There’s no dearth of creativity in fashion. That much was clear looking at the dynamic and varied spectacles – and honestly, in some cases, duds – of recent fashion weeks, as brands experimented with alternatives to traditional shows.
For an industry often reduced to its economic value (contributing £35 billion to the UK GDP in 2019), operating at a breakneck pace, that’s easily overlooked.
Younger, independent brands are a reminder of just how creative this industry can be, with the autonomy to think outside the box – and they have been, exploring digital exhibitions, print projects, podcasts, collaborations with their artist friends, and more, as a means of showing what they’re good at. What they don’t have, is the financial safety net of a conglomerate like LVMH or Kering to ensure they survive a tricky market brought about by the pandemic.
So, what happens to young brands without that support?
Retailers step in. From Matches Fashion to Selfridges and Browns, a number of prestigious retailers have upped their efforts to promote independent brands and, more importantly, find solutions for the financial shortfall that the lack of Autumn/Winter 2020 sales would bring about (73% of fashion businesses in the UK experienced order cancellations according the British Fashion Council).
Matches Fashion announced the latest line-up for The Innovators programme in August, a platform that initially served as a shopping hub for those looking to discover new design talent in 2017. ‘With the current climate in mind we built upon the original initiative,’ says buying director Natalie Kingham.
On the surface, the initiative offers designers – all relatively small in scale, operating as independent businesses – visibility across Matches’ social, editorial and marketing channels, spotlighting their creativity with elaborate and exciting shoots and short films, and interviewing the designers to introduce them to potential customers.
Beyond promoting the young designers’ work by editorialising their output, and profiling them as many retailers were doing long before the pandemic, the retailer’s efforts extend behind-the-scenes. ‘We developed it into a programme that actually helps future-proof their businesses,’ Kingham explains. ‘Each designer will receive robust support, including favourable payment terms, content, PR and marketing. We will also offer mentorship in a very organic way, personalised to them.’
‘It’s definitely made getting through this uncertain time easier,’ say London-based designers Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena, recipients of Matches’ support along with Art School, Ahluwalia, Chopova Lowena, Stefan Cooke, Germanier, Halpern, Harris Reed, Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY, Thebe Magugu, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Bianca Saunders and Wales Bonner.
Matches, along with Browns – yet unlike the British government, who crassly advised those in the creative sector to ‘find new skills’ – understands that fashion doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and that it’s important to prop up the creative communities that contribute to the fashion industry’s output.
For Matches, that means promoting musicians, writers, and artists that inspire and collaborate with The Innovators designers too. Under the title ‘More Than a Muse’, it’s celebrating creatives like Faye Weiwei, the London-based painter who worked with Chopova Lowena to produce limited edition pieces for the Bulgarian-British duo’s Spring/ Summer 2021 collection.
‘Creative communities are behind everything we know and love,’ say Chopova and Lowena, who collaborated with other artist-friends too, including Georgia Kemball and Ami Evelyn Hughes, celebrating their creative process with a series of videos on their Instagram. ‘Collaborating with artists was important to us. That is what has always drawn us to fashion – finding your people and feeling like you belong to a creative community. It’s an essential element.’
Browns has launched multimedia ‘community’ projects, like The Family Affair and Homecoming, where the British retailer, owned by Farfetch, invites a host of international creatives across fashion, art and culture to take over its social media and website. Behind the scenes, it’s been a staunch champion of independent creative talent for over 40 years, among the first to invest in John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, and it continues to invest in designers early in their careers.
With the creative ecosystem extending beyond fashion brands and designers themselves, you have to wonder what is being done to support everyone else, including the writers, stylists, artists and photographers yet to enter the industry – the students and graduates who will go onto (and, in many cases, already do) contribute to the British fashion industry’s creativity.
‘I knew there’d be a lack of jobs and work placements, but I didn’t realise how catastrophic this would be until we were confronted with this harsh reality and the rejection emails,’ says Yelena Grelet, who was meant to be on a one year placement as part of her BA Fashion Journalism course at Central Saint Martins this year. ‘Many offices are closed with companies struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic, so the last thing on their minds is hiring a new intern.’
Classmate Hannah Karpel adds that entering the industry as a young fashion writer was challenging enough pre-pandemic. ‘I always knew I would need to balance internships with a part time job. Financially it is unfeasible for me,’ she says of trying to live and work in London, where much of the British fashion industry operates. ‘Of course we are still writing and working, developing and editing our own projects from home, but these internships where we can network, meet potential employers and learn on the job are jeopardising our job prospects for when we come to graduate.’
‘We were shocked to hear how hard it was for the fashion journalism students,’ says Christopher Kane, the Scottish designer who, with his sister Tammy, has launched PLATFORM, a programme committed to showcasing the creativity of young fashion talent beyond clothing design.
The programme sees Kane hand over the keys to the brand’s Instagram account, inviting budding Black and ethnic minority fashion journalists, stylists, photographers and more to take it over, and put their work under the noses of its 600,000+ followers.
Last week, Kane launched the second instalment of the programme, working closely with the students of Central Saint Martins’ Fashion and Journalism BA course (Kane completed both his BA and MA studies at the prestigious design school). What followers of Kane’s account will see is a digital zine featuring work from the students’ monthly magazine, The F Word. Grelet and Karpel are its editors.
‘Young creatives need opportunities to display their talents. We’re aware that fashion labels are living through arduous times financially. But it’s as simple as sharing your platform with [young people], as Christopher Kane has,’ says Gretel.
Kane is among a handful of established names reaching out to pull the next generation of fashion talent up the ladder. Casting the net beyond London, there are a host of mentoring schemes offering support for young creatives.
Mentoring Matters, launched by design director Laura Edwards in May, is a group of fashion industry professionals including renowned designers, stylists, buyers, editors and more, offering one-to-one mentoring, and helping place those looking for entry-level jobs and internships.
The group acknowledges the barrier to entry for young people without the means to study and work in London. ‘We accept applicants globally. The beauty of the video call set up means that we can reach people anywhere, regardless of their location,’ says Edwards. ‘Those without the resources to travel into fashion capitals for internships can still get the benefit of spending time with an expert in their field.’
The scheme is open to anyone from Black, Asian and Minority backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 27, and since May it has assisted mentees in applying for scholarships, assembling portfolios, costing-up clothing collections, and more. ‘We are also working with a variety of businesses on offering paid placements that candidates can apply for on completion of their mentoring, giving them a real tangible route into the industry,’ Edwards adds.
Arts Emergency, a British charity that supports young people interested in creative roles with mentoring reports that it has been ‘overwhelmed’ with applications this autumn. ‘So many of the young people we support have been reaching out recently because they are struggling to find paid work,’ it explains.
Well-meaning as all of these initiatives and charities are – and they are, offering invaluable advice and a route to entering the fashion industry – they cannot remedy the dearth of full-time jobs, offering stability and benefits including private healthcare insurance and in-house counselling, or the lack of support from the British government.
Young graduates’ experience of the job market has been, in short, ‘stressful,’ says Trey Gaskin, a recent graduate establishing themselves in their own right with an independently produced podcast (already established enough to be known mononymously as Trey). The only upside about the difficult climate, they say, is that ‘it has made me fight to create my own platform.’ Trey graduated from Central Saint Martins’ BA Fashion Journalism course this year, and the work they have been recognised for so far has been entirely self-produced, with guests on their podcast, O.T.T, including supermodel Pat Cleveland, and designers Gareth Wrighton and Saul Nash.
The quick-witted laugh-a-minute podcast belies the challenges that Trey, and their cohort looking to enter the industry as writers, editors, PR people, and more, face. ‘Determination can not prepare you for the realities of the situation,’ Trey says, adding that what would help is more support from academic institutions, ‘helping connect students to future employers,’ and the government.
The industry is clearly rallying to support those in the early stages of their career, as well as the young creatives who contribute to their output, trying to make up for the government’s shortfall. The British Fashion Council is calling for increased support, publicly asking the government to ‘consider the future of the sector.’ However, beyond Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that creatives ‘adapt’ and consider ‘fresh and new opportunities’ elsewhere, it’s yet to step-up.