This article is part of “The State of Presence Report”, a series of interviews with experts in different areas, analysing the current state of our industry due to pandemic. We believe that these times require absolute focus on the present to be fully aware, and, together, we are trying to figure out what is going to happen in a world after COVID-19.
“This crisis has somehow amplified such transformative urgency, which can’t be deferred anymore”, said Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, in a recent post on his personal Instagram profile. His thoughts on the lockdown and its consequences for the fashion industry led to a huge decision for the Kering-owned brand: Gucci is letting go of seasonality and presenting only two collections a year, not the winter/summer model. They will be developing a new creative format they’ve called chapters, “blending rules and genres, feeding on new spaces, linguistic codes and communication platforms”, reveals Michele in the same publication.
Before Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent announced that it has opted out of Paris Fashion Week and is taking control of its own calendar. The two brands are opening room to rethink the fashion system. It is not only about shifting the shows into digital platforms, it is about recreating the whole system from the core, from creation processes to production. Retail solutions and fashion shows are a part of it, but not everything.
The process of digitalisation in the fashion industry is more than making virtual shows or investing in ecommerce platforms. Doing this, we are simply mirroring the existing system, creating a simulation of reality, in the words of the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981). For the author, products are actually a simulacra of themselves, copies that no longer have an original. It is part of a mass consumption society, where the consumer doesn’t choose the product by its function, but to be a member of an exclusive group. Before Baudrillard, Marx approached similar processes, calling it commodity fetishism (Capital, 1867).
What leads to another conclusion:
What if it could be more? What if digital fashion could be a completely different industry? Fully sustainable, with its own aesthetics, process, integrated with technology starting from the core, and not only as a layer on top of the old practices?
We can only achieve that through education.
We talked about the future of fashion education with Leslie Holden and Sean Chiles, two innovative, experienced and wonderful educators who are also traditionally trained fashion designers.
Sean and Leslie have worked together for many years first at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute and more recently as co-founders of The Digital Fashion Group. Both have faced same challenges recently in their role as educators: how to teach the students the future of fashion? If we see the industry in digitalisation, requiring 3D designers and more technical roles, are we preparing our students to respond to this demand? If Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent are withdrawing their participation in fashion weeks, why are we still requiring a catwalk from the students as end-of-course required work for a degree?
More than ever, we need a core conversation on the future of fashion education:
ThePowerHouse: Concerning Fashion Education, we are already going through some changes, especially regarding the notion of sustainability in the fashion processes. For you, what is the biggest change happening right now?
Leslie Holden: About four years ago, I was giving a keynote speech at the Fashion Summit in Brussels, and I opened it by saying, “I cannot justify educating students any longer to perpetuate an old business model of one of the second biggest polluting industries on the planet.” At that time, what I saw was the speeding up of the effect of industry understanding on the definition of sustainability, and why it is urgently important. And I saw education not knowing what to do with this.
I have a huge network of colleagues in education all around the world, and one of the things that surprise me often is the difficulties that they’re going through and understanding where to start with something like sustainability. On the one hand, one shouldn’t need to talk about sustainability anymore. It should just be there and it should be happening. But in reality, in education, that’s not the case. Still, for the majority, there isn’t an understanding of how to teach sustainability.
What we’ve seen is, a lot of fashion education institutions encouraging the students to do it but they’re not really teaching anything about sustainability. Or, they’re not really placing themselves in any kind of position with sustainability. They’re not claiming or saying this is what we do, or that this is our intention for education. They’re letting it happen. And often, the students get something in contextual studies in their first year, and then nothing else until they do the collection at the end of the third year.
At this point, the students will need an industry level fabric, with all the sustainable requirements. But they can’t have it, because there’s no way they can afford it. It’s expensive, and you can’t just easily find in retail. Education hasn’t worked quickly enough for understanding how to help the students to be innovative through sustainability. On top of that, we’ve got digitization coming through very fast, and education is not prepared for this tsunami.
The majority of people who are teaching the courses are certainly not digital natives, and they are not sure about what to do with this digitization. So what do you do with sustainability? Just forget about it and go for digitization? But there is no point to doing digitization without a foundation on sustainability.
The fashion industry is still based on 19th century tailoring techniques, and we are still teaching people using this format. An education system takes a long time to change and develop, because there’s a lot of bureaucracy, too. At the end of the day, education has not been student-focused enough, and not even industry-focused enough. Education has to be leading the industry, in the sense of providing a space for new thoughts, new ideas, and new inspirations, to help the industry move on.
TPH: Most of the time, as educators, when we push students to be innovative, we’re thinking about new shapes, patterns, and so on, but all going into the same system. We’re not talking about critical thinking or having them disrupting the system. How do we overcome an old educational practice and inspire innovation?
LH: Yes, we give them incentive to just do the same thing again. There’s nothing new and there’s nothing innovative in that. The final exams are still a catwalk, it’s the system. And it’s difficult to get out of the system; it is an old business model.
Sean Chiles: I think, Leslie, that you hit the nail on the head. It’s the system, and not only the industrial system that we have in retail, but we also have a system in education. We have to go through two or three committees to change, and it’s perpetuated by many things at the moment, including the funding mechanism of education. That’s a key element of it, because education is an expensive thing to deliver, at the end of the day. And yet, the focus is always on trying to make it affordable for students in most countries.
I think one thing that we really missed, and you touched on it, Leslie, when you talked about how we develop education, is the flexibility in being able to deliver, but maintain quality. One of the things about the educational establishment, and the reason why we have to go through committees to change something, is safeguarding the qualification standards.
Quality is delivered if the right people and the right methods are involved. Why not apply flexibility to this, to enable things to change quickly and respond to the needs of the market? We are missing true collaboration with parties, not just with the industry. Why don’t we get biotechnology and chemists involved? Education tends to be in silos, and not only is it in a silo, but it’s in a silo in terms of how you collaborate with others outside.
The traditional collaboration for fashion design development has always been with the textile industry. They will give you fabric to use in your programme. And that’s it, that’s how collaboration has been. Plus there are internships for the students. But there’s very little beyond that. This is one of the areas where it really does need to change.
Today, the students that come into these systems do collaborate socially with each other, and with lots of other people, through technology. They are living their lives in a different way. Maybe they’re no longer focused on owning things, instead, they want to rent things. The economy has changed. It’s about how we now bring all of that together. I think, going forward, there will be a new way of learning, a new way of developing fashion, a new way of getting a degree.
LH: The time is right to reconsider fashion education, because it’s just not producing the required skill sets. The industry needs to move forward. What students are getting taught today is not relevant for tomorrow.
TPH: If we’re not teaching the students these required skills, which skills do we need to teach them? And who is going to teach them?
LH: I believe we need to flip everything upside down; it’s another mindset for learning. We’re still teaching students in a very old Industrial Revolution form of education, as if we were in the 19th century. Students sit there, we give them all the information, they listen and they learn. It’s basically a master and apprentice format. When we change the mindset of education, the teacher will be less of a sage on the stage and more of a guide on the side.
Students are developing their own learning more than being told how to do it all the time. For example, they go to school or university, they listen to what is said, and then they go home and and learn more on YouTube. It is about embracing another form of education.
And of course, we’ve all invested so heavily in these huge universities that are also huge businesses. It’s very difficult to unpack it all, but I really believe that that’s what we’ve got to do. Different formats, different ways of education, more flexibility, more customer orientated, more student focused. This is how you break that business down into different kinds of business models and create different ways of learning.
We talk about lifelong learning all the time, but it’s not really happening. We’re still very much focused on people leaving school, going to university, doing four years, six years, and coming out. That’s your learning, done.
How do we actually, as a society, rapidly embrace lifelong learning where a student doesn’t go to one university for four years to get a degree? What if the students can decide to build up credit points throughout their life? “I did 30 ECTS in London College of Fashion in this, I did more than 30 ECTS at FIT in New York in that, I did 20 ECTS in Melbourne in whatever. Overall, I have 300 ECTS, at a master’s level. But they are not coming from one university.” It could be built up with different experiences and learnings, in different ways and kinds of systems. I believe that we should be redefining what education means, nowadays, and within our business models.
SC: It’s a redefinition of what it is and where it goes. You can put a portfolio together for professional development, for example, and gain credits and be recognised for that. You could study somewhere for a module, and somewhere else for another, as long as you’re passing your modules and you’re proving that you can learn from it and that you can contribute with something afterward.
Education is a system that is also perpetuating itself. In order to be able to teach in certain universities, or in certain courses and programs, before you only needed to possess a degree of your own in that subject. Now, you need a master’s, a postgraduate certificate, a Ph.D. Without that, you can’t go on further within it. That’s the system that continually perpetuates itself.
Now, we’re at a point where that’s the kind of thing that should change, and what can come out of it is perhaps more of a democratisation of education, because it isn’t available to everybody. And the further we go, year by year, the systems that used to allow people from poor backgrounds to study by having a scholarship or a grant, in Europe, is going to the American system where everybody takes loans out and spend 50 years paying it back. There needs to be an alternative.
Allied to that, it’s about education paths within certain universities or programmes that also have or seek to have an identity. You can identify designers, particularly fashion designers, by saying they went to the Royal College, to St. Martin’s. They went to this model we recognize, because these places are trying to develop an identity for the designer that comes out of them, as well.
I still believe that’s an important thing in creative development, but then, one of the issues to face going forward is, if you change the education system, and make it more diverse, what happens to the identity element? Somebody who comes from a particular university has a certain discipline. And if you’re applying for a job, or you’re going to start your own business, people understand that you have that discipline, that you will work in a particular way.
One of the key questions is, what happens to that? Can you work with this in a different way, with people who are learning in different places?
TPH: But in terms of decentralizing education, are we creating incentives for a more prominent voice for the designer him/herself and not the school?
SC: The success of a university program, recognised for being a great fashion school, is actually built on the ability to select the students. If you take the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, for example, it has 1400 applicants and 400 places. Most of the very successful national colleges have at least that number, if not more. You can do an eight to one selection. Everybody is given a task to do for the application and shows his/her own portfolio. The educational establishment chooses the person, to a certain extent, who fits into what you’re actually looking for within the identity of this program. This even though that student coming in has an individual identity.
LH: It’s also very much linked to the identity of the people who are doing the interviews. What their vision of what identity is and what their vision is of themselves. It’s about brand awareness. When we’re talking about a future where there isn’t the same necessity for brand awareness of education, then where is the relationship in that community? Is it much more to do with industry-leading education?
We’re talking about a future of lifelong learning, it’s about picking a mix of experiences that you put together with your own learning path, your own personal development plan. Could it be like an organisation who works with you on your personal development plan, and then subcontracts it out to different other universities which are interesting to you? It’s about bringing another kind of business model here to turn it upside down. Education is then removed from that position of power where it’s allowed to dictate everything. Maybe we will see some new companies coming in, as Uber did with transportation, to actually reposition how education is considered.
SC: In traditional education, there is this element that things should be deep. Is this element of integrity in what you do and how you do it, when you are in the same place for three years, following the programme? The way that you’re engaged with teachers and tutors is about ensuring that you’ve got this deep base and this integrity. This is how art education works. This is not about the technical side, when you’re learning how to sew, how to draw. That’s a given; at the end of the day, you learn how to use a sewing machine, you learn how to cut patterns. But the rest is about understanding psychology as well, and how people work, how creativity works, and how you have to get the best from yourself. If we move to a flexible model of education, one of the key things is trying to work on how you get that, how do you maintain that? I think it is possible to do, but we have to reinvent art education in a way, particularly from the fashion perspective. But maybe the institutions, especially here in Europe, are not at that point.
This is only the beginning of a more and much more deep conversation about the future of fashion designs schools. As we’ve said in the first lines of this article, the crisis revealed the need of changing the fashion system, and we are thinking about changing it from its co, through education.
Thank you Leslie Holden and Sean Chiles for such a honest and open conversation on these delicate topics. We’re eager to see progress on this innovative system soon!