The Show Must (Not) Go On: Lessons Learned as Graduate Fashion Week is Cancelled

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Let me start by setting the scene, perhaps a little differently from usual. As my time as Fashion Editor for The Gryphon comes to an end nearly three years since I first took on the role, I’ve had more than my fair share of writing light-hearted reviews and quick opinion pieces. I’d like to set a different tone this time. I want to open up about what it’s like, after four years of hard work, to have your degree show cancelled, your graduation plans dashed and the world-renowned Graduate Fashion Week cancelled all in the space of a week. And then, because the world doesn’t actually need any more bad news right now, I want to focus on what I’ve learnt; which, before you ask, is more than just how to hem a dress.

It goes without saying that we, fashion students collectively, are not the only degree students feeling devastated that our hard work has had to end like this, and I know that these feelings of disappointment will be shared with final year students of all disciplines across the globe. Likewise, I am not suggesting that the measures taken by the government, graduate fashion week, and our university were the wrong course of action; and I am fully aware that the suffering in this country goes well beyond the loss of a few degree shows. 

credit: @officialgfw

However, I will say that these last few weeks have been some of the worst for most of us. Degree shows, and graduate fashion week are not replaceable events. They come around every year, but not for us. Next time GFW is on, there will be a new set of graduates with new ideas, and I hope, final collections not cut short by COVID-19. Many of our degree shows are not postponed, they are cancelled. As someone co-leading the organisation of The University of Leeds degree presentation, finding out our hard work was for nothing was just another kick for a (wo)man down. 

My mother is a psychotherapist and I am therefore fortunate enough to have been told, over and over, that it’s okay to grieve these losses. It is. It is, and I have. I spent a week after coming back from university struggling to see what the point in finishing any of my work was, when there would be no celebration at the end, no chance to show my work, and, on my more negative days, no jobs left in a furloughed industry. I think, if it wasn’t for my ever-imposing deadlines, I might have stayed in that place of negativity, and, dare I admit it, self pity. Yet, whilst there is no substitute for a degree show, there is still work to be done, and there are still clothes to design. And, because I’ve been sad enough for long enough, I can say there have been some invaluable lessons learnt.

1. Forget what they say about fashion, we’re all in this together

All across the country, we’ve seen people uniting behind our incredible key workers, and behind one another as we move our socialisation online. The same goes for the fashion graduates. People often ask me if my degree resembles any scenes from Devil Wears Prada – I’d say the opposite right now. There have been fashion graduate groups, built with students from different disciplines and universities across the country, uniting to be seen and share experiences. We are working together, collaborating, to think about alternative ways of presenting our work. We are sharing in our disappointments. We are encouraging each other from afar, building each other up and celebrating our ideas. We are – not literally – all in this together.

Some of the GFW2020 designs. credit: Elle Online

2. Tutors might have a bad reputation, but they’re not so tough

If fashion students have a reputation for being a little bit sly with one another, fashion tutors definitely aren’t known for being the warmest types. Horror stories of tutors tearing up work that doesn’t impress them, or publicly humiliating those that fail to put less then 25 hours a day into their projects circulate across the community. Some of them are probably true. But, amidst the coronavirus chaos, I have seen a different side to the tutors. Here are lecturers who genuinely care about their students, and their work. I won’t name and shame but I definitely saw tears shed by one of our lecturers as they told us the studios were shutting. Members of staff have offered time over their Easter break to continue giving digital feedback on work. Studio staff were willing to stay late to help us finish work before everything shut down. Before the outbreak, I took negative feedback as a personal attack, and was mildly outraged when I was told to re-do work. I can’t say I’ll still enjoy being told what to do (surprise surprise), but I can see clearer now that these comments were genuinely aimed to help get the best out of us. 

3. Yahoo! This is your (virtual) celebration

It’s safe to say I never predicted finishing my university experience with a virtual degree show and I’m waiting for the day that someone captures an audience of fashion’s hottest viewing the latest pieces via Zoom. I mean, would they still dress up for the occasion? Or will we see Vogue’s fashion editor watching models strut their stuff snuggled on the sofa still in her pyjamas? Not sure. But I guess if we can adapt to having virtual degree shows, and having to share our work online, we can probably adapt to just about anything the fashion industry throws our way. If this isn’t an experience I can use in an interview to show how I thrived in adverse circumstances, then I’m really not sure what is. See – every cloud has a silver lining, right?

Lydia’s final collection. credit: Lydia Varney

4. What’s your favourite idea? Mine is being creative

In a world full of chaos, I’ve had moments when I’ve wondered what the point of studying a fashion degree was, and how I can possibly use my skills in a time like this. I can’t see how sewing a nice summer dress is going to help the situation, and who even cares what you’re wearing if you’re staying in all day? But, I’ve been so inspired by the work of other creatives, and my friends in the industry. One of my former colleagues, textile designer Eleni Malami is creating the most beautiful blank illustrations to be coloured in, which she’s sharing for free in her monthly newsletters (see image). Mental health matters so much in a time like this, and it’s inspiring to see how the fashion industry can help people look after themselves. My university friends are also refusing to stop being creative in the middle of this – just have a look at the amazing birthday card created, from one design student to another. I’m in awe of this positivity, and I’m reminded that we all have a choice of how we use our talents to help each other. Right now, we need creativity more than ever.

credit: @eleni_malami
credit: @beckyycoxdesign

5. We’ve come so far, but we’ve got so far to go

I’m not talking about the lockdown here (although that is sadly, quite possibly true). What I mean is, the fashion industry still has such a bright future ahead of it. I’ve spent time wallowing in fear about job prospects, a lack of value for good design, and a lack of care for fashion. But, I’m learning that there is opportunity for something better here. The fashion industry has, for too long, been unsustainable and exploitative. When the lockdown lifts, I’m hoping for an increased support of local businesses; of independent, ethical manufactures. I’m hoping for a fashion landscape where there is greater chance for small, new ideas to burst through communities. I’m looking forward to an increased value for our clothes, what we wear, and how it is made. I’m probably being idealistic, but I’m okay with that. It’s time, for me at least, to start looking up and looking forward. There are better days ahead.

With this all said, the therapist’s daughter within me feels the needs to add that it’s still, definitely okay and very understandable, to be sad about this. I’m saying this to myself, in all honesty. Picking out the positives in this situation, I hope, will help you as much as it has helped me. But there is a heavy loss for fashion design graduates, one that I suspect will take longer than this lockdown to fully come to terms with. In the meantime, I’ll be here sewing dresses just for the fun of it, making cards to send my friends, and yes, still finishing my degree. All in time for the virtual catwalk, let’s hope…

title image credit: FashionUnited