Sew successful - Fashion Promotion in Preston

When it comes to fashion, there are few places more cutting edge than Preston. Roger Borrell reports

THE glamour and glitz of the fashion world may be confined to the likes of Milan, Paris and London, but rather more down-to-earth Lancashire is home to one of the industry's hothouses.

This may be news to the middle-aged man in polyester slacks, but those in the know will tell you Preston is cutting edge - the place where they are fashioning the future stars of this multi-billion pound business.

It all happens at the University of Central Lancashire which is home to the stunningly successful International Fashion Institute. It's a rather grand title, but after a couple of hours being shown around well-equipped rooms packed with cutting tables and batteries of knitting and sewing machines, you realise it is totally justified.

The university's alumni include some of the top names in the business and its is recognised as a premier league provider of everything from clothing design to fashion journalism, photography and brand development.

The current fourth year students have been working around the clock to show their creations at the Graduate Fashion Week at Earls Court, which begins on June 7. There is a competitive edge to this event and it has to be said the Preston contingent regularly wipes the floor with the opposition. If they had a trophy cabinet it would need to be a big one.

The Fashion Week is no end-of-term lark for the students. Many of them have already been working in the industry - the department has partnerships with a formidable array of household names - and colleges around the country vie to put on the best show. And the stakes can be high - officials from top fashion houses and retailers are there to look for the next generation of design superstars. Victoria Beckham, a recent judge, was so impressed by their work that she visited the Preston institute.

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'This is regarded as second only to the London Fashion Week so the quality of the garments has to be superb,' says Glenda Brindle, head of the fashion school. ' I spoke to someone who said they'd come expecting to see a students' show but they were blown away by the quality.'

Hardly surprising when you discover the lengths they go to. This year they obtained a bursary to send a small band of students across to China to source and then buy fabrics for the show. It not only saved them hundreds of pounds, but taught them teamwork as they had to purchase for those left back at home. Mobile phones were red hot.

Student Sarah Bullock, from Saddleworth, picked up 35 metres of beautiful green silk for �90 - a ridiculous fraction of what it would have been at home. 'Being in a strange country, not knowing the language and having to negotiate to buy fabrics was stressful but in a good way,' she said. 'We learned a lot in a short space of time.'

Like cookery, dressmaking is not one of the skills always taught in secondary schools these days and that means some students have to learn the basics. Stephanie Bell, from Ormskirk, said: 'They should really get sowing and dressmaking skills back into the classroom. Having to learn the basics makes the course much more difficult.'

For that reason, the department has experienced dressmakers Audrey Hindle and Susie Thorpe available to give assistance and a sympathetic ear.

Principal lecturer Rory Turner said: 'Preston was the heart of the cotton industry. That's gone but now we are highly regarded for creative design. We have won all the creative awards in the last ten years because we have such a highly experienced staff teamed up with a younger group of talented, up-and-coming people.'

True to its international credentials, the institute is running Master of Business Administration courses in Hong Kong and is planning further courses in India.

Back in Preston, the reputation of the course as a flagship discipline means means there is considerable competition to get on the courses. The rewards can be considerable - the percentage of graduates finding jobs is impressive.

One old boy is Gary Aspden, now one of the top people with Adidas: 'After a few years of irresponsibility I turned 24 and decided the only way to change my situation in life was through education I made some inquiries and applied to UCLan who took a gamble by offering me a place on their Fashion Promotion course.

For the first time in my life worked hard at something. For me, the strength of the course showed itself when I did a year of work experience in the industry - an integral part of the course - that was a real eye opener. After graduation I eventually started working for Adidas in their marketing department - over the past ten years I have had a variety of roles from entertainment marketing to trend marketing and the diverse skills I picked up in education at Preston have definitely helped me. I will always be grateful to UCLan.'

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