With a couple of articles coming out recently about fashion interns and assistants (links below), and an emphasis on fashion as a viable career choice, the subject of fashion education has been on my mind. These two main themes have lead several publishing houses to shutter their internship programs, and spurred leading fashion schools to develop their programs into wider, more business minded curriculum to attract legal and business people to the industry. Looking around the fashion industry these days, there are some great disruptive businesses taking off. But if you look at the people behind them, one thing that stands out is that formal studies in Fashion are little involved in the conception, execution, or success of these companies.
The sector has become so diverse in its business models that it attracts people from all different backgrounds, not only those who trained in fashion schools or fashion companies. We are not experiencing a shortage of creative talent, but rather a lack of creativity in distribution models and sourcing that isn’t coming from within our schools. To start a business, like Rent the Runway or Moda Operandi for example, does not require an education in fashion, but rather a business savvy team (most likely coming out of business school, not fashion school) who understand their customer, and who know how to make the right connections in the industry. So what is more valuable: A fashion education or a business school rolodex?
Fashion internships are also problematic. Whether in PR, publishing, or design, fashion interns are never really learning the ins and outs of the business. It is easy to float through a three-six month experience without really digging deep, either because your peers don’t challenge the limits by asking for more responsibility, or because the company culture keeps interns limited to grunt work. Running errands and getting coffee might be an obligatory right of passage for any first rung employee, not just in fashion, however many fields lean more towards a program of apprenticeship. Wouldn’t the industry as a whole benefit from more transparency about the daily operations so that as the young move forward they gain skills and knowledge, not just another name for their resume? Yes, I’m a bit of an idealist. But I think this would help young people identify issues with the industry and use their internship experience to think critically about how to instigate changes once they gain momentum in their careers.
In a way, it’s become part of my own fashion education, post-grad, to learn about and conceive creative and sustainable business models. How does the future of the fashion industry look for a business like mine? And what can I do now to set it up to thrive long into the future? Can you learn this in any fashion school today? Maybe in the years since my graduating things have changed. Can such a shift happen in five years? I would be very interested to hear the perspective of the students at Parsons, my alma matter, and what options they consider available to them upon graduating. If they plan to start a business, do they think of themselves as entrepreneurs, or simply designers? This was a word that I only identified with years after leaving, and it was a scary step to take. We are not encouraged to be business people, we are conditioned to believe that we are innately un-business-minded, and we’ll never survive without a more pragmatic business partner.
After so many decades of this being proven true for designers like Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent, can we break away from it now? Look at Christopher Bailey, Chief Creative Officer of Burberry, now also named CEO. Time will tell if he is successful, and if so, will this set a new standard that the two aren’t mutually exclusive? Or maybe fashion is meant to pass into the hands of the businessperson, while the designer, who until now has been the face and identity of a brand, will take a back seat to the people who oil the machine. Or at least stand equal to them. Or begin to place more value on what it means to really make a business of a creative vision.
So the question is out there: can our schools adjust their curriculum to encourage the next generation of Fashion entrepreneurs? Can internships turn into valuable experience rather than law suits waiting to happen? Can fashion schools adapt to produce the players who will change the world, or just those who add more stuff to it?