Do I really need a Master's?

...what can be gained by investing further money and time into a Master’s programme?

by Hardeep Kaur Chohan
Today fashion start-ups are de-rigour, and not all of these businesses have been started by fashion college graduates. Take for example Moda Operandi, the brain child of an ex-McKinsey consultant and Voguette; The Row by the Olsen sisters, who although having spent a lifetime in one teen outfit to another, graduated to the main arena of RTW with little fashion pedigree or the final cherry on cake – Victoria Beckham – from pop band singer to bona fida ‘designer’ with no formal design degree in sight. Even our own NOT JUST A LABEL, founded by two brothers with degrees in finance and computer science.

The question to debate is how much relevance and importance should be attributed to formal fashion college schooling, and beyond that Masters programmes which are increasingly popular. The Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design is the latest testament that there are more means to exhaust the concept of fashion schooling – for those with a formal background in the discipline or not.

To start, what can be gained by investing further money and time into a Master’s programme? For this there are two ways to enter the point. First, there are those that complete Master’s degrees after a B.A. This is the typical route of many designers, take for example Erdem Moralioğlu who first studied fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto and then moved to London where he completed a Masters in Fashion at the Royal College of Art. The other path is where having completed degree in say anything from literature to architecture; M.A programmes are embarked upon as the first entry into this discipline.

For both routes, the desire really is the same – to accrue further knowledge in the belief that it will aid especially those looking to launch their own business. For those already with an undergraduate degree in fashion more broadly, it helps to focus on a specific discipline say for example print or knitwear. And for those new to the fashion set altogether, taking a Masters in Fashion for example will help provide an overview of the fashion monde, the official calendar, fashion history, figuring out the fashion cycle amongst suppliers, wholesalers, retailers etc.

What’s more, for those truly intent upon launching a business, the chance to focus solely one year on further honing and articulating your idea to your peers, can have miraculous effects on finding your identity as a designer or ‘brand’. This is further enhanced by the hot-bed of talent you may find yourself amongst, including students and tutors - learning directly from the likes of Louise Wilson is something which many fashion students would trade their sewing machines for.

In an interview earlier this year in the New York Times Mary Katrantzou sums up this attitude. Talking about the transition from her Bachelors in the US to the Masters in London, she says ‘“when I transferred to Saint Martins, I was utterly disappointed. But in a year, I had 100 percent changed my opinion because it was so much more inspiring to have a tutor to give you just a word to research or just a book that he had read.

It isn’t guided and controlled. But it gives you extreme freedom, really, to find yourself within the system — your style. And to be confident and be able to stand behind your work.’

There is however the other side to the argument. Especially if you have already spent the better part of four years (one year being a foundation course) studying a fashion related topic, doing a further Master’s surely is an excess? Instead of spending say an extra two years and £8,000 at least, perhaps this time and money would be better spent if directly invested into the new label or venture? At some point there is a limit to how much can be learnt by rote, compared to how much rigour and real business experience you can develop working in the business all day, every day.

Even beyond this, after having graduated with a Bachelors two years spent working in another label can provide you with an invaluable insight to the day to day working of a brand, enabling you to hone your own methodologies and business structure. Business of Fashion’s Imran Amed articulates this point well, "You may assume that having completed a design degree, there are no skill gaps there. However, the design process in a business can often feel very different to that of the design process in school, where you don’t have to worry about things other than the product.

Running fashion business means developing and following an organized creative process that works for you – and that other people can work to as well. One of the great things about designers who have previously worked in a large fashion house is that they have seen how other people organize themselves and can take lessons from there as they start. Having a clear design methodology is crucial to getting the best out of your abilities. If you don’t have this in place now, perhaps you may want to spend some time learning from someone else first."

Learning how to run an office, the design process mixed with the administrative, managing a supply chain etc – arguably these processes are all better developed when working in an actual business, be it your own or another’s. The final point on expense has an additional dimension too – the fees for international students. For a Masters in Fashion at Central Saint Martin’s a foreign student will have to pay more than double compared to his UK/European peers.

For the Home student, the tuition fees are £5,300 for year one and then £3,200 for year two; for the International student it’s £12,400 for year one and £7,400 for year two. Noted that certain cities are host to some of the world’s most respected fashion schools, but at such a cost, and with the burgeoning number of home-grown designers that we find springing up in the likes of China, again perhaps once you have secured the first step in your studies in your own country, the next step is to really launch that label and get a head-start on your more academically inclined peers? Before embarking on that Master’s degree, perhaps take a little time to tally the pro and cons – it’s all about being the master of your time and knowledge to get that label going.