W HEN the world’s fashion insiders look for the next big names – the future Christopher Baileys and heads of haute couture houses – they turn their best sides to Graduate Fashion Week. There is, quite simply, no greater showcase of emerging talent.
The biggest graduate fashion event in the world, GFW, takes place every year in London and is widely considered the best place for potential employers and industry big wigs to spot undiscovered new designers.
Last week, at the 2013 event, just one woman’s name was on those perfectly pouting lips. Lauren Smith. The Edinburgh College of Art student’s collection in shades of yellow, white and blue won the gold award, the biggest prize in British fashion, with a £20,000 cheque attached, as well as the opportunity to design a range for George at Asda. She has now been earmarked as ‘the one to watch’ in British fashion.
To put the win into some kind of context, the Edinburgh student’s work was shown alongside that of more than 1,000 of the finest BA degree fashion students from 42 universities around the world. There were 20 catwalk shows as well as prestigious industry talks from the likes of Colin McDowell, Victoria Beckham, Henry Holland and Mary Katrantzou, and the audience included big-hitters such as Barbara Hulanicki, Zandra Rhodes, Louise Wilson, Holly Fulton and James Long.
Past events have launched the careers of Stella McCartney, Christopher Bailey, Phoebe Philo, Giles Deacon, Hussein Chalayan, Richard Nicoll and Antonio Berardi. And that’s not to mention the many others who have benefited with roles behind the scenes, the unsung movers and shakers who now work as heads of design at the likes of Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs.
Smith’s six-piece collection featured prints, appliquéd paperclips and fabrics ranging from leather to tulle. Judge Roland Mouret described it as “emotional”, praising both her talent as a designer and also her winning personality. “There are so many students coming out of schools and it’s quite nice to give the prize to someone who has the personality to match the techniques used in their collection.
“When we saw Lauren’s pieces and then met her in person it was clear that her collection as a whole was an extension of herself, which I think is important. The personality of the designer has to be linked to their clothing – there has to be a connection between the two for it to be believable, and I think we found that in Lauren.”
The 23-year-old was inspired by the unfinished nature of artists’ sketchbooks, the rough illustrations that are the beginning of the creative process. “I started looking at the work of an artist called Dieter Roth, which then led me to look at my own diaries and sketchbooks,” she says. “I pulled out some doodles and used them for the digital prints in the collection.”
But at no stage did she ever think she might win. “Absolutely not. I didn’t really go with any expectations. I was just hoping that someone might like my work. So when I got told at the end of my show that I was through to the next round, I was a little bit overwhelmed. It was just such a nice surprise to get that far in the first place.
“It was quite surreal,” she adds. “After the awards ceremony there was a reception at Earl’s Court and a couple of industry people were coming over to congratulate me. Holly Fulton was there, Todd Lynn – that was the most surreal part.”
Next step is her four-week internship and mentoring from George as part of her prize, but she’s in no hurry to leap into the jaws of the design world. “I’ve been offered a scholarship by Edinburgh College of Art to do a masters, so fingers crossed I’ll do that, because I really want to further my studies. I want to focus on textiles for fashion. I’ve developed some interesting surface manipulation, which I began to do in my final collection, and that was a part I enjoyed most. I’m also quite eager to stay in Scotland but I’ll wait and see.” The fashion world will be eagerly waiting too.
And in a spectacular double whammy, Edinburgh College of Art students also won the menswear gong, the second year running that ECA has clinched this particular award. Shauni Douglas and Olivia Creber worked on a collaboration of which the judges, who included David Gandy, said, “From concept to catwalk, the quality and finish of this collection was of an exceptionally high standard. Shauni and Olivia demonstrated an ability to play with proportion which is most unusual for BA graduates. This collection showed a really strong visual concept and superb craftsmanship. Our vote was unanimous.”
Twenty-two-year-old Creber brought her jewellery and silversmithing skills to the table, creating showstopping beard-style mouthpieces and whips that combined with Douglas’s ‘gentleman rider meets urban cowboy’ collection to make the most memorable runway show of the night. “We had spoken about it at the end of the last academic year and decided we would be interested in doing something together,” says Creber, “but it wasn’t a standard collaboration. We were working on our own stuff individually, but meeting every week to talk about it.
“We had the same theme of violence running through and it just clicked – even though I’d made my pieces without a specific look in mind, it perfectly fitted together.”
Her mouthpieces, whips and canes were created using elements not normally found in conventional jewellery – things such as horsehair, human hair, porcupine quills, stag beetles, pieces of antler, and ostrich and emu eggshells. But when used in her work, it’s not immediately apparent what they are. “They have flashes of colour and shape and unusual metallic qualities, so people are intrigued by the objects and look at them for their beauty. Then, when they find out what they are, their reactions change a little,” says Creber.
“I like working with organic materials,” she adds, “and I like the fact that people find them very uncomfortable when they’re out of their original context. So the theme was the uncanny; things people find it quite hard to have conversations about. Other elements that came into that were bondage or sexual violence.”
It takes a certain type of man to be confident enough to wear a horsehair mouthpiece that dangles near his navel, but Creber insists she’s not afraid of shocking people. “The best kind of reaction is a reaction, full stop – whether it’s a positive or a negative. You don’t want somebody to forget what they’ve seen, so you want a bit of a surprise and people to ask questions. It’s all about the drama of the pieces and making an impact and making people excited to look at them.”
When confronted with the standard of the competition, however, the pair became convinced they weren’t good enough to win. “As the maker of your own work you are your biggest critic, so Shauni was picking up on the stitching and I was picking up on scratches on silver and all that kind of thing. You feel you’re constantly putting yourself down and that you could do so much better. So to win was a fantastic surprise, and it was so lovely to be able to do it with such a fantastic partner.”
While the implications haven’t quite sunk in for the pair yet, she says the award will open any number of doors in the industry for both her and Douglas. “We received an e-mail this morning about information coming to us in the next couple of days,” she says, “so I’m sure Shauni will be landed with some very nice opportunities.”
For her part, Creber is heading to London and the Royal College of Art to complete a masters in goldsmithing, silversmithing, metalwork and jewellery. But she will be sad to leave the close-knit community of Edinburgh, that has helped nurture and develop such an exciting generation of young new designers. “The college is quite small and you’re in a small city where everybody knows everybody, so you’re bouncing ideas off each other all the time,” she says.
“And everybody works so incredibly hard. For the last two months none of us have seen any of our friends or have eaten at home – we’re always in the studio. Everyone has put their heart and soul into everything they’ve done, and I think that shows. If you have that passion you can go a long way.
“A lot of it also has to do with the environment. We live in a beautiful city – the buildings and the surroundings – and when you’re surrounded by something that’s so inspiring it helps you grow and flourish as a designer.”