It’s the big challenge facing even the most talented fashion graduates: getting a start in the competitive fashion business and gaining vital industry experience to enhance their years of training in the fundamentals of design.
For many it means months or years of unpaid internships, but the experience it gives them is essential for forging a successful career.
As recent graduates quickly learn, the practicalities of working as part of a larger design team; introducing a commercial element to their work; or even running their own fashion business are a world away from the cosseted world of art college.
For Cork’s Caoimhe Hill — a final year student at the National College of Art and Design — her path into the world of fashion has just been made considerably smoother.
Officially ‘One to Watch’, Caoimhe is this year’s winner of the River Island/NCAD Fashion Bursary, having produced a confidently understated collection that fuses intelligent, functional design with strong aesthetic and commercial appeal, and a uniquely personal point of view.
“My collection had an outerwear focus, because growing up in Kinsale my lifestyle was very orientated towards being outdoors with my family,” Caoimhe explains.
“I looked at the idea of camping and designed garments with cords and toggles that are adjustable across different sizes and body types, so they can move to fit you, or be styled in different ways.”
Calling to mind the conceptual yet utterly wearable work of Irish designer Jonathan Anderson at Loewe, Caoimhe’s designs stood out to River Island’s Head of Womenswear, Lucy Moller — herself a former winner of the award.
“Caoimhe’s attention to detail was exceptional,” says Lucy. “Her understanding of our brand, the mood of the collection, and the execution of the garment from the design boards was exquisite. It’s beautifully made and very relevant to our customer —a bit sporty but with a couture edge.”
Along with a prize of €3,500, beginning in September, Caoimhe will enjoy a three month paid internship at the London head office of the high street giant. There , she’ll work alongside five former bursary winners who have gone on to secure long-term contracts at the company — though none with the track record of Lucy, who won the award 11 years ago and has been with the brand ever since.
“As a former winner I feel really honoured to be head of design now and to be selecting the next generation of students who will work with River Island,” Lucy tells me.
“The brief was to design a capsule collection for River Island, and it was really important they showed me that they understood our brand,” she continues. “They sketched their designs and developed design boards to illustrate who they think our customer is and the thought process behind the collection.
“From the boards we whittled it down to five finalists who had to make and submit one outfit; then I selected the winner.”
“I really looked at the brand, looked at the trends, and challenged myself to work the way they work,” says Caoimhe.
“Usually in college we don’t follow trends, but this project introduced us to that side of things. It was very grounding to look at it through a commercial filter and say this has to be producible, affordable, wearable.”
For the first time in the bursary’s 14-year history, students travelled to London for a tour of River Island’s head office before they embarked on their projects. “It was eye-opening,” says Caoimhe.
“You’re obviously aware of River Island because it’s such a presence on the high street, but the operation is massive. You don’t expect the design team to be just a small part of the overall picture, but there’s so much more going on.
“I interned with Simone Rocha last summer,” she adds, “so it was interesting for me to compare the two. The scale difference is huge!”
“We wanted to show them around, show them the trends we were working on, and let them see what River Island is all about,” Lucy explains.
“They all said they found it really helpful because it allowed them to focus their ideas. It certainly pushed the bar in terms of the standard; it’s never been as high as it was this year.”
Currently working on her graduate collection, Caoimhe says some of the elements she explored for the bursary project will carry through that range. “I want to push that idea of adjustable clothes,” she explains.
“Pieces that enable you to have a smaller wardrobe with more in it. Sustainability is a big conversation in fashion now, and this tackles the idea of eco-fashion from a different perspective - focusing on making the design flexible and sustainable.”
Beyond graduation, with London calling, Lucy is pragmatic in her outlook, though she’s undecided on whether she’ll follow in Lucy’s footsteps or answer the call of high fashion like Simone Rocha.
“Maybe down the line I’ll want to start my own label, but I don’t think I know right now. I’m excited to work for River Island, and I could find that that’s the thing I love.”