The Scottish fashion scene: the most underrated in the world?

18 April 2019

Photograph: Louise Devlin

Current fashion students, graduates and fashion business owners all agree that Scotland has an outstanding fashion scene, but that there are limitations. Despite the barriers found here, no designer has to go to London to make a success of their career.

The Glasgow School of Art fashion show in March showcased the talents of fashion and textile third year students. After a spectacular show at the Art School, I had the chance to interview students – one from Glasgow, and another from Milan who both said they don’t want to work for anyone, they want to start their own businesses, preferably here.

The question is, if here is Glasgow, or anywhere else in Scotland, how successful will it be? Scotland can’t compete with London when it comes to fashion, though it does hold its own. Some designers based in Glasgow, people who graduated with fashion degrees, and current fashion students, think that there is a future for fashion designers here and for the Scottish fashion scene to reach global audiences and recognition.

In Scotland, eight universities offer a combined total of 18 degree level courses in fashion, from branding to textiles. The Scottish fashion industry generates an estimated £1 billion, and has over 8,000 employees in over 350 businesses based on the Scotsman’s report.

Rachel Devine, Carolyn Baxter and Louise Devlin are all from Scotland. Devine graduated in 2003 from Cardonald College in Glasgow, then in 2005 from the London College of Fashion. Devlin graduated from Cardonald College in 2011 and then completed a Bridal and Eveningwear short course. Baxter graduated from the Edinburgh School of Art in 2007.

They share the experience that London is the place to be if you want to do fashion. Devine says: “After graduation my plan was to stay in London and find a job in fashion (preferably design). I didn’t feel that there was enough of a fashion industry back in Scotland for me to move back home and find a job. I was fortunate enough to find a job straight after graduation with a supplier to the high street. It was a great starting point for me in the industry.”

Baxter, who studied fashion design said: “During art school we were very much told that you have to go to London to be successful in fashion. Scotland was dismissed as an option as there was nothing there job-wise. We were told to do work experience, which was advised in London. I was working for a label called Boudicca for free. I lasted one day and came home. I knew London wasn’t for me at that point.”

After graduation she felt like she wasn’t given any advice on what to do next and most of the graduates on her course went to work in retail to pay off their debts. But, thanks to the Internet and social media she found a way that she could stay here to start her own business in fashion.

Louise Devlin, started her own brand however she was unsure about its potential for success. She said: “I didn’t feel my course was particularly good at the time. It was good to learn all the very basics. However, I felt the teachers limited you in what you were allowed to do – design wise. I feel I have learned more myself over the years which has benefitted my business.”

Devine continued working in fashion and two years ago moved back to Scotland to start her own luxury lifestyle label Tír Dháimh and to also do freelance design and manufacturing for other labels and individuals.

Photograph: Rachel Devine

Although they were told to tread the same path to London that fashion pilgrims had been making for decades, these two defied the advice and proved the doubters wrong by making successful businesses here in Scotland. Thanks to social media, both designers could start their own labels. Many people who were asked agree that social media is the key in making it in the Scottish fashion scene.

Robert Davidson and Rachel Allan, current fashion branding students from Glasgow Caledonian University, say they would like to build a career in Scotland, however, the struggle to find opportunities in Scotland is real.

Davidson said: “The Scottish fashion scene is the most underrated in the world I believe there is so much diversity and so many unique styles around, if you walk down Buchanan Street during the day its apparent. There are more opportunities now than there ever has been within the Scottish fashion industry, although there still isn’t enough for the amount of talented Scottish fashion students we have. Everyone in the Scottish fashion industry I have met or spoken to is so supportive of each other, everyone knows how hard it can be and they offer to help you any way they can, and I think that’s the best thing about the Scottish fashion industry.”

Allan said: “I think it can be slim pickings, depending what part of the industry you’re wanting to get into, supply chain internships are quite hard to find within Scotland, as many head offices of fashion brands are in England, but if you can’t fund yourself to stay there, then hard luck.”

Both students would like to stay in Scotland after their graduation and start their own businesses. Davidson said: “I’d love to launch in Glasgow or even my home town of Ayr, if things went well I want to be able to offer fashion students internships, jobs and chances to collaborate.”

Allan said: “I would love to do that, and to have my own little factory and work force within Scotland, however with the difficulty of the financial climate, and the fast fashion industry, it will be very difficult to compete with factories abroad.”

Devine, who owns her brand, is much more positive, she likes how many opportunities current students have to study fashion within their home country, even if it is not world leading yet, there are opportunities in the textile industry. She said: “I think the continued use of these textiles by world renowned designers is a testament to how important they are on the global fashion scene, and as such, the teaching and development of these textiles and techniques is vitally important.”

Photograph: Louise Devlin

She also mentioned that she thinks that there are more opportunities now mainly because of funding agencies: “There are definitely much more opportunities to work in fashion in Scotland, and with support from bodies like Creative Scotland and Fashion Foundry, there are also lots more opportunities for young designers to make it on their own. I don’t remember there ever being this kind of support when I graduated 14 years ago. I do also think the rise of social media has a lot to be thanked for – this has massively helped lots of start-up businesses reach their audiences in a much more effective way than ever before, without the need for a massive PR budget.”

Devlin said: “I think there needs to be more opportunities for designers starting their own businesses. Especially with the rapid decline on the high street. For example, I think it would be beneficial for the council to give discounted rates initially for a designer to rent a unit or for there to be more start up grants/ loans available. There is definitely potential to run a successful long term clothing business here but it takes a substantial investment of time and money to make it work. I would like to see more fashion related events being held which are available to new designers”

Siobhan McKenna, owner of ReJean Denim. Photograph: Ella MacDonald

At an event organised by Creative Connections Glasgow on 10 April in Sloans, I met Siobhan McKenna, owner of ReJean denim, who makes her own designs by hand. She says:

“There is a creative scene here, there is a lot of people doing their own thing and starting up creative businesses from scratch. The downside is the fabric and haberdashery shops aren’t anywhere near the same standard as in London. There probably isn’t as much media coverage up here, but if you are doing something out there you can gain interest from local media sources quite easily. But with Instagram you can make your own media coverage and build your own following. If you want to work for a high-end fashion house then there’s not much for you in Glasgow. But if you are a maker or a creative and want to start your own business organically you can do that here. There is support both creatively and financially through creative Scotland, CEO Scotland and fashion foundry, and just through the growing creative community. If you have the knowledge you can build your own contacts and start a brand anywhere. The fashion scene in Scotland is really buzzing just now. Photographers and creative directors based out of Glasgow are working on some really hot projects. Successful small businesses with a focus on sustainability are at the core of our creative community. There is a real buzz and a sense of community, and of course social media has really helped boost these businesses.”

Glasgow might not have its own fashion week, but it has a buzzing creative scene with unique designers in fashion and accessories plus many more creative agencies and a great scene of bloggers and influencers who are a standing up for a Scottish fashion scene that deserves more attention.

Photograph: Ella MacDonald

Creative Scotland offer artists, musicians and designers funding of various amounts, their Regular Funding Network 2018-21 is supported by a Grant in Aid, upwards of £100 million from the Scottish Government. Fashion Foundry is supported by Creative Scotland and provides business support for Scottish fashion and accessory designers and focusing on the international luxury goods market.

With more support for the growing Scottish fashion scene it is not just a fantasy that the Scottish fashion scene is becoming bigger and better than ever.

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