Norwich retailer supports the future of our students

As an entrepreneurial initiative is unveiled at City College Norwich, one retailer has already begun to give valuable employment skills to the next generation. EMMA HARROWING finds out more.

When a 1950s inspired Doris Day dress in a mustard fabric with a black etched lantern print went on display at independent boutique Poppy Valentine in the Royal Arcade, the dress was sold within minutes of it going in the window.

It sounds like the familiar scenario seen in London or Paris when an international fashion designer launches their new collection, but this is a design from a second year textile and fashion student from City College Norwich.

Rachel Johnson from Norwich entered a window display competition run by the Retail Skills Academy as part of Norwich Fashion Week in September. The 17 year old's printed fabric – which she created as part of a course project about experimenting with textile printing – was inspired by a lantern in her bedroom. And it was a design that caught the eye of fashion designer Claire Read who has her own fashion label and boutique Poppy Valentine.

Says Claire: 'Rachel's design was gorgeous and I thought that it would look amazing on one of my vintage-inspired dresses. I also made some of my make-up bags from the fabric.'

The dress and make-up bags formed part of Rachel's window display design, which was created to celebrate Norwich Fashion Week. No-one expected that the dress would be snapped up so quickly. Says Rachel: 'I couldn't believe that the fabric I designed as part of a college project would be made into an actual dress, so when the woman came into the shop just moments after I had put the dress in the window saying that she wanted to buy it, it felt amazing!

'Seeing how my work fits in with the process of a real-life working environment was an invaluable experience. I put a picture of the dress with my print on social media sites and my friends couldn't believe that this was mine. Usually at college you get to only see your work in a portfolio or as part of a project; being able to see how my skills can be transferred into real life was an amazing experience.'

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Rachel's experience at Poppy Valentine is a prime example of the recent City College Norwich initiative to encourage entrepreneurial skills among their students to help them set up their own businesses.

City College is one of five higher educational establishments across the country offering the initiative which is backed by leading entrepreneurs such as Dragon Den stars Peter Jones and Doug Richard.

With youth employment hitting new levels, focusing on providing students with the core skills they need to succeed in business is a positive step towards bucking this trend. Mentoring is key to the project and City College Norwich is urging Norfolk businesses to play a role.

Claire Read supports the scheme and has recently taken on the role as a fashion lecturer for the textile and fashion course at City College Norwich. 'After working with the college on the window display competition and on various other projects I found out that they were looking for another fashion lecturer and so applied for the job.I used to teach when I was in London and I had a shop on Portobello Road, and so being able to teach my skills to the next generation is a great privilege.'

The principal of City College Norwich, Dick Palmer, believes that by closely linking education and business, students will get invaluable skills needed to set up and run their own businesses.

He said: 'It is a huge benefit to the college and our students to have people like Claire on the team. Claire is able to give students the benefit of her experience as an independent fashion retailer, providing invaluable insights into what it is like to work in the sector and an appreciation of the opportunities and challenges of running your own business.

'The link with Poppy Valentine is a great example of a successful education-business partnership. Our students have been given fantastic opportunities to showcase their work in the shop and the business in turn can benefit from access to some of the brightest and up and coming talent in fashion and retail.' Claire is already planning to have a rail of students' work in her boutique next year. She is also working with City College Norwich to launch the students' very own fashion label, rumoured to be launched at a local fashion designers' show as part of the third Norwich Fashion Week which takes place in March.

Says Claire: 'I think that to put on a big show during fashion week would show once and for all that Norwich is where the fashion talent is!'

If your business would like to take part in the City College Norwich entrepreneur scheme contact Siobhan Eke, Director of Enterprise and Innovation 01603 773310 or email

Norwich Fashion Week returns from March 8 until March 15. To get involved and for more information visit

The Retail Skills Academy is running the third window display competition as part of Norwich Fashion Week. Retailers will get the chance to work with a student from City College Norwich who will design a window display to celebrate Norwich Fashion Week. If you are a retailer who wants to take part contact Sue Dougal at the Retail Skills Academy on 07535 717271 or email