Luxury brands are bankrolling the next generation of designers - here's why

Zoe Dickens

19 February 2021

For students and new graduates, employment prospects look bleak, but, say some brands, nurturing the new wave of talent has never been more important

"I have always been a great believer in the importance of education. I want to give back and support the next generation." – Jimmy Choo

19 February 2021 | Zoe Dickens

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e don’t need to tell you that Covid-19 has hit the economy hard. We’ve all read the stats and seen the graphs; in the UK, and globally, the situation is not good. While it’s shops and restaurants that are feeling the immediate effects of lockdown restrictions, it is likely to be current students and recent graduates who are going to suffer the lingering effects of the coronavirus recession, and nowhere is this being more keenly felt than in the creative industries.

The UK's fashion, design and arts sectors are already notoriously difficult to break into, with long unpaid internships, high costs of living in major cities and expensive postgraduate degrees the norm, and the squeeze the pandemic has had on the small businesses in these industries is likely to affect young creatives for years to come. In fact, reporting by labour market analytics firm Emsi found graduate recruitment for design occupations fell by a staggering 37.4 per cent between February and June 2020, with little bounce back since.

There are, of course, bodies like the British Fashion Council designed to support, amplify and grow the UK’s creative businesses. As well as its long-standing initiatives, such as BFC Newgen and the BFC Fashion Trust – both of which support budding businesses through grants, mentoring and traineeships – the BFC swung into action when lockdown hit, with the BFC Foundation Fashion Fund for the Covid Crisis. To date, the fund has distributed £1.5 million to 67 small British design businesses and, notably, received donations from established fashion brands including Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith and Burberry.

These private sector donations, however, are merely the latest in a growing trend of luxury brands stepping in to provide the next generation of designers with the support they need to break into the industry. Early in 2021, for example, Bottega Veneta announced it would be launching an annual scholarship to support three final year students already enrolled on the Central Saint Martins BA Fashion course. Hugo Boss, Ports 1961, Self-Portrait, LVMH and Burberry all also offer similar schemes.

While some are a response to the pandemic, which is likely to have hit the finances of prospective students as hard as new graduates, the fact that many of these scholarships existed pre-pandemic is indicative of the wider struggle lower income talent faces in entering the creative industries.

“We recognise that starting out in your career can be a daunting process, especially in the current times,” says Colby Shergalis, senior vice president of brand marketing at De Beers Group, whose Shining Light programme has been supporting young jewellery designers for more than 20 years. “We want to do what we can to encourage, support and amplify young creative talent. We approach this very much as a two-way partnership, as we are also looking to learn from the next generation of designers. Ultimately it is their skills, ideas and designs that will speak directly to new generations of consumers.”

To this end, De Beers recently collaborated with graduates from Central Saint Martins on Forever Love, the second collection in its ReSet programme, designed to showcase the work of new talent, as well as promote sustainable practices. The collection, featuring pieces by graduates Kristina Ferenchuk, Ami Masamitsu and Louis Tamlyn, will be launched later this year at the Shining Light Awards, the brand’s long-standing initiative to support emerging talent from its diamond producing partner nations through scholarships and internships.

“The jewellery industry remains a fairly traditional sector, led by large and well-established brands. We recognise that this, alongside start-up costs and supply challenges, can create barriers for those starting out in the industry,” explains Shergalis of the collaboration. “Through the De Beers Group Designers Initiative [organiser of the Shining Light Awards], we work closely with jewellery design students in our producer countries, but we wanted to also extend our support to young designers in our consumer markets.”

Italian leather goods brand Tod’s, too, recently extended its Tod’s Academy programme, usually confined to the label’s HQ in Marche, Italy, to a collaboration with Central Saint Martins students. Created in coordination with Fabio Piras, director of Central Saint Martins’ prestigious MA Fashion course, Tod’s Legacy will see 35 students receive scholarships, as well as access to mentors including Hamish Bowles, Sarah Mower and Simone Rocha. In return each student will be tasked with creating designs riffing on Tod’s house codes, the results of which will be unveiled during London Fashion Week AW21.

Pieces from the ReSet Forever Love collection. Image courtesy of De Beers.

There is, of course, a pattern emerging here: almost every brand-backed scholarship is offered exclusively to students at Central Saint Martins. This, in some ways, makes sense. Central Saint Martins is routinely voted the best design school in the world and brands are interested in nurturing (and eventually employing) only the best talent. However, with just a few dozen applicants accepted onto its Masters programme each year (places for undergraduate degrees are more expansive but competition is just as fierce), it does beg the question, how many hugely talented students are missing out?

One man with the means to change this is Jimmy Choo. Earlier this year the famed shoe designer opened the JCA London Fashion Academy which offers courses in fashion design, business and entrepreneurship. While the Academy is not directly associated with Choo’s eponymous brand, of which he sold his stake in 2001, the name above the door does imply courses will come with the benefits of industry knowledge and connections which are often just as valuable to young designers as monetary funds.

“I have always been a great believer in the importance of education, it’s something instilled in me by my parents, who helped me with my own education. I want to give back and support the next generation,” says Choo of the Academy, which will accept its first cohort in September 2021. Scholarships and means-tested bursaries are already in place for the inaugural year while the Academy has instituted a scaling fund that will see a portion of its annual gross sales revenue go towards supporting access and participation.

However, unlike traditional creative courses, the JCA’s focus will not be solely on design talent, but also on the skills necessary to turn that talent into a viable business. “Now more than ever, it is important for higher education to teach students about both design and business,” explains Choo. "From the moment students enter our Academy, they will begin their professional lives. They will be able to develop their craft by establishing their own brand, work in a professional studio environment and will be mentored along the way.”

Jimmy Choo at the JCA

What this looks like in reality is an incubator that will sit under the same roof as the Academy allowing students, and their start-ups, to learn from the more established companies around them. JCA graduates will also receive preferential rates at the incubator, allowing them a Mayfair address on a budget, while the JCA has promised to attract multi-disciplinary businesses to the scheme to encourage collaboration.

It should be remembered, of course, that the JCA is a for-profit business. Before scholarships and bursaries, its courses cost £18,000 per year, significantly more than the £9,250 charged by mainstream universities and, at £120+VAT per month for its basic incubator package (which gets you a virtual address and mail service), the costs may still be a significant stretch for many young designers.

However, with creatives facing an increasingly tough jobs market, the existence and growth of such schemes offers a glimmer of hope – and, in the long-term, may boost the representation of those from non-traditional and lower income backgrounds in an industry that itself admits has an issue with diversity. While there is certainly an argument for a systemic overhaul that does not force young designers to rely on the generosity of private businesses, until then, as they say, every little helps.

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