Graduate Fashion Week (GFW) brings together talented final-year students from both UK and international member universities. The event involves several action-packed days of catwalk shows and seminars that present around 3,500 pieces of work each year.
In 2020 the Covid restrictions meant it was a smaller, socially distanced affair, but in 2021 it is back in full, physical force on 12-17 June to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
The Graduate Fashion Foundation (GFF) and GFW were both established in 1991 by fashion designer and co-founder of Warehouse Jeff Banks, fashion recruitment specialist Vanessa Denza and then-show producer John Walford – who also established Fashion Scout, a catwalk platform for new fashion design talent, in 2006 – to help talent from across the world win jobs in the fashion industry.
The event was founded to give students outside London a fair shot by giving them a setting in the capital to display their work. Each year, tutors at GFW’s member universities nominate two final-year students they think are outstanding. There are 24 accolades this year, from catwalk awards judged at the event including that include The Christopher Bailey Collection of the Year Award and the Sustainability Trailblazer Award, to portfolio work judged beforehand including the Fashion Marketing Award and Fashion Styling & Creative Direction Award.
Current chairman Douglas MacLennan explains: “[Before GFW] everyone showed in their own cities, with the industry taking a few days out to look [at graduate shows]. But by the late 1980s, people were having to stay in offices a bit longer, and the sheer cost for students as far as Newcastle having to put on a show in London was quite prohibitive.” GFW launched in 1991 at the Business Design Centre in Islington, North London.
MacLennan has been with GFW since the beginning in 1991 as a participating college leader. He was teaching the final year of the BA Fashion course at Northumbria University at the time.
He says of the inaugural event: “I can remember being absolutely terrified. I’d never done it in that manner before – I was praying the clothes would fit [the models].”
MacLennan left his role as design school director for international development and recruitment in 2016 after a 44-year stint at Northumbria University. He says of his teaching career: “For the first 19 years I felt sorry for the rest of the world as I had the perfect job.”
He stepped up to the post of acting chairman of GFW when president Banks retired after 29 years in July 2019. MacLennan currently teaches fashion courses at the London College for Design and Fashion – Hanoi, in Vietnam, and Academy of Design in Sri Lanka, when Covid restrictions allow.
GFW suffered a blow when its chairman from 2004 to 2011, Terry Mansfield, died in March 2020 after contracting Covid-19. MacLennan says he worked closely with Mansfield, who was responsible for key personalities such as Victoria Beckham coming on board to judge in 2007.
“He never really forgot us, even though he moved on to other things,” he recalls. “He rang me from his sick bed in hospital, when he had Covid, as he was so anxious about what was going to happen to the students last year. It’s typical of Terry.
“He died a few days later. One of the awards this year [the Terry Mansfield Digital Fashion Publication Award] will be in his honour.”
Taking part in Graduate Fashion Week has spawned some of fashion’s best-known names (box, below). Former Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey was a winning beneficiary in 1992 (box, below). Other famous alumni include London and Milan Fashion Week designer Antonio Berardi (see timeline, below), Stella McCartney, who showed her graduate collection in 1995 with parents Sir Paul and Linda McCartney in the front row, and London Fashion Week womenswear designer Julien MacDonald.
But the pandemic turned the event on its head. Students have had limited access to university facilities and resources under successive lockdowns, which has affected their ability to produce their graduate collections. This has led to GFW asking for just two complete catwalk looks, instead of the usual six, and an emphasis on portfolio work.
MacLennan says: “The quality of portfolios last year was the highest we’ve ever seen and it’s a similar situation this year. Two outfits on average is the most any university student can manufacture because of lockdown. In previous years, everyone would have shown six.
“Last year we modified the awards so all work could be presented digitally. We put an emphasis on the creativity and outcome. We couldn’t present any catwalk awards but instead looked at creativity within the portfolios and understanding of commerciality.”
Covid has led to the class of 2020 and 2021 graduating into one of the toughest job markets to date for fashion retail. Drapers’ own research shows that as of 24 March 2021, a total of 43,180 jobs had been cut in the fashion retail sector since April 2020. Since the start of this year, 19,253 redundancies have been made in both head office and store roles, as a result of the closure of Debenhams, Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group and Arcadia Group, among others.
This is part of the reason that uniting the next generation of talent with opportunities within the industry is more important than ever.
MacLennan says it is a two-way street: “I’ve spoken to a number of industries over the years and they find [GFW] is a wonderful event where, over four days they can see what’s happening [in fashion]. They’re close to what’s happening on the street, offer a new direction and new way of thinking.
“Students aren’t perfect but they’re still learning and don’t have as many restrictions – you end up thinking, ‘Why couldn’t we have thought like that?’”
To support the Covid classes of 2020 and 2021, MacLennan is encouraging the fashion retail industry to offer internships, as opportunities have been reduced or stopped altogether during the pandemic.
“Internships are a learning aspect,” he says. “If everyone’s having to work at home, then students would have to almost work on their own, which makes a placement very difficult.”
Brexit is only adding to the challenges: “Some are often keen to work in Europe immediately on graduation, but that’s more difficult more now. That doesn’t mean they can’t go further afield, but with so many countries in lockdown, it’s just more difficult. ” He also cites the disappearance of retailers such as BHS in 2016 and Arcadia Group in 2020, headline sponsors of the event in 1995 and 2003 respectively, as making jobs even rarer.
Strength in adversity
Despite the knock-backs and challenges that an exceptional year of Covid-19 and Brexit has delivered students, MacLennan praises their strength in the face of such adversity: “It’s that bulldog spirit for which the British are known. Students think it’s pointless complaining and they just have to get on with it. The emphasis now is on their portfolio side, as they haven’t been able to do as much practically.”
GFW alumnus Bailey agrees that the pandemic has unearthed extra creativity and resilience in its student cohorts: “We are living through a period of great shifts – culturally, socially, technologically and politically. Change creates opportunity for creative thinkers but it does require designers to be even more agile and tenacious – especially given the lack of confidence in industry, as roadmaps are more opaque and the way forward more challenging to navigate.”
He adds that this will cultivate different sensibilities among the class of 2021: “Out of the daunting challenges will come brilliant and unique ideas that will resonate in a caring world without prejudices or geographical boundaries.”
Another outcome of the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in reaction to the public murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis in June 2020 has been a greater awareness of racism.
This year for the first time, GFF has partnered with Fashion Academics Creating Equality (FACE) to launch the Black Excellence Prize. It says: “The award is open to all Black and Brown final year students” studying any BA fashion course at a UK university can nominate themselves for the award, which will be presented during GFW, and entries are open to all UK universities, not only GFF members. The award will be judged by London Fashion Week designer Bianca Saunders, designer and FACE co-founder Andrew Ibi and creative director Harris Elliot.
MacLennan believes technology has mitigated the effects of the pandemic on students’ work: “If this happened 30 years ago it would have been a problem – we didn’t work remotely as we do now. [Today] a lot of job roles involve designing on a laptop. They do still need an understanding of the practical – the make – but students probably aren’t being asked to do it as much as they would have been.”
Despite this, MacLennan predicts that it will take this year’s cohort a year instead of six months to find a job after graduating, and many are working on personal projects to keep the momentum going.
How Graduate Fashion Week kickstarted Christopher Bailey’s career
Christopher Bailey, creative director at Burberry from 2000 to 2017, was the first ever winner of its Gold catwalk award, introduced in 1992.
The award was renamed the Christopher Bailey Collection of the Year Award in 2017, and he became a Lifetime Patron for GFW at its 25-year anniversary in 2016, helping to promote the event annually. This year’s prize will be awarded to a trio of students who show exceptional creativity in design, cut, craftsmanship, use of colour and fabric. Past judges include the late Alexander McQueen in 1999.
Having graduated from the University of Westminster’s BA Fashion course in 1990, GFW funded Bailey’s two-year MA Fashion at the Royal College of Art.
Bailey says: “I was extraordinarily lucky, and surprised, to win the GFW award when I was graduating from my degree course at the University of Westminster Harrow College of Art, as it was known then. It set me off on an unexpected path of placing me right back into education and I found myself in the privileged position of studying for an MA at the RCA among a group of brilliantly talented designers, artists and makers from all over the world, and across many different creative areas.”
He adds the Royal College of Art MA embedded a sense of the importance of relevance: “It made me think about, and be aware of, how design needs context to make sense of a strong point of view.”
As Bailey was graduating from the RCA, towards the end of his course, Donna Karan came to meet all students and see his collection, he was soon on his way to New York to work for her. From there, he went to work at Gucci with Tom Ford before moving to Burberry.
“The recognition from the GFW award not only impacted my professional career in a profound and significant way, it gave me personal experiences beyond my wildest dreams.”
Another ongoing challenge students face today is having the means to support themselves. “There isn’t the financial support that there once was. When I first started teaching, every fashion student was entitled to a study trip to Paris, and – like all students – they had their fees paid [via the grants system] I can’t remember any student not getting subsistence. People complain about students, but many are having to work 37 hours a week to earn the money to maintain their studies, and you just think: how are you doing that? I’ve a huge amount of time and respect for the students of now because of that element.”
“Eventually, I’d like the [GFF] charity to be seen as the first stop for the industry to see new talent, and to be increasingly global, not just national.” In the meantime, MacLennan advises “students not to panic, be professional, stick with it and your talent will show. The industry will recover and it will change, and students have already risen to the occasion.”
The return of Graduate Fashion Week will be welcomed and celebrated by students: the opportunities it offers are more valuable than ever in a depleted job market. Despite the challenges, the pandemic has brought out students’ fighting spirit, and developed valuable resilience. Throughout it all – Brexit, pandemics and recessions – just as it has for the past 30 years, GFW will continue to find, develop and promote young talent.
Graduate Fashion Week: 30 years of nurturing talent
1991 First ever Graduate Fashion Week held at Business Design Centre in Islington, north London
1992 Christopher Bailey wins first Gold Award with his University of Westminster graduate collection. Giles Deacon shows with Central Saint Martins
1993 Hussein Chalayan shows with Central Saint Martins
1994 Antonio Berardi (Central Saint Martins) and Julien MacDonald (Royal College of Art) show their graduate collections
1995 Stella McCartney shows her graduate collection
1997 Designer Scott Henshall, creative director of Mulberry from 2000 to 2002, shows his collection
1998 GFW is held at the Chinese Circus Tent at Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank
1999 The event moves to venue Planit 2000, Shoreditch High Street, east London
2001 Tim Dickinson, now senior director technical design of atelier and ready-to-wear at Coach, shows his collection
2002 The event moves to Battersea Park until 2007
2004 Founder Jeff Banks receives the GFW Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by then chairman Terry Mansfield
2005 Catherine Teatum, co-founder of womenswear brand Teatum Jones shows graduate collection
2014 GFW moves to the Old Truman Brewery in east London until 2019
2016 Graduate Fashion Foundation marks its 25 year anniversary by announcing Christopher Bailey, Victoria Beckham, Nick Knight and Dame Vivienne Westwood as Lifetime Patrons
2018 Diane Von Furstenberg and businesswoman Nadja Swarovski named Lifetime Patrons
2019 Dame Zandra Rhodes named Lifetime Patron, Mariah Esa from De Montfort University wins Shein People’s Choice Award, launches a collection with luxury department store Browns.
2020 GFW’s physical show is postponed and celebrated in a socially distanced manner in September by the Graduate Fashion Foundation in Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross, London.
June 2021 GFW celebrates 30th anniversary with a return to a physical event at Coal Drops Yard