LONDON, United Kingdom — Fashion design students have always sought out internships and other forms of work experience with brands and retailers. At the postgraduate level, many also engage in paid consultancies that help fund their own work. What’s more, brands and retailers regularly work with fashion schools on educational projects that test a student's ability to respond to brief. But now, select students are increasingly collaborating with companies to create product that actually goes to market.
“I believe all students need to work to live,” says Louise Wilson, director of the famed fashion MA course at London’s Central Saint Martins, who has overseen collaborative projects with brands, including J.Crew, Pringle and Bally, where products designed by students have made it to market. “It’s far better to be working in your industry, than say at McDonald’s! That’s always been the way. You always did consultancies on the side. I prefer projects where there is real product on sale at the end,” continued Wilson. “When it’s real, or when it matters, you do your best work, hopefully. You are learning, as you would on the course, to work with factories, to work with product developers and to understand what is possible and, hopefully, to push those people further.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, several of the most prominent examples of students working with brands and retailers — to earn critical experience, and build their personal brands before they’ve even graduated — come from Central Saint Martins, where both BA and MA fashion students are monitored closely by the industry. (After all, this is the school that produced talents like Alexander McQueen and Phoebe Philo).
Menswear designer Nicomede Talavera, who completed both his BA and MA at Central Saint Martins, first approached American bag and luggage manufacturer Eastpak whilst he was finishing his BA collection in 2011. “I've always been obsessed with the collaborations that Eastpak have done with Raf Simons and Rick Owens,” says Talavera. “It took a while to find a contact. The marketing team in the UK forwarded my email to the design team in Belgium and, luckily, they got back to me. They were really up for it, which was absolutely amazing and we ended up doing ten bags. They gave me free rein and I chose all the fabrics and we did the collaboration over email without my even going to Belgium."
What was supposed to be a collection of runway-only bags wound up being stocked in Selfridges. And Talavera has since racked up four collections with the brand, which have been stocked by influential retailers like Opening Ceremony and Oki-Ni. Indeed, when Talavera finished his MA degree, last year, he had already felt that surreal feeling of seeing his own product on the streets, being worn by real people. But Talavera stressed that he had to prove his worth before Eastpak took him seriously: “I was trying to be as professional as I can be. When I designed the bags, the technical side of things was thorough and well-thought out. It showed them that I'm not just a student, but that I can work with a company competently.”
For their part, brands and retailers are increasingly scouting talented students at the BA level, who will soon find themselves at a key junction and have to decide whether to pursue further education or go straight into the workplace. One such talent is Beth Postle, a print designer whose pop portrait-filled BA collection left a lasting impression at last year’s Central Saint Martins show. So much so that Stavros Karelis, owner of forward-thinking Soho boutique Machine-A, contacted Postle to explore a potential collaboration. “I couldn’t get her portrait prints out of my head,” explains Karelis. “This was three or four months before Prada did their face-based collaboration. It was great timing for her.”
But Karelis is careful, when working with graduates, to make sure they can produce product that will be commercially viable. “When I saw the collection, I knew it was going to be expensive with the shapes and fabrics,” he says. “Beth’s strong point was her print. This is the element we wanted to present, so we chose very simple shapes to focus on the print.” The result was a capsule collection of t-shirts and matching trousers that sold out in both its first and second drop.
Postle is currently pursuing her MA at Central Saint Martins, after receiving a scholarship, and has undoubtedly benefited from the early retail collaboration. “I did make some money to put towards my MA collection,” says Postle. “Stavros has also made me think that maybe doing my own label won’t be so hard. Creating an inspirational collection is obviously great, but I think the Machine-A collection has made me more realistic about certain things such as costing and the market. I think a lot of creative people, especially those studying on particularly hard courses like the fashion MA at [Central Saint Martins] can get a bit obsessive and I think it’s great to have something going on that forces you to take a step back.”
“The industry is demanding,” says Wilson. “It makes no difference if Beth had done the collection this year or next year. If you can’t handle doing a collection and working with interns, you’re never going to make it.”
Molly Goddard, also currently an MA student at Central Saint Martins, was contacted by ASOS after her BA collection of embroidered tulle creations and ended up creating a capsule collection for the retailer. New Look has worked with students from the London College of Fashion’s Cordwainers to create a collection of shoes. Esprit has worked with students at The Royal College of Art to create retail pieces. And the H&M Prize awards both BA and MA students with €50,000 (about $68,000) as well as the opportunity to create a replica capsule collection for sale. Meanwhile, e-tailer Muuse’s business model is based entirely on working with fashion students to create and offer unique product.
At the top end of the market, even luxury megabrands like Dior are engaging more with fashion students. Indeed, this season, the house invited sixty-eight students from colleges from around the world to attend a third haute couture show (in addition to the two shows the brand normally puts on, one for press and one for clients) followed by a tour around the company’s atelier. (Of course, luxury conglomerate LVMH has also announced a new “Young Designer Fashion Prize” that will award the winning three fashion graduates with €10,000 grants each.)
“We’re seeing desire at both ends of the spectrum,” says Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion that aims to connect brands with young designers for commercial collaborations. “There are brands that have specific requirements and want to work with designers who are showing on-schedule and are more established. Then, there are other brands that are looking to push out a different message. For those with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) hats on, there’s a desire to give back. They’re also looking to engage with newer and younger audiences. They work with young designers to create aspirational messaging. You also get beautiful product. [Designers are] at their most creative at college and not inhibited because of commercial restraint, so you’re getting fresh and incredible ideas at this early stage.”
For retailers, carrying student work also helps to differentiate their offerings. “I want to create a space where different levels of brands can co-exist,” says Karelis. “I want to propose to customers that, as well as known brands like Raf Simons, they can get a different point of view from graduates.”
Wilson takes a more jaded view: “It’s nothing new to me. Students have always worked. But it appears new because [the media side] of the industry has morphed. It’s prestige and PR for the brands. It’s about generating clicks on webpages and tweets.”
Either way, the growth in commercially-minded student collaborations feels like a win-win. Consumers get a chance to buy unique (and sometimes more affordable) product. Retailers and brands align themselves with creativity. And, perhaps most importantly, students are given the chance to experience the realities of the commercial world earlier in their careers and, thereby, better prepare for their future in the industry, whether it’s launching their own label or joining another.
“At the end of the day, it’s about being educational,” says Wilson. “I’ve never lost sight of that. Even if we never produce another star, as long as they get to work in our industry, then that’s a good thing.”