Each year, students from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) grab the once-in-a-lifetime chance to take an international placement with organisations all around the globe. With the help of the Placements Office and #DMUglobal students go for the experience and the adventure, and to gain real-world experience of the subjects they are studying back on campus.
Some go to America, some to India; others go to Ghana or Tanzania. Some stay a little closer to home with a year’s placement in Germany, Belgium or Spain.
This is the story of just one student, who spent a year like no other on a Contour Fashion placement with a garment firm in southern China.
On a late summer’s day in 2016, De Montfort University student Samantha Rogers plonked down her bags in the place she’d be calling home for the academic year ahead.
It was a hotel room, not a flat or a house, and it was anything but handy for the DMU campus, but Samantha was chuffed with it all the same. She was 6,000 miles from England, and about to embark on the biggest adventure of her life.
At the tail-end of August last year, the three-million-strong population of the Chinese city of Zhongshan was swollen by one - a 22-year-old Contour Fashion student from Leicester.
Samantha had landed herself a coveted international placement with global garment firm Crystal Martin, working as a designer for the world-renowned lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret.
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Her surroundings may have been deeply unfamiliar, but Samantha quickly relaxed into her new role – joining a cosmopolitan team with a multinational outlook.
“The people were friendly, helpful and amazing,” she says. “Whenever I needed help or had any questions, they were always there.
“The design team has a range of different people from many different cultures and backgrounds with the staff being from China, Hong Kong, UK and Sri Lanka. I was made to feel very welcome at the beginning and throughout my placement and made me feel part of the team.”
Samantha’s brief was to help create innovative designs for each season while staying faithful to the brand’s established identity – and her work touched on all aspects of the production process, from planning and pricing to purchasing and sales.
It was an invaluable experience, she says, which will have tangible benefits for the rest of her degree – and the career that follows after graduation.
“The placement gave me a real insight into the intimates industry and to understand the development from initial research, design development to final product,” she says.
“I am more confident in my design skills and more commercially aware. Having to provide styles to clients on tight deadlines has improved my time management, accuracy and consistency.
“All the knowledge I learnt throughout my placement I can use and apply in my third year at DMU. Working for Victoria’s Secret made me a better designer.”
While her degree course took her to China, work wasn’t the whole story of her placement year.
“There are loads of things to do in Zhongshan throughout the weekend and after work,” says Samantha.
“There’s a close community of foreigners living in Zhongshan that I met throughout my eight months, many people came from different backgrounds and everyone knew each other as there was such a small community.
“I really enjoyed living there. The city was very traditional and full of culture and the way of life is very different to back home in England.”
And the language barrier?
“It was a challenge at first,” she concedes. “The company put me in a hotel and my electricity went in my room one night so I went down to reception to tell them.
“They didn't understand me at all and thought I wanted a taxi so ordered me one and got confused when I didn't want it. It took three staff members and the reception manager to realise what I was complaining about, which at the time was frustrating.”
Zhongshan, an up-and-coming city in the Guangdong Province, sits on the Pearl River Delta, one of the most densely urbanised regions in the world which is a powerhouse of the Chinese economy.
Outside of work, Samantha seized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the sights.
“I tried to travel as much as I could on my days off to explore more of china and its culture.
“In my spare time I travelled to different parts of China such as Macau and Zhuhai. I travelled to Hong Kong around the Chinese new year.
“My favourite trip was to Shanghai, as it was great to see a different province in China. I was able to see all the tourist attractions and even went to Disneyland.
“I also travelled to surrounding areas in Zhongshan, seeing the tourist attractions and went on a couple of hikes. On the weekdays and weekends there was a choice of bars that many foreigners went to and clubs, the main place to be with a bar called Friends which featured a live band every weekend.
“Travelling in China was such a cultural shock. It’s completely different to how we live in the UK.
“I slowly got used to the Chinese taking photos of me in the streets and shouting 'hello'. I realised a lot of the Chinese were fascinated by people with pale skin and they will always take photos of you even if you see them doing it.
“The roads are horrendous with cars and bikes driving on both the pavement and the road, which was frightening at first but became normal.”
Samantha returned to Leicester last month with a sharper understanding of the workings of the fashion industry and a treasure trove of memories to boot.
“Doing a placement abroad has enabled me to become more independent and adaptable,” she says. “It has developed my respect for other cultures and viewpoints and made me step out of my comfort zone.
“All the skills I’ve gained, and the friendships I've made is something that I will remember forever.”
Established in 1947 to support the local corset industry, DMU’s Contour Fashion BA (Hons) is the oldest and most successful degree-level course in intimate apparel and is widely regarded by industry experts as one of the best in the world.
Posted on Monday 3rd July 2017