The question if fashion education is failing young designers (read the latest post on the matter from NJAL here) is one that is of utmost interest to me. As a fashion designer and later fashion educator, I’ve seen both sides of the table as first a consumer/student and later as an implementer. As someone interested in our industry, and with an educational perspective and awareness of the future, few things come closer to my heart then the apparent challenge of fashion education. As many other dedicated people in fashion education, I’m also passionate about preparing the young generation in the best way.
What ‘the best way is’ is centred around a very fundamental question; should a fashion designer have a broad skill set or a narrow one? Or with other words; be a specialist and excel in fashion design or a generalist and excel in also business, marketing and social media? We’re all very aware of what a fashion designer was in ‘the old days’; that was definitely a specialist, and we have a very romantic – and often bohemian – picture of what that meant. What we’re not so sure about is what a fashion designer will have to be in the future.
Quite fundamentally, it comes down to how we define a designer, and the exact job and responsibilities such a profile should do and hold. This will of course have to be based on the skills that the industry will require – needless to say. Today, in many professional roles, people need to have a more general skill set and know a variety of things. But, let’s not forget, that these complimentary skills are often centred around a core; one thing that is studied in depth and mastered at a good level. Secondly, generic skills may always be important at any given professional level, but if you really want to climb the professional ladder, you need to be extremely good at one thing; your core. For this reason, let’s not underestimate being a specialist.
A fashion designer with a nose also for business is from a very one-dimensional perspective better than one, who doesn’t have a clue. The more you master, the better. But when I hear people complaining about the fashion industry, I hear complaints of a certain lack of creativity, nothing exciting, everything looks the same, poor quality, wear-once-and-throw-out, the celebrities on the front row etc. It seems to be the turn, the industry has taken, and where the focus is placed. I can’t remember ever hearing a single person saying that they were tired of a beautiful collection, and interestingly cut sleeve, or wearing a nice fabric. Ever. So the boredom with the industry is not in the craft, material and creativity, but in all the fuzz around it. Apparently, what a certain type of consumer appreciates, is still the fashion designer specialist.
Let’s say this leads us to a conclusion that we should still teach primarily the design-related subjects in the fashion schools. (It would also be a bit sad to imagine a world, where the fashion designers can’t pattern cut and sew, and don’t particular care and take interest in ultimately making a really nice product.) No matter if you want to find a job or work for yourself or both; if you want to build a fashion house, you need to be a good designer. No big budget, no herd of social media profiles, connection etc. are going to get you very far, if the product isn’t good – at least not for very long.
So the question remaining is how to give students also a sense of the industry, business and entrepreneurship of building your own brand? Well, a BA is three years, and that time is needed for the core skills, as we just discussed above. Let’s be realistic and remind ourselves that you can’t learn everything in three years – nor is life and studying over, once you leave your BA program. I remember a very specific moment in my career, while I was working as Programme Leader of Fashion Design in Marangoni London, and there was this extra subject that we wanted to put into our course, as we thought it was useful to our students. The thing was just that in order to put in another subject, we would have to take one out. You can’t just keep adding on top; nor is it very beneficial for student to study 23 hours a day, and you can’t just keep adding 5 credit subjects to a course. But there was no course that we wanted to take out; not design, not drawing, not pattern cutting, not fashion history etc. etc.
What could be a solution to the challenge of fashion education – because finding one is why we’re discussing this – would be complimentary courses after the BA. I don’t imagine a full-time MA course, but flexible and professional courses focusing on entrepreneurship, marketing, social media etc. There could be shorter ones for a quick brush-up and inspiration or longer ones combined with mentorship. How I see it, students and people in general don’t need just more information as the net is already full of; they need someone to discuss it with. It’s around this critical dialogue that people learn. We could look at the start-up scene for inspiration, and in particular their networking culture and Incubator hubs and find ways to combine it with our industry. Considering the size of the fashion industry and governments’ interest in start-ups and entrepreneurship, there would maybe even be some funding, which would be great.