MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — Back in June, I was involved in the judging of Graduate Fashion Week, a well-established platform for fashion graduates in the UK, showcasing work from over forty universities. It’s always a brilliant opportunity to learn about graduate work being produced across the country — not just in the obvious schools in London. But it’s there that you hear of the harsh realities that fashion design students often face after doing their undergraduate degrees. They may want to further their studies and do a fashion MA at a school like Central Saint Martins or the Royal College of Art, but for many the tuition fees, combined with the high cost of living in London, makes this prohibitively expensive. They may alternatively try for an internship or attempt to snag one of the scarce full-time jobs in the UK's fashion sector, but, again, this invariably involves moving to London to chance it with little guarantee of success.
Indeed, the socio-economic gap between the capital and the rest of the country grows ever wider — and it’s even more startling in fashion. Therefore, it was a real pleasure to discover a young designer born and bred in Manchester, who made the pragmatic decision to forgo living in the big smoke and forge his career closer to home.
Back in 2011, John Earnshaw graduated from the Manchester School of Arts with a BA in fashion design, a course that I thought produced some of Graduate Fashion Week’s best work. He then embarked on the Central Saint Martins MA course for one year, before realising that it would be financially impossible to carry on living in London. “I learnt a hell of a lot, but there's so much pressure. In the end, I couldn't really afford to stay,” says Earnshaw. “I didn't get a bursary so it made it quite difficult.”
By chance, Earnshaw landed a part time job teaching at the University of Salford’s fashion design course, which allows him to also work on his own collections in his Manchester studio, whilst enjoying the benefits of a lower cost of living up North. “Teaching still allows me to be quite creative and I still have my toe in the industry. Living up North, it's so much cheaper and I have so much time away from teaching. My main focus is to keep producing collections and putting my work out there to get feedback.”
In addition to the economic practicality of living in Manchester, Earnshaw also gets to indulge in his own specific interest in the North, as a source of inspiration for his work. “I've always been interested in the romantic idea of the North of England. You know the stuff that Morrissey sings about — meeting at the factory gates and all that stuff! It's the old values of the working class; things like scrubbing your steps because you're house proud. It’s those Ena Sharples or Hilda Ogden characters from [British soap opera] Coronation Street."
All of that might not be immediately apparent in the riot of metallic textures, mesh fabrics and sportswear vibes of his latest collection, but it’s the idea of having something rooted in real life that interests Earnshaw. Just as romantic notions of working class life infiltrate his work, so does the chavvy kid on the bus trussed up in sportswear. Likewise, gritty rundown city walls inform Gerhard Richter-inspired paint finishes on bonded lamé pieces.
Earnshaw has no illusions, though, about Manchester being the perfect base for a fashion designer. “There's a lot of creative stuff going on in Manchester, but more so in art and music than in fashion,” he admits. “The majority of jobs in fashion in Manchester are more high street stuff. If you want to work at a higher level, you do have to go to London.”
But for now, he’s happy to concentrate on honing his aesthetic in his own time, without the pressure to commercialise too quickly. “Some people rush from their BA or their MA into Fashion East and schemes like that and then a few seasons later, they’re gone,” says Earnshaw. “Maybe it's because they don't have a [defined] aesthetic yet that keeps them going for longer. It's so important for designers to [take the time to] find out who they are.”