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The Cultural Divide- American vs European Fashion Education

By Jackie Mallon

Sep 2, 2015

Walter Van Beirendonck said this week in an op-ed piece in the Business of Fashion that fashion students should not receive more business training. “We must do everything we can to prioritise creativity in fashion education,” he explained, “it is the thing that keeps the industry going.”

That I can’t make this statement without reservation is something that saddens me. The reality that encroaches on this vision of an artistic utopia is right outside my midtown Manhattan classroom window. Although fashion as an industry is often referred to as global, the fast fashion phenomenon has created a cultural divide between Europe and the US that is wider than ever. Historically, the American fashion industry paid homage to the Parisian houses by bringing new couture styles home to be manufactured for the US market. The Wall Street Crash of 1929, wartime unrest, combined with other contributing factors led to strides being made during the inter-war years that improved production and created a domestic ready-to-wear industry that financially exceeded the European one. There was no turning back. As the city’s skyline touched the clouds, the seeds were sewn for the apparel industry that we know today to spring up and usurp the spot reserved for a fashion industry.

Creativity is not the thing that keeps the US fashion industry running, capitalism is

Educated in London and having spent a large portion of my career designing in Europe, before working and then becoming an educator in the U.S., I experienced the baptism of fire that my students face upon graduation much later. Creativity is not the thing that keeps the U.S. fashion industry running, capitalism is. Money is the root of all endeavour. And capitalism corrupts creativity.

If we support the idea that fashion is an art form, even an applied art form (and I certainly do) then a decent number of students––the most creative exciting ones–-are underserved not by the education system here but by the avaricious US fashion industry which primarily exists to churn out glossily merchandised, irresponsibly and sloppily designed generic product. Landfills’ worth of the stuff. It’s essentially money for old rope, as we say in the UK.

Yet as educators we applaud our most uniquely gifted students, the ones that could hold their own among Europe’s finest graduates, offering them prime position in end-of-year fashion shows, awarding them titles and accolades. Their garments are featured on websites and WWD might even give them a write-up.

Then what? Where do they go when we release them with a congratulatory clap on the back into the wilds of the industry stateside? Are we guilty of encouraging the equivalent of champagne tastes on a beer budget? John Galliano dreams in a Macy’s reality?

Van Beirendonck who is head of fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp also had this to say, “That’s where most of our students end up — at the house of Balenciaga, the house of Dior. But they get there mainly because of their creativity; not for their business acumen.”

That’s nice. The majority of fashion students in the top American schools will not end up in these houses, but not for lack of creativity. There are practical roadblocks to this gilded highway, tolls to pay. Most European fashion houses do not welcome the extra hassle of sponsoring a work visa for someone fresh out of a U.S. programme when they can tap the schools closer to home. There are industry collaborations in both the Parsons and FIT programmes, and in many other schools across the country, which result in awards and sponsorships for the winning students but only rarely do they lead to longterm employment. Upon graduation, my students can’t do like I did, and take off on a dirt cheap one-way Ryanair flight to Paris or Milan to test the waters with their portfolio. Most of them are stuck with what’s available here.

But what about homegrown talent? In business terms, they get what I can only call a raw deal

Yet from my experience as a working designer in the U.S., I’m aware of the high leverage candidates with “European design experience” possess in this job market, indeed have benefitted from it myself. These well-travelled portfolios seem to exude a frisson of luxury and exoticism that makes HR managers in their skyscraper cubicles salivate and fumble for the phone: I have someone in front of me I really think you should see...

But what about homegrown talent? In business terms, they get what I can only call a raw deal.

Clothing design is predominantly straightforward in the US. Is it a dress or a pant? Is it contemporary or bridge? Ceci n’est pas une pipe is not a concept that goes over well here. Ambiguity does not breed mystery, just misunderstanding. Branding and merchandising is subdivided into such labyrinthine categories that students have no option but to understand this language early because to fall between the cracks of the categories means to have no place.

Parsons’ 2012 decision to revolutionise its curriculum to reflect a more experimental concept-based approach to design caused uproar with many detractors lamenting that it was mimicking the UK schools, favouring unwearable eccentric fashion over technically sound offerings readily suited to the marketplace. Some of my fellow educators might react to images of the St Martin’s graduate show with horror (British fashion schools occupy two of the top three spots in the recently published BoF list of global rankings in both the undergraduate and Masters programmes; Van Beirendonck’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts takes third spot on the Masters list), but I can understand where they’re coming from. The exuberance of idea over product is simply overwhelming, assaultive and, well, bad for business. In other words, it’s an insult to their culture.

While I might personally disagree with this response, I feel a huge responsibility to my students to deliver an education aimed not at the industry as I want it to be, not how it is across the pond, nor even how it was in my day, but how it is now. It’s the least my students deserve. It is literally the very least.

So bring on the business education. Lather on the merchandising and marketing and ramp up the branding. I’ll grieve personally on behalf of these talented, poetic, artistic individuals for what is lost to them, but I’d rather see them gain employment. After all, what is the alternative?

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.