Every other week it seems like the fashion industry is in some sort of major shake-up. Whether it’s IKEA bags implausibly becoming the de rigueur street style accessory, major labels wrestling with see-now-buy-now retail concepts (while still being responsible and sustainable), or even just ensuring that your brand stands out from the rest, the world of fashion is a turbulent one.
And if you think none of this applies to streetwear, think again. In a revealing, wide-ranging interview, we spoke to Danilo Venturi, the director of one of the world’s most prestigious fashion schools, Florence’s Polimoda, to get the low down on how to make it in fashion. From the impact of streetwear, to the timeless need to establish a distinct brand identity, as well as the benefits of what a course at an institution like Polimoda gives you, his insights are required reading for anyone wanting to know how this chaotic and challenging industry operates.
What’s your opinion on the current state of the fashion industry? Is it moving too fast? Is it broken?
I cannot agree with people who keep stating that fashion is ‘dead’ or ‘out of fashion’ because we dress to protect ourselves and seduce the others; we build and communicate our identity through fashion and in this sense it will never die. Then, is it broken? Yes, compared to what we have seen in the ’90s, the fashion industry is a hot-bed of contradictions. Menswear and womenswear are merging, yet Pitti Uomo, which focuses solely on menswear, is growing in popularity. Also the direct-to-consumer approach is matched by just as much passion for garments that are made ‘slowly’. In the end, it all depends on the point of view. If you look at our students, nothing is broken—they are fast thinkers and have multi-faceted personalities, and fashion reflects exactly this. I would actually rather say that the industry has serious problems in understanding the new generation.
Do we need fashion shows anymore?
Yes, but not every brand needs a show. It all depends on the business model a brand has adopted. Forcing yourself to have a fashion show in order to fit into a calendar or to have a bit more press is not that smart. I think buyers and consumers are also ready to follow different approaches to presentations—something more fun. And the same goes for stores. If you ask me if I would attend a fashion show with less creative impact than what Alexander McQueen used to create, I’d say ‘no’. Bit if you ask me if I would attend a commercial display with more impact than an Alexander McQueen show, I would say ‘yes’. It all depends on what you show, how you show, what emotions you raise and what the philosophy is behind the brand. Content comes first.
How much has the need for content and storytelling disrupted how (traditional) fashion brands operate?
Big tales went down with the Berlin Wall, globalization and the internet, as did the idea of a brand as a religion. Traditional brands’ stories have simply been around for a long time so they naturally keep on going with their clichés. While Gucci was able to reinvent everything, more subtle content is coming from younger brands. There is no more a distinction between what is considered ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’, as a consequence the idea of disruptiveness has changed: it’s more individual and human-centric. I expect that at a certain point, disruption will come from the reversal of the trends we consider advanced but which have already become obsolete. For example, what about reintroducing a difference between men’s and women’s silhouettes? Personally, this idea disturbs and attracts me more than the current internet-adapted, flat, non-gender figures.
Has social media affected the industry for better or for worse?
Well, if even Céline has finally come around to Instagram there must be a reason. Social media obviously gives brands the possibility of reaching an audience they would never have reached in the past. This also means it’s double the effort because the content that appears must be adapted and conceived in a different way from the beginning of the creative process. However, this can become a trap because media can influence the concept and the container then becomes the content. Designers and art directors unable to adapt risk becoming extinct like the dinosaurs, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. Social media works on the impact of the image and seeks immediate consensus. On the other hand, if a single image moves so many people, it’s because it’s strong in touching primitive instincts. So technological devices foster illogical choices that make sense at the same time. You can’t be for or against, you must just keep your eyes open and your brain connected.
In your mind, is there a distinction between streetwear and ‘high’ fashion anymore?
Not really because both of these categories have positive connotations: with quality, with the idea of fully formed brand identities beyond just product, and with a direct-to-consumer approach. Couture, after all, began as a direct-to-consumer business. In a way they both have the same negative connotations too: many ‘streetwear’ designers hate this label, and ‘high’ fashion can be considered a vapid term. They both need to sort some things out and the best way to do this is usually to come together. Whether we like it or not, this is already part of the current spirit of the time. Rather, the category that will suffer an existential fate is prêt-à-porter because more and more people buy and wear luxury and basic items together. But do we really need categories? The industry does, people don’t and the industry has to cope with it.
How do you see the industry changing?
Fashion is built on change and now it’s breaking from its own mould, not only in terms of styles and trends but in terms of entire business models. You see it very clearly with how supply chains are organized and operations are run: mostly horizontal in the past, more and more vertical today. There isn’t one way of doing things anymore. You see it from today’s job profiles as well. Managers are required to be creative and designers are merchandisers, brand architects, stylists, even musicians—everything but designers. Winning formulas are varied, it all depends on how people match within a company, not necessarily with their assigned roles. We always underestimate the role of persons and personalities: the industry and the market don’t exist, people exist. This makes some people thrive, leaving other people feeling very nervous. The whole thing is becoming too violent for my taste. What we need is education, forward thinking, courage and love… a lot of love.
What are the defining factors that make a fashion designer or a fashion brand successful?
It really depends on how you see success. Do you want to create a €10 million brand in three years, or begin a low-key line of tracksuits? The way I see it, success happens when humans fulfill their potential. If you’re doing what you set out to do, and it’s working, stable, and based on something you really believe in, then that is success. The defining factor is about being clear with what you want to achieve, how it can be done, and having those goals first rooted into your own way of being. That’s why at Polimoda we teach all the working tools you need, but the big difference is in how much we let our students grow as people. Maturity doesn’t mean behaving the way you are supposed to, it means becoming what you really are and focusing as much as possible on that—to be happy and successful in the way I mentioned earlier. It sounds simple but it’s not, especially today, where education is standardized and models of success are distorted.
With major fashion brands starting from nothing (literally screen-printing t-shirts in one well known example), what can someone learn from a more ‘traditional’ fashion approach and attending a school like yours?
Nothing is illegitimate about screen-printing t-shirts but I would ask, how will this become something with longevity? Polimoda is very well rooted in the industry and grows in the city of the Renaissance, we know how to get things done. On the other hand, the school is private, independent and international, so we don’t have any limit on our vision. Assessments always consider three aspects: idea, development and presentation. Classes are small, teachers all come from the industry and they teach one-to-one with hands-on materials. Team projects are as important as individual performance. Third year and Masters students work on briefs from real companies. Being at Polimoda means you already get to experience the industry but with an added layer of creativity. This is something that not all companies can afford, but a school can.
How does Polimoda cater towards the need for artistic flair, business acumen, and the obligations of social and sustainable responsibility in the fashion world of today?
Polimoda is made of four departments: Fashion Design, Art Direction, Fashion Business and Design Management. This means the school represents all the different areas of the fashion industry. Students from each department work on projects with students from other departments. They influence each other, they acquire skills not predisposed to their discipline and therefore get used to life in a company. We give them a lot freedom because they must respect the standards of the industry in their projects while inventing the future in which they want to live. I do believe that sustainability doesn’t start from laws but from education, as pollution is in the brain before being in the environment and because exploitation happens when you don’t appreciate the positivity in others. Responsibility is the key word, and freedom requires responsibility.
How seriously do you take the issue of sustainability at the school?
Sustainability in fashion can be tackled from many angles, and in our case, as we’re a school, it means that our ‘product’ is education—something that will last forever, never loses value, and continues to benefit students long beyond their academic careers. Therefore, by default, sustainability is at the heart of what we do, it isn’t considered a separate section of study offered to our students, it’s part of everything they do. This year out student body reached 2000, and this is the right number for us. Having more students would create unemployment. Instead, our rate of placement is 88% within 6 months of graduation. We want to grow by keeping small, by increasing the quality of our education, and this is what makes us rated among the top 10 schools in the world. The model we have in mind is the one of small factories run by families and neighbors. You don’t pollute here because it’s the ground where you grow your food; you don’t exploit anyone because you are a family.
What sets Polimoda apart from other schools? Why should people choose your school?
We aren’t an art school. We only teach fashion, we are specialized in it. People come from 70 different countries to study here; it’s a real multi-cultural school. I think that being located in the centre of Florence is a nice drawcard too. It’s a beautiful and very livable city, thriving in energy thanks to [leading industry trade show] Pitti Immagine, and Polimoda is definitely part of that energy. We take care of our students, we suffer with them and grow with them, from being student through graduation to when they enter the alumni network we call Polimoda People. Our President, Mr. Ferruccio Ferragamo loves the school and whatever we earn is reinvested to buy laboratories and machines for our students. Polimoda is a house for many, an experience that changes your life.
What are you your top five tips to making it in the fashion industry:
- Be yourself and focus on what you’re really able to do
- Put love into what you do and work hard
- Find your own luck by networking early while at school
- Be determined but always be honest and kind to others
- Never give up. If you observe the previous points, sooner or later your turn will come