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Course Leader Q&A

Students should graduate with a book of contacts that they will have for life.

Sue Chowles
Associate Professor and Course Leader, Fashion
Read Sue Chowles’ staff profile.

Can you tell us a bit about where your interest in Fashion comes from and your background?

I gained my place at the Royal College Art studying for a two year MA having studied Fashion at Great Yarmouth College and Epsom. At the RCA I won an award for the most innovative collection. The RCA was very much a commercial place, whereas St. Martins was seen as more conceptual and this has impacted on my work and teaching.

I was the first student to work with woven wire which was why I won the innovation award. It was a very creative course and I used the technical skills I had learnt up until my masters. My real interest lies in using contradictory, unusual materials and construction and creating unusual silhouettes. I like to move fashion into questioning new techniques.

A key person, who was my true inspiration, was a designer called John Flett who I had a work placement with. He would have been more influential than Galliano now but he died when he was 27 – he was the most inspirational pattern cutter, a true genius and a fantastic teacher. I adored him and I always think about him in terms of his philosophy and how he dictated the unusual aspects of design and linked them in a very creative way. All of this experience goes into my teaching and how we have developed the course to be creative with a focus on core technical skills.

What makes the course at NUA distinctive?

There are so many fashion courses out there – we want to give students a focus on developing some sort of individuality. The British Fashion Council says that lots of graduates are very proficient in design, very creative, but don’t really have the core technical skill base and actually those jobs are available. Sometimes even graduates from MA courses don’t have these core skills.

So technical skills are crucial and understanding things such as how fabric fits around the body. It goes back to how apprenticeships used to be. A lot of apprenticeships have fallen by the wayside and key skills are being in lost. We are looking at regenerating that skills base within the student experience of design. So it’s about really key design skills and knowing how fabric works, the cut, the make, the hand skills, the craftsmanship and bringing in that couture base.

How does the course engage with industry?

Fashion is a multi-million pound industry so it’s important that students have experience of live projects. We’ve just completed one with year two students for a live Mulberry competition which is house design for a new collection autumn/winter 2013. We go on course visits – we went to Savile Row recently and looked at how Hardy Amies works. We encourage students to make those connections between design, catwalk shows and then how that works in stores.

It’s important students build up contacts with industry through placements and working with stylists. Through placements students can explore whether the industry is what they thought it would be and really think about what area they want to go into. They see how fast paced fashion is, no matter how many times we tell them as a team they have to work fast it doesn’t really hit home until they are doing it for real in the workplace. We encourage students to work instinctively and sometimes that leads to better results. They must network, meet people, go to catwalk shows, introduce themselves and create their address book of contacts which will be life long.

What do you look for in applicants to a course?

We’re looking for students with an abundance of ideas. They don’t have to have purely technical backgrounds, sometimes it helps if they haven’t studied fashion before because it can be hard to undo habits. At Open Days I always say you can’t teach someone ideas, you can teach someone technique but its about having that real drive, that ambition they have to be competitive. If you have that real passion you will make that mark within industry but you have to be here in the studio all the time. We are looking to see some research and some knowledge of fashion. In portfolios it’s about seeing an engagement, looking at colour, being inspired, even looking outside the remit of fashion. Above all else it’s about enthusiasm.