LONDON, United Kingdom — Graduate shows are an opportunity to meet editors, impress buyers and get hired.
However, this year there were no graduate exhibitions and very few opportunities to meet industry insiders. Some aspiring designers weren’t even able to finish their collections in time due to shuttered FabricShops and studio spaces that are closed off
“This is obviously not a typical situation that we’re in,”Laura Edwards, the founder of Mentoring Matters (a UK-based mentoring scheme that is open to applicants from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic backgrounds interested in a career as a fashion designer), said. “But many students have just been left in limbo because they don’t really know how to navigate the next stage [in their careers].”
Covid-19 has reshaped the way fashion schools work. Students who enroll this year are confronted with uncomfortable questions about the worth of a expensive education done at a distance without the benefits and tuition in person. Expensive and high-powered fashion schools are also facing mounting scrutiny for their failure to address allegations of systemic racism and classism, raising questions among some students and alumni about their relevance to today’s culture.
The lack of diversity within curricula and among staff at top fashion schools, as well as scarce mental health and financial aid services are an urgent concern, said Anita Israel, UAL’s former education officer. “The sort of hardship that students — especially students from ethnic minority backgrounds — go through in higher education doesn’t add up to me,”She said.
The sort of hardship that students — especially students from ethnic minority backgrounds — go through in higher education doesn’t add up to me.
Then there’s the question over the long-term impact Covid-19 could have on the industry. Current students run the risk of falling into a recession. The crisis is also causing changes in the industry’s business model, raising questions about whether schools can adapt quickly enough to give students the tools they need in a new market.
Is it worth going to fashion school right now?
“There are so many different nuances,” Olya Kuryshchuk, founder and editor-in-chief of 1 Granary, a global support platform for emerging designers. “Whether fashion school is worth the money needs to be addressed almost case by case by looking at each specific school, where they are based, what they deliver, what type of education they are providing.”
Many students consider cost when researching schools. Annual tuition fees at a British university are priced at around £9,000 ($11,145) a year, or north of £20,000 for international students, while a degree at top American fashion schools can reach $50,000. In order to be able to create unique pieces that will improve their chances of finding employment, students must pay university fees.
It’s a significant barrier to entry, particularly during times of global economic uncertainty when a return is not guaranteed. On the other hand, a degree from one of fashion’s top universities can significantly smooth the path into an industry that is notoriously difficult to crack.
“We are so traditional as an industry in that we expect somebody to come with a degree — that’s still so often on a [job] description,”Rachel Arthur, co-founder and CEO of FashMash, a networking platform. “I think that doesn’t just go for fashion, but across the board.”
New opportunities are opening up in this industry. For example, jobs in styling and photography are less likely to require a degree. On-location assisting is a great way to prepare creatives for editorial and commercial jobs. Even fashion designers, who were traditionally considered to be more likely than others to benefit from the extensive technical training provided at fashion school, are now able to create new pathways into the industry.
For example, social media has made it easy for aspiring designers to create a portfolio, market and grow their brand, and even build a following. Social media has proven to be a viable alternative to investing in lookbooks and staging fashion shows for self-taught creatives such as Oluwole Olosunde who designs streetwear. “This whole time I’ve been making, making, making — I have so much product on my Instagram,” Olosunde told BoF.
Many companies and non-profits are also offering fashion mentorships, internships, or apprenticeships to make the industry more accessible. Mentoring Matters, launched in June, connects aspiring fashion designers with established professionals such as photographers. Nadine IjewereCyndia Harvey, stylist, and Isabella Burley, Dazed Editor in Chief, through regular one-on-1 video calls.
Similar results are also available Slow FactoryFoundation announced this month that they have teamed up Adidas and Stella McCartneyOnline education programs that are free and open to all, including those for and by Black, Brown, Indigenous, or other minorities. Participants will be able to secure paid apprenticeships with brands such as Adidas, Stella McCartney and WWAKE. Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean RaymondKering on Your Friends in New York has also been partnered with Kering. This platform supports emerging designers through an incubator-inspired program.
However, for many would-be creatives, attendance at a well-respected school is still a prerequisite to getting their foot in the door. Fashion internships are a common first step on the career ladder. According to Amelia Wang, a recent fashion graduate at Edinburgh University, a diploma from a reputable fashion school can significantly increase your chances of being accepted. Skills acquired at fashion school can be useful in an in-house job.
“The problem is that securing an internship is so hard,”Wang. “If I hadn’t done a degree and I went straight into this [internship at a fashion brand], I’d be overwhelmed. For instance, making notes during fittings or listening to pattern cutters talk and all the language that they use, I now understand what they’re talking about.”
An education that is good for you has clear benefits. Students have access to top-quality on-site facilities and tools such as sewing machines and other technical equipment. They also have the opportunity to meet with and learn from world-class fashion experts, as well as plenty of networking opportunities among like-minded peers. “I found university really valuable,”Wang. “We would have pattern cutting lessons, illustration lessons, have lectures on how to go freelance. It’s made me much more competent in moving forwards.”
It is a positive thing to be able to open more doors.
Some of this has been temporarily halted by the lockdown. But they’ve pushed some fashion schools to become more open to digital-first solutions in a way that enriches elements of the learnings on offer. Teachers and schools that are fast-moving encourage students to become familiar with 3D design programs like Clo, Optitex, and Browzwear. This allows them to create garments and complete assignments remotely from home. This knowledge can be very useful when applying for jobs in companies that expect employees to be proficient in 3D fashion design. It may also prove vital if the current digital-working trends continue.
“In the future, everything will be shared online. So why not learn how to do that effectively straight away?” said 1 Granary’s Kuryshchuk. “Learning to communicate clearly through [digital presentations] is a very important skill.”
Fashion is constantly changing and so should its schools. They will have to work harder in order to attract the best talent as the industry becomes more open and offers new career options. For many young creatives, however, the industry offers a rich experience and entry point to the industry through their community, education, and expertise.
“I can see the benefits of a fashion school environment and the support that it offers. A teacher who inspires can have a tremendous impact. But not everyone has the resources to access that environment and not every job requires it,” said Mentoring Matters’ Edwards.
“The more routes into the industry, and support we can create, the better. It can only be a positive thing to open up more doors.”
How to Break Into Fashion When You Don’t Already Have Money
The Emergency Room Nurse Making His Fashion Dreams a Reality
The Future of Fashion’s Most Coveted Careers