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...musings from the southern hemisphere
The Bachelor of Design in Fashion is a three year programme where students develop their skills with projects that build technical know-how. The course introduces students to both haute couture as well as ready-to-wear. Raffles's innovative approach to specialised market sectors like knitwear is one of the most distinguishing features of the course. The students' lush end-of-year graduate shows are widely celebrated for their couture-oriented handwork and conceptual research. The school offers a Fashion Marketing BA and also a Master of Fashion Design programme for graduates to develop further their skills.
We speak across seas to the course’s director Robert de Giovanni, a successful designer in his own right and one of the first Australians to graduate from the prestigious Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. After graduating he journeyed to New York to work for a number of brands including Anne Klein, before returning back home to begin his career in education. Owing to his international experience, we find Robert in an ideal position to assist us in pinpointing contrasts between the European and Australian fashion markets. Further to this, we gain insight into how the Australian fashion landscape shapes his students' work at Raffles.
From your perspective, what is the main distinction between the fashion industry in London and Sydney?
Historically speaking, these two cities - while linked through empire - have very different approaches to design and to creativity in general. Fashion and dress, regardless of class, have a profound cultural capital for Londoners in particular, which Sydneysiders oftentimes find confronting or just plain curious. Even so-called “chavs” in England make an effort to “dress” (even if it’s “dressing down”). Whether one is a duke or a dustman, the English all seem to have a position on dress, a point-of-view. I think that the art of dressing and “dressing up” (which means adornment as much as the art of layering clothing) is a cultural practice which the English do so humorously.
I don’t see as much celebration of this in Sydney (regardless of people’s social origins), where those who “dress up” are often treated with suspicion, associated as it is with the more unpleasant aspects of hierarchy and patriarchal authority. The way our cities are built affects this as well. Sydney, as opposed to Melbourne, was built as a convict town with very few grand interior spaces to wear beautiful clothes.
All of this cultural framework means that the industries in both cities have a very different approach because their markets are so very different. From a design and production perspective, fashion labels in Australia tend to be structured so that the designer is often the patternmaker as well, and all the personnel have to be proficient at almost all aspects of the design/production process.
The creativity in London, for example, really stands out partly because of large populations, and partly due to history, but also because management foster excellence in Europe’s style capitals. London is a total melting pot of undiscovered talent. There is also a huge amount of competition within the new generation magazine titles so young designers get a chance to stand out. Titles like Love, Wonderland, Another, Dazed and Confused stand side by side with the big players like Vogue or Tatler.
Unlike in Australia, in Europe, (and similarly in the United States), people don’t see fashion as a frivolous, self-indulgent industry. It’s serious business because fashion generates serious money for the local economy. In Australia, for reasons which I believe to be socio-historical, people see fashion as a silly pastime for the wealthy or the very young. This is a falsehood which I believe keeps Australia from moving forward on the world stage. Western civilisation has always marched to the beating drums of fashion. It’s what distinguishes “Society”.
Australians are obsessed with sport, which is both liberating and constraining. It should be one of many social options, not THE only option, which I believe it currently is. When this is the only cultural outlet available most of the time (we simply still do not have enough museums, galleries or libraries which are truly world-class yet because governments seem to have stopped building civic monuments and are obsessed with just building ugly apartment blocks), so it tends to limit the national narrative. A strong and vibrant fashion industry imbues nations with enormous symbolic or “soft” capital (entertainment, style, fashion) and can be a dynamic engine for nation-building, just like rugby, or swimming. But it seems to me that no-one has noticed this yet, or if they have, forces for political correctness stop them saying what is true.
What is unique about fashion at Raffles?
The Raffles course at our North Sydney campus is unique primarily in that we are the only private provider in Sydney that can draw upon intellectual and cultural exchanges with our sister colleges at our other 30 campuses throughout Asia; including Singapore, Shanghai, Mumbai, Bangkok, Saigon and Beijing. This means that the wealth of knowledge, skills and experience from both the staff and student populations is phenomenal.
On a more specific note, our end of year shows are a testament to the fact that this Pan-Asian reach and scope of our courses generates a volume of beautifully designed and manufactured product which emanates from our North Sydney campus each December. The fusion between east and west is certainly unique from a pedagogical point of view, and therefore the Bachelor of Design degree course that we offer has more depth from a research perspective I feel, than similar courses offered elsewhere in Australia, as a consequence.
What do you look for when recruiting students?
We look for how a student’s portfolio and their own responses in a face-to-face interview reflect the following personal and intellectual attributes:
-A willingness to learn.
-A keen interest in an intellectual curiosity about fashion, dress, clothing and adornment as cultural practices.
-A commitment to their chosen vocational path, be it fashion design or fashion marketing.
-Good communication skills: both written and visual.
-A personal suitability for design and/or the design industries.
-An appreciation for the way design impacts upon the environment and society.
What feeling do you get when faced with a brand new year of burgeoning designers?
I am always excited to spot the new personalities that have come to study with us, because fashion by its very nature is driven by persona. The persona, for Carl Jung, was the social face the individual presented to the world - a kind of mask we all wear to both impress others and to simultaneously conceal our true natures. These shadows are particularly marked in artistic temperaments, such as those of designers, decorators, actors and artists. These “masks” are especially vital to the personalities in the fashion system. From Nefertiti onwards, it is what has driven fashion forward in the West for the last several hundred years, and I am always curious to watch the various masks come up and down during my classes where I teach fashion design. Persona is the life-force behind the creation of fashion.
Can you give us an example of a recent exciting project that was carried out by a student on the course?
In June of this year, one of my students by the name of Natalie Rizk who is only 20 years old, recently landed a full-time job with International Beirut-based designer Zuhair Murad, who dresses major Hollywood stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce Knowles, Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue. Natalie began communicating with Murad via email as part of an assignment she was conducting looking at fashion designers and their histories. As a result, a great working relationship was born out of that one assignment, and Natalie now lives and works in Beirut, using the excellent skills she developed at Raffles, which encourage critical thinking, as well as an ability to be actually able to “do the job” once placed in industry.
What is the best piece of advice that you can give to a fashion student?
Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.
While fostering craftsmanship, is it also important to develop your students’ skills in areas such as public relations and marketing so that they are prepared for the competitive and practical side of fashion?
Despite what many professionals in the fashion industry think, fashion is artful, but not an art. I think often this is where the public is more clued up than professionals are. At best fashion is a craft, but first and foremost it is a business. If a collection doesn’t sell, then it’s useless to everyone. We all like conceptual clothes, but often, if clothing is too tricky, too artful, then it’s almost an insult to the very nature of “fashion” itself (ie., it’s not a painting to be hung on a wall). So, as part of our BDes degrees in both fashion design and fashion marketing we encourage business-oriented critical thinking by developing such subjects as brand management, business communications, fashion communications, design business and law which are crucial for all our students to study regardless of their chosen majors.
Can the frantic pace at which the fashion industry travels be problematic for designers who want to take their time in the design process and have a strong concept running through their work? Is the pace more reasonable in Australia?
The reality of the ready-to-wear business, regardless of country, (and despite media images of designers in soap operas, like The Bold and The Beautiful, taking several episodes to design one gorgeous couture dress!) is that designers realistically only have a few short weeks [maximum!] in which to physically “create” (sketch up) collections. The rest of the time is spent developing textiles, and dealing with intense production or marketing issues.
Is it the role of the course to prepare students for the fast pace?
No. Our primary goal as educators is to develop critical thinkers who make wise choices, both professionally and personally. Being “industry-ready” is another of our aims, but not the sole aim, because if a student is a critical thinker, the rest will fall into place naturally. The world is now full of “industry-ready” students who can’t think for themselves because multi-media and advertising imagery tells everyone how to look, act, and therefore think. Our students have been prepped with the foundations for a more disciplined kind of mindfulness.
How has the course evolved since you started teaching?
When I first began teaching at Raffles full-time in 2005, we offered only diploma courses, and fashion students could complete a degree in visual communications with a major in fashion. As a result, the level of research into design and textile development was not as strong as it is now.
With the introduction of a BDes degree in fashion design in 2005, and then since 2007 in fashion marketing, our courses offer students incredible research opportunities across both disciplines, with the possibility of drawing upon undertaking electives on offer in other departments at Raffles; such as graphics, interior design, multimedia/gaming or photography is they so desire.
Can students’ collections be produced cheaply while maintaining high standards? Do budgets vary widely?
We encourage student resourcefulness and creative initiative rather than reliance upon or access to large budgets when mentoring students through major projects and range-creation. I have seen students with very little access to finances produce collections of immeasurable beauty, and vice versa.
Budgets vary widely of course, because our students hail from diverse social and economic backgrounds. We have also developed a super-database of service providers and suppliers over the years to be able to guide students to the most cost-effective ways of producing garments. This helps considerably in keeping prices down, and working to the same standard practices used in industry.
Finally, is there a question that you think should have been asked that would reveal more about Raffles to a global audience?
No. Less is always more.