Istituto Polimoda Florence

...Linda Loppa, Director of Polimoda's Design Department

by Jemma Gray and Harry Weiler
Linda Loppa, accomplished designer and pioneer of Belgian fashion, is the director of Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing in Florence. Based in the Italian hub of quality craftmanship and design excellence; the school is recognised worldwide for its high quality didactic offer. She transformed Polimoda into a dynamic and exciting platform for design, altering the traditional norms that fashion schools follow. Loppa was born in Antwerp and graduated in Fashion Design from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1971. After designing for Bartsons, a Belgian outerwear brand specialising in raincoats, she became a teacher at the Royal Academy. Along with remaining heavily involved in helping Dries Van Noten’s career, she is acclaimed to be the pride of Antwerp, having proved instrumental in building substantial press for the famous ‘Antwerp Six’. This group of influential avant-garde fashion designers of which Noten is a part, graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy and brought the world’s attention to the inventive styles and impeccable design ethos of Belgium’s fashion industry. Loppa chats to us about bringing her fashion credentials to the Florentians.

We are interested to find out what you did before Polimoda – I understand you have significant experience in the world of fashion?
It’s a long story! I have worked in fashion for so many years. I was born in Antwerp and went to the Fashion Academy there. Then I worked for a few Belgian designers. In the 80s, I began teaching, and I helped to promote the big ‘Antwerp Six’ designers who were my friends. I directed the Antwerp Academy for 25 years and so I had all the Belgian designers with me like Branquinho and my best friend Raf Simons. I was actively involved in the accomplishments of Belgian fashion at that great time. So that was beautiful, because it was a beautiful moment in time.

While I was directing the fashion department, we created an exciting platform called the ‘new city’, which was all about Antwerp. I invited the international press, famous big designers to be jury members and styling bureaus to promote the exceptional talent at the Antwerp Academy’s fashion department. In the 1970s, I opened a shop and had names like Versace, Comme de Garçons, Jean Paul Gautier etc. Also through teaching, I was well aware of the young, exciting designers, which worked out great. In a way, there was nothing there [in Antwerp] before, and I was able to build everything from scratch.

Antwerp was not so firmly on the fashion map back then?
Now, Antwerp as a city has been done. It was a fantastic time back then, we moved the school to Modenatie and I actually conceived the building with the architect. We received money from the region and then from the city. I made an exhibition for the fashion museum because there was so much space.

There was a museum far out in the city, but nobody went there as it was so isolated and the province of Antwerp wanted to close it. There were people who told me to go and see it, so after speaking with the people there, they offered me the position of Director! Following this, I started doing the fashion museum and making exhibitions. So yes, it’s a whole life full of different experiences! I also worked for Dries Van Noten for seven years. My shop was close to his and I retailed their products in 1991. I travelled the world during this time, I looked after the markets in Japan and London for him.

I have had diverse experiences, whether in retailing, education or working for a designer or finally at the museum, which was fantastic. I was doing all of that together and sometimes it was a bit hard. In the end, I wasn’t working for Dries anymore and settled with teaching, but I was still looking after the museum.

What do you think are the main differences between working in the industry and teaching those soon to enter it?
It’s all about psychology, I think. If you work in a company, you should have the ability to understand your designer, your manager, your communication manager and your brand manager. I think this is the key to success. If you have the patience to understand the passion of all the individuals working there, then you can have a well-run company. Over the last ten years, I have felt like marketing and design departments have been separated and are not coherent enough to work towards the same goal. I think that will change soon. We have to get back to luxury and beautiful products. It’s not about squeezing the lemon more and more.

How do you spot if someone has talent, and what qualities do you seek when recruiting new students?
Actually, it’s not always easy to see. You can be wrong about a student, but mostly you can feel it, you can sense that they have talent and see that they are ambitious. Sometimes you can discover a talent in their second or third year like Alicia Declerck. She was always really nice and very quiet, but she really blossomed. The more she matured, the more she knew what she was doing. So yes, and that’s the job of a teacher. To help them grow and gain confidence.

I am not really doing the assessment anymore because I have my assistant, Patrick De Muynck, who came from Antwerp too, actually! He is now guiding the whole design department and I have somebody else for marketing and I am working mostly on the international Masters, Brand and Luxury Management. I have also been focusing on the fashion communication for the website and so on. So I am working on a lot of the new projects. In fact, I am launching a Masters in Trend Forecasting. We have a lot of contacts here with WGSN and Trendstop, so I think I am more involved now in writing about fashion and research.

How has the school developed since you joined, and what new projects do you have in the pipeline for Polimoda?
The course changed quite a lot because when I joined, it was more about working on smaller projects with the industry. Now, when the students finish after three years, they have to make a full collection of 9 outfits. Also, I think now we are going to extend the course to four years to have extra quality. I do think immediately after graduation, students join companies and do internships and then it’s hard to get them back. A four year course prevents this.

In a way the methodology, I must say, is quite similar to Antwerp because for me in Antwerp, it worked. There is a kind of similarity although we don’t duplicate every segment. It’s a bit different, but the fact that Patrick and I are there means philosophically we feel that we want the same quality, and the same rigour as Antwerp. It’s not about people paying and not working, which was a bit of the mentality at Polimoda before, and that private non-profit school students who pay are better. But I was like ‘No, no. They will work, it doesn’t matter’. So these are the changes that have been made so far.

Polimoda is English taught?
Yes, when I arrived it was more Italian, but I thought it was necessary to open the language, otherwise you remain a provincial institute and that is not why they asked me to come from Antwerp.

Do you feel that some students need more mentoring than others and some are fine to work independently?
Yes, but sometimes you feel that some students are too good, and you think they are wonderful. Then at the end, you are disappointed because you were probably not critical enough. Sometimes we give them too much praise because they are great, and their graphics are fantastic. But they are still fragile and we have to be tough on them too.

It’s quite important to teach them how to accept criticism as well, so that when they go out into the industry and receive it (sometimes bluntly), it doesn’t set them back and they learn how to take it constructively to better improve their work.
Absolutely! You create stars sometimes in the school. This is not the case with everyone, but of course you need stars. It’s nice for the catwalk and the rest of the class for inspiration and as a nice example, but it’s not always simulating what it will be like for them in the real world. So that’s sometimes tricky.

While fostering creativity at the school, is it also important to develop students’ skills in areas such as self-marketing so they are prepared for the competitive nature of the industry?
Yes and no. If you had four years, you could do that because you need three years just for them to develop as a designer. It’s so difficult to make a collection and if you feed them too much input, they don’t even listen to you. I think we could prepare them for this in the fourth year and place more emphasis on it. Also, they have to be capable of surrounding themselves with the right people. If they are good, they will have the knowledge and the intuition. That’s why our website is important, just like communication is important. In this way it can be easy for them at the moment because if you are good, and you make your own website, you get noticed. But usually, as soon as they are out on their own, they probably lose themselves in some projects with companies or artistic installations.

I don’t know if you know the graduate, Andrea Cammarosano, he is interesting and he was a genius in the Academy of Antwerp. He studied at Polimoda too before I came and it was terrible, which is why he went to Antwerp. Such a fantastic guy, he did wonderful collections. In his last year, (I think I was already in Italy) he contacted me and he said ‘Oh, Linda now I know, I have to be wiser and more strategic and I am not going to do all those light installations now. Can I show you my new collection?’ So I saw it and I said ‘wow, bravo!’ I said ‘yes, it’s fantastic’, but he doesn’t know how to sell. Now he has a friend in LA, so he is going to teach there, and he will probably find some contacts, however his production has to be in Italy because of import taxes and so on; and you have to show in Paris, ah it’s so complex! So, he doesn’t know how to sell at the end of the day and that is where you lose them [designers].

I had so many designers who started up, who had problems including with finances, come to ring the ‘Linda’ bell, looking for sponsors. I think as a designer, you have to be efficient from the start. I like Wendy Malem from LCF, for the work she does with CFE. I quite like that they follow the monthly business plan and the financial situation. That’s really great. I feel like this is more the way to work for the future. With Polimoda, we are growing. It’s been 5 years since I have been there and we are doing really well.

Now I am going to work for a few years on the research because it doesn’t exist yet. I have found a few teachers who write really well, and are promoting students and their visions. We are working on marketing, branding and art directing, which I think is important, so we can help sustain creative people.

I must say, your recent graduate, Erik Bjerkesjo, just set up his profile on NJAL. His presentation is spot on...
Great, it will help him [Erik Bjerkesjo] a lot I think, and I love his stuff. It’s classic with a twist, it’s very wearable but you want it. It’s very desirable.

Can students’ collections be produced cheaply, while maintaining high standards. Do the budgets vary widely?
Of course, cheap fabrics can still make beautiful pieces. That’s the key, whatever the culture and financial possibilities, or their social background. We had Stephen Jones come to Florence and give a lecture. Look what he did with so many simple things. He became world famous because he believed in his materials, and he has a nice composition, but in the beginning he only used cheap materials and fabrics. I mean that you can be creative with nothing. Of course, if it is well produced you have an advantage.

With some people who do this, the company often makes an interpretation of that prototype and then it ends up losing a lot of freshness. You hardly recognise the product when it comes back and the designer is disappointed. Or some students will give it to a tailor and then say ‘yeah but they didn’t understand what I wanted.’ And I say ‘you do it to yourself my dear, you need to be by her side. You don’t just drop it off, and pick it up! That’s not how it goes; you need to sleep next to her when she makes the sleeve. That’s the difference. Once they understand this mechanism, they are there day and night with complete control.

Do lots of students need to dilute their conceptual work in order to be marketable and sell when they leave the course?
Well that happens, of course; especially with many Japanese students that I have seen. They are really so conceptual but you can also translate a conceptual idea into a beautiful garment. Look at Margiela’s example, it was not so wildly conceptual as everyone believed it to be, it was a garment without seams, so at the time it was innovative. But he didn’t make seams, because there was no money to make seams. The reason why he used paper was because he didn’t have any money to make fabric! I knew him when he was starting, you know. And why did he paint the shoes white? Because he didn’t have white shoes, he had black shoes and it became a big hype. So you have to be creative and be inventive with the money that you do have, and if you have an idea, then it always shines through if it’s a good one. That’s what I believe in!