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What will the fashion school of the future look like?

By Marjorie van Elven


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Fashion |IN-DEPTH

The world has gone through massive changes in the last decade. Ten years ago the iPhone had been released just two years prior. Today, no less than 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, according to data from Pew Research Center, and smartphones are getting ubiquitous even in developing nations: smartphone penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa was estimated in 33 percent in 2018, up from 15 percent in 2014, according to GSMA's Mobile Economy report for Africa. But that’s just one on a long list of significant changes which also includes increased social media use and the fall of traditional media; social movements pushing for sustainability and inclusivity; the rise of freelance work and co-working spaces; and, of course, technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality.

All these transformations inevitably affect the fashion industry, pushing fashion professionals to keep up. While self-taught talents such as Virgil Abloh demonstrate one does not need a degree in fashion to succeed in the industry, universities still play a major role in preparing the next generation of professionals for the future. For this reason, FashionUnited has asked prominent names in fashion education to share what they think the fashion school of the future will look like. What skills will students be required to learn? In what ways will schools differ from the learning spaces we’re used to today? Here’s what they said:

Sustainability will become a mindset

“The next generation of creative leaders and thinkers will need to work in responsible, analytical and ingenious ways. They will need to tackle issues of over production and mass consumption, dwindling resources and the pressure of climate change”, said Farah Ahmad, Career Manager at London College of Fashion. For this reason, sustainability should become a mindset, something that pervades all aspects of design, from the materials used to the way clothes are built, as they will have to be made to last. “Schools must accustom students to think sustainably by default, as a turning point can only come from a change in mentality”, argues Danilo Venturi, Director of Italian fashion institute Polimoda.

Jason Kass, Associate Dean at the School of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, adds that fashion design should be more and more human-centered: students must be encouraged to approach design as a way of improving lives and the world in which they live. “The kinds of skills that fashion students should be acquiring now and into the near future have more to do with how they are thinking about and using design, rather than skills specific to a certain technique or process”, he says. For Kass, students should view technologies such as virtual garment simulation and 3D printing as a means for them to rethink the supply chain and lessen the environmental and human impact of fashion.

Obviously, the same goes for students following a management track. “Fashion businesses are changing right before our eyes and often need to adapt quickly to social, cultural, political, economic and environmental factors as they unfold”, says Kass. That’s why the Parsons School of Design is launching a new Masters in Fashion Management to prepare students for this new business landscape. “Our objective is for our students to challenge existing paradigms in order to come up with new models and approaches to fashion business. Ultimately and at this point in time, fashion businesses should bring value to the consumer while also making a positive contribution to society”. Additionally, the school has partnered up with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in a project that invited students to think of wearable solutions for underserved populations.

But Parsons isn’t the only school already taking measures to future-proof its curriculum. London College of Fashion is currently formulating a compulsory module for undergraduates called Better Lives, in which “some of the world’s most pressing issues” will be tackled, according to Ahmad. At TMO Fashion Business School, in the Netherlands, sustainability modules are also part of the mandatory curriculum. “Our curriculum includes a Fashion Awareness Project, in which students are invited to debate on social and environmental sustainability and visit sustainable production ateliers. At the end of the module, they are required to make a digital magazine about sustainable fashion”, explains the school’s Manager of Marketing & Communications, Arianne Goris.

What’s more, students themselves seem to be increasingly aware of their role in shaping a more responsible industry. “When asked to come up with a new business concept, most students turn up with projects to increase sustainability in the industry. They’re already doing that without us even asking”, celebrates Arianne. “I think those students will simply not want to work for companies which are not sustainable”.

Technology is crucial but will not replace craft

For Catherine Cole, Executive Director of Motif, an e-learning platform offering courses to fill skill gaps in the fashion industry, many fashion degrees offered by universities focus too much on the design and marketing aspects of fashion, failing to teach students technical skills which are just as useful. “Fashion schools have moved away from the technical design and engineering of products. Pattern markers are like architects, they’re like engineers”, she says. For her, it is crucial for universities to inspire the next generation to follow technical career paths.

Farah, from the London College of Fashion, agrees technical skills will become increasingly important. “We are seeing a rising demand for specialist knowledge in digital technologies, which is why LCF has set up the Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA), which has delivered award-winning projects in wearable technology, AR/VR and Blockchain, and are currently working on major developments within Nanotechnology, Internet of Things and Robotics. All of these areas will be absolutely essential for graduates who want to stay at the forefront of the industry”.

“It is a reality that current and future fashion students will need to have basic awareness of the value and use of data as well as its limitations”, adds Kass. “Rather than being number-oriented however, they will need to understand how data can be used to generate meaning and insights that can then be used to support business and creative decisions”. A point of view shared by Venturi, from Polimoda: “Technology changes with our evolution and is obsolescent. So the primary skill is knowing that you must be skilled. We can teach the latest technology – which we do, given Polimoda’s connection to major fashion brands and their production systems – but what really matters is that students are aware that technology is at the service of humanity and not its substitute”.

However, as important as digital technologies become, at the same time there is a growing interest in traditional craftsmanship. Many consumers are going for local, crafted products instead of generic, mass-produced options. Venturi predicts this trend to intensify, with craftsmanship rising as a distinctive sign, “even in its defects”. Kass agrees: “while there are platforms that allow students to construct patterns, drape and fit virtually, these will not entirely replace the need for hands-on training in the studio as we know it today. If anything, we may see the more traditional studio techniques being used in tandem with newer digital technologies and more hybrid learning models where students study through a combination of on-site and online education”.

Venturi mentions the Gucci Art Lab as an example of company bridging craftsmanship and technology the right way. “They rapidly produce luxury fashion, optimizing resources and controlling both quality and sustainability in what they are responsible for, maintaining a good balance between craftsmen’s skills and high technology. It’s worth visiting”.

Fashion schools to work more closely with companies and each other

The experts were unanimous: only by teaming up can the fashion industry face the aforementioned challenges and establish a sustainable mindset. Therefore, one can expect fashion schools to collaborate more with fashion businesses and other schools. “I think we’ll see more and more academic-corporate partnerships. Companies will help universities to create curriculums and course materials, and universities will equip companies with learning tools so employees can be continuously trained and remain relevant”, says Cole.

“London College of Fashion has always had strong ties with industry – in the future these relationships will remain central to the ethos of the college”, says Farah. “We recently launched an open access course in collaboration with Kering titled Fashion and Sustainability: Understanding Luxury Fashion in a Changing World which has received over 18,000 sign ups worldwide. This is a good example of how industry and education will increasingly work together in the future”.

We’ll be students forever

“A university degree used to set you for life. Not anymore. Technology changes so fast now that continuous learning has become more important today than it’s ever been”, says Cole. In short, the university diploma will not be the end, but rather just the beginning of a lifelong learning journey. “Therefore, it’s imperative to think of education outside the traditional campus. Not only should graduates change their mindset but employers should also get more involved by offering employees opportunities to update their skills or learn new ones”, concludes Cole, stressing the importance of such trainings for talent retention. “Studies show Millennial workers are most happy on the job when they can develop themselves. To many of them, that’s even more important than the salary”. We’ll be students forever, and we’ll like it.

To Venturi, regardless of their chosen career path, all fashion professionals will be facing the same challenge: how to entice consumers amidst an ever-growing flow of information and distractions. “The advice I can give to students is to learn how to make fashion that provokes emotions, create images that deeply touch, and talk to people to make sense of things, without being bewildered by four cross movements of their thumbs”.

Photos: Pexels, Courtesy of the Global Fashion Agenda, Courtesy of Alvanon, Pexels, Courtesy of Samsung

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