LONDON, United Kingdom — Each year, more than 4,000 design students graduate from fashion colleges across the UK. But there are only about 500 new jobs available for them, leaving thousands of young designers to move abroad or start their own labels. The vast majority of these have absolutely no business training whatsoever.
For Thomas Tait — one of the most buzzed-about new graduates from Central Saint Martins, one of the UK's leading fashion schools —and hundreds of other budding designers around the UK, PR and fame are not enough. There are also the practical necessities of developing a viable fashion business: raising funds, setting up a studio, hiring staff, securing production, creating a new collection and, ultimately convincing buyers that they should place an order because the clothes will actually arrive on time, as promised, ready to be sold.
The youngest in his class to complete the M.A. at CSM this year, Mr. Tait, 22, is of French-Canadian and Scottish origins. He grew up modestly in the suburbs of Montréal, where he attended Collège LaSalle and learned the fundamentals of dressmaking. During the M.A., Tait was able to instill deeper meaning in his design aesthetic, to understand how people reacted to his work, and to toile and test out different fabrics.
For his graduate collection, Tait’s work was largely influenced by his obsession with bone structures — namely, shoulder blades, collarbones and hipbones — which he dramatised throughout his designs. His all black collection possessed a deceptive depth and required one to view the garments in profile in order to catch all his references and protrusions.
But apart from his history as a buyer at Reborn, an avant-garde fashion boutique in Montréal, Tait has little professional work experience. “Up until a few weeks ago, I never even had a business card,” he says.
Last month, he applied to several of the existing fashion funds and initiatives that support young UK designers: Fashion East, NEWGEN, Vauxhall Fashion Scout and Fashion Fringe. These prizes are vital to supporting fresh, new fashion talent, but few come with solid advice on how to build a long-term fashion business, or even how best to spend all of that prize money.
Indeed, Tait is reluctant to quantify the funding he estimates he’ll need to stay afloat for his first season, citing only fabric and studio space as his main costs.
Though his creative spark may set him apart, when it comes to understanding the business side of the industry, like many of his fellow fashion graduates, Tait seems under-equipped. That’s because, at many institutions the world over, fashion design is taught as a creative process only, and not an enterprise.
“Many, if not most, of the great creatives in fashion have been poor at business, from Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent. The solution may not be to teach them business but to help them find the right partner — just as YSL found Pierre Bergé,” says Roger Tredre, an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins. But finding the perfect partner is easier said than done and even with a partner, designers must still respect and understand that fashion is a business, not an art, and this requires an awareness of how the industry works operationally, not just creatively.
To make a creative business tick, there is a "difficult balancing act between craft, creativity, and the right economic incentives and motivations,” adds John Bates, director of the University of the Arts London’s Centre for Creative Business and adjunct professor at London Business School, who has begun a New Creative Ventures course designed to establish a “common language” between the University of the Arts London’s post-graduate students and London Business School’s M.B.A. students.
But Tait, like many students who aren’t afforded the opportunity or time to undertake these supplemental courses, was left to learn about the business side of the industry on his own. “I’m not into this whole world of fast fashion. I don’t want an insane turnover, to make a fast buck or to become yet another celebrity fashion designer,” he insists. But despite his clear talent, he feels he may struggle for quite some time: “You have to give yourself three seasons before you can say that you’ve developed a following, and it’s after six seasons, when you can expect to make a profit and be able to actually live off of the actual pieces, not just the funding.”
No one wants to upset the unique and delicate creative climates that have been carefully constructed at the world’s leading fashion colleges, which have given rise to design talents like Thomas Tait, and scores of high-potential talents that have come before him. But to help these gifted students turn their creative abilities into successful fashion brands, building some basic business training into the core fashion curriculum would be a very good thing indeed.
Elizabeth Peng, an M.A. student in Fashion Journalism at Central St Martins, is an editorial intern at The Business of Fashion.