Failure to Launch

Is Fashion Education Failing Young Designers?

As the graduate fashion showcase circuit rolls around, student designers are working hard to put the finishing touches to their final collections before making their personal and professional debuts into the industry. In a year when fashion has made more self-reflexive changes to its larger system than ever before, do the institutions where designers are nurtured need to catch up and respond to the needs of the industry at large? Is fashion education still skill-based? Does it need to be? Has it become so broad in focus that it’s lost all sense of specialism? Degree or disagree.

It’s a cyclic conversation that seems to arise ever year, when graduate show season steals focus and thousands of fashion graduates in the UK and beyond vie for the scarcely available jobs as designers at fashion houses. The question of whether we are producing too many fashion designers is a tired one and the answer is all too complicated. There are around 4,000 fashion graduates each year and only 500 jobs, so the blunt response is yes. However, the idea fashion is a vocational degree is erroneously outdated. Today, fashion designers are required to be multi-faceted creatives and, while fashion degrees and institutions could certainly do more to prepare designers with more entrepreneurial skills, the fashion industry is a changing beast. Young designers are constantly told to keep abreast of the communication of fashion, the science, the ethics and the business, not to mention the vital creative and technical skills it takes to form and finish designs from concept to completion. 

At the upper echelons of the industry, the demand for designers to serve as creative directors, business heads, image makers and the faces of an empire have seen many said designers drop out of high-profile, coveted positions without hesitation. Fashion students are supposedly trained to be well prepared and understand the complexity and spread of the global creative industries but is it more beneficial for budding designers to have a basic priming of the industry’s comprehensive needs instead and actually just spend their degree in practice developing areas of specialist interest?

Far too many graduates leave institutions dissatisfied despite the fact UK universities and fashion schools are cited as the best in the world. According to annual satisfaction surveys, career paths are not adequately explained, there is a lack of technical classes like pattern cutting and business training is not even addressed. In an interview with The Guardian, Sarah Mower MBE ('s Chief Critic) says, “a huge skills gap is opening up – pattern cutting has gone by the board in many colleges, while the design houses are crying out for skilled pattern cutters and pay good money. People come out having designed a collection but it is the technician who has sewn it.”

According to Skillfast, the sector skills council for fashion and textiles, year on year, the industry struggles to recruit new blood with the right skill set. Simply put, universities are not teaching students the fundamental skills they need to work in the fashion industry. A broader vision of the fashion industry might seem to cry out for hybrid creatives and perhaps institutions have adapted accordingly, because on a macro-scale students are failing to learn basic techniques. Perhaps, the employment figures post-university are so dismal because fashion institutions have ignored integral parts of the industry such as manufacturing. Linda Florance, chief executive of Skillfast tells The Guardian, “manufacturing output is failing because its businesses compete for highly skilled people with a broad range of practical talents but the education and training system just isn't delivering enough of them and employers are increasingly concerned.”

While previous generations have long cried that spreading yourself across a range of pursuits will result only in a superficial insight into each, today’s generation of steadfast digital natives are comfortable multi-tasking with track-pad conviction and motivated by constant acceleration due to the very architecture of their upbringing. There are certainly opportunities for a new wave of young, thirsty millennial graduates keen to manifest their creativity and skills in a multitude of ways to thrive, yet the fate of fashion's polymathic role models – from Raf Simons to Hedi Slimane’s recent decisions to give up envious positions at storied fashion houses - suggest something is wrong. So, what are the lessons to be learned here?

Fashion’s most prolific success stories trending today demonstrate the need to refine the definition of the designer; from Vetements to Christopher Kane, brands are making clearer distinctions between the creative and business arms of their output. Stella McCartney employs art directors and image directors at the very top of its board to take responsibility for the brand’s finite visual direction and decisions. This is no new concept: “Many, if not most, of the great creatives in fashion have been poor at business, from Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent. The solution may not be to teach them business but to help them find the right partner — just as YSL found Pierre Bergé,” says Roger Tredre, an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins, in conversation with The Guardian.

John Bates, director of the University of the Arts London’s Centre for Creative Business and adjunct professor at London Business School, has begun a New Creative Ventures course designed to establish a “common language” between the University of the Arts London’s post-graduate students and London Business School’s M.B.A. students. Perhaps finding the right partner is an obvious solution to the critical problem that fledgling designers lack the imperative business skills needed to launch labels on their own. For so many young designers who attempt to launch labels straight out of school, their entire business models are based on winning competitions to secure funding and working with platforms and bodies to support them. While such a strategy is a real possibility for a rare crop of London-based talent, given the UK’s wealth of support available to propel emerging designers, it’s still a completely flawed business strategy and one almost certainly destined for failure.NJAL’s community of emerging design talent around the world is a testament to usurping convention, breaking boundaries and working as modern day polymaths fluent in design, business, PR, ethics and more. The reality is that starting your own label at a young age means you need to be your own business arm, your own PR, your own everything and it’s a difficult momentum to sustain for a long time without taking any time to develop both personally and professionally. Anna Wintour, fashion’s first lady and Editorial Director of Condé Nast had some harsh advice for students earlier this year, namely to stop dreaming about setting up your own line and get a job already. NJAL says don’t stop dreaming, and potentially do both, or simply work a job that allows you to sustain a strategy to one day set up your own label. As Wintour herself proclaimed, there is just never one road.

If more and more young designers want to go out on their own and launch their own labels, then there is no question that fashion education needs to be radically reformed. A degree in fashion has to allow time for constant development, self-questioning, challenge and reflection. Why does the end product have to be a final collection that students shell out hundreds to thousands of pounds on to realise? To simply mimic dated industry constructs of seasonality and traditional fashion showcasing and rules that might not ever apply to them in the future? There should be choice and flexibility.

How else can we empower students to demonstrate that they’ve worked towards honing a specialist skill, interest, an area of focus or aesthetic and technical investigation? Instead of being asked to learn and absorb everything in just three short years without dedication to anything but a fleeting module, temporary project and hastily realised final collection – what is the alternative? With the coming insurrection of Generation Z, is the tired, bureaucratic system of traditional education at university-level really going to serve the needs of a new breed of creatives in practice?