By guest author Bella Webb from Vogue Business
The pandemic put gaping holes in the graduate showcase and recruitment systems, leaving a microgeneration of fashion students with limited opportunities.
When the world went into lockdown this spring, fashion brands and schools switched off their sewing machines and went home. Nearly six months into global lockdowns, emerging designers are finding the traditional path to a fashion career has disappeared.
Kristina Groß, an Austrian student who studies remotely at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, is now contending with a nine-hour time difference for live Zoom classes and interning remotely for New York-based Marchesa. Compared to others, Groß is lucky. Central Saint Martins student Mathilde Schaub moved to New York for a six-month internship at Marc Jacobs the same day her native France went into lockdown, returning two weeks later when it was cancelled. Edinburgh College of Art student Skye Bending never even made it that far, with her stint at Ralph Lauren cut before she boarded the plane.
Traditional routes to employment — placements, graduate showcases and entry-level jobs — are dwindling, and remote learning has exacerbated existing barriers. There are morsels of hope. Fashion media and incubators are stepping up. I-D is running a global graduate showcase with Arts Thread, while Dazed has partnered with Gap and SHOWstudio collaborated with CSM. “The press has been really helpful,” says Simon Ungless, executive director for the school of fashion at Academy of Art University and former designer with Lee McQueen. But piecemeal efforts are unlikely to prompt enough industry-wide momentum to support emerging designers, adds David Leigh, CEO of XYZ Exchange, a sustainable supply chain platform, putting a generation of designers at risk.
“We’re not just talking about losing this year’s creative brilliance, but also many years to come,” says Joy Campbell, brand partnerships director for the Graduate Fashion Foundation, which hosts the annual Graduate Fashion Week event where many students make their debut.
With buyers, press and brands invited to sit front row, graduate catwalks usually function as recruitment drives, but Covid-19 has magnified the flaws in this system. “Four years and USD 120,000 is not all about 40 seconds on a runway,” says Ungless. “I think a lot of university shows have become a marketing tool for the university, rather than getting students a job.”
Instead, AAU hosted a Zoom presentation which over 150 industry figures attended, including Giles Deacon, Suzy Menkes and Sarah Mower. “I can’t normally get them all to San Francisco, so this was a better opportunity for them to see the students’ work,” Ungless adds. Central Saint Martins’ digital showcase for BA Fashion garnered 20,000 views in the first month; 900 people normally attend the physical shows.
With traditional recruitment processes disrupted, visibility will be the key to gaining employment, says Anne Raphaël, global leader for luxury at executive search firm Boyden. “It’s probably more difficult when you come from a smaller school, but building a good CV is not just about what you did in school,” she adds.
Traditional routes into the industry are blocked, but alternatives are emerging
With graduate fashion shows moved online or cancelled, pop-up initiatives are trying to fill the gaps. XYZ Exchange hosted 15 graduates from London colleges in a physical event space this month, with international students presenting their work via Zoom. “The graduates of 2020 will be the vanguards of system change. They’re the most open-minded,” says CEO David Leigh.
The 29th iteration of Graduate Fashion Week — which hosts 38 UK universities and over 40 international ones at its flagship annual event in London — was cancelled, but organisers are seeking to provide the same transition from education to industry in other ways, including features in Grazia and Love magazine, a partnership with networking app The Dots, online masterclasses with established designers and a merchandising design residency with TikTok. “It was about making sure the students felt that being denied the physical event did not deny them the support, advice, mentoring and industry contact it would have given them,” says Campbell.
Awards went ahead with amended criteria, acknowledging the resilience and process of students in lockdown. Edinburgh College of Art graduate Amelia Wang was shortlisted for Graduate Fashion Week’s newly minted Adaptation Award. “It was nice that other people could still appreciate my work, instead of me just looking at it in my bedroom,” she says. Wang also made an IGTV video for Fashion Open Studio and took part in the alternative student-run ECA showcase, Alt-D.
Brands who cannot hire are offering alternative support
In response to cancelled placements, CSM has reduced the minimum requirement to pass the placement year from 100 days to 50, adding a written report and online courses as alternative ways to gain credits, but Schaub says this is no equal replacement for physical work experience.
With limited job opportunities, CSM graduate Violette Villeneuve is enrolling on the MA Fashion course, while ECA graduate Alma Karlin-Sevic is undertaking an MA in marketing. “If it wasn’t for Covid-19, I would have wanted to do an internship and go straight into the industry,” she explains. “We might get support for showcasing our works, but it’s an illusion when people aren’t hiring.”
“Those opting to do an MA may be in a better position next year, but this is not financially an option for everyone,” says Ida Petersson, menswear and womenswear buying director at Browns. There are also doubts about the value of remote learning for studio-based practice. At present, Academy of Art University only has 33 postgraduates confirmed for September, compared to 63 last year.
Those with jobs are no longer secure. Parsons graduate Annaliese Griffith-Jones has just completed two weeks of hotel quarantine in Australia, after losing her job with a major fast fashion retailer in New York and struggling to find a replacement before her American visa was rescinded.
Despite widespread hiring freezes and redundancies, there are still some opportunities for graduates. On the Academy of Art San Francisco job board, there are advertisements from Old Navy, Facebook and Fabletics. But competition for traineeships is fierce, like LVMH’s retail trainee programme: this year 27 applicants were chosen, including Poppy Sun, who says it was worth moving to China in the pandemic, knowing nearly 6,000 others applied.
Parsons student and CFDA scholarship recipient Jacques Agbobly hopes that brands will look beyond graduate collections when hiring, as lockdown magnified inequalities between finalists. “I fear it will create an imbalance when the time comes to look for job opportunities. I’ll be presenting an unfinished portfolio while others present a finished collection,” he says.
Without work experience opportunities to demystify the industry, brands and incubators are releasing free, informative content online like the Sarabande Foundation, established by the late Lee Alexander McQueen to support emerging talent with videos on setting up direct-to-consumer e-commerce and advice from designers like Thom Browne and Molly Goddard.
The brand partnerships team at CSM says long-standing relationships with companies such as LVMH, MullenLowe and L’Oréal have provided new opportunities for mentorship and advice. “There was a bit of a drop-off in one-off partnerships, but there has been renewed interest now,” says director of innovation and business, Monica Hundal. “Organisations want to work with students because they are looking for fresh ways to navigate challenges and Covid-19 is a great example of that.”
The outcomes young designers have produced already during lockdown demonstrate their value and resilience, says Damien Paul, head of menswear at MatchesFashion. “I really hope that we won’t see anyone left behind because of Covid-19. I do think times of hardship can generate amazing bursts of creativity,” he says.