It was time to get creative when KEILIGH BAKER paid a visit to the University of South Wales to find out all about being a fashion designer.
AS A child, there were only three professions that appealed to me; fashion designer, human rights barrister and journalist.
Unfortunately, my lack of analytical skills soon became evident, tragically putting an end to the dream of wearing the robes and wig of a high flying barrister, while a just as obvious lack of talent with a pencil stopped any delusions of being the next Phoebe Philo (fashion designer extraordinaire and creative director of luxury French house Céline). And so I ended up here, at Argus Towers, as a junior reporter.
So you can imagine my delight when I was invited along to the hugely respected Fashion Design course at the University of South Wales Newport campus to try my hand out at being a designer for the day.
It was my first time at the Newport city centre campus and I was hugely impressed with the beautiful and spacious building.
On my arrival I was met by the impossibly glamorous course leader and senior lecturer, Irene Dee. Ms Dee has worked extensively throughout the fashion industry, as founder and creative design director of Irene Renee Ltd, her own highly successful designer brand label.
The fashion department is a beautiful, open plan and light filled space in the university, on the top floor with views over the River Wye and towards Caerleon.
The open plan design means that first year students are working in the same space as third years, an intentional move on Ms Dee’s part. She said: “This is how I asked for the department to be built. This way they are working side by side and they are learning from each other.
“This space is designed to be exactly like the design studios they will one day be working in. There is no point them having to go to separate rooms to use the sewing machines, or to cut patterns, or design – that’s not how the industry works. Instead, you will find a number of designers all working in the same space, and that’s what we do here.”
The space is divided into sections; in one, computers for designing, in another, irons and ironing boards, in another, rows of students cutting patterns and working on mannequins.
It’s a nice atmosphere to work in; students chat as they cut out patterns and compare designs. They are also, unsurprisingly, the most fashionable bunch of students I’ve ever seen in one place. They are not a huge group -the first year has just 35 students while the third year has 38.
To begin with, Ms Dee explained the design process in seven, easy to remember steps: inspirations, identification, conceptualisation, exploration/refinement, definition/modelling, communication and production.
She then immediately got me started, looking at students’ look books for inspiration. In each of the books the student has shown what they were inspired by, who they were creating a product for and show their market awareness – they are fantastically glossy and professional, more like a high quality fashion magazine than a student’s portfolio.
In the third year they are shown to prospective employers, which explains the obvious hard work that has been put in to create such a polished product.
Next I was shown the guides used to cut out fabrics, how to make sure a garment is fitting properly using mannequins, how the very fancy sewing machines work and how to properly steam and iron the finished product.
In this highly creative environment students do not learn to make Lady Gaga-esque couture, but become a kind of fashion Jack-of-all-trades, with the focus on all the fashion disciplines; creativity, development, pattern cutting, garment construction, visual communication skills, and market awareness.
Ms Dee said the course has developed from the more extreme forms to a more viable option with increased employability prospects after the course ends.
Throughout their three years, students work on industry-informed briefs to develop creativity and technical ability. Studio practice sessions also help them to learn how to integrate design, technology and theory to create the finished product. As well as practical skills, students explore the wider concerns of contemporary fashion such as ethics, global resources and the environment.
During their first year, the course focuses on core skills, visualisation techniques, understanding and applying colour, surface manipulation, trends, 3D realisation of garments and outfits, pattern cutting, garment construction, and contextual studies.
The second year’s studio practice focuses on the working environment with industry-sponsored briefs, live projects and competitions.
The exciting final year draws on everything students have learned. Based on each student’s own ‘trend book’ and a solid business model, students take part in studio practice on their own terms, negotiating their brief to create a preview and then a full collection of outfits, with supporting portfolios and rationale.
The final year culminates in a self-directed professional strategies campaign that will launch pupils into their chosen area of the fashion industry
Ms Dee said: “Our fashion students are renowned for their independent way of thinking, sand that is underpinned by the development of a solid and transferable industrial skills base. This means that many of our graduates go into almost every aspect of the fashion industry and ensures they are prepared to meet the challenges of an ever-changing industry.”
Throughout my morning at the Newport City campus I was impressed by the quality of work being produced by students.
After learning the basics I noticed a stand showcasing several beautiful black dresses, each featuring fantastic shape and tailoring. I assumed they were final year student’s final works, and said as much to Ms Dee.
“Oh no, of course not,” she laughed. “Those were made by our first year students within their first eight weeks. We start them off on black felt, which is a very easy material to use, and from there you progress to using more complicated fabrics, trickier cuts. A lot of the course is about solving those problems, and it gets them thinking outside the box. But this is certainly the sort of standard we expect at around the eight week mark.”
Impressive indeed, so it came as no surprise when Ms Dee told me every year the group submits work to nationwide competitions, Graduate Fashion Week and for industry prizes – and often wins.
She said: “The course is well respected and we do have a lot of success stories. The course has been established in Newport for almost 50 years and we are known for producing talented students, whether they go into designing women’s fashion, buying or marketing children’s wear or become stylists.”
Because of this all-encompassing education they are given on the course, alumni can go into pretty much any and every strand of fashion – from merchandising, buying, creatives and stylists, sometimes with unexpected strengths.
Mature student Michelle Leeder, 43, from Abergavenny, is in her third year. She has had her own successful hairdressing salon for 17 years but decided she wanted a career change, which is when she applied for the course.
She said: “It’s really good course – you learn a lot but it is challenging. I wanted a change, to do something with my life and I’ve always been interested in fashion design.
“I didn’t expect to be drawn towards designing childrenswear but I was, and that’s the route I want to go down once I finish here.”
Second year student Shannon Mason, 20, from Merthyr, said: “It is very challenging but so interesting at the same time. I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer and I am learning loads. I want to work in designing high street women’s wear, Topshop or somewhere like that.”
From seeing first hand the education both women are gaining on this reputable course, I have no doubt they will both succeed. Now, pass me the scissors – who wants me to to make them a coat?