The Underdog Unis

...let’s take a tour of a few lesser-known but equally thorough courses

by Priyanka Pandit
There is no doubt that degrees from institutions such as Central Saint Martins or Parsons carry considerable weight in the mainstream fashion industry. Any aspiring designer is familiar with the success stories of the colleges’ celebrity alumni. The myth surrounding “elite” fashion schools and their graduates is self-affirming and success in fashion can seem only achievable with the blessing of one of the chosen few institutions. At NJAL we believe talent is fostered in a broader variety of programmes and environments. Let’s take a tour of a few lesser-known but equally thorough courses that are promoting progressive fashion design.

A major benefit of studying in a fashion capital like London or Paris is the incredible variety of available programmes. Nonetheless attention is concentrated on one or two well-publicized schools overshadowing the numerous other offerings.

Royal College of Art and London College of Fashion are familiar names but one of the city’s best-kept secrets is the University of Westminster. Burberry’s Christopher Bailey and Loewe’s Stuart Vever as well as NJAL designers Lucy Upsher and Carly Ellis are alumni.

Students are pushed to create well-crafted, conceptual work and Westminster’s considerable industry links means that they also gain experience at major fashion houses. Second year fashion modules are in conjunction with industry partners. For students who want pursue an extra placement year before developing their final collection, the university offers a 4-year programme with a “sandwich year.”

In New York, Pratt Institute’s fashion department led by Jennifer Minniti is the oldest in the country and also one of the most conceptual. In 2011, the department was relocated to a newly constructed design center also housing the Communication Design, Industrial Design and Interior Design programmes, thus facilitating creative exchange.

The trans-disciplinary nature of the coursework means that students think beyond the boundaries of ‘just fashion’ and are required to study other media to incorporate into their work. Unique for an urban design school, the college is heavily involved in the social, economic and cultural life of the local Clinton Hill, Brooklyn neighborhood.

Colleges based outside of fashion centers tend to be overlooked, though often the most avant-garde design is created outside of the context of normal fashion cycles and cities. Away from Milan’s distinctly Italian design tradition, students at Florence-based Polimoda can focus on developing a unique personal vision, as exemplified by the works of graduates Erik Bjerkesjo and Alicia Declerck.

In the last five years, with the placement of Linda Loppa as the Director of its Design department, the methodology of Polimoda’s programme has transformed it into a course similar to Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy. The connection to Antwerp comes from Loppa’s own education and her instrumental role in placing the small Belgian city on the fashion map.

Other changes to the programme include classes that are now also taught in English (to make its designers more global) and a new offering of a Master’s in Trend Forecasting.

Another figure gaining attention in fashion pedagogy is designer Bernard Wilhelm, who since 2010 has followed in the footsteps of Veronique Branquinho, Raf Simons, Vivienne Westwood, and Helmut Lang as Creative Director of the fashion department at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Under Wilhelm’s guidance, ‘fashion becomes art.’ Young designers are expected to collaborate with artists and learn to put their garments in various contexts, resulting in innovative, unexpected solutions.

The 2012 Graduate Show was presented as a personalized performance in place of a traditional runway show, garnering, attention and criticism from conservatives in the industry.

This year, the Academy of Art and Design Basel also rejected the catwalk tradition by displaying graduates’ designs in a performance series choreographed by artist Alexandra Backzetsis. The accompanying catalog was a standout piece blending typography, illustration, photography and fashion in a visualization of design process.

With Priska Morger's motto ‘Fight mindless uniformity by doing deeply committed fashion,’ the course celebrates informed experimentation and a new interpretation of fashion. This spring saw the launch of ‘Doing Fashion’, a paper, which makes the ideas of the design programme accessible to the outside world.

Basel is a good illustration of how colleges in smaller cities are able to involve their local community and make unconventional design accessible to everyone, rather than a limited audience.

In Northern Europe, KEA Copenhagen School of Design & Technology’s fashion programme is worth noting as it draws from Copenhagen’s status as a leading green city by offering its ‘Innovating Sustainable Fashion’ summer programme.

For the last three years, the college has hosted an intensive summer school based on the topic of sustainability within the fashion industry. Students and teachers from eleven universities around Europe, including Tartu Art College, Estonia, Goldsmiths and Amsterdam Fashion Institute design processes that “make sustainability fashionable.” Attendees acquire a more profound understanding of the fashion product life and critically analyze existing brand strategies in their final papers.

The list of colleges consistently producing creative pioneers is lengthy, especially when those outside of Western Europe and North America are considered. The graduates of these lesser-known schools deserve the attention and support of the fashion community if we expect to see more innovation in the industry.

For designers, a fashion programme is important but is only the first step in creative development. Among the multitude of factors determining an aspiring designer’s growth, support from the fashion community is key.