Fashion Editor’s Comment: Majors in Stardom; Critique of student fashion shows

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The star of the college shows was a white shirt. It appeared in nine variations on a theme as a Kingston project, and it was the best thing I saw in three weeks of student showings.

White shirts do not make good pictures, nor do they make a student’s reputation as Britain’s answer to Karl Lagerfeld or as the graduate most likely to be flown to Milan to work for the Missoni’s. But the triumph of the fresh white shirt over the outlandish, the elaborate and the over-styled degree collections highlighted what is wrong with the annual college shows.

They have become a parade of self-indulgence in which students with strong personalities major in stardom. Because the shows are presented like international collections – sound, lights, models and music – the spotlight illuminates the bizarre and the outrageous. This is unfair on students whose work is quieter and ultimately more acceptable to the fashion industry. It is also unfortunate for the colleges whose prime concern is to find the right career slot for all its graduates.

The showbiz element has become a delusion for many of the London-based colleges who fund-raise to take over the ballroom at Claridges or, in the case of the Royal College of Art, raise money by asking a gala audience to pay to see its students.

In the old silver screen cliche, fashion moguls are placed in the front row as talent spotters. This year’s included Elie and Jacqueline Jacobson of Dorothee Bis and Dr Lugi Maramotti from MaxMara in Italy.

There are too many colleges showing too much work in too many places. This is the season of guilt and callow youthfulness, when this fashion editor is alternately ashamed at having got to so few showings and enraged by the attendant groupies, the unreadable invitations (courtesy of the graphics department) and the jejune comments of the students. (‘Crippling’ was one student’s verdict on his job opportunity with a design-conscious fashion company; ‘I think my clothes are right for Italy’, opined another.) They cannot all be stars, none of them is yet, and I think journalists do a disservice to the colleges by tipping winners and inflating egos.

And yet .. at their best, the fashion students, and increasingly the textile schools with their imaginative prints, do offer such a refreshing spring of ideas. The best shows have an unbridled exuberance, new frontiers in knitting, original treatments of colours or fabric. That is why foreign companies look to the British schools, why journalists go to the shows, and why Lydia Kemeny, the principal of St Martin’s, can reel out the names of designer houses who are advertising on their college notice board for talent.

The colleges are supposed to be divided between the BA or more ‘creative’ courses and the B-Tech grouping. All by comparison with American or German fashion schools, offer very little training in the crucial backroom skills of pattern cutting and making.

Without a profound understanding of the way that the construction of fashion has changed, lightening and giving fluidity to the garments the most avant garde drawing-board design will not be translated as modern fashion.

The reason that many British-trained designers go abroad, is that they do not have the allround skills that make them useful to a small fashion company. I wonder if any of them know that pattern cutters are more highly prized and sought-after in the trade than designers and that their stars can command annual salaries of pounds 20,000?

This season’s Royal College graduates gave a spectacularly bad show, although some of its component parts – knitwear, graphic prints and the use of textures – were interesting. The general impression was that the class of ’85 had got stuck up a creek with far too much fabric.

Their drooping asymmetric wraps and hanging shirt tails recalled Yohji Yamamoto of two years ago. As the established designer Victor Edelstein put it to me when I asked if he could see any line or theme to the clothes: ‘The body must be somewhere in the middle trying to keep it all on.’

It is right and natural that fashion students should have designer heroes. But Harrow had two students who thought they were Gianfranco Ferre and had been given metres of expensive fabric to disprove the point; St Martin’s had a loving ‘homage’ to Azzedine Alaia and all too much influence from last year’s ‘star’ designer John Galliano. The fashion world is already eager to steal an original idea and mass market it. Flagrant plagiarism by the would-be creators looks like fouling the designer nest.

I think the time has come for colleges to make a selection of their students and show in the end-of-term parade only the best work which has earned high grades. This would encourage a spirit of competition, and cut down on the time and energy needed to look fairly at the college work.

On Thursday, an exhibition of this year’s college students opens at Hyper Hyper – the Kensington emporium which makes the most rigorous selection of all by exposing budding talent to the market place.

One Step Ahead is the aptly named title of a show which picks out some of the best and most creative students, emphasizes that creativity, and gives them an opportunity to show and sell it. ‘One step at a time’ might be a wise slogan for the fashion colleges, whose embryo designers have everything to learn about real fashion life: the ability to develop and sustain creativity, steady growth, marketing, as well as the ability to cut and sew.

The all-star college shows seem to me to encourage student designers to run before they can run up a seam.

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