Wrong and Right of UK Fashion Education
Every year it plays the same way. From March onwards, tension slowly rises as fashion students, future graduates, their teachers, the GFW team and of course us, the fashion press, get ready for Graduate Fashion Week.
The annual four day event eventually starts, quietly enough: registering, stamping, wrist-banding, logging in, setting-up, final touches… until we get caught up in the fashion vortex, a whirlwind of sensory experiences, catwalks shows, portfolios and university stands, all filled with innovative silhouettes, stimulating textures and exciting colour palettes.
People meet and business cards are exchanged. Students engage with professionals, present and explain their work. This is an exciting moment for Modeconnect as we try to recognise and promote individual talents and fresh approaches. Graduate Fashion Week is also an opportunity for me, personally, to catch up with former, fellow tutors; lecturers I have worked with and others I have got to know in the two years since we launched Modeconnect.
Four days pass by quickly, and suddenly we find ourselves in the audience of the “Gala Show,” the last of Graduate Fashion Week; the “Best of” collections ready to be shown and the Awards about to be announced. As we waited for the proceedings to start I reflected on what a great Graduate Fashion Week GFW 2014 had been. Everyone loved the new venue and the quality of the collections presented had been exceptional, especially for womenswear. I did not envy the jury who had to name only a few graduates and I wondered about the criteria they had considered and judged from.
With the announcement of the winners still some time off, our host for the evening began by recalling the memory of Louise Wilson, Central Saint Martins’ Fashion MA course leader who passed away on May 16. Unfortunately the tribute did not sit overly well… Louise Wilson was mentioned but little respect was shown; there was neither a minute of silence, nor a dimming of the lights as the projected image of Louise faded before our eyes.
Much has been said and written about Louise Wilson, both before and after her death, yet the industry which she contributed so much to, already seemed willing to dismiss the role she played.
I do realise the impression we were left with was not intended, yet the whole Modeconnect team felt it. This got me thinking about Graduate Fashion Week’s unsung heroes. The people who are barely mentioned, yet without whom GFW could not happen: the fashion tutors.
In the wake of GFW 2014, like Louise Wilson before them, Sarah Mower, Suzy Menkes in Vogue and Alexander Fury in The Independent have voiced concerns over the effect of tuition fees on the UK’s young fashion talent. The government and university heads need to address both the impact of fees as well as the effect of constrained resources on education in the creative fields.
Throughout Graduate Fashion Week I heard and witnessed stories of the tutors’ dedication to their students. Most lecturers master a broad range of skills; they are experts in textiles, garment construction, colour theory and digital technology. They are required to be managers and scholars, yet they must also understand and anticipate an extremely versatile industry.
Like Louise Wilson’s, though a tutor’s love is often tough love, it is love all the same. I have experienced the energy spent by these lecturers cajoling recruiters on their stand and getting the portfolios of their students acknowledged. I have witnessed empathy and support, as well as admiration and respect. I have even seen one tutor pull out her purse to give cash out of her own pocket, to a student in need of a new pair of shoes for the catwalk show.
I have heard about the hours they work, the battles they fight and the dreams and ambitions these tutors have for their students. Some I am honoured to call my friends, others I am delighted to have worked with. I will name but a few: Anne Chaisty at AUB; Mal Birkinshaw at Edinburgh College of Art; Sue Chowles at Norwich University; Irene Dee at University of South Wales Newport ; Lesley Peacock and Carol Ryder at Liverpool John Moore and Louise Pickles at Bath Spa University.
The list is long, yet it is not my role to name these unsung heroes. If you wish to find out who they are, ask the students and they will tell you. True heroes inspire fierce loyalty.