A post from Kylie Jenner, Bella Hadid, or Kim Kardashian can kickstart a brand within a matter of seconds, but for many young designers being thrust into the spotlight is not all it seems
When Kim Kardashian posts a photograph of herself wearing your independent label to her 200 million-strong audience on Instagram, it would appear you’ve got yourself a very clear line to success. What comes next is likely obvious: an influx of followers, industry interest, press, and sales. But for those not yet out of the fashion education system, perhaps in the midst of studying for an undergraduate degree, it becomes a different experience entirely. As designers like George Trochopoulous, Namita Khade, and Ecke Faei have all found out, having to navigate the intricacies of business within the fashion world can be overwhelming for anyone – let alone a student.
In the decade since its inception, Instagram and platforms like it have created a pseudo-democracy of trends in fashion, wherein young designers are afforded the opportunity to cultivate popularity through an organic audience they built for themselves. However, where wider, more mainstream success once came from articles in style titles or shows on the fashion week schedule, in 2021, it’s more likely to come via a celebrity stylist taking a shine to your work and draping your designs across the hottest model of the moment. Those designs then take on a life of their own, reinstated to the masses through adverts, algorithms, and the overall facade of celebrity. It’s a growth cycle that’s played out among rising British designers including Charlotte Knowles, Nensi Dojaka, and Supriya Lele, who’ve all made appearances on the likes of Zendaya, Dua Lipa, and Bella Hadid.
In an age when the news cycle plays out faster than ever before, in recent years, celebrities (or, as is often the case, their stylists) have begun to seek out the newer-than-new in a bid to stay relevant and prove their fingers are firmly on fashion’s pulse. In April 2020, it was third year Central Saint Martins undergraduate Namita Khade’s turn for some unexpected attention, as Kim Kardashian stepped out in her designs, before Kylie Jenner promptly followed suit. For Khade, it was an opportunity to become a self-sufficient designer. The growth in sales provided the financial autonomy for her to quit her part time job and avoid the requisite unpaid placement year with an established designer, which most students are expected to fulfill in order to gain experience and credit. Instead, her sandwich year was spent channelling her newfound success back into building her own brand.
Nevertheless, it’s a tough feat for a student to transition from handmaking clothes in their flat, to presenting their designs to global fashion buyers at the correct market price. “You’re never actually notified when a celebrity is going to wear a garment, but when they do, you’re going to get 300 emails in an hour,” says Khade. “When working with such huge names on a smaller scale, it means the amount of attention you get is disproportionate to the amount of work you can produce.” With universities like Central Saint Martins focusing solely on the creative development side of designing, students are expected to become business savvy overnight with no prior support – leaving them at risk of being taken advantage of.
Though Kim and Kylie both paid for Khade’s designs, others keen to get their hands on pieces were not so forthcoming when it came to payment. “I had other celebrities approach me like ‘Hey, I really love your work, can I get this for free or this sent to this address’ without paying for shipping,” she says. “It’s like they don’t really understand that I am a one man band, doing this on my own.” Combine this with horror stories from other designers which detail celebrities failing to return or damaging garments, and it becomes a very difficult world to navigate during the early and underfunded stages of a young creative’s career.
“You’re never actually notified when a celebrity is going to wear a garment, but when they do, you’re going to get 300 emails in an hour” – Namita Khade
Luckily, Khade was able to source support through a fashion scheme called Mentoring Matters, with mentor Laura Edwards guiding her through this hectic experience. Edwards helped her sort through everything from how to negotiate with buyers to dealing with price margins, and even ‘little things’ like creating email templates for efficiency or filling out a DHL shipping form correctly. “She really gave me the confidence to run with my own stuff,” she reveals. Still, it does raise the questions as to why fashion students, who are paying over £9,000 a year in tuition fees in the UK – and even more for international students – are having to seek guidance beyond the classroom, with many unfortunately not having the benefit of a mentor.
Similarly, George Trochopoulos was visiting his small hometown in Greece when Emma Chamberlain first wore his work. “I wasn’t even connected to wi-fi, so when I finally got some (I logged on to find) 700 people had followed me on Instagram. I didn’t even know what was happening,” he recalls. Since then, he’s amassed almost 8,000 new followers and his designs have been worn by both Kendall Jenner and Miley Cyrus. “I suddenly realised I have to think about shipping costs, material costs, and making sure each piece looks the same – even though the pieces were even meant to be replicated. I’d never even thought about starting an online store,” he adds.
The growing pains of building a brand by yourself left plenty of room for mistakes to be made along the way, which as a result left Trochopoulos out of pocket at points. But, he says, as much as it can be hard to navigate building a brand from the bottom up – far sooner that you’d perhaps expected to be doing so – ”dressing celebrities is one of the main ways I was and am able to get exposure and funding at this stage of my career. Doing things like a show, especially without any backing, can be very costly and almost impossible from the get-go.” There still remains the problem that a fleeting feature on a celeb’s IG is not guaranteed business longevity, with designers required to put in a lot of hard work afterwards to create a meaningful presence. For Trochopoulos, this means expanding his brand outside of the online realm with new additions to his professional team, and a debut collection set to be shown in February 2022.
This experience also rings true for Freya Grötecke and Julia Forslund, who, after meeting at Kingston University, joined forces to start their label, Ecke Faei. Once their work was featured on Kylie Jenner’s Instagram, things blew up for the two designers, giving them more leverage to create more garments, trademark their work, and get their online store up and running. “Having her stylists come to us quite early, before we’d even created the patterns or final product, it forced us to think about the product itself, rather than letting the concept take over,” they explain. “We knew we were creating something people would actually want to wear – it was so fulfilling.”
”Dressing celebrities is one of the main ways I am able to get exposure and funding at this stage of my career. Doing things like a show, especially without any backing, can be very costly and almost impossible” – George Trochopoulos
However, like Khade and Trochopoulos before them, the two were ill-equipped by their course to actually found a fully-fledged business, lacking practical information and funding. Instead, they were lucky enough that their tutor, Todd Lynn, was willing to devote time to helping them get things off the ground outside of university hours. “Without him, we just wouldn’t have received any support from the university quite frankly,” they say.
With more young designers being thrust into the spotlight as celebrities increasingly switch on to up-and-coming stars, the overarching message is clear – our educational institutions’ courses are in desperate need of an overhaul. Having to turn to schemes like Mentoring Matters and grants from the likes of Samuel Ross should not be the norm. With the pressures of paying rent, studio fees, materials, and living costs, it’s a credit to these students and others like them that they have managed to navigate a world so complex. For the next generation of fashion graduates, a thorough introduction to running a business should be a core part of their education.