Disruptors in Fashion Education: An Interview with Minna Cheung
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND WHAT LED YOU TO LAMK.
I’ve always been very interested in fashion but I ended up studying marketing. After graduating I got a job as an assistant buyer for fashion and accessories. A few years later I continued my studies on fashion design in Aalto University in Helsinki. Back in the end of the eighties it was known as University of Industrial Arts. Having degrees in marketing and design was very rare during that time.
After different assignments my partner and I launched our own collection, 2OR+BYYAT, and opened all together three stores in Helsinki and Lahti, Finland. My role was more on the strategic design and retail activities including export and import whereas my partner took responsibility on the design studio and production activities. Surely, in a small company you need to do a lot of different kinds of things and teamwork is essential. We were exporting our collection to exotic places like Greenland and the Faroe Islands among more traditional fashion countries.
About ten years ago I was invited to run a course in both Aalto as well as in LAMK. The course was about creating a design concept. I hadn’t thought about having a career in education but I found working with young people, the future designers, very inspiring. On the other hand, I thought I have something to offer to them due to my cross-disciplinary background. When the position of a senior lecturer and program coordinator was open in LAMK, I decided to apply and here I am.
FROM SUSTAINABLE DESIGN TO INNOVATIONS IN WEARABLE DESIGN, WE LIVE IN A FUTURE-FOCUSED STATE OF FASHION THAT IS AT ODDS WITH THE FAST-FASHION CYCLE. FROM SPECIFIC COURSES TO BROADER INITIATIVES THAT ENCOURAGE NEW AVENUES OF DESIGN, IN WHAT WAYS DOES THIS SPECTRUM OF CREATION BLEED INTO THE LAMK DESIGN ENVIRONMENT?
The design environment in LAMK Institute of Design emphasises future orientation yet acceptance of the requirements of the real world where products are manufactured and consumed. Design concepts created by students are encouraged to balance one’s own artistic vision, user-experience, sustainability with commercial aspects. Sustainability, circle economy issues are in the core of the curriculum.
Actually, I think changing the name of the program from Fashion design to Wearable design gives a more profound explanation of what we are aiming for. Wearable design covers more than what is traditionally defined as fashion. It still covers fashion design but also accessories design, functional wear design, workwear design, smart materials and products. Sustainability and circularity of materials and products are included in all of these subjects.
Also, LAMK will merge with another University of Applied Sciences by the end of 2019. We’ll start next year as LAB University of Applied Sciences. Even though LAB is not for laboratories, it quite nicely fits for the same mentality of doing research and experiment for the future.
DO YOU THINK A CROSS-DISCIPLINARY LEARNING ENVIRONMENT IS A NECESSITY FOR DESIGN STUDENTS? WHY?
As mentioned before, design tasks in the future will be more complex. Professional teams are already now including specialists with different expertise or point of view. Cross-disciplinary learning environment helps finding new solutions to the complex design briefs. It is quite rare that one person owns such a wide and deep knowledge, skills and competence.
HOW DO YOU WORK TO EMPOWER YOUR STUDENTS TO EXPERIMENT AND DEFY WHAT’S EXPECTED?
The design brief, task and assessment criteria should be very clear so that the students know what is expected. They have the freedom to proceed and conduct the design process independently with the possibility to meet the tutor when needed. Good working studios and other facilities are essential to experiment. We moved to a new campus one year ago. Studios are still brand new, in some cases multifunctional and developing according to the need.
Inspiring lectures and studio visits are organized during the process in order to keep up the spirit. We also work quite a lot with companies and start-ups. According to the student feedback collaborations give an extra boost to meeting the requirements.
FASHION DESIGN CURRICULUM CAN OFTENTIMES BE VIEWED AS A CONVERSATION AND CELEBRATION OF CREATIVE IDEAS. HOW DOES LAMK WORK WITHIN THIS IDEAL?
In the big picture, there are different kinds of creativity. We try to empower each student to find his/hers own creativity whether it is artistic, strategic, productive, business, etc. We are working on design for systemic change and that really requires creativity.
Creativity in terms of ideas and style is an important part of the final product as it is important that the item is also desirable for the user. Creativity is the air to breathe for a designer. As an educational institution we need to do whatever we can to provide this air.
WHAT DOES LAHTI BRING TO A DESIGNER’S EDUCATION THAT ISN’T AVAILABLE IN MORE TRADITIONAL FASHION CAPITALS SUCH AS NEW YORK, LONDON OR PARIS? HOW DOES LAHTI INSPIRE AND INFORM THE CURRICULUM?
Maybe, because we don’t have similar long traditions in fashion as New York, London or Paris it is easier to work for the design for systemic change. For example, sustainability and research for circular economy has been included in the curriculum in LAMK for quite a long time already. Like in Scandinavia in general. It is very natural for students to consider sustainability aspects of the products they design. Sustainability issues are implemented in course contents from the first year onwards.
Design for circularity and considering the life cycle of a product are included in nearly everything we do.
I can’t help myself not to mention that Lahti was just awarded as the European Green Capital of 2021. This means both reward for what has been done as well as pressure to improve for the future. It’s an ongoing process.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF A DESIGN EDUCATION?
The most important part of a design education is to build a curious yet critical mind. It is essential for a designer to update his/hers knowledge and skills regularly. I would like a student of LAMK Institute of design to be both a nonaligned researcher and an artist.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE YOUR STUDENTS FOR THE REALITIES OF THE INDUSTRY AHEAD?
I think the most important is the five to six months internship which is a compulsory part of the studies. It can be divided into a shorter period for example into two in order to work in different kinds of companies and it can be done in Finland or abroad. We also collaborate with companies and start-ups within other courses. Design brief is provided by the company. Students receive feedback directly from professionals and they need to meet the requirements and schedules of the real industry.
National and international projects have become more important during the few last years and probably even more important in the future. At the moment for example we are part of a national project called Telaketju2 which is a research project covering issues like designing for circularity and the business possibilities of circular fashion including textiles. We are in charge of the design part where the tasks are divided into three different topics; designing for longevity (products which are difficult to recycle e.g. functional clothing), designing products with recycled materials and designing products for circularity.
Some students have registered their own micro companies and they can combine some courses and projects to the real challenges of what they meet.
AS AN EDUCATOR OF THE NEXT GENERATION OF DESIGNERS, WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT THE FUTURE OF FASHION AND THE NEW VOICES THAT WILL WORK IN THE INDUSTRY?
I’m very excited about the new ways of doing fashion. By this I mean the whole life cycle of a product from producing materials, designing, manufacturing, purchasing and consuming. Fashion will be much more than just the style. Surely, aesthetics will always be important. It is no point to produce products that nobody wants. All the good efforts would be effortless.