Now in its fourth season, THE FUTURE OF FASHION – a competition set up as a collaboration between WHO’S NEXT Prêt-à-Porter Paris and ARTS THREAD – offers ten fashion and accessories graduates from around the world the chance to show their collections during Europe’s biggest international trade show in Paris in a bid to help either launch their own label or land a job for a brand.
“It’s democratic and it’s about the talent. It’s not about where you’ve studied,” Alex Brownless of Arts Thread tells us. “The reason we originally created Arts Thread was to unearth talent wherever they may be, and this competition is a reflection of that. Of course we’ve had winners from Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art, but we’ve also had people from Zagreb, Sydney, Maastricht and Tel Aviv.” This season, winners were selected by a panel of judges including Dazed’s writer-at-large Dean Mayo Davies, Hannah White, publisher of Fashion Monitor, and Helen Hanum from Fenwick’s buying offices.
“We give them a bit of a break and at the same time we teach them a thing or two about running a business. The thing about fashion is you can be bloody talented, but you also have to have the right manufacturing, the right sales and marketing strategy and the right corporate identity. So we try to teach that a little bit. It’s great to be conceptual but you’ve got to survive,” Brownless says.
“Alex is like Fashion Dad. He knows people who can really help you out and the networking is kind of invaluable,” notes Central Saint Martins graduate Victoria Sowerby, whom Dazed recently spoke to about her accomplished tribute to nineties sportswear, English hooligan culture and her childhood spent going to Middlesbrough FC games (“they’re the underdog which is why I like them,” she says).
Sowerby fell in love with menswear while working for Henrik Vibskov in Copenhagen, and her hand-dyed devore football shirts and AstroTurf-y inserts have already caught the eye of buyers. “I had a couple of German buyers who were asking me for delivery dates and I was kind of ‘erm, I haven’t really got manufacturers’! But they said to get in contact once I’m more established,” Sowerby says when we speak to her at the Who’s Next show in Paris.
Like Sowerby, many of the graduates in the winning line-up draw on the history and culture of their homeland. Jewellery designer Katja Sobol, who graduated last year from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design Maastricht, did her colourful and playful graduate collection – think pearls strung to look like boobs – almost entirely in wood, a nod to her childhood in Poland. “My family own a few hectares of forest and I have a very close relationship with the material,” she says.
Helsinki-born Laura Juslin, a graduate from the Aalto University School of Art, Design and Architecture who was recently hired as head of design for new Finnish label Siloa & Mook, produced her architectural graduate collection entirely from reindeer leather. “I wanted to see if it was possible to do a collection made from one material. And reindeer is local and really easy to work with. You can do pleats and laser cutting and it also forms a strong element in Siloa & Mook,” Juslin explains.
Tunesian-born ESAD Reims graduate Tarek Ben Amor also looked to his homeland with his denim-focused line, which translates the classic saroual trouser into jeans developed during a stint in LA. “My jeans are the result of the meeting between tradition and contemporary,” Amor notes.
Alex Sims, a graduate from the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Sydney who lives and works in London with her print designer sister Rachel Sims on the label Rachel Alex, gave a nod to Australian surfer culture with her scuba surf fabrics and engineered neoprene covered in futuristic botanicals adorned with 3D crystal beading. “We wanted the prints to reflect geometrics with botanicals to create an edgy new floral print vibe,” Alex Sims says.
As a new initiative, Arts Thread have also recently launched Arts Thread Entrepreneurs in collaboration with the Start-Up Loans Company, a government-backed initiative that helps young people in England launch their own business. “It’s not a big loan, but it comes with mentoring from great people in the industry, whether that’s financial advisors or Kristina Szasz, the design director at Karl Lagerfeld. The idea is that if they’re doing something that’s really well executed and they have the hunger, then we can push them in the right direction,” Alex Brownless explains.
There are plenty of success stories among previous winners, like 2012 winner Lyudmila Lane from the Balkans who studied at UCA Rochester. “Within the first two hours of the show she got a 67.000 euro order. She was originally looking for a job but now she’s got her own brand,” Brownless says. Han-Gul Kwan from the Domus Academy in Milan got investment off the back of the competition. “The fact that he had been selected by these amazing judges and showcased in the biggest fashion tradeshow in Europe kind of minimised the risk from a financial perspective,” Brownless notes.
Menswear shoe designer Caterina Belluardo, a recent MA graduate from the Royal College of Art from this year’s line-up, has already been invited to take part in Camper’s annual workshop in Mallorca and had lots of interest from buyers for her bold and textured graduate collection, which takes its point of departure in the Memphis movement with hand-cut cork sole creepers adorned with patterned knitwear and hand-painted leather cut-outs. “The dream is having my own label,” Belluardo says. “At the moment I’m so skint it’s ridiculous, but I’m excited to look into manufacturing possibilities. But I’d also love to work for a big house and learn the ropes.”
Textile-graduate Lucy Downes from the Arts University Bournemouth who showed a collection of sportswear-influenced suiting with colourful, graphic prints in feminine hues echoes this: “I really want to continue working on my prints and move my label forward, but apparently someone came by while I was out getting lunch, asking if I did prints for other people. And that’s something I’d really like to do.”
Many of the winners also focus on handmade, like Madeline Gruen from the Pratt Institute in New York, who specialises in bespoke but wasn’t able to be in Paris for the show, and Pavla Aleksic from the University of Zagreb, who looked to Marlene Dietrich in creating her handmade pieces. “I love hand-worked stuff. It makes you feel very connected to what you’re doing,” she notes.
Aleksic is about to embark on an MA in costume design and currently works in theatre, like her fellow winner Asta Grigaityte, who hails from Lithuania. Grigaityte recently did the costumes for a theatre adaptation of author Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas’ novel In the Shadows of Altar. “I love the conceptual part of theatre. Fashion is a bit different – you also have to be commercial,” Grigaityte says. Her graduate collection explored today’s changing gender roles via 19th century tailcoats re-imagined in sheer organza.
Above all, the Who’s Next show is a way for the winners to not only get exposure, but also valuable feedback on their work to help them decide what to do next. “I’m not sure whether I want to set up my own label or work for someone else,” Victoria Sowerby says. “It’s really nice to have the interest from people who come up and want to place orders, but it’s just so unknown to me. Working in the print department for a sportswear brand would be the dream. So I’m still in a bit of limbo at the moment. The feedback here will be so invaluable.” Sowerby is also contemplating getting some pieces to football manager Kevin Keegan. “His face is all over, so if I do a shoot with him he’s probably less likely to sue me.