Trieste is modest. Based in northeast Italy, the city has grown up on the edge of the Adriatic Sea and rises up the hills towards the Karst Plateau – an unassuming port town that is beatific and slow. By contrast, Piazza Unità d’Italia is stately and imperial: a Haussmann-scale square on the sea, flanked by phalanxes of Viennese neoclassical municipal buildings. It’s an urban intervention as out of scale and tone with the rest of the town as are the white Costa Mediterranea cruise liners that dock – hugely – on the waterfront.
The square is a hangover from the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, yet Trieste has more recent form in outsized interventions. For the past 15 years, it has been home to International Fashion Support (ITS), a fashion competition par excellence founded by Barbara Franchin, a native of the town. ITS draws together graduates from fashion schools across the world, bringing them to Trieste to show collections before juries built up from fashion industry stalwarts. The competition can point to Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, Peter Pilotto and Aitor Throup among its alumni, while the jury of ITS 15 – hosted earlier this month – counted Gvasalia, Iris van Herpen and fashion writer Colin McDowell amongst its jurors. “The idea,” Franchin says, “is to take the discussion outside of the traditional fashion capitals.”
Finalists at ITS compete across four categories – fashion, accessories, jewellery and artwork – yet “compete” is perhaps the wrong term. There are bursaries for the winners supported by industry giants such as YKK, Swarovski and Only the Brave, but the overall tenor of the competition is supportive and communal – there is an overriding sense that the awards are something of a tangent to the main thrust of the occasion. The YKK Award, for instance, awarded to Young Jin Jang for her Room for the Man system of modular wooden bags, comes with £10,000 prize money, yet more important is the opportunity for Young to now display her work in the brand’s London showroom. The sponsorship of brands like YKK is essential to the competition, providing an early opportunity for students to engage with industry and move beyond their studies. For many, it will provide an initial step towards maturation of practice.
“ITS is really a welcome to the industry,” says Flora Miranda, a fashion finalist whose Press Reset collection examines the wearability of silicone. “There are established people here – the jury are people you admire, but because of the environment you can speak to them on the same level.”
Central to the ITS experience are communal gatherings and dinners. This is the fashion industry qua Mediterranean jamboree. As much as being critiqued on their collections, the competitors are provided with guidance about operating within the fashion industry and advice on how to found their own studios or find employment within established houses. “Which is something lacking from education at present,” says McDowell. “It seems to me that you can take it as read that someone who wants to design will be able to draw. If I could make the ideal college, for the first year they would do nothing but business studies. They wouldn’t pick up a pen to draw anything.”
Alongside such support, the sense of parity that Miranda speaks of is visible in two key areas. The first is the ITS archive, a cluttered garret in which 10-years-worth of garments from the competition are huddled together on racks, with scant heed paid to chronological order, let alone the subsequent reputation of their creators. Throup’s 2006 skull-draped Shiva garments from his When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods MA project – a by now heavily cited collection within menswear – is refreshingly crammed in amongst the work of students who have not gone on to such mainstream recognition. “When we visit the archive and fell in love with the place,” says Helen Kirkum, a Royal College of Art student whose Our Public Youth project – a scheme to deconstruct discarded sneakers and reform them, piece by piece, into new shoes – won this year’s accessories competition. “We could not believe the amount of passion and love they have for what they’re doing. You understand how much they’re savouring what you do.”
The second area in which parity becomes apparent is the physical make-up of the competition itself. Since its inception, ITS has gradually broadened its remit. The competition now receives applications from 1,500 schools in 80 nations, with Asian students proving a particular growth area. In its first year, ITS received applications from 12 Chinese students; this year 120 applied. Yet western schools continue to dominate, with 80 per cent of all applications coming from the UK. “What is important to remember however,” says Franchin. “Is that many international students now study in the UK. In the past it was very easy to open a portfolio and immediately see which country a student came from. That’s now impossible.”
It is a point with which McDowell has sympathy. “I think that English education is good and there’s no reason why other places can’t be good as well,” he says. “The English schools are good because they’re international. I believe that fashion is an international thing and you can’t just create clothes in your own little bubble.”
Both McDowell and Franchin’s comments feed into the elephant in the room around the 2016 ITS. What will become of a competition heavily dependent upon British schools and international cooperation in light of the UK’s decision to exit the EU? And in the face of a referendum outcome that, at the very least, heavily flirts with isolationism (and which seems symptomatic of a general breakdown in social cohesion across a number of states) what happens to a fashion competition and wider industry that have based themselves upon internationalism? Provocatively, albeit only inadvertently, this year’s competition was themed around the idea of utopia. “It has has really been a utopia to go ahead with our project for 15 years,” says Franchin. “Because we shouldn’t take anything for granted. We need to stay together to demonstrate utopia could be a reality.”
British fashion education has been a key beneficiary of the EU, both in terms of the grants afforded (“Around 20 per cent of their budget,” opines Franchin) as well as the influx of new ideas and working methods – a phenomenon afforded by freedom of movement within Europe and the relative democratisation of educated prompted by EU tuition fees. “That a school is not just an English college is terribly important,” summarises McDowell. ITS, at least in terms of its prizewinners, is traditionally dominated by London’s Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins. It is no coincidence that both schools are international in outlook and intake.
“With the referendum everything will change completely,” says Franchin. “It will be good for some and bad for others. It will push other nations to improve their schools, because they will have many students who will stay to study rather than moving to the UK. For London, the scene will be completely different, I’m sure of that. I don’t want to say it will be worse or a crisis, but I’m sure the English schools will be able to adapt and benefit from this moment. Same for the other schools in Europe.”
Franchin’s is a diplomatic answer, albeit one that seems out of step with ITS’s prevailing ethos of strength through internationalism; it is a competition, after all, whose winners this year were from New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, Britain, South Korea, Italy, Slovenia and Kazakhstan. Trieste is a city that has shaped its urban identity through the insertion of a grand Viennese square into an Italian port town, just as ITS has succeeded through importing the international fashion community into that same environment. While the eventual effects of the EU referendum remain unknown, the symbolism embodied by the result seems clear. It is a point on which Sari Räthel, a Royal College of Art graduate the winner of the ITS 15 jewellery category for her Gender Blender collection is eloquent. “The situation is horrible, so horrible.”