Representing the creative future

How do you deal with post-college panic and what makes a good portfolio?

"What Now?": A graduate's survival guide by the Sarabande Foundation

For many young creatives, one of the biggest challenges faced when starting their career is the transition from education to the ‘real’ world which institutions often leave them massively underprepared for. For many, it’s an anxiety-inducing jump from the confines of university, where you’re faced with a whole new world of things to worry about: how will I pay my rent? I’ve got my degree, how do I get a job? What am I doing with my life?

Last week a group of ambitious graduates across fashion, art and design eager to learn gathered at Sarabande’s Haggerston HQ, for a two-day series of talks and events where a network of industry professionals, all connected via the foundation’s community of past collaborators and in-house talents, shared their insider information on the turbulent, often overwhelming stage of finding your feet in the professional world after leaving full-time education. We rounded up our favourite takeaways from What Now? and the most important information we learned over the two-day event.

Day one: Dealing with Post-College Panic

The event started with an opening talk: ‘Dealing with Post-College Panic’, Consultant and Business Mentor Jeii Hong was joined by Dazed Project Manager Shin Aduwa, Designer & Design Consultant Cecily Kasoma and  Designer & Consultant Sheena Jones for a candid discussion on navigating the leap-of-faith from university to post-graduate life. Over the course of the evening, the group covered all the ins and outs of post-graduate life from how to make lasting connections to the difference between soft & hard skills.

There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ job

In creative industries we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others; falling into the bad habit of thinking we’re wasting our degree (and our lives) if we’re not either working on the design team at a massive fashion house or successfully running your own brand. “No experience is ever useless” Jeii, who founded her consultancy agency Modern Commodities in 2018, opened with, “Looking back, there’s not a single experience I’ve had professionally, whether it’s like working in retail or internment, that I look back at and think it’s useless or doesn’t have any value.”

“Working in retail is actually so important. You see the consumer that comes in, the people who are actually buying these products. I think there’s so much you can take from it as long as you’re willing and you’re engaged.” – Shin Aduwa

“After university, I was so focused on wanting to be able to work with an industry room and felt like a lot of urgency and pressure around doing that.” Sheena, who in addition to designing clothing is also an archive consultant at Urban Outfitters, added. “I was just working for any luxury brand I could connect with or that I aligned with at the time, there was a lot of pattern cutting, when all I wanted to do was designing” she continues, “At the time I felt I was wasting a lot of time, but looking back from the hindsight and the skills I learned have been really valuable for me in understanding the way something should be done. It’s funny, I was so negative at the time, but I’m really grateful for those experiences.”

“After I graduated from my BA I took a year out and worked in retail,’ Shin, who originally graduated from CSM with a degree in Knitwear, joined the conversation, “You’re taught a structure that there’s a path you need to follow, but every experience you have is helping the process. But I definitely felt that pressure, but I’m grateful.”  They continued, expanding on the urgency we experience in such a fast-moving industry to become an overnight success. “Working in retail is actually so important. You see the consumer that comes in, the people who are actually buying these products. I think there’s so much you can take from it as long as you’re willing and you’re engaged, you know?”

“I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer, since I was young. But I became a mother and had to reprioritise.” Adds Cecily who, like Shin, studied Knitwear at CSM but has since ended up utilising her expertise in a totally different discipline. “Working in the fashion industry, obviously it’s amazing, it’s fun but it also has things like long hours, I had to re-evaluate my priorities, I needed to switch off at the end of the day and spend time with my family. I started looking into programming and I got into a graduate program at Matches Fashion and I really loved it.” She continues, now working full-time at Matches Fashion as a data scientist;  being open to working in different fields being a common thread running through the discussion.

“Change is always hard and scary but it’s also really good, and needed. It serves the life you want and how you want to live.” – Jeii Hong

“It’s about what you actually want to do,” Jeii responds on the topic of finding a balance between a job that’s both rewarding and financially viable, “It’s how we want to live, and wake up on Monday morning wanting to go to work and not wanting to dread it. Your priorities will change in life, understand that reassessment. Maybe this is the time to switch it up and be able to take that leap to do it. Change is always hard and scary but it’s also really good, and needed. It serves the life you want and how you want to live.”

Define your Soft & Hard Skills 

“I was volunteering at Sarabande doing tours,” Shin, who started working at the foundation after they reached out to Sarabande founding trustee Trino Verkade for post-graduate advice. “I found that I had outreach skills and that developed from working here then freelancing […] reaching out and finding contacts, convincing them to do something, that was a defining moment for me, but I would never say it happened overnight it’s always been a process, realising what you’re good at.”

“It’s interesting what you just said because your existing soft skills turned into a hard skill,” Jeii picks up the topic, “Hard skills are more technical, things you learn in jobs that are a lot more tangible, you list these on your CV or they’ll be a requirement in a job spec.” think Photoshop or CLO 3D.

“I think soft skills are more through exposure and just more experience, right? They’re more intangible, your people skills, how you deal with things, your resilience, and all of those kind of things. They’re more innate, someone can’t necessarily just sit down and teach you them, not in the way that they can teach you how to pattern cut or use Excel.” She continues, “It’s so interesting to talk about this natural sort of knack [Shin] had for networking, research and finding kind of the right people which turned into a proper hard skill. where do you think you kind of picked up your soft skills versus hard skills throughout your different experiences?”

“I’ve been told I’m naturally blessed with creating a good network,” answers Shin “I have an interest in that, I care about these creatives that I’m around, what they do. I’m naturally invested in culture and always have a cultural awareness of what’s going on, being a Millennial and having Gen Z friends, they’re going to tell you what’s the latest thing and that’s what a company wants.”

“For me, I would say it’s probably about holding a conversation,” Sheena adds, “being able to hold space in a room and create a narrative. But when I graduated from university I was so introverted and shy, I couldn’t do that. I had those hard skills but I didn’t understand the structure of fashion, so those soft skills were really, really important and connected to what I’m building.”

“I think when you’re first starting out, you’re always so self-conscious, you don’t want to take up space, you don’t feel like you have the authority or input of any value that. But you’re in the room for a reason and your input is valued.” – Jeii Hong

“And what built the skill for you?” Asks Jeii, “A lot of trial and error,” Sheena responds, “a lot of having to do presentations, but then also doing things outside of it, meeting more people, going to more events; actually having a life.” She adds on the importance of having a work-life balance, “You’ll be surprised at the fun you’ll have outside your career, the connections you’ll make with other people in a similar situation as you; I’d be telling my friends what I’m doing and they’d be so passionate, it would inspire me and give me more energy; you carry that into the room and that’s what you actually present.”

“I think when you’re first starting out, you’re always so self-conscious, you don’t want to take up space, you don’t feel like you have the authority or input of any value that. But you’re in the room for a reason and your input is valued, you’ll be surprised at how much you can get back from the other people in the room, that initial push of being uncomfortable and trying to take up space is where you really get to develop those skills.” Jeii adds, building on the importance of being confident in your work and knowing your worth.

“When I was working in fashion design, I was seriously lacking on the business side,” Cecily adds, “moving into where I work now, I feel like I’m really building on that; I suppose I did feel sort of imposter syndrome at the beginning, most people had degrees in STEM subjects and I had to sort of muster my way in and prove my worth but I think my background and fashion industry experience really helped at Matches.”

“Do you find the kind of hard skills you had as a designer, and seeing them shift whilst retraining to do something new, like how did you find that experience?” Asks Jeii. “I just love learning,” Cecily responds, “A big part of my job is just learning, new technologies, innovations, and like how we can push that in the world of virtual fashion. Developing new hard skills from scratch, was a real challenge. I realized the skills I had from my design career added to it so much. And I think, to your point, it always comes together, even when you don’t realize it.”

Make connections for the long run 

“I think connections are such a huge part of professional and personal life, especially in the issues that we’re talking about in creative fields. I think we individually have talked a lot about this and the importance of it. But, what was your community like when you left university?” the first question on networking was.

“I built a great community of friends and like-minded people at St. Martins,” Cecily answers, who graduated with her BA in 2019, “I also lived in Uganda for some time and was working with a community of craftswomen which connected to Fashion Revolution which I was became part, of those connections really make you feel like you belong and you can ask for help,” she determines. “I think we get so worried about asking each other for help,” Jeii responds, “asking for support when you’re struggling but we’re kind of all going through the same thing. We have to rely on each other and be able to have that forum to share and support each other.”

“You shouldn’t be so reliant on what education is going to serve you, be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” – Shin Aduwa

“I have a lot of peace in knowing that just being yourself can do a lot,” adds Sheena, who earlier shared how she found her own community of like-minded creatives once she moved back to London after studying at Falmouth University. “I think it is good to show up and to make sure that you are always striving towards something great. But just showing up in a room and having nice conversations is really changing.”

“I feel like when I left university I wasn’t that confident. I was quite anxious, I definitely didn’t have a community and I was a bit worried about my future.” Shin adds, showing that higher education definitely isn’t the be-all end-all of building a forever network. “When you don’t have that how can you move forward? It’s what I was saying before about outreach and building a community, especially now it’s so easy to DM someone on social media and interact with others. All it takes is for you to just message someone and that’s it.” They expand on harnessing the possibilities of Social Media platforms like Instagram where a potentially career-transforming connection is only a short message away.

University isn’t the be all end all

“You shouldn’t be so reliant on what education is going to serve you, be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Shin states. For many, university is placed on a pedestal as the place where you make or break your future, but for many graduates, the real career building starts post-graduation.

“On the positive side, it’s a good building block in terms of certain skills, like learning how to do specific things. How did feel that sort of served your kind of work and career?” Jeii asks, “I was super anxious and really struggled.” Shin answers, “I gained most of my skills through working, and that’s something for graduates to know, if you struggled in university it’s not the end of the world. I feel like I learned a lot through education, but through working I saw myself shine.”

“I was a terrible student,” Jeii responds. “But at work, I really thrived. I loved working whilst I was learning. And it was really when I started working that I felt free.”

Define your own Success 

“I have to identify success as doing something where you don’t dread going to work in the morning.” Sarabande’s own Trino Verkade, sitting on the front row stands up to address the crowd, “You wake up on a Monday morning and don’t dread going to work and at the same time you earn enough money to live the same life as your friends.” She continues, “I still think that’s the key element of success, it’s not what social media might tell you it is, it’s a personal thing, that’s all that really matters.”

“I have to identify success as doing something where you don’t dread going to work in the morning.” – Trino Verkade

“Bit by bit you kind of start to eliminate and kind of realise what you want to do and also what you’re good at.” Adds Jeii “For me, going to work and having to wear heels all day was not the one.” She looks back to early on in her career when she did a stint in PR. “Which if you’re in PR, that’s what you’re going to do. I remember working at a show and seeing a woman wearing dungarees with a headset running around,  I was like, I don’t know who she is, but that’s how I want to dress and that’s what I want to do.”


Day two: How do you build a good portfolio?

After the previous evening’s insightful and inspiring discussion, the second day of what now was mostly focused on the all-day one-to-one drop-in sessions. Organised by the Sarabande, around 900 graduates signed up and were able to present and discuss their work with the foundation’s impressive network of Fashion industry names, including Craig Green’s business director Angelos Tsourapas, Stella McCartney’s global head of learning Jaqui Mathias and 1 Granary’s own Olya Kuryshchuk.

The turnout of attendees was impressive, to say the least. The whole room was filled with an all-day stream of enthusiastic fashion hopefuls, carrying armfuls of loose portfolio pages, printouts, and sketches and some even brought their own garments to showcase.

One of the people with the biggest line of graduate work to evaluate was James Nolan, who’s worked as a Womenswear designer at Alexander McQueen for five years, James was generously staying at the Sarabande until the evening where he lead a thorough and eye-opening portfolio masterclass, unlocking the secrets of what brands are actually looking for in a portfolio, and how to catch their eye when applying for jobs, keep reading to find out how to build the perfect professional portfolio.

“A portfolio, it’s a human thing. It’s about putting images in a space that really represents you. That’s the most important thing when you’re building a portfolio, it’s about you.” James opened the discussion, starting with where to begin when building a portfolio:

“Edit. It’s really scary when someone says, you need to edit because when you do a body of work, you put your heart and soul into it, right? You put all your everything into this work. And then someone comes along and says, oh, but there’s too much of this. It’s fine because you’re not throwing anything away, editing just means showing the right bits. Always think about how you put your work on a page which is visually arresting. Sometimes in interviews maybe that person has to see four people in an hour. A good edit is really important because you can say what you need to say in a very quick, direct way.”

“Everyone comes from different design backgrounds.” He continues. “Some of you do womenswear, menswear, print, jewellery design: Know your Strengths, that’s really what sets you apart from the next person that walks in. Make sure those strengths are something you talk about, when interviewers ask you what you like to do usually it’s a code for what are you good at?” Often design hopefuls are given a few short minutes to sell themselves and their ideas to an employer, so hitting home your strengths matters.

Know your Message: “Being a designer, your goal is to visually communicate an idea; through images, sketches, photography, and research. It’s a way that you anchor all of your thoughts and put them on somebody who doesn’t know who you are. And tailor your goals, you’re not going to show the same portfolio to a couture house than you would to a sportswear brand.” He continues, on fine-tuning your work to the correct audience. “Think to yourself, What am I going to put in? Make your portfolio relevant for where you’re going.”

So, that’s where to make a start. But how do you make your portfolio really stand out? To James, it’s all about the details, down to the size and type of paper you use. “The important thing is that your imagery, narrative, point of view, and execution are all in line with each other, you know? The imagery is key, if an interviewer says, oh, I really like this painting in your portfolio. Who painted it? You need to know who it was painted by. It’s really important. You have to engage with your imagery.”

In addition to sourcing your imagery wisely, and committing those sources to memory, the real beauty in a standout portfolio is how you piece it all together. “Narrative is about the story, right? So stories are anything from your initial inspiration through to your final collection. The narratives are really important because they connect all the dots. You might have a bunch of drapes which evoke a certain crude process, a way of developing an idea, but maybe your final collection is not in line with that initial research. That’s a problem, that means the narrative isn’t succinct. Everything has to make sense.”

And what does James suggest as the best way to work through your portfolio-building process, “Get a second opinion,” he assures. “Yes, fashion is a very competitive environment, it can be quite hostile, but it doesn’t have to be. Make friends with people, have allies, show your work to your tutors in school as well, get their opinion, just make sure you get different opinions from different people, everyone has their own way of doing things.”

“Where does your point of view come from?” He asks, “You might have old photographs, things that are very personal to you. That’s fantastic because it really makes you stand out.” Stressing the importance of adding a personal touch to your work. “If I’m looking through a portfolio and it’s just full of fashion images, yes, that’s great, because you’re engaged in what you want to do. But at the end of the day, what does all that mean? you have to have a little bit of yourself, don’t you, and that’s what this point of view is. What makes you stand out?”

But for James, and any other potential interviewer, the overall execution is often the most significant focus on a portfolio they’re viewing. “It’s how you put everything together. There are so many different ways, and a lot of the time they’re digital, so you might not even get to show someone your work, right? So it’s important that it stands up on its own.” Most of the time portfolios are submitted via email, without an opportunity actually to talk through your work. “When someone’s looking on a laptop and you’re not there with them that’s their first impression, if you do everything in a way that feels right in line with these points then you’re already kind of giving yourself a head start.”

“You’ve done all the work so the whole part now is to kind of like, make sure that what you’re showing to people really feels like something you want to show them. Don’t be too sentimental, but don’t make it laboured.” Says James, hitting home the importance of a ‘less is more’ approach.

“Find your identity, that’s really important to remember where you came from because ultimately, that is your perspective and how you would approach things. And clarity. It has to make sense.” These are all essential points to consider, along with how relevant your work is for the place you’re applying to. “Make sure it’s authentic. It has to feel like you.” He adds, “It has to feel like something you’re proud of, something that you want to put your name on.”

But when you’re showing your portfolio in person, the way you choose to present your work is oftentimes what makes or breaks it. “Layout and art direction, it’s something which is key to any kind of work. Because when you build a piece of work, you want to talk about something being made from the initial inception right to the end. So the art direction is having an idea, being able to filter that through all of your knowledge, everything you’ve learned, and then you need to be able to put it on a page.”

Making your work visually captivating is one of the easiest ways to catch a potential employer’s attention, “Make it look like one of your favourite books, magazine or your favourite painting. You have to really know what you’re doing and make sure you put it on a page, make people want to look at it and admire it.”

And one of the most important materials? Paper. “It’s all about paper.” Says James, “You need to have a physical portfolio which someone can hold in their hands and see in a very tactile way, turn the pages themselves. Just make sure it’s the right paper, you don’t have to spend a fortune on these things. It’s just little details, you don’t want to put it in plastic because it kind of lowers the integrity of the work, keep it open, let it breathe, and be its own object almost. Everyone has their own way of doing it. It’s super subjective.”

But don’t forget to think about the size. “Let’s celebrate the detail, you know. Some people have A4 or A3, do what feels right for you, but make sure that you’ve got enough space to celebrate the image. Don’t limit yourself. Maybe it’s a really big portfolio, maybe you want a real statement on the desk. Or maybe you want something a little bit more discreet so you keep it small. Just always think of the size because it’s a big deal actually.”

“You really need to keep working,” Says James, moving into the next chapter of his masterclass. “Most people don’t go straight into a job when they graduate. Sometimes you do. But if you don’t, in the interim between that, it’s really important to fill the gap with things that feel like they’re going to aid you in your next steps. Keep up with the drawing, keep up with the draping, even if it’s in your spare time.”

Sometimes when you’re not working in a ‘creative’ job mustering up the motivation to keep trying is a challenge in itself. “We’re creative people, we need to keep working, whatever that means to you. Just keep working, and advance on ideas, you have loads of ideas, advance them.

But there are some more essential things to consider before you even apply for a job. “You have to know the role and who will be interviewing you, okay? Super important. You have to know all the details basically because that’s going to really make you understand what you want to show them when you go to the interview.” James continues, “Plan how you’ll navigate your portfolio and be ready to explain and answer any questions the interviewer might ask.”

“Just revise it, it’s always good to have the answer. That’s how people remember you because you might teach them something as well.” But it’s also important to look into the history of the brand too, not just the person you’re emailing, “Is your work speaking the right language?” James asks, “It’s quite a self-indulgent thing to make in your own collection, which is amazing because you can what you want, right? But when you get a job, it’s different. You have to tailor all those skills, to what you’re being asked to do it’s nice to always understand that because then you’re already going with the right attitude.”

“Go to as many interviews as you possibly can” James shares some final words of wisdom, “show as many people your work, you never know who’s going to see it. But always ask the right questions because that’s what’s going to advance your knowledge of what you want to do. Because you’re talking to experts, no? Make sure you have a really good idea and show what you’ve done with our idea. Like put it on the stage, you know. If you have an amazing idea, make sure you really show it, you know. Make sure it’s there.”

But what’s the etiquette on following up after an interview for a job you really want? “don’t be pushy but be persistent, let people know you still want it. Maybe you won’t get the job but ask for feedback, then you learn something, you go on to the next interview and  you eventually find something that’s right for you.”

“Ultimately, you have to really love what you do, because everyone’s going to tell you different things. And if you don’t believe in what you do, if you can’t stand behind your work and recognize its worth, you’re not ready.” Going back to the day before, the importance of knowing your worth. “You’ve made a huge collection. It’s great. So just take a step back, take a deep breath, and re-evaluate.” He concludes.