With Graduate Fashion Week upon us, the industry is taking a long, hard look at the economic reality of being a fashion student in London right now. And it’s not pretty.
After the government cut the maintenance grant for hardship and students had to start paying for their higher education via a series of loans, the university experience has been irrevocably altered. It’s been a long time since such big names as J W Anderson’s founder Jonathan Anderson and Jimmy Choo graduated from the London College of Fashion and Central St Martins, respectively. “Things have become very difficult for students in the last year because they can’t access grants now. You have to borrow everything and that’s a big change,” says Michele Buchanan, outreach manager at the London College of Fashion.
Buchanan says the majority of the college’s students have to live at home because they can’t afford the rent. Plus, there are part-time jobs and other financial concerns at play. “Lots of our students who come through our Outreach programme are looking after younger siblings, so there’s that to contend with too.”
For those of us who believe in the democracy of further education, the new reality of sole domination by upper-class students is a bitter reality to swallow. “Great talents, from John Galliano to Christopher Kane, went to university when there were no fees,” says Sarah Mower of the British Fashion Council. “The reputation of Britain’s fashion industry relies on intelligence from all classes.” Instead, in 2016 it’s only wealthy people who can afford further education. The trickle down from that is affecting creativity. According to Una Burke, lecturer and 2009 London College of Fashion alumnus, who is not from an affluent background, the aesthetic output from fashion institutions is in danger of becoming homogenised. “I think when you’ve had to struggle it forces you to be more creative and resourceful. Your designs become more boundary-pushing.”
Like the monoculture one witnesses walking around the gentrified streets of Soho, Burke thinks that the fashion industry is in danger of shutting out experimentation in favour of economic gain. If the student/teacher relationship has altered and become corporatised, so it’s now about people paying for a service and the service provider, it can only water down the experimentation on display. “Things won’t be as experimental, because you can’t be experimental if you have access to the newest equipment. To be creative you have to think about new ways to do things.”
Something which Hussein Chalayan, a Central St Martins graduate in 1993, famously did by burying his graduate collection in a friend’s garden, allowing them to decay there over several months, which opened a new creative door for him.
Today, one of the greatest outlays fashion students have to battle with are production costs of staging the all-important final-year gala catwalk show, which can be career-making. “It can cost up to £10,000 to pay for a graduate collection,” says Mower. Trickle-down economic factors have conspired to create a situation where a graduate show can longer be about high concepts and cheap fabrics, it now has to have the same tenure and production values of a London Fashion Week show.
“Tutors won’t come out and say you have to buy expensive fabric, but that’s the impression you get,” says Osman Ahmed, who graduated from St Martins last year. “Essentially you have to make your graduate collection really high-end. It’s like an audition for the luxury brand you might work for, so it has to be like a finished product.” He adds that although companies may be offering sponsorship, this would be in the form of materials and not a bursary. Plus there are caveats. “In my year, Saga Furs were offering to sponsor a few students, but then you have to use fur in your collection, and that’s questionable.” A BA student in fashion can come out with a debt of £50,000 and still having problems finding a job. And moving to the MA programme is a more remote thing, too.
In the long term, this gameplan makes no economic sense. “People think that fashion is frivolous but it’s not in terms of the economy,” says Mower. “The fashion industry is worth £26bn to this country and it’s alarming that we are losing creative capital.”
Steps are being taken to address these complex issues, like the London College of Fashion’s Outreach programme to help disadvantaged students meet the costs of studio and photography fees. Meanwhile the British Fashion College has an educational foundation that campaigns for scholarships, among other things. Mower, who is co-president of that department, says fundraising is difficult, in part due to the culture of charity in the UK. In the US, there is a culture of alumni giving back and of companies having a corporate responsibility to give back, which we don’t have here, she says. “People are generous but they need to realise that the idea of London as a business fashion centre is being threatened.”