How to fashion a career - apprenticeships in the fashion industry

While many work places operate a ‘dress down Friday’ policy, it may well be ‘dress up Friday’ this week as today marks the start of London Fashion Week.

Whether you’re a Vogue subscribing fashion bunny, a charity shop forager or a high street devotee, the clothes we choose and the way we shop fuels a significant chunk of the UK economy. It’s not called the fashion ‘industry’ for nothing! 

In a memorable scene in the 2006 comedy The Devil Wears Prada, ‘dragon lady’ fashion mag editor Miranda Priestley puts her very unfashionable new secretary, aspiring journalist Andi, firmly in her place when she sniggers at an intense discussion of a choice of belt in a photo shoot, offering as her defence that she is, ‘new to this stuff’.

‘….that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.’

The lighter side of fashion aside, the ghastly Miranda makes an important point. The British fashion industry is worth £26 billion to the UK economy and directly employs over 800,000 people. That’s before the £98 million estimated to be generated by tourism and visitor spending and the immeasurable amount of international brand equity.

From the boom of the cotton industry in the north of England in the early part of the twentieth century, to the high fashion brands on Selfridges shop floor today, one thing fashion has always done in the UK is create jobs, and with a new generation of apprenticeships there are lots of career opportunities. 

FE colleges and institutions like the Fashion Retail Academy and London Fashion Technical Academy offer a range of vocational courses with apprenticeship opportunities and pathways into rewarding careers. While the likes of Alexander McQueen, Matthew Williamson and Vivienne Westwood might be rare, the UK fashion industry covers a multitude of sectors such as manufacturing, marketing, textiles, media, wholesale and retail.

Many people are attracted to a career in fashion because they’ve been taught to knit or sew in their youth. Vivienne Westwood famously had no formal training - this is an area of the creative industries where ‘learning by doing’ really can apply successfully.

James Weir from Derby had always been passionate about clothes and intended to go to university to study fashion or textile. A chance stroll down the citadel of tailoring, Savile Row, and an impressive amount of chutzpah landed James an apprenticeship with tailors Henry Poole and co. 

In another part of the fashion wardrobe, big retailers like ASOS and Marks and Spencer offer excellent apprenticeship schemes. Not only can young people acquire valuable practical skills and work experience, but gain qualifications - including degrees - without accruing student debt. 

Last night the Prime Minister, Theresa May, continued the tradition of marking the beginning of London Fashion Week with a reception for the fashion world at Downing Street. It was distinguished this year in that she asked people in the industry to bring apprentices with them, notably from luxury fashion house Burberry and shoe designer Charlotte Olympia.

As the debate over the Ebacc continues, I think it’s worth reflecting on the value of studying creative subjects, not just to the country’s economy, but in the myriad of career opportunities they offer. Whatever our views about the vagaries of fashion - or ‘stuff’ - this is one industry where practical and technical learning truly is valued.

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