breaking out while school is in

Thanks to social media, student designers are finding themselves in demand before they even graduate. But when school projects become viable brands, the designers—who are often barely out of their teens—find themselves balancing books and small...

by Sasha Geyer
29 February 2016, 2:57am

Daniel Harden

In the traditional fashion narrative, a designer's journey from the classroom to the helm of commercial brand begins on the heels of their graduate show. Time spent at university is a guarded period of growth that eventually defines who they become. Yet over the last decade, that process has been disrupted. Thanks to Tumblr and Instagram students are able to share their work online instantly and no longer have to wait for the graduate launch to begin drawing industry attention.

These wunderkinds are able cultivate a following, sell their work and begin retail relationship all before they graduate. While it sounds like a dream, when these ventures are successful the designers—who are often barely out of their teens—find themselves balancing books and small business. Uni is hard enough without managing commercial production, networking and media attention.

To understand the idea of breaking out while you're still working yourself out, i-D spoke to the student designers getting noticed for more than their grades. 

Abbey Rich, 21, of Abbey Rich

Abbey in her studio.

What are you currently studying?
A Bachelor of Arts (Textile Design) at RMIT.

You have a large following on social media and you sell your clothing online, tell us a bit about your growth as a young student designer.
I put a lot of my stuff online and opened my online store two months ago, so it's all happened pretty quickly. I've had such an amazing response, there's been lots of sales. It's really exciting and crazy; I'm so thankful for Instagram, none of this would have happened without it!

Is the clothing you sell part of the collections you've submitted for your course?
No, it's separate from that entirely. For university I predominantly do the print side of things whereas for my own label I do everything with the design of the garment.

Abbey in her designs.

Fashion schools often advised their students to not present their collections online because it's assumed they're still developing, but recently student collections have become more and more visible. What do you think is driving students to make their work more public?
I think because the Internet makes everything so accessible, when we're looking at all this stuff online we want to be a part of it. And it doesn't matter that we haven't finished school anymore. I mean, we're learning what's going on through school but because we have access to all this amazing stuff online we want to do things quicker. Sometimes it backfires, I've had my work copied from America before by someone bigger than me. Obviously I've got no hold on that, but if that's the price you pay sometimes I think it's worth it.

Do you ever second guess what you're learning due to your own professional experience?
Yeah, I've been interning for the past year and a half for a lot of different labels across Melbourne while also building my own label and what I learn there is so different to what I learn at school. I wouldn't say one is better than the other, but I think having both is necessary because working in the industry is very, very different to what you learn. It's an amazing experience to be at university in such an amazing studio and make friends, but I also think you can't go through school and expect a job when you finish.


Bianca Censori, 21, of Nylons

Nylons' latest collection, shot by Britt Lucas. 

What are you currently studying?
Architecture at Melbourne. I'm in my third year.

Tell us a bit about Nylons.
I started Nylons just after I finished high school. I started playing around with mesh, then putting crystals inside the meshing, just making really simple thin chokers. I started selling those and from there it slowly kept growing. Once I started architecture I still wanted some sort of creative outlet so I kept making jewellery as something to do on the side and it grew into a business!

Nylons' latest collection, shot by Britt Lucas. 

Is it difficult to stay motivated and focused at university when you literally have a career?
I try keep my studies and Nylons fairly separate. I'm always thinking of both and am always inspired by both, but I separate them so they can grow separately. I do things for Nylons everyday, little things whether it be organising something or going and getting photos taken so it can grow while I'm still studying.

How does this play during exams?
What I've found most stressful is meeting deadlines of seasons and deadlines at university at the same time! I get pressure from stockists about when I'm releasing my next range, and it's like "I have a five assignments due!" That's why I do little things that in the long run save me that stress. With designs, as soon as I get an idea I try to get it made so even if it sits there for a couple of months I can release it without being constantly under the pump. In the summer break I've tried to focus on Nylons.

Are you ever tempted to take time off university?
I took a year off in 2014 and I feel that established where I wanted to go and I was able to be more focused on what I want to do with Nylons. Then when I went back to university I knew what I wanted and was more focused.

Alix Higgins, 21, of Alix Higgins

Alix Higgins Spring/Summer 2016, shot by Daniel Harden.

What did you study?
I just finished Bachelor of Design in Fashion and Textiles at UTS.

At university, did you separate the work you were doing independently from what you were submitting?
They were intertwined. It was an extension of the work I was doing in university.

Alix Higgins Spring/Summer 2016, shot by Daniel

It's becoming more common for fashion students to simultaneously distribute and present their collections outside of their course—what are the benefits of that?
I think that helps develop a really good network of people around you. You meet photographers and stylists and get people excited about your work as it's happening. I think the internet has really opened that up, before when you were studying it was very insular. Before you had a show and that was the only time people were really exposed to your work. Now you can build that excitement about your work before you graduate.

Jacinta Apelt, 25, of Jacinta Apelt

Jacinta Apelt's Attachment + Detachment/Detachment + Attachment Collection, shot by Hyun Lee

What are you currently studying?
I am currently doing my MA in Womenswear at The Royal College of Art in London. Prior to that, I completed my BFA in Fashion at QUT (Queensland University of Technology) and in my second year I also studied at The National Institute of Technology (NIFT) New Delhi, India.

Jacinta Apelt's Attachment + Detachment/Detachment + Attachment Collection, shot by Hyun Lee

How do you balance press and business interest in your brand with study?
I put all the business/wholesaling interest to the side when I received offers to MA courses. I just thought it would be incredibly difficult to run a business on the other side of the world, while do an MA, and financially it was not an option.

Jacinta Apelt's Attachment + Detachment/Detachment + Attachment Collection, shot by Hyun Lee

That's interesting; you're the first interview who has been forced to choose between the two. But I guess it makes sense considering the prestige of The Royal College of Art. Is it competitive?
BOF named it number one in the world for a Masters course in fashion design this past year, so there is definitely pressure. The studio is often buzzing and everyone is very focused. RCA is great to meet people from other disciplines and is known for doing a lot of collaborative projects with other courses. Is it competitive? I think people are more competitive with themselves than each other.

You've worked all over the world, how as that impacted you creatively and commercially?
It has pushed me to question authenticity more than anything, and to define what that is for my work and personal life. I am quite sensitive to energies, so I suppose the shift in energy that exists in each location has played a role in my creative process. It's a mix of experiencing the clinical, sensual, opulent and isolation. Sometimes at the same time. Commercially, I am still questioning what I define as commercial.