In 1964, Arthur C Clarke, science writer and futurist, predicted "the invention to end all inventions". He called "the replicator", a duplicating machine to create copies of anything at any time: "Confronted with such a device, society will probably sink into a kind of gluttonous barbarism because everybody would want unlimited quantities of everything since nothing would cost anything", warned Clarke.
Sixty years on, replicators are the norm. In the physical realm, we have 3D printing machines recreating items from digital files, and fast fashion making cheap copies on a large scale. But maybe the closest to Sir Arthur's replicator today is digital design. As digital twins, digital designed items can be perfect copies of any physical item. These items inhabit a virtual universe where there are no physical or creative limitations, because as Clarke said "the future is not merely an extension of the present".
New digital technologies are enhancing our opportunities in fashion ways previously unimagined. The metaverse, decentralised transactions like blockchain and especially NFTs, and the rise of Web3 are transforming the internet and therefore our world, from the creative, social and business perspectives. In this scenario, how should we educate fashion designers for a future workplace in the metaverse? We asked this and more questions to five key innovators in the field of fashion education.
Digital transformation driven by the fashion schools
"When you are 18 or 17, you don't know very much about the fashion industry. You have some ideas, some thoughts, but you expect to be driven by academia and what the program is going to offer," said Professor Jules Dagonet, Head of School, Fashion & Textiles at UCA (University for the Creative Arts) in London. Undergraduate students are looking for guidance when they first enter the fashion school, and the educational institutions should be prepared for it, showing them all the opportunities and alternatives for a fashion career.
To Dagonet, those students are eager to embrace digital fashion, but not exactly driving the change. Not as much as sustainability, "that's top of mind for them", she added. "It's very much the responsibility of education institutions to lead and to innovate in digital fashion, and then get the students on board with it".
But how can fashion schools lead innovation? To Dagonet, the answer is education: "we can't just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk. Not every staff member will know about CLO3D, Adobe Substance, all the new software that are being introduced to bring digital fashion to life, so it is our responsibility as an education institute to upskill all our staff members".
Teaching digital fashion design as a mindset
"Digitalization has to be embraced from point zero in the fashion curriculum", emphasized Leslie Holden, co-founder of The Digital Fashion Group, "but where to start? How to pivot towards a curriculum that embraces digital? How to ensure the quality, the student numbers, new methods, new skills, new collaboration, new curriculum with a team who perhaps have little or no digital skills? It's important to first understand the mindset and the skills will come after."
The digital mindset brings new business models and roles to be explored by fashion designers. According to Holden, "we need to train fashion educators to be able to teach designers how to be digital entrepreneurs with the right digital mindset." And he raises another question: "should we keep educating so many fashion designers for an old business model when employability is a key performance metric for fashion education these days?"
As pointed out by Sean Chiles, co-founder of The Digital Fashion Group, academia started to focus on the students' employment situation over the 30 years, moving from an artistic and research approach to business demands. This is related to government financing and its key performance metrics of job creation in each country.
For Shannon Sim, lecturer in the School of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts, in Singapore, "the old industrial revolution format for fashion education has to go, whether we like it or not. With students seated in a classroom, with the lecturer in front delivering the information they believe the student needs to learn, The student listens and absorbs without questioning. This has to change."
As defended by Chiles, "education and training are two separate things." Schools should go beyond meeting the demands of employers, as education is about "what you want to see, who you want to be, what you want to do, etc. For a designer, it is to create within your psyche, with what you feel about everything. And then we link to the zeitgeist with design and social interaction," said Chiles. "You can learn how to cut a pattern very quickly. What you need to learn is how this relates to the person and how this relates to society."
Digital fashion design and the collaborative skillset
When discussing the intersections of fashion and technology, it is essential to understand the social impact of what we are creating, as we are dealing with new and little explored virtual environments such as the metaverse. Chiles adds "the metaverse has to engage with design and creativity from the point of view of the creator and not the technologist. To understand how people create and how we can bring our ideas to this new world. And to achieve this, collaboration is key."
According to Maya Georgieva, Director of Education Futures/XReality Center at The New School in New York, the construction of these new spaces should be multidisciplinary. "We should ask our students to think like the architects and designers of these virtual spaces and worlds, and understand how to build by knowing what brings people there, and why they are driven to it. Let's encourage our students to think, to be entrepreneurial," said Georgieva.
And Sim observed: "in the same way gaming is transforming the world of fashion, the same potential could also be presented for education. We could all dive into these research areas and work together closely, collaborating with researchers from different disciplines, and sectors, as we shape a collaborative future for fashion education."