Disruptors in Fashion Education: Burak Cakmak From Parsons School of Design
Burak Cakmak is the Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design. With nearly two decades of industry experience, Burak brings his expertise and passion around sustainability and social responsibility to the institution, helping to elevate and educate Parsons students each and every day.
How did your work in building out social responsibility initiatives at Gap and the Swarovski Group influence how you develop programs at Parsons?
My understanding of the industry has been shaped by my career. With Gap, I was able to take a deep dive into the largest specialty retailer in the world. I worked with a team who focused on ethical standards within the factories that Gap was outsourcing from—which meant over 4,000 factories in countless countries all around the world. There was a lot of annual turnover because of the apparel quota system requirements and due to the fact that changes in fashion trends require different types of factories. This all gave me a good understanding of what it really takes to create a fashion product. From the design table to the finished item and that entire journey that it took around the world—it was incredibly eye-opening in terms of how things are produced, created, and shipped. The complexity to it all just opened my eyes and allowed me to understand how it all occurred from design to the store and what it takes to deliver product at that scale. And then when concerns around climate change began to rise and enter the conversation, we evolved into thinking about environmental impact and what a company should do, as well as what a designer can do to better their social and environmental impact.
When I moved to Gucci Group, I then had these bigger realizations around the difference between mass consumer and the luxury brands. It’s much more vertically integrated; factories are generally owned by the brands rather than outsourced. I went deeper into understanding the materials supply chain—how luxury business source leathers, exotic skins, and so on. It also gave me an understanding and appreciation for both the social and environmental impact of creation, especially when I realized how many more people were involved in the supply chain. All of this added to my knowledge that I had gained when I was at Gap. It also made me realize the importance of branding and marketing to position a product as luxury and how the design perspective and entire chain is all translated into luxury. From how it is produced to how it is marketed around the highest quality and exclusivity, it all works together.
Swarovski is a privately owned family business that is both a jewelry brand and an ingredient supplier to the creative industries. Their operations are fully owned and managed by the group from the raw material sourcing to the finished crystal and jewelry pieces. My time there gave me a good understanding of level of control that can be put on the supply chain and showed me how design innovation can be managed when one has full control of the supply chain. From beginning to end, they can be much more engaged around innovation as they can work directly with engineers and designers, and do not have to rely on external companies.
All of this knowledge I acquired throughout my career was a critical component in me even considering taking the Parsons role. At Swarovski I was looking at how they were showcasing their brand values and supporting sustainability, as well as looking at how they were giving back to communities, and within that I recognized the importance of the designer and the ability a designer has to bring positive change. Working at Parsons, I knew I would be able to go deeper and embed this knowledge in young designers’ minds before they graduate and set off into the world—it’s about providing the tools they need to succeed in the industry as it operates today and what they need to know to change that system.
What does social responsibility and sustainability mean to you?
The perception of this topic has evolved as I continue to progress in my career, and the dialogue around the topic has evolved globally.
When I first started in the 90s, it was about risk management, especially when operating within a business model around outsourcing. Now it’s a lot more of thinking about how products are being used, where they are sourced, and how they are marketed. It’s about focusing on the longer term and rethinking the fast-fashion cycle, as well as gaining the knowledge around it all.
Social responsibility and sustainability mean not only recognizing the impact on the world but also looking for innovative ways to provide solutions for communities and coming up with new business models, as well as looking at new ways of creating supply chains and sourcing materials that do not have a negative environmental impact.
These topics have influenced how we teach designers in the school—we always want to think about what impact we want to have in the community and how we can use design to enable any positive change.
Big or small, a business should work towards sustainable practices. What sort of edge do you think young designers have over these giant companies? And do you think emerging designers should adapt sustainable practices as a non-starter?
One of the biggest challenges that the larger companies face is their inability to move quickly. Emerging designers are much more nimble and flexible. They can react quickly to consumers and can start something from scratch without impacting the current business model.
I see these brand-new businesses creating new models rather than working within the models that established brands are using who then have to create solutions to address the existing issues. Bigger brands have to make sure the solutions they come up with do not impact them in a serious way financially. Those starting from scratch can create a sustainable model and have the ability to grow in a sustainable way for both social and environmental aspects; and they can do this without losing revenue or sacrificing their values.
Any designer entering the industry today has to build a business based on sustainable practices. The future has no place for businesses who do otherwise. Every large business is trying to address their issues and young designers know that they really need to start their careers with this new way of thinking. You cannot replicate the old model because if you do you will face those same issues that bigger companies face. It truly doesn’t make any sense to build a business any other way.
What are some of your favorite aspects about working with students?
They surprise me every single day. It is incredible to be with so many young minds that are innovative and come up with new solutions that I never seen before. Each year I am just so surprised by the amount of new ideas that are generated.
For the students here, the conversation isn’t just about using sustainable materials, it’s around this larger element of innovation. We encourage students to think about design in bigger sense, to explore the role and impact of design in society that goes beyond just putting it on a runway. We push them to engage with the topic of fashion and local community impact in other parts of the world and to pursue new ways of creating, selling, and even engaging with societal issues through design.
Not everyone has the ability to attend a university like Parsons. What advice would you give to a designer who may be unable to receive a traditional design education due to their socioeconomic situation? And how do you see us trying to shift this balance?
The benefit of attending a design school is being able to have the space and time to dedicate your mind to building a concept that really showcases the identity of the designer. Parsons is one of many schools across the globe, but obviously not everyone even has time to commit to design education, an aspect that goes beyond the financial reason. For those who cannot attend, they have to pursue knowledge through self-education. There are many resources available on how to approach design, but you have to be active in seeking out these platforms to accumulate new knowledge. It’s also important to stay connected: go to events, forums, networking events, or even have direct conversations. Peer-to-peer learning is critical—reach out to those within your community and learn from one another. Today everyone is very connected, so there is a lot more openness to share knowledge in the design community. In fact, we even had graduate thesis projects that focused on open-source knowledge sharing around sustainable practices and design solutions. There are many opportunities to find new and relevant knowledge to sustainable design regardless of where you are in the world, and any aspiring designer can learn more through staying connected with other creatives around the world.
While the Parsons degree is one of the most coveted design pedigrees around, there remains a question mark around the path post education. With so many designers trying to make it in the industry, have you seen a fall-off in terms of designers actually becoming designers after graduating?
There has been an interesting shift in what designers want to do once they graduate. Until a few years ago, there was a demand around going into luxury and working for large brands in the design studio, starting out as a junior designer and moving up.
Now we are in the moment of entrepreneurship. It really feels like the fashion world is in a similar moment as the hi-tech industry a decade ago when we saw many new startups coming up with new solutions. There are many new innovations happening in the fashion industry and beyond, including all aspects of material innovation, new supply chain models, and new retail opportunities. We’re now seeing a huge interest in students wanting to build their own businesses. Some are launching brands and some are actually creating services offered to emerging brands, looking at how they create new value chains to support the needs of their fellow younger designers. It is changing the system entirely.
Digging deeper into the post-graduation success and use rate, do you think the industry is oversaturated with designers?
There will always be a place for designers in the world. Although, if we look specifically to fashion as we know it, the number of jobs in the traditional sense are still limited, but that doesn’t mean there is no need for designers outside of the typical fashion setting. I’ve seen fashion designers hired for jobs in innovation labs and R&D spaces both in fashion and other industries in order to bring a new way of thinking. Design thinking is being adopted to push innovation in many industries—even in areas like finance and technology. Because of this, the door is now open for to designers to find opportunities beyond the initial interdisciplinary avenue they intended. Some alumni have been hired by tech companies to help develop software solutions in that industry.
Innovation across the whole value chain is opening up new opportunities for designers, especially because there is a lack of knowledge around the space—the fact that designers are being hired is a sign of forward movement and their amount of value.
What research projects at Parsons have you found especially compelling and groundbreaking?
There are a couple of areas we are really trying to push boundaries in when it comes to looking for using design skills to find opportunities to bring a wider impact on society. To do that we have a few initiatives.
One example is a course we run at Parsons under Open StyleLab. It’s both a course and a lab in fashion that brings in a range of skills and knowledge from different communities. During this course, we focus on individuals with different abilities—people that may have disabilities that require them to dress differently, or wear different products for better mobility, and so on. During the course students work with their clients to provide them new solutions to their needs. We bring together designers, engineers, and occupational therapists to create products. After we’ve crafted the product we present them to the public and then think about how we can bring these solutions to the market. It’s great for designers because it forces them to put customers at the center of the conversation, use more universal design principles, and it opens up a dialogue around what designers can do beyond the runway.
It enables designers to look into areas that fashion doesn’t typically touch on.
Another course we ran with students was with a healthwear startup, to rethink the medical gown. We produced a new version that is accessible commercially at the right price point for all hospitals across the US. We entered a partnership with Care+Wear to produce these medical gowns—and worked with Zappos to sell it at wholesale through their digital platform. It is such a valuable lesson for designers to be able to create at scale in a way that is also accessible to a wider market. It’s about creating something that is not centered on what is trending, and it enables design students to be engaged with a greater fashion perspective and create in a larger manner.
The medical gown was the first product designed in the classroom that is a co-branded Parsons product, and a percentage of the sales go to support scholarships at the school—all of this shows designers the power and purpose in working together to create a larger impact.
Then there is our latest project with one of the UN agencies, UNFPA. Together with them and Hela Clothing—our manufacturing partners—we decided to create high absorbency undergarments to serve as a one-stop solution to support the needs of women during their menstrual period, specifically for those living in refugee camps. We were able to engage with people in the camps and design based on their needs, taking into account the cultural perspective as well as other elements such as water access, different body shapes, the climate, and so on. All of this went into the process in the classroom. This summer we went to the camps in Kenya that are on the border of South Sudan and tested the products, collecting additional feedback that informs this final round of design, which will lead to the production of 5,000 units that will be distributed in Kenya. Once we get more user input we will work with the UN to see if this product can be incorporated into the UN procurement system. It’s an incredible project that enables designers to address the livelihoods of these people—from reproductive rights to enabling girls to stay in school during their menstrual period. It’s another avenue in which we look at how design can play a humanitarian role in the world; how we can change the design process to work in a context that is larger than fashion.
With all of these projects we are teaching designers to not solely focus on what is next hitting the runway or what is the most desirable product or designer to work for—it’s the dream to have designers who have their own collections but also have another arm in the business so that they actually engage with society and the community in a way that has not been addressed.
New York City is a place that bestows lessons onto any and all who reside there. How do you see the city influencing the students at Parsons? How do the two work together to shape their education?
Part of the appeal of Parsons is the location, but components of city also come to life in our school—our mix of students truly represent the vibrancy and diversity of New York City. Over 50 percent of our students are international and we have representation from over 100 countries. The level of diversity gives students insight while in our building that is situated right on 5th Avenue—their time is between the streets of New York where the entire creative community is all around us, and then inside the classroom where the overall student body comes from all around the world. Even the various schools within the city lead to this incredible mix of young minds. It’s this alchemy of creation and existence that impacts each student’s understanding of how they can shape their identity and how this formation of self impacts their design work.
There is no other place in the United States that has so many cultural perspectives, from art to fashion and beyond. New York Fashion Week is a key element of the fashion experience globally, and we are able to give so much access to our students. They have the ability to see shows, work with the agencies and models to help out in backstage. There is this constant state of learning how the system works. And many students have internships on an ongoing basis, especially because there are so many options available. Most students in the EU do not have internships until they have graduated, yet here our top students graduate having done as many as 7 to 10 internships at some of the top brands in fashion—it’s such an important part of the Parsons experience that you cannot replicate anywhere else.
Parsons being located in NYC must conjure up a creative alchemy for young design students. Do you think Parsons is the school it is today because of its location?
I think it is 50-50. Where we are influences who we are, and who we have in the faculty also contributes to who we are, yet the city enables us to hire certain people. But as much as New York City is influencing Parsons, Parsons is also influencing the creative community within this city. We have graduates that hail from all over the world; it’s also incredible how many recent graduates from the past four years are presenting at New York Fashion Week—we’re embedded in this creative network in the city, bringing it all back in terms of creativity and diversity.
Like many other creative capitals, NYC has slowly shifted from a haven of opportunity to a pricey city. With this socio economic barrier in mind, do you think NYC and the schools within it are still accessible to creative kids coming from lower incomes?
One element of accessibility is around scholarships—financial aid is also an option. We have a program called Parsons Scholars, which is a pre-college program that focuses on young students from underrepresented backgrounds to have the opportunity to explore art & design in a college environment. It’s our hope that from there we will be able to have some of the participants join us at Parsons.
But no matter where you are coming from, it is all still expensive to live in a place like New York, and it’s no different from any other cosmopolitan city around the world. New York City brings so many cultural and creative elements into a compact space, which in turn pushes graduates to be much more innovative and creative, and some designers see this as an opportunity to find new solutions that are not out there. We have graduates who are even building small collectives to share studio spaces, services, and so much more so that they can support one another—they’re clued in to the needs and the ways in which they can fill in voids that are missing in the industry.
It all forces emerging designers to build communities, seek out innovative ways to work together, and create a larger community feel to help one another. They support one another inside and outside of school.
How do the Parsons students inspire you?
When I was working in the industry, I was getting to a point where I felt as if we were hitting a dead end and I wasn't sure that there were solutions and new thinking for the future. Coming into the school, I realized just how many young minds are out there that think of things so incredibly differently. No matter where they come from in the world, the younger generation is much more aligned in their thinking, and they view the future in a much different way than older generations. There’s also a bigger focus on sustainability, collaboration, and innovation—it’s not about creating more products and spending more money, it’s more about creating community-centric solutions.
We see this each and every year with our students and it keeps our hope going. I take this hope and continue working with our students to try and build these solutions so that they have the power to become scalable and address bigger needs all around us. Being in an academic institution is a relatively new journey for me, but I know that some of these solutions are already starting to grow. I have the ability to bring change directly from my position by working with the students who have these incredible ideas centered around change. I gain hope for the future by working with Parsons students, and I have the opportunity to turn the hope into something workable.