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Fashion |OPINION

Degrees of Separation; Studying Fashion

By Jackie Mallon

Apr 17, 2015

If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than 80,000 dollar, reported The New York Times this week. More than 70 percent of American families send their children to college and student loan debt is replacing credit card debt as the biggest drain on the nation’s finances. Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs redesigned our daily lives to the nth degree––with no degree. So is a degree necessary to succeed in the fashion industry?

"Is a degree necessary to succeed in the fashion industry?"

Here’s where I begin to argue myself, an educator, out of a job. There are a slew of prominent designers who have never been awarded that validating certificate adorned with calligraphic script, yet have unquestionably secured their places in the textbooks: Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Raf Simons, Alexander Wang, Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcons, Miuccia Prada, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Karl Lagerfeld, Michael Kors, Gianni and Donatella Versace...

Granted, some of the aforementioned initially pursued other studies and dropped out. You could argue that Raf Simons, with his studies in industrial furniture design, was already developing transferable skills, which could be reapplied to the creation of a jacket as opposed to a desk.

Several on the list followed siblings or parents into the family business, a tradition common in the Italian industry where the major houses of Prada, Missoni, Etro and Armani among others are multi-generational family enterprises. Among the downfalls of having shifted all American apparel manufacturing overseas is that our current generation can’t access such apprenticeships. So the Italian way of on-the-job family-run learning is not an option here in the US. Indeed, the way the country is going, it may soon become a shriveling option in Italy.

Others, like Karl Lagerfeld, won competitions or entered into apprenticeships and learned the trade from the ground up. Nowadays competitions like Joe’s Black Book, which, according to their website, “is committed to supporting and nurturing the next generation of designers” is only open to Juniors at the top US design schools. Li Edelkoort’s Dorothy Waxman Textile Design prize is “open to students from any country currently enrolled in a textile, fashion or knitting course.” The prestigious CFDA competition is also only open to students, but more specifically to students attending schools on a tiered list which every year is re-evaluated to ensure that only deserving institutions remain on the list.

Demand for fashion degrees spurred by popular TV shows and celebrity fashion lines

Demand for fashion degrees began to noticeably grow with the arrival of Project Runway and now that celebrities cite launching a fashion collection as an inevitable step in brand building, the trickle-down effect will no doubt continue. With high demand comes escalating costs. Tuition fees can be over three times a graduate’s first year’s salary. Like every previous boom and bubble, this situation might eventually “burst” but so far there are no signs of it.

Schools have reacted by operating like corporate businesses. They actively court international students who bring in the most money. The student is reduced to a financial statistic on an institution’s bottom line. When lured inside, the student becomes a customer to be satisfied. Whenever a student is upset by a tough critique, the instructor––experienced in the industry and knowing exactly what the student will be up against upon graduation––is often taken to task. Thus the school becomes more like an artists’ retreat. Now gravely in debt, the student exits. Are they equipped to face their toughest critique yet: the industry?

Dimitri Koumbis, Professor of Fashion at several leading New York schools and cofounder of e-retailer Bishop Collective, describes the fashion industry as “a system that takes no prisoners” but believes there are many ways to rise through its ranks. “Success does not come from a degree, but from one's ability to see the bigger picture and then from the ability to find one’s niche within it. An individual can learn the necessary skills through a conglomerate of previous work and/or life experiences. While a higher ed degree can get you closer to your goals, it is not the sole deliverer of success.”

But starting out, what chance does the average twenty-year-old have who is without a network of contacts or much life experience to speak of but who possesses a passion for fashion, drawing, sewing? Is the romantic notion of hauling oneself up with the aid of one’s bootstraps even possible anymore? Deborah Park, VP of Business Development at CLO, believes that, for a certain type of person, it is. She began her career five years ago, has worked with Jason Wu and Ralph Lauren, and holds no fashion degree. “I think it's really difficult to commit to a career path when you're so young,” she says.

The fashion industry is “a system that takes no prisoners”

“I was so certain I wanted to become an architect right out of high school, and spent the next 5 years working towards a professional degree at one of the toughest, most prestigious programs in the country.” When a profound change of heart redirected her towards fashion, she was challenged to forge her own route. “I worked really, really hard to survive. My first week after moving to NY, I took on 3 unpaid internships simultaneously––PR, sales, design––to see what I liked most. I ended up dropping the other internships to focus on design, and spent the next 2 years at a menswear startup, doing everything from design development, production, sales, marketing, PR, P&L reports, investment decks, even hand-packed and shipped every one of our orders.”

So an apprenticeship is still an option, I conclude, hopeful, before listening to the extent of “hands-on” training to which she devoted herself: “Not having a fashion degree certainly felt like a huge obstacle when I started applying for design jobs. I had casually taken a couple of fashion drawing and pattern making courses while I was still in architecture school, but had nothing close to a design portfolio, and it took me a while to get to that point. I did end up getting a job offer from a now well-known RTW brand, but decided to turn it down to go work for the brand's garment factory instead. Thing is I knew I lacked knowledge of pattern making and garment construction. So I spent a year, literally working sweatshop hours in the Garment District, absorbing everything I could at the factory.”

Although hard won, it sounds like the ideal formula for success; the old-fashioned method of education by doing. There are other ways to gain it. Students from Kent State’s bachelor program, who study for a semester in the school’s NYC studio, must fit in at least one internship while they're in the city, some manage multiple. They, like Deborah, are “absorbing everything” inside companies ranging from Cynthia Rowley to Phillip Lim, working on collections from activewear to lingerie. The placements are arranged by the school, however, which has long standing connections to the industry.

Fashion schools help provide students with building much needed networks within the industry

Elisabetta Berla, founding partner of international headhunting agency, Between Design Research, with offices in Milan and Shanghai placing designers in positions all over the world, reiterates the need for connections. It’s still a question of not only what you know but who you know. “Fashion schools build networks with the professional field: industry, fashion houses, well known brands, promoting workshops during the school period, internship after graduation which then become the first steps into a career. Without these links, students have to struggle very hard to get that first name on their CV.”

Those first professional connections add value to the resume which then attracts other companies’ interest. So with the dizzying choice available––associate, Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts, master’s––I wonder if the type of degree is more important, or where you earn it? I am often asked by students studying for an associate degree if they need to get a bachelor’s afterwards. They undergo two exhausting years of intensive study during which their heads are crammed with industry-driven skills in a highly focused curriculum with no downtime; no “fluff.” I recall for my bachelor’s there were options to study outlier subjects such as Italian or Non Fiction Creative Writing. Not for these guys. All their classes revolve around the specific skills needed to work in the US fashion industry. But, still, is an associates-level degree considered inferior in an industry known for snobbery and elitism?

Berla says, “Our clients are not particularly interested in the graduation information; it’s the schools that are crucial to opening doors to the working system. From my experience, if I work backwards, I observe that a CV from a highly qualified designer will almost always have as a starting point, one of the well known fashion schools.”

Another factor to weigh is how the time spent studying a degree can be invaluable in developing a designer’s discipline and aesthetic. A burgeoning designer hoping to identify his vision while working in the vacuum of his parent’s suburban basement must be at a disadvantage over a student creating in a competitive environment right in the heart of a fashion capital.

“The momentum you gain from applying yourself everyday and working on project after project is crucial to the creative process"

“The momentum you gain from applying yourself everyday and working on project after project is crucial to the creative process,” says Design Manager Corinne Lent, who graduated in fashion design from Parsons a decade ago. “The more you make, the better you get and the more confidence you have. Some people can do this on their own, but for me I needed the deadlines and motivation that school supplied.”

However, she also presents the case that having a degree is no guarantee of a straightforward, smooth career. “I found myself skipping around from job to job. And with the struggle our economy had, I had gotten laid off. I decided I didn't want to dive back into the same world. Not only that, I couldn't. I wasn't finding work. At 30 years old I went back to school full time and studied textile design, receiving an associate degree. When I graduated I had a job in my new industry within a month or two.” So sometimes the answer can be another degree.

At the end of the 90s when I graduated, I knew that having a master’s from St Martin’s on my resume was the sole reason I was invited into all the big Parisian and Milanese studios to present my portfolio. That and the fact that I just wouldn’t cease telephoning. I had hoped, however, that in this era of reality TV stars fronting Chanel campaigns we might be living in a more democratic time and there would be other avenues. To a large degree, nothing has changed.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.