A bizarre contradiction is evident in fashion right now: the industry expects up-and-coming designers to succeed on an extraordinary level, yet its parameters are making it increasingly difficult to do so. Just think pace, pressure, pay cheques. Graduates barely enjoy a trial and error period anymore; social media famously doesn’t forget, nor does the internet, nor, least of all, people themselves. It’s no secret that it takes full dedication, countless sleepless nights and relentless passion to build a brand or lasting career. The secrets are these failures and detours that rarely get told but that ultimately pave the way for success, self-reflection and invaluable lessons that can be passed on to the next generation.
Sarah Mower’s mission is to wipe out these various drawbacks. As the chief fashion critic for American Vogue, the chair of NEWGEN and the British Fashion Council’s official Ambassador for Emerging Talent, she plays an instrumental role in helping talent in Britain and beyond, turning the industry into a more informative, honest and ultimately accessible environment. Since starting her career as a fashion journalist in the 1980s, Mower has extensively emphasised the importance of looking after emerging designers, often visiting them in their homes or studios and getting to know them not through press releases but by the problems they are facing—and ultimately combatting them. Fashion by nature is dependent on fresh and fiery minds determined to take design further but as much as chaos and creativity may align, there is no denying the immense benefit that comes with genuine guidance—especially when this support is as nurturing as Mower’s.
The roster of designers she has worked with for NEWGEN, an initiative that provides mentoring and financial sponsorship under the BFC, reads like an almost spotless London Fashion Week highlight reel alone: Jonathan Anderson, Charles Jeffrey, Grace Wales Bonner, Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha, Craig Green—and that list is by no means exhaustive. Last February, she was one of the driving forces behind Richard Quinn receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design following his AW 18 offering, awarded by the Queen herself. Nearing royalty in her own right if you ask the talent she has supported, Sarah Mower spoke to us over the phone from London, pondering the role of fashion education and the industry as a workplace in an age of copying, coping and celebrity culture.
What would you want the fashion industry to finally understand about young talent?
Young people are the future! If the industry isn’t listening to what’s coming through then these brands don’t have any idea how to consider themselves around what people want to buy and how their companies can be perceived. You can even see that by the news that’s come out of Louis Vuitton recently.
Right, Louis Vuitton just announced that Virgil Abloh is the new artistic director of its menswear line.
His consistency is obviously that of young people. Particularly young boys. To see that diversity and consciousness of new markets go right to the centre of established fashion is a really exciting signal.
There is a lot of talk about how the structure of established fashion is changing at the moment, with people questioning its speed, its sustainability and its working conditions. Do you feel these issues are intimidating young designers? Or are they making them even more determined to rebel and subvert?
The pattern I see emerging is that, for the youngest generation particularly, the most important topic is sustainability. They don’t want to do any damage. They want to con- struct an alternative way of doing business which is a very exciting development and something that brings credibility and a meaning back to fashion. I think the fashion industry is at a really big crossroads at the moment because, when it comes to the general public, people are very aware of the many downsides to fashion production now, they’re aware of sustainability, they’re very conscious of the many abuses that exist in the industry. And I think young people must critique and change these issues. Also, big companies have policies now that incorporate social responsibility; it literally is written into their corporate structures that they should be transparent and inclusive and all those things. Perhaps we’re at a point where things really can change.
THE BOY YOU STOLE. This Graduation collection by Paolo Carzana knocked me for six: he made it “ 100% vegan “ with plant dyes (red dyes from pomegranate and madder) Pinatex pinapple leather for coats and shoes, bamboo silk and banana yarn for knit…down to asking MAC to use only makeup not tested on animals. Overwhelming talent..yet another of this amazing warrior generation who will change the terms of fashion consumption and behaviour, sooner rather than later. Congratulations @farfallapaolino. Congratulations @westminsterfashion for educating talent like this. Proud that Paolo is a BFC Education Foundation Scholar, cohort of 2018 and thank you to everyone who donates to our fund. RESULT. #fashionrevolution @britishfashioncouncil #sarahslist
How much of this shift is due to a change in fashion education do you think? In Berlin for example Esmod started to offer the Master’s Program “Sustainability in Fashion and Creative Industries” before it had to close last year — and the AMD then took over the course and the students to keep it going.
That’s great! There definitely is a need for this now. Sustainability needs to be integrated in every single fashion course. But the problem is that art schools right now are very much under pressure so educators have to buy in experts to speak on these topics and because of this financial issue it’s not moving as fast as it should. I think in the future, when you see what school children are interested in they will be looking for courses in which they can learn how to operate sustainably alongside their education. Universities which are strong on that will attract more students and that will wake up the education system. It’s not happening as much as it should right now but it’s coming. It’s great to hear that it’s happening in Germany.
But not on a particularly big scale either. We featured several fashion students from Berlin on our website recently and they all said they feel very well educated on the creative side but much less so on that more business-oriented side.
In the UK there are fashion business courses all over but I don’t know how many of them are actually that brilliant. I think that this issue is a traditional and systemic thing because our education in arts and creative arts at least is based on an art school system that has been going since the Second World War. The students are taught by absolutely brilliant artistic people but these people never had to concentrate on business. It’s quite possible to even complete an MA and go into the marketplace not knowing anything about trademarking and all of these other issues. So yes, indeed, that’s a blank that would need to be filled in.
So what makes good fashion education now?
First of all I would say that, if we look at the future and the way the world is going, it’s a certainty that creativity is a permanent strength because there are so many jobs that can be taken over by algorithms. So really, to be strong is to be a creative thinker. And secondly, if you have any idea that you want to go into business on your own, for example, then you have to have a fundamental survival pack about what it means to start your own business, you need to know about contract law, about trademark. And also about working conditions — they should teach you what you can expect from a company when you go and work for it because these things aren’t known either.
My new game of Fantasy Fashion Talent Headhunting – this one..Yuhan Wang to Marni. Snapped her here in CSM MA studio fitting before Class of 2018 show last month. See her beautiful runway results here.Congrats to her and @fabiopiras and team @mafcsm #hirethistalent @popusseland #sarahslist #britisharteducation #newpretty
When thinking of influential designers from previous generations like Martin Margiela, they only went into business on their own after first working for other designers. Would you even advise graduates to start their own label right out of uni, like a lot of people in the industry love to see at the moment?
No, I actually always try and put people off starting their own business. The fact is that uni fees are just very high. I tell people to get as much work experience as they can. So when you’re shopping for a degree, check who will be teaching you and look for courses that actually integrate work experience. Or if you’re a graduate, go and work for somebody for a while, learn on their dollar. And then if you really definitely still want to start your own business, do it.
But it does sometimes seem that, a lot of the time in fashion, success is especially valued and valid when linked to youth.
The whole industry is predicated on novelty and people who have something new to say. So young talent is always watched. And I think it’s part of being young that when you’ve done your degree and you’re really excited about your collection you want to continue, and some people then think they have to start immediately. But the main criterion for success is not being 23. It’s having a great idea and being able to follow it through, and that can come much later. It’s not a race. And in London for example, what we do through our schemes is to make sure that we filter. We have a system where a panel first of all chooses the right kind of people who have a solid idea of a product that can have an appeal to a market. And secondly, we look for people that have other people around them who can help them do the business. And then we mentor them with buyers, we have a very strong retail panel that helps step by step. We don’t throw people to the wolves.
When we talk about “young talent” right now, we use the term almost synonymously with London and the art schools of the city, which is quite diverse by nature but also one-dimensional in a way. Does fashion education also needs to be more diversified in terms of the cities we spotlight?
Yes, I mean I would absolutely love to be able to make a guide to show people where those other great unis are. Because it’s difficult when you’re a kid and you don’t know where to go to find things out, even with the internet. I think the Ukraine is really exciting. And the Antwerp Academy still. Demna Gvasalia actually said he went there because it was the least expensive place, so he could afford it. I always look for countries that have a reasonably priced but still great fashion education because unfortunately in the UK we’ve had a Conservative government which put the fees up significantly for the students. There are places where fashion and artistic culture come together and it’s not too expensive, and that’s the future. But people also talk about Berlin being a much less expensive place to study and to live as well?
So: this is how #openaccess design goes.Two Estonian students turned up and made a chair designed on a plan distributed by #maxlamb, painted it and took it away. Action in the free d-i-y woodwork workshop facilitated by @virgilabloh @stavroskarelis @samijanjer at @ciff_dk in Copenhagen. Max Lamb: “ we made this design and instructions to download free. We estimate it costs £12 to make.” Who needs Ikea? Skill up!
Berlin definitely is not as expensive as London when it comes to rent and living costs but on the other hand the fashion scene in Berlin isn’t as developed a lot of people feel.
But I never understand that. You have a lot of schools, don’t you? I mean London has been very lucky because we’re a very multicultural city and benefit from being the European centre attracting all sorts of people and that’s so valuable to our country and we’re very proud of it — but aren’t there these two girls called Ottolinger? They’re exciting!
Or GmbH, they are from Berlin as well — but they show in Paris. So designers may be based here because it’s cheaper but for fashion week they often take their label to one of the more prominent cities and therefore are more visible elsewhere.
In my opinion where you show is not as important. Or how you show. What’s the most crucial is that you can get the produc- tion right. So if you are based in a lower cost country and can also have manufacturers who will deal with young people and small companies, then that’s what’s relevant. The actual format of a fashion show is changing a lot and young people are leading on that. There are enough fashion weeks in the world already and they are very much being questioned now. The most important thing is that you have people who want to get together and start something. A trustworthy, like-minded and supportive network — which is quite essential to fashion in any way.
Completely. The more I know about fashion the more I realise it’s a very personal busi- ness, it all builds on relationships, and I think now that’s a hopeful thing for people who want to start up because all you need to do is ask. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are you can still find out who the buyers are, or people you admire, and just write to them, contact them through Instagram. That’s a really important and useful thing to know. There actually are a lot of people that are inter- ested in helping, just ask for advice.
Quite a few young designers must also reach out to you this way.
Yes and I’ve found some really great ones. I also started #SarahsList on my Instagram, which I use to tag exciting talents I dis- cover — although some people are now put- ting themselves under that hashtag, so it’s not only designers I chose anymore [laughs] — but anyway, I suppose I have an eye for people who are likely to succeed. Last year, Liberty, for example, came to me and asked me to have a small pop-up store with a group of young designers that I really believe in. I said to them that I would do it but only if they gave a 50 % deposit upfront. This is another thing that young designers must know, they should not do business with anybody who comes along and says, “We think you’re talented, have some clothes in our store — at your own expense.” This will only put a designer into debt.
Do you feel like the industry is exploiting young talent quite a lot at the moment? Taking advantage of their dedication, their ideas, their very personal way of looking at fashion…
Some people do! I always tell kids who get really excited about that attention to think about why other people are interested — they’re doing it so they can make them- selves seem as if they’ve become the store that is on it. They’re using it for their publicity. But if you’re sitting on the risk then it’s not a good deal for you.
There also has been a lot of news about big fashion houses copying young designers recently.
I mean in the UK the Tories have not been very helpful around that. The law on copying is so difficult to look through — and different in every country — which is making it very hard for young people to prove when they’ve been copied. There’s Diet Prada, of course, which is calling people out, so that’s one thing. But the most that can be done really is to write to the company and make them stop and not sell that item. That does sometimes happen. But, on the other hand, in a way copying is a very backhanded compliment because if someone copies you then you’re right on something. So just keep on doing your thing.
It comes down to authenticity and “being yourself” which is so easy to say but actually missing quite a lot from the way people approach fashion right now.
Completely! Unless you want to work for a company that you really admire, why do a collection that looks like something else, that already exists. The market is already so saturated with stuff that if you don’t have an authentic proposition then, well, there’s no room for it.
You’ve mentioned a few times in interviews that when you saw Christopher Kane’s debut collection you immediately knew he was incredibly talented—what does someone need to stand out to you?
It’s something that surprises me; that I haven’t seen before. As long as I’ve been in fashion, which is a very long time, it’s been a constant source of motivation to be able to find people who do things which are not copies, who understand that somebody would need to want to wear this. It’s this, I would say, canny ingenuity. We’ve got two designers in NEWGEN at the moment who also are German, Paula Knorr and Marta Jakubowski, who actually is Polish but she was brought up in Germany, and both of them are absolutely great at cutting, for example. That’s another part I think fashion education is missing. We used to have it here in the UK but it isn’t as strong anymore because lots of colleges closed pat- tern-cutting studios. They thought, “Well, pattern cutting will be done by computers in the future so you don’t need it.” But you do to be able to create things individually. And learning those technical specialist skills is really important, no matter what people say. It has put both Paula and Marta ahead in order to create and to be able to fit. Some young designers graduate and they have an idea and can make clothes that look good on the catwalk or in lookbooks — but actually the clothes don’t fit.
Has there been a shift in why people want to go into fashion now as opposed to previous decades?
There definitely are more people that want to do it now. There are far more fashion students in the world now than there ever were. And more people want to study fashion initially because of social media probably, and the idea that you can become famous and glamorous.
It does feel as if this notion of the “designer as celebrity” is very much peaking at the moment. Do you fear it will start to overshadow the need to really know the craft and the techniques you mentioned, so the love for the actual work gets lost?
Yes and also I think that the fashion industry is very bad at showing how many jobs there are in fashion besides being a designer. Every designer needs to have somebody who knows about numbers and has that education. There are also production people, merchandising, photography, e-commerce, set designers, PR — all these jobs exist behind the scenes but they aren’t visible. That’s something our industry needs to change. Because there are so many pathways, so many jobs, and those behind-the-scenes jobs actually are the most difficult for medium sized companies to fill. It’s not just about being the designer.
Contrary to other industries there also isn’t a blueprint for a career in fashion, for any kind of career in fashion. With a lot of the jobs you just mentioned there are no particular steps required to get to a certain position — but I wonder if that is making it, or will make it, easier or harder.
There is an advantage to not knowing too much [laughs]. There’s also something to be said for being idealistic and free at the beginning. The thing is that blueprints are being torn up at the moment in general, so there have to be new ways of doing business — unique ideas of what the future is going to be.
SARAH MOWER’S GUIDE TO STARTING OUT IN FASHION
ASK YOURSELF: DO YOU REALLY WANT TO DO THIS?
“So badly, that you are fine with it taking over your life? I always say that fashion isn’t a job, it’s a life. You have to have something that can drive you day and night.”
LET OTHERS HELP YOU
“Do you have a group around you, do you have friends and family? Not necessarily people who are going to put money into your business, but who will work alongside you. A lot of young designers right now have parents who are very practical: the mother will do the bookkeeping or the granny can sew. Maybe you have friends who’ve got business degrees who can work part time for you. Things like that, you need to have your group around you.”
STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF
“Young designers sometimes think they need to be designing for someone else. For a mythical rich lady or something, or somebody who they don’t really know. I do look for people who walk the talk, who wear their own clothes, who are making a product they believe in. Because if you don’t believe in it, why would other people believe in it?”
GET OUT THERE
“Be aware that you should promote yourself. Be outgoing. Or have someone who is outgoing, who can approach the right people.”
“There is strength in numbers. You’re far more likely to get attention if you’re part of a group or movement rather than an isolated individual. When we opened the LONDON show ROOMS in Paris, it was a breakthrough because it became a one-stop shop for buyers. Sharing knowledge and resources can also bring down costs and definitely increases morale and camaraderie!”
Taken from INDIE NO 59, THE WORK ISSUE – get your copy here.