about as bright as an eclipse.
And then a hush fell upon the room. Our little colourful congregation turned our heads simultaneously as we heard a  distinctly audible rustle of taffeta skirts, in time to see Zandra Rhodes sashaying up the aisle in a magnificent magenta ballgown, vermilion patent heels, piles of costume jewellery and a wry smile And of course the brilliant pink bob.
Samantha Erin Safer, the author of Zandra Rhodes’ new book was present to interview Zandra on her life’s achievements and lead the discussion. She had also prepared a Powerpoint presentation to accompany the talk which was entitled “Zandra Rhodes and the Swinging 60’s; Textile Revolution at the Royal College of Art and the Rise of British Fashion”.
The talk began with Safer distinguishing Zandra as a British fashion and textile designer, “prolific draughtsman” and all-round revolutionary figure. My Mum had always talked to me about precisely why Zandra was so influential; because of her proficiency, first and foremost as a textiles designer, concerned with producing new and innovative fabrics and constant consideration of how this fabric would sit on the body. Zandra began by stating that “textile designers are the Cinderella’s of the fashion world”; for without textiles, designers would have nothing to forge creative visions from.
The more Zandra fed us anecdotes from her incredible past the more I was reminded of snippets of wisdom I had been nourished on from my mother. She emphasised that she was lucky to be a ‘spark part of the bonfire’ that had ignited in the revolutionary 1960’s. That inspiration originates from the simplest everyday influences. To be your own boss and believe in your own talent (Zandra was never offered a job). To know that if you choose to do something you truly love, you will never have to work a day of your life.
The most intriguing parts of Zandra's talk came spontaneously when she would drift off on a tangent and bestow fragments of personal opinion. She talked about the amazing flux of ideas that is naturally proliferated in youth; and how, often, a design process is one of re-visitation and renovation; taking old ideas, coming back to them later in life and injecting new energy. It reminded me of something one of my English lecturers had noted about a particular piece of poetry; how the words grew out of one another like intertwining briars. Zandra said the same thing happens with fashion collections.
Safer asked Zandra about her signature ‘wiggle’ motifs used in so many of her textile designs. Zandra said that wiggles were something she had been drawing since she was a little girl; something innate and integral to one’s creative identity. It reminded me of how my Mum’s illustrations will always feature tiny dots somewhere in the clouds of billowing watercolour.
What really caught my attention was when Zandra addressed the direction of creativity nowadays; a topic that has recently become quite a strong interest of mine. Zandra was not a natural tailor and never possessed the skills to sew until she learnt from friends. But she was taught to draw; and being able to draw stems from an ability to really look. I suppose this sounds like rather an illogical proposition.
I cannot describe how many times my Mum has reprimanded me for ‘looking without seeing’. In essence, this means cursorily glancing at something without really observing the layers of depth and meaning; whether in art, literature, architecture, or textiles The ability to visually examine, is, in my mind, to imagine oneself as a microscope, able to identify and magnify detail that would ordinarily be invisible to the careless human eye.
Rhodes lamented the modern age which has spawned a generation of hopeful designers who are reliant upon a computer to produce drawings. That the technological age, which undoubtedly has its significant benefits, has also ensured that young people really don’t have as much of a grounding in basic technical drawing or possess many fundamental any technical skills to enter the artistic arena. One ends up living what should be a raw, exhilarating creative process through a machine.
Of course this is all subjective. It is not that one cannot get ahead in creative industries if one does not possess any rudimentary technical skills; but isn’t it preferable? I believe these vital technical skills not only make an individual more artistically proficient but help to build an inquiring, flexible mind. A mind well versed in manual improvisation and the generation of new ideas and solutions as a force of habit, not a forced discipline.
All Zandra's designs revolve around a policy of ‘handmade’. She draws all her own designs, cuts her own patterns, screen prints samples. It is not pure romanticisation to think that we should all revert to such processes; but it is vital to create a subtle balance between technology and hand production.
When one audience member asked Zandra to give some future advice for any young people thinking of going into the fashion industry, she simply replied “everything is challenging”. Every industry has its trials and equally has its special rewards. It is ultimately dependent on the individual to make a success of their career.
My mind was having its own rave by this point given all the cultural stimuli, which was perhaps a fitting moment for Zandra’s PA to close the discussion and announce that Zandra would be signing books if we quickly queued at the front. Naturally I assumed the obligatory role of that that irritating person bobbing around in manner of a hyperactive gnat, snapping away with my camera. But it yielded a personal message from Zandra inside my book and a nice photograph so I walked contentedly out into the warm evening renewed with energy and ideas. 

It was only sitting in bed that night reflecting on the evening that I remembered something that had been bothering me from earlier. I cannot remember seeing one young person at the event. I remember thinking beforehand that I would be have to be shoehorned into a room full of young students and fashion entrepreneurs. It couldn’t have been for want of a lack of publicity; not in the technology dominated world that Zandra Rhodes had lamented. This was one of the occasions I felt like I should have been born in a different era; an era filled with days of fast-paced creativity in attic workshops, not days filled with electronic messaging and educational restrictions. Then again I’m probably just dreaming of a revolution.