Aspiring designers face up to the hard yakka of the fashion industry, writes Catherine Smith

The closest most teenage girls and boys get to fashion is mooching around malls with their mates. But there is a growing collection of youth fashion shows that is encouraging high school students to set their sights higher.

From Auckland Council's long-running Schools Trash to Fashion, the YMCA's Walk the Line, which showed this spring at New Zealand Fashion Week, events in the smaller regions, and even promotional gigs with commercial outfits, there are plenty of opportunities for youngsters to test their design wings in the industry.

Serial award-winners from the North Shore's Carmel College's fashion and technology streams have been keen competitors, with Bernadette Boland and Tanya Kerr taking category honours at Walk the Line.

It helps that their teacher, Annaliese Seedall, has industry experience here and in Britain, and has made entry in a fashion show one of their exam assessments .

Next Friday, an impressive eight of the girls will show among the 40 finalists in the Newmarket Young Fashion Designer awards

"I like that because it is more competitive and exclusive," says Year 12 finalist Nicola Samson.

" the prize will get me noticed."

The girls also love the show's format, which required them first to document their creative journey, with test swatches, muslins and working drawings that showed how they were influenced by key designers such as Dior or Chanel.

"That took a lot of research," explains Kimberly House. "You had to incorporate a designer who fits your aesthetic."

For some that meant reaching back into actual closets - one lucky girl's grandmother had an intricately beaded Dior top - or into a designer's back catalogue online.

Kimberly was taken by the notion of variations on ruffles, Nicola by the Marie Antionette theme of Dior's spring 2009 couture collection. Bianca Jones even made her own fabric, gesso primer dry-brushed with Indian ink.

Encouragingly, the girls soon realised that classroom-only time was not enough to meet competition deadlines: Like real designers, they pulled all-nighters, came into the studio early and worked through winter illnesses.

"It's not so much a hobby, it's a life," says Bianca. "When I go into fashion, it'll be my career. I'll focus on the New Zealand fashion industry, I want to develop and make a difference here, not go overseas."

While some are still deciding if they want a fashion career, others are keen to get into tertiary design courses - here and in Australia - then go overseas to be inspired.

"Different countries have different styles. You have to relate to the style of that country," explains Georgia Habgood. "You want to travel, to get inspiration from the architecture, the stores, everything around you."

The young women have a healthy view of fashion's demands on body size. Nicola is staunch about fuller figured models more realistically showing how her pieces work on real bodies, the others are okay with the idea that naturally tall, skinny girls will get the work. They are all familiar with recent North Shore modelling sensations who are walking the European shows, remarking that they eat and eat, just happen to be blessed with good skin and the current favoured body shape.

A few of the girls have scored holiday internships at fashion companies, admitting that days of sewing labels on rather than starting at design tables was a wake up call.

"It put everything into perspective. You've got to put in a lot of time," observes Georgia Dowd. "You have to learn the mechanics, how the whole business works." Observing how fashion PR works has also helped, as the girls see how sample libraries, stylists and shoots come together: Fame must be worked at.

"It is good to balance the creative journey and schoolwork," says Bernadette Boland. "It has credibility, takes you to a whole different level over classroom learning."

Newmarket Young Fashion Designer Awards. Friday, October 11, 7pm Auckland Grammar School Centennial Theatre.

With 40 designers, including five finalists each in the junior (16-17 years) and senior (18-19 years) category vying for awards, including a Whitecliffe School of Art and Design scholarship for the seniors.

By Catherine Smith Email Catherine