Representing the creative future

Out of School and into a Crisis: Central Saint Martins’ MA Fashion Graduates 2020

This year’s graduating designers are faced with a situation none of their predecessors have found themselves in before. What is it like to launch your career in the midst of a global pandemic?

This year’s graduating designers are faced with a situation none of their predecessors have found themselves in before. What is it like to launch your career in the midst of a global pandemic?

As the global COVID-19 pandemic has been changing the world as we know it, every imaginable aspect of life has been affected. Fashion has never been an easy industry to enter and now, with companies immensely struggling, young, emerging talent is challenged more than ever. The graduates of this year’s MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins are no exception. All their plans and expectations were turned upside down by a worst-case scenario none of them could have seen coming: The world stopped exactly when they entered the job market.

The time spanning from their London Fashion Week show in February to their last day at college was spent preparing for the annual exhibition, working on portfolios and, most importantly, handing in their final collections. In the years before, at this time, recruiters have travelled from all the major fashion capitals to Central Saint Martins. Moving through the MA studio, they would meet graduates face-to-face, establishing connections for potential future engagements.

In March 2020, social distancing and travel bans were slowly finding their way into London’s daily life. And so, the up-and-coming designers experienced extraordinarily different last days at their alma mater, tainted by the uncertainty of a future no one is able to predict. 

We asked some of this year’s graduates what it was like to launch a creative career as a fashion designer fresh out of school under such troubling circumstances. What are their feelings, thoughts, worries and future plans? 

Katya Zelentsova
Katya Zelentsova
Katya Zelentsova
Katya Zelentsova

Did recruiters from fashion houses visit the exhibition?

We did get a couple of recruiters coming by from London-based houses such as Burberry, Stella McCartney and JW Anderson. However, because of the pandemic, all the appointments from Paris or Milan were rightfully cancelled. I can’t imagine anyone risking super-spreading just to look at some portfolios.

Katya Zelentsova, MA Knitwear

For any visitors that could not attend, digital copies of our portfolios were made to allow them to still see our work.

Joshua Crabtree, MA Menswear

I know a lot of people who, because of the pandemic, were forced to move back home and cannot afford to return.  “

The issue goes deeper than recruiters not attending the exhibition, as I’m sure acquiring new talent is not at the top of companies priorities right now. I hope companies are taking the time to analyse their current systems of work. This does put us, recent graduates, at an incredible disadvantage. Once we resume with some sense of normalcy, it will already have been a couple of months without a job. We’ll only just be starting interviews. I know a lot of people who, because of the pandemic, were forced to move back home and cannot afford to return.  

Jawara Alleyne, MA Menswear

Towards the end of the exhibition, we had less and fewer visitors and the tension in the studio and university was growing. I think most students were worried about the exhibition would be a place for the virus to spread.

Alexandra Armata, MA Womenswear

As the exhibition was closed earlier than expected, it prohibited us from networking and celebrating the graduation, as well as all the hard years of studying finally coming to an end. It was a bit of an anti-climax, graduating in the midst of a pandemic. I know that I’m in a very privileged position and that it might seem unfair, wrong and spoiled to talk about missing a celebration when there are bigger things going on. 

Ella Boucht, MA Womenswear

Ella Boucht
Ella Boucht
Ella Boucht
Ella Boucht
Ella Boucht
Ella Boucht

For me, at this stage, it is still about getting my work out to as many people as possible and making connections within the industry, with the view of maximising my audience and broadening horizons for future opportunities.”

Did any job interviews get cancelled? 

I was lucky and got an opportunity for an interview after the show. Perhaps it’s cancelled or it might be postponed, I don’t know for sure. Only time will tell if they are still interested in me. 

Samson Leung, MA Womenswear

I did not have any interviews cancelled, as the recruitment process was still in its initial stage. and no contact had been made. For me, right now, it is still about getting my work out to as many people as possible. Making connections within the industry with the view of maximising my audience and broadening horizons for future opportunities.

Joshua Crabtree, MA  Menswear

I got an interview with an agency who are interested in emerging designers. However, that happened before the events linked to COVID-19 escalated. I am still in contact with the agency and we communicate over email. Also, some buyers and stylists have reached out to me digitally.

Sun Mu Lee, MA Menswear

I am not able to work as soon as I hoped, therefore, I have to rely on other people at the moment. “

Not yet, but it seems like everything is postponed until things resume and companies are open and able to hire again.

Leeann Huang, MA Textiles

I haven’t had any interviews cancelled but I’m sure others have. For me, I had to postpone my look-book shoot due to social distancing guidelines, which also puts me at a disadvantage now. If I do get asked to show my work digitally, I don’t have the communication material that is one of the key things expected to have coming out of uni. I have no idea if  I’ll be able to shoot it. 

Jawara Alleyne, MA Menswear

I did not have any interviews planned. My aim was to start my own business after the CSM MA Show. What was cancelled were more of my own plans and projects rather than anything else.

Ella Boucht, MA Womenswear

Alexandra Armata
Alexandra Armata
Alexandra Armata

Were there job offers that got paused? 

Pretty much everything on my near future agenda has to be postponed – applying for jobs, for funding, etc. Naturally, travelling for interviews isn’t an option at the moment, so things are put on hold.

Katya Zelentsova, MA Knitwear

I had a potential job offer paused unofficially. The uncertainty is affecting everyone and it feels inappropriate to email jobs and recruiters and say: “Hey, I know people are dying and no one has any answers for anything, but are you still interested in me?” As much as I want a definitive answer, I can’t expect one right now. So, I’m just going to wait it out and hope for the best.

Alexandra Armata, MA Womenswear

 It’s times like this that put what we do into perspective. The wellbeing and health of people really takes precedence over getting a job.”

Job offers, no, not really. As for other collaboration opportunities and potential buyers, I still have a few Skype meetings here and there, but the actual work itself is paused for now. Everything is either moving online or is temporarily closed. I hope they won’t lose interest in me after the crisis has calmed down, I have faith in my work.

Samson Leung, MA Womenswear

Yes, I was scheduled to start working in the industry, however, this has been pushed back due to the outbreak. The current situation is being monitored closely on both ends to see when it will be safe and convenient for me to start. The company has been in close contact with me and has supported and communicated with me very clearly in case I have any questions or concerns. For now, I just wait and see when it would be possible for me to start. It’s times like this that put what we do into perspective. The wellbeing and health of people really take precedence over getting a job.

Joshua Crabtree, MA Menswear

Saskia Lenaerts
Saskia Lenaerts
Saskia Lenaerts
Saskia Lenaerts

I had this freelance costume job for the upcoming World Expo, but it was cancelled. This definitely affects my income and personal budget. Not sure what freelance work I can get aside from doing CAD .

Leeann Huang, MA Textiles

There was some freelance work I was contracted to do which has been cancelled, as well as shoots for notable publications and meetings with buyers. In fact, all potential financial and freelance opportunities have either been cancelled or severely pushed back. 

Jawara Alleyne, MA Menswear

 I was trying so hard to capitalise on those big moments at CSM – the show and the exhibition – emailing everyone, looking for jobs. I hadn’t given myself a break nor the opportunity to just be and decompress.”

No job offers, but I did have to pause some personal orders and other projects due to the virus spreading so fast and travel restrictions and lockdowns happening. After the exhibition I made a decision to leave the UK and go back home to Helsinki for a while, to stay safe. My passport was expiring soon and the embassy was closing down, so I had to just buy a ticket and completely pause my plans. As everything is on hold at the moment, trying to find a freelance job and work on projects is impossible. No one is getting hired right now, everything is frozen and still.

Ella Boucht, MA Womenswear

Samson Leung
Samson Leung
Samson Leung

How have your plans changed?

It’s a little tricky with my visa status, so times are a bit uncertain. If I can’t secure anything by mid-summer, I’ll have to go back home to Russia for some time. But I do hope that an opportunity comes up – I know I’ll be fighting for one from my quarantine!

Katya Zelentsova, MA Knitwear 

I am not able to work as soon as I hoped, therefore, I have to be dependent on other people at the moment. 

Johanna Maria Parv, MA Womenswear

I’m using this time of self-isolation to recover from my lack of sleep and energy from the MA course. I’m just trying to get myself ready for a comeback once the virus is gone. Look out for my name!

Samson Leung, MA Womenswear

My start date for work has been pushed back, and the ability to contact places regarding employment has become a lot more difficult. Companies are shut down and the hiring process is coming to a near standstill. Right now, it is important to be inventive and try to use this time positively amid great worry and uncertainty. Part of being creative, in my opinion, is having the ability to adapt, overcome challenges, and create a place in the world for your work to exist and think of new ways of communicating and connecting with people. I am trying to use this time to plan and work on other projects and develop new ideas.

Joshua Crabtree, MA Menswear

“It’s a little tricky with my visa status, so times are a bit uncertain. If I can’t secure anything by mid-summer, I’ll have to go back home to Russia for sometime. But I do hope that an opportunity comes up – I know I’ll be fighting for one from my quarantine!”

Jawara Alleyne
Jawara Alleyne
Jawara Alleyne
Jawara Alleyne

My main concern a month ago was applying for jobs and preparing for potential interviews. I was going to stay in London and give myself a short period to perfect my portfolio, join a showroom, get my work out there. Everything has totally paused now, which is very surreal. I flew back to Canada to be with my family, so there won’t be any job searching for a while. I’m trying to stay positive and develop ideas that I’m excited about. I’ve always wanted to make a capsule collection of jeans, so I’m going to use my mandatory self-isolation and focus on that.

Alexandra Armata, MA Womenswear

“The importance of our work as young designers has been solidified in my solitude.”

I was planning on taking a one-month break after graduation anyway because I was so burnt out. This, however, feels like a strange limbo rather than a break. I suppose transitional periods always feel strange, but it really seems like life everywhere is suspended. It is quite bizarre because I planned on travelling, producing more work, and doing job interviews in my time before my visa expires, but I’m kind of forced to do nothing. 

Leeann Huang, MA Textiles

Fortunately for me, my frame of mind approaching the end of the degree was that I would still have to fend for myself for a while before my financial situation changes, which means that my long term plans have not changed that much. I’ve been forced to evaluate a lot in terms of ways of working as well as what’s truly important as a creator of culture. 

Jawara Alleyne, MA Menswear

My plans haven’t really changed, the situation has only helped to emphasize them. A few days into the exhibition, I started feeling this extreme sense of calmness. Oddly, because there were fewer people showing up, this created the opportunity to relax and reflect back on my amazing MA journey. I was trying so hard to capitalise on those big moments at CSM – the show and the exhibition – emailing everyone, looking for jobs. I hadn’t given myself a break nor the opportunity to just be and decompress. It’s so easy to get sucked into the rat race, even for me as a young designer who is set on creating, albeit in an alternative way. If anything, this crisis has reinforced my plan to do my own thing and it has reaffirmed that this is the correct path for me to embark upon.

Saskia Lenaerts, MA Menswear

Leeann Huang
Leeann Huang
Leeann Huang
Leeann Huang
Leeann Huang

Do you have any ideas or plans in case you won’t be able to get hired?

I think it’s pretty impossible to establish yourself right now outside of content management. You can switch your Instagram to a business profile and post “product photos”, but ultimately there is no production line working at the moment. No yarn coming from Italy or elsewhere, shops are closed, most machinery is inaccessible. I remain positive that things are going to get better, and maybe we get out of quarantine and suddenly everyone has this deep urge to buy sexy knitwear, but until then it’s hibernation time. And leisurely crochet time.

Katya Zelentsova, MA Knitwear 

I need to make some money in order to be able to return to London, and if I can’t get hired in fashion, I might have to look for an “essential service” job, such as delivery. It sucks to think about it, but I’m optimistic, it will be for a short time…

Alexandra Armata, MA Womenswear

I am currently working on this. There will be a solution, I believe, but my plans are not clear at the moment. Until then, I will read, write, think. Exercise my body and mind.

Johanna Maria Parv, MA Womenswear

 If I can’t secure anything by mid-summer, I’ll have to go back home to Russia for sometime. But I do hope that an opportunity comes up – I know I’ll be fighting for one from my quarantine!”

For me, it is a reassurance that I have something lined up for after this passes. I have recently been working on evaluating and improving my portfolio for future opportunities. I use this time to read, watch films, research and gain more inspiration for other projects as well as contacting people to proactively make things happen and increase my chances. My aim is to plan ahead as much as possible and keep the momentum going after finishing my MA. Looking at this crisis in a positive light, it could become a catalyst for many great creative concepts. We as humanity can take this time to evaluate and reflect not only on ourselves and our work but also on our way of operating to make positive changes.

Joshua Crabtree, MA Menswear

My plan is to go back home to California after my visa expires and work on my own projects while waiting out this upcoming recession. I think it will be okay, things are just going to be delayed for a while. I’m trying to stay optimistic since everything is out of my hands at this point.

Leeann Huang, MA Textiles

I’ve opted for freelancing while developing my collection and projects. However, this is even harder to do, and, given the change in circumstances, who knows what the future holds for freelancers. It’s rather daunting, but I do have hope that things will work out… because they have to… it’s my only option. 

Jawara Alleyne, MA Menswear

My plan is to do my own thing, have my own design studio, freelance, collaborate and just GO FOR IT. This crisis will impact our world and how we behave. In this context, I believe it is an unprecedented opportunity for young creatives/business owners to find a new way into a reinvented market. Present novel concepts and designs in this turbulent time and challenge the existing status quo of the mass-produced, capitalist, throw away, dispersed production and non-genuine culture we are drowning in.

Saskia Lenaerts, MA Menswear

Joshua Crabtree
Joshua Crabtree
Joshua Crabtree
Joshua Crabtree
Joshua Crabtree

How has your decision to start your own business been affected?

Without a doubt, I am still planning to start my own design label. But like any other student, I lack money to run my business. So for now, I am looking for job opportunities and I’m hoping to still launch some small projects on the side to build up my audience. This has been my plan all along, and for me, there really isn’t a plan B.

Samson Leung, MA Womenswear

I want to start my own brand, so I am looking for advice from tutors and designers who already have a brand. However, this is more difficult right now, as I cannot meet anyone face-to-face. For the time being, I focus on drawing rough sketches, thinking about alternative options to work with buyers and dealing with my VISA. 

Sun Mu Lee, MA Menswear

“I hope we will all support a more localised production, buy what we truly love and value, respect everyone along our supply chain, resist excessive continuous growth, but, most of all, I wish we can all move SLOWER TOGETHER. “

Starting my own business was not something I planned on doing immediately after my studies. The best way for me is working for someone, gaining more experience, in order to then start independently in the future. My plan has not changed due to Coronavirus, but seeing how small businesses and the self-employed have sadly been affected as a result of this pandemic, obviously raises concerns about maintaining a business. I hope for all the small businesses and self-employed workers struggling right now that the situation improves as soon as possible. This is something that is affecting everybody in one way or another, which is why we have to seek whatever solace we can. For me, this means continuing with my work and exploring new ideas as a way of escapism from the current reality.

Joshua Crabtree, MA Menswear

I was planning on a capsule collection to sell, but unfortunately, most production facilities and even school studio facilities are shut until further notice. I’m not exactly sure how to finish it until everything opens again.

Leeann Huang, MA Textiles

I was never keen on starting my own business as I’ve worked for startups before and I am aware of the extreme financial and emotional commitments that are required. During the MA, you pick up a lot of momentum in terms of productivity, so to suddenly slow down so drastically makes you feel uncomfortable and restless. 

Alexandra Armata, MA Womenswear

Starting with the fact that I am not able to have my own space and I have to fully rely on others for whose help I am very thankful for. It is harder to solidify any plans or make investments at this point, without knowing when I will be able to get back home or even see my friends. In a way, it is the best time to build a business as no one is able to distract or stop you from working on new projects at home or wherever you are. You can deal with your “own business”, deal with yourself. Also, we have to work with what we have available right now, similar to when we were children. 

Johanna Maria Parv, MA Womenswear

No, my plan to launch my own collection hasn’t changed. I think young designers are needed, because we say what large houses can’t…or won’t say. Right now fashion needs to speak. It needs to be challenged. It needs to pose questions. The industry NEEDS to change. The role of young designers, who have something to say and are challenging the system, cannot be undervalued in a time like this. There needs to be more support for emerging designers and creatives in general as we enter the industry. All of these thoughts are not new, but the importance of our work as young designers has been solidified in my solitude.

Jawara Alleyne, MA Menswear

My plans were turned completely upside down within a week. One day, I was planning to get my studio in place and looking for shelves and rails, the next day, I was on a flight back to Helsinki leaving everything behind and not knowing when I’ll be able to return to the UK. Many decisions have been affected and I’ve had to rethink my future aim and plans such as how and where to start my business. This pandemic showed me the importance of local production, collaboration and being able to cope with change, economically as well as creatively. As a fashion designer, you most often need your own studio, tools, and materials. However, I’m trying to find ways to do it without all the tools, not restricting my creativity – finding new ways of creating, going back to bespoke tailoring, working closely with the client. Fundamentally, my work is about freedom. Being who you are, breaking the censorship around the female nude and making more space for lesbians, butches, queer women and non-binary people. The way I work should always reflect that freedom.

Ella Boucht, MA Womenswear

This crisis, no matter how awful, has become my blessing in disguise. Time is on my side. Time to develop my business plan and to clearly frame what I stand for at a natural, low-pressure pace. I believe strong ideas come to me more spontaneously during tranquil periods and this is what I am experiencing now. As a creative, I need a balance between hard, ambitious work-ethic and clarity of mind to produce my best and most genuine designs. Now is the time to fuse both, and launch my work in the midst of this phase of disarray. This crisis will accelerate the change that has long been coming, and we’ll need to embrace it and get on with it. After the crisis, there should be a push for young businesses to thrive. People all over the world should learn from the COVID-19 disruption and alter some of their behavioural patterns. I hope we will all support a more localised production, buy what we truly love and value, respect everyone along our supply chain, resist excessive continuous growth, but, most of all, I wish we can all move slower together. 

Saskia Lenaerts, MA Menswear

Sun Mu Lee
Sun Mu Lee
Sun Mu Lee
Sun Mu Lee
Sun Mu Lee
Sun Mu Lee
Sun Mu Lee
Sun Mu Lee

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