Design talent in the developed world is falling short in managing the demands of international outsourcing with its overseas manufacturing bases, highly computerised environments and complex logistical pipelines. Lee Adendorff looks at some of the initiatives trying to tackle this disparity.

Of the 3,000 students who will graduate from fashion school this year in the UK, only 500 will find jobs in the clothing and textile sector.

They may be highly creative and excellent designers, but this is not always what the industry wants: many fashion producers say British graduates are ill-prepared to compete and adapt to a workplace characterised by overseas manufacturing bases, highly computerised environments and complex logistical production scenarios.

It is a problem echoed in other rich country homes of big textile and clothing brands.

"Where once we manually cut patterns and the designers just popped down the road if there was a problem, we now have a scenario where patterns are designed on computer, emailed and laser cut at the factory," explains Debbie Leon, managing director of couture uniforms producer Fashionizer, based in London.

"Fabric is sent directly to our factory in Portugal and a computer tells us where everything is," she adds.

Leon says that this 'new' workplace has created or augmented jobs such as the garment technologist, logistics manager and purchasing manager that 10 years ago did not have the importance that they have today - but that colleges have been slow to respond to this demand.

"Schools are producing too many designers. There is a profound lack of knowledge about the other jobs - often very well paid and satisfying - that the industry has to offer," she says.

Principal lecturer at the London School of Fashion (LSF), Alan Cannon-Jones describes the contemporary UK workplace as "a design and sample development environment" involving extensive travel by designers and tracking software to control remote production.

While the LSF courses are heavily focused on technology and technical literacy, Cannon-Jones admits that many UK schools focus on design to the detriment of the student's career preparation.

Strategic project
An industry-wide strategic project has been developed by Skillfast-UK, a government-funded Sector Skills Council for Fashion and Textiles, to address this gap.

The strategy is based on the development of more appropriate industry training guided by fashion and textiles producers.

"Fashion is about turnover, change and development. If you don't have the technical skills to make that happen, then you can't be competitive," says Louise Wood of Skillfast-UK.

Wood blames a funding system that favours drawing board courses over more technical training to maximise profits and student numbers.

She also points to the imbalance in public spending on vocational training in the UK: GBP80m (US$160m) is spent from the public purse every year on fashion design programs, yet only GBP1m is spent on training in the workplace, even though this is what is most valued by employers.

Skills gap
In Italy, the quality of local manufacturing and the 'Made in Italy' brand has kept highly skilled top end manufacturing and practitioners close to home.

Yet for companies operating in the mass and lower end of the market and with manufacturing bases overseas, the skills gap is equally present.

Mario Boselli, president of the Camera della Moda Italiana (CNMI), a national association made up of representatives from major Italian brands such as Gucci, Cavalli and Ferragamo, echoes the sentiments of Debbie Leon and Louise Wood.

He says that in Italy a glut of brands, "an overdose of offers", has produced too many designers and not enough technical professionals.

"Everyone wants to be a designer, but it is the modellista (the product manager who translates the designer's drawings into a concrete product) that companies are looking for" he explains.

A discussion paper produced by the CNMI goes even further, and delineates the rise of new important roles that support and feed into the work of the designer as jobs in their own right.

The fashion graphic designer, for example, who transcribes the ideas of the designer to an electronic format essential to the production process; the textile and material researcher, who attends international meetings and fairs to be at the forefront of textiles technology and research; and even the cool hunter who travels the world to identify the latest macro trends and lifestyles.

Industry participation
Italian training is still characterised by traditional skills development but is also heavily influenced by the participation of industry.

The Polimoda school in Florence, for example, has a board of directors composed of industry partners. Students undertake internships and work experience from day one. Programs in fashion buying and management are in constant evolution and Chinese is offered as an optional course.

The school boasts a 90% employment rate for its graduates.

Italian training is also highly regarded internationally. Dante Varrese of international fashion recruiters Suitex says that many Danish, English and Spanish companies recruit in Italy.

But it's not Italian designers who command the highest salaries. According to a study conducted by Suitex, the average product manager earns around EUR30,000 more per year than a designer.

Their maximum salaries have increased by almost 60% over the last ten years, while the maximum designer's wage has increased by just 34%.

Varrese highlights the market advantage Italians enjoy with the example of Samsung fashion, the "Asian Ralph Lauren", a subsidiary company of the electronic giant.

Samsung Fashion manufactures in South Korea for a Korean market, but has its design headquarters in Italy with a design team that is entirely Italian.

"Production may have become an international phenomenon but 'Made in Italy' still has significant value in the marketplace" he says. 

This article follows an earlier feature on just-style which looks at how local design skills are falling short of the standards required for manufacturers to offer a full package service to their retail customers: 'Apparel makers struggle to tap in-house design talent'