The coming insurrection of September means that the gilded doors of universities, art schools and design institutions around the world will re-open once again, ready to churn out yet another cohort of fledging fashion designers. However, in a year where the fashion system has made more self-reflexive changes than ever before, from genderless fashion shows to eschewing its seasonal calendar entirely, is it time the institutions peddling fashion’s next generation followed suit to address what’s not working?
Far too many graduates are leaving institutions dissatisfied, despite the fact that universities and fashion schools in the U.S. and UK are cited as the best in the world. The British Fashion Council has complained that the UK government’s cuts to funding now means only rich students can afford courses.
According to The Business of Fashion’s annual fashion education survey, career paths are not adequately explained, the lack of business training and technical classes like pattern cutting all contribute to students' collective discontent. It sounds pretty dismal considering the crippling debt that goes hand in hand with higher education today, not to mention the uncertain job prospects in an industry as crowded as fashion.
Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus amongst institutions that they need to find solutions and make changes, with many setting up dedicated business modules within design degrees so students can become fluent in the basics of business. Esteemed fashion educator Fabio Piras is the course director of Central St Martin's MA Fashion Course, and while he is conscious of a need for change, he also exercises caution.
“I feel it is important to give fashion students awareness of market knowledge in relation to what they do and their creative identity, and I make it part of their course curriculum in the form of seminars, workshops and dialogue around project work," he says. "But it is also my mission to preserve the inimitable originality of thought and encourage them to understand that, although there are rules related to their practice and business, following a formula has never been a good idea to achieving a successful and exceptional outcome. I have no intention to turn young designers into business-focused entrepreneurial entities."
There’s no doubting the multifaceted, rich skill set provided by a fashion education, but its currency in practice should be tested. The reality remains that some of the industry’s most prolific talents working today chose not to study fashion. Creative polymaths like Hedi Slimane and iconoclast supreme Rei Kawakubo studied art history and literature respectively. Belgian visionary Raf Simons studied industrial design and the agenda-setting designer of the current zeitgeist, Demna Gvasalia, studied international economics before diverting to fashion.
Even wunderkind Alexander Wang is a college dropout and Miuccia Prada has a PhD in political science. Clearly, there is no one road to success in fashion.
In an industry so competitive, how much does a degree still set you apart? Is gaining skill-based experience through internships under the tutelage of other designers and brands more beneficial? Even emerging designers are utilizing the networked digital age of readily available information to become self-starters and succeed in fashion.
New York-based designer Wil Fry, whose background is in applied design, isn’t even sure what skills typically come with a formal fashion education. Fry has managed go from an arbiter of troll fashion, once solely known for ironic bootleg Givenchy jerseys, and graduate into a legitimate designer with a utilitarian-inspired, minimalist line and all without fashion school.
Turning his back on viral, cult-sensationalism has clearly worked out in his favor, too, as his recent collections have been critical hits. Yet, Fry remains acutely aware of his lack of fashion education. “I am forced to wear a lot of hats in order to push things through: being a good communicator and being organized are important, and probably the most important aspect is budgeting,” says Fry. However, these are all the skills that design students feel aren’t event faintly addressed at school.
Perhaps the rise of self-taught designers in fashion could prompt more institutions to radically adapt? Steve Faerm, an Assistant Professor of Fashion Design at Parsons, says the challenges facing institutions goes way beyond teaching business skills.“This is an industry that is changing at an unprecedented rate, with an evolving student generation and a new set of skills and abilities demanded by the profession,” he says.
In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, fashion has encroached on the vernacular of popular culture like never before. Unlike previous generations, social media’s open floodgates means that today’s gen Z have constant, real-time and transparent access into the fast-paced, quixotic world of fashion. So, it makes sense that more and more young people aspire to be designers, and that more institutions are setting up design courses to meet the growing demand.
Today’s rising generation of steadfast digital natives are comfortable multi-tasking with total conviction, and they’re motivated by constant acceleration. It seems inevitable that institutions will have to rework their models of education to cater to a new wave of young, thirsty gen Z'ers keen to manifest their creativity and skills in a multitude of ways.
If nothing changes, however, it’s logical to assume that prospective students of the future will feel disenfranchised by the tired, bureaucratic limitations of education as we know it, and many will also benchmark the successes of millennial creative directors like Virgil Abloh as a blueprint for their own aspirations.
Abloh is the mastermind behind rising fashion label Off-White, creative director for Kanye West, revered DJ of the global style set and co-founder of Bromance Records, with a coterie of Parisian DJs and producers. Interestingly, Abloh studied engineering before completing a Master's in architecture. Abloh understands the merit of an education, and he has previously mentioned how his multifarious background has taught him design principles and collaborative working – both skills he uses everyday as a creative director.
“Multitasking and participating in culture instead of observing are very important to me in my work. It's my continuing education. I feel that education has a misunderstanding in the modern context. I think it has a heightened importance now more than ever. Not in a particular area of study, but in the sense that it's knowledge instead of perceived understanding,” Abloh told us.
So, could the fashion designers of the future be high-brow, culturally conversant philosophers, fluent in both aeronautical design and pre-fall production? Maybe not, but Abloh's triumph in fashion is clearly rooted in his unrelenting hunger to absorb and engage in everything he possibly he can. And that’s a lesson to be learned.
Even Central St Martin’s Fabio Piras agrees that there are some benefits to a non-conventional fashion background. “Of course, one can be successful as a creative director without formal fashion design education, but I would definitely make the distinction between what creative direction and fashion design mean.”
For Piras, the skills of a creative director and a fashion designer are not mutually exclusive. “They can be found in the same person, but often they are not. In general, we tend to blur the lines between the two. I don't think you can be a good fashion designer without having gone through some formative journey in fashion education, which will enable you to develop and refine the skills that are needed to produce and evaluate a coherent and specific output."
Piras seems warranted in wanting fashion's lexicon to expand its narrow definition of design in practice and offer more clarity about the specifics of fashion design. On one hand, creative direction is about honing the overall creative vision of a brand and perusing the critical evaluation of multiple processes in executing that vision, not to mention creative management. These are all qualities or skills that are not necessarily specific to a fashion oriented or educated background.
However, he also understands that institutions are complicit in muddying the specifics of fashion design professions. “Too many institutions encourage students to think in terms of creative direction," he says. "It does not mean all fashion-trained designers have the ability to be one."
Fashion education’s virtue remains difficult to dispute, especially when you consider the illustrious legacy of certain institutions and their powerhouse alumni, but the fact remains that no amount of hype can teach you the sobering business skills required to build a successful brand.
London-based designer Nasir Mazhar and his namesake label is proof that practical, hands-on experience and a firm aesthetic intuition honed by your own cultural sensibilities is enough to found your own design principles and be commercially successful. Mazhar originally trained as a hairdresser, before dabbling in millinery and working as a theatrical designer, yet his successful transition to fashion was wholly organic.
Mazhar never studied formally and he regrets nothing, apart from not learning even more vital, practical skills when time allowed. “The thing is, they don’t teach you how to build a brand at fashion school. They teach you how to put a collection together, and the basics of pattern cutting and garment construction, which is good if you want to be a designer. But there is a difference between being a designer and running your own brand. More than half of running a brand is about sales, budgeting, production, pricing, cash-flow and marketing,” says Mazhar, who recently expelled wholesale from his business model entirely.
Mazhar offers an uncomfortable yet accurate diagnosis of fashion education. While there is clear value in the dedicated space a fashion education provides to learn, think, create, experiment and evolve, prospective students today are also blessed with more choice and free access to information than ever before. The idea that fashion education is failing students by not offering the breadth of skills required to be a mobile millennial is becoming a resounding sentiment.
This is a generation that wants the know-how to set up their own brand or to work for storied houses. Education should offer limitless possibilities, and fashion design institutions need to better facilitate that.
In other news, is Jordan hype dying? It looks like it.