Commentary

Fashion schools favor creative teaching over practical business education (and many entrepreneurial-minded students are fed up).

In classrooms at the world’s most prestigious fashion schools, there seems to be a growing difference of opinion. On the one hand, today’s increasingly entrepreneurial students are looking for practical, business-oriented knowledge that they can use to grow successful businesses after graduation. Their instructors, on the other hand, feel it’s their duty to instill the principles of novelty and aesthetics, and little more. For them,“Creativity!” “Newness!” and “Conceptual and thematic design!” are what matter most.

Their pupils, however, don’t quite see it that way. “Shouldn’t we be focusing on something perhaps a bit more…useful?” they wonder, hopeful that their instructors will come around. But it’s not looking good. Professors appear to be blind to the changing market conditions outside of their cozy classroom walls, and are standing firm. They alone know what truly matters, they insist, and under their instruction, yes, it will be creativity or nothing at all.

Failing grades

In each industry there are systemic flaws and pointless practices that it just can’t seem to shake. Given reports at Business of Fashion, it seems the fashion world’s problem — empty, conceptual design — is drilled in rather early.

At two leading institutions, Parsons in New York and Central Saint Martins in London, the industry’s most promising students are starting to grumble at the current state of affairs. On matters of proper business education, BA students, MA students, and alumni have, according to a BoF survey, given fashion education a failing grade.

Reported BoF:

One Central Saint Martins student wrote, “We didn’t have one single technical class or business course throughout our BA. If you want to have that, you are told you can go somewhere else.” Another added: “They didn’t prepare us for the real world. No exposure to the business side of fashion!”

In the last three years, perhaps in response to feedback that the school had become too commercial, Parsons reworked its undergraduate curriculum to bring business and creative teaching closer together. However, one student felt the balance had swung too far to one side: “Parsons lacks a considerable amount of applicable knowledge in their curriculum as they strive to teach young designers to be more ‘conceptual.’”

This issue is one that plagues the fashion industry. Insiders tend to regard the discipline as purely creative. The more abstract and esoteric the creation, the more insiders seem to consider it important. The overwhelming temptation is to frame fashion design as a conceptual practice, rather than a trade or profession, in hopes of elevating it as art. But in doing so it seems the fashion world can lose sight of the fact that clothes are meant to be sold to actual people (not just shown on a catwalk), and that a proper design philosophy should be centered on creating clothing that solves a customer’s problem without much fuss.

This a fundamental tenet of good design. And by extension it’s also the foundation for building a business and cultivating a loyal, devoted customer base. But conceptual practice at its core, doesn’t care much for this. It morphs the simple goal of creating good clothes into an exercise in ego: Consideration of the customer is brushed aside so that the political message or worldview of the designer can take center stage. At this point, everything is left to interpretation. There are no boundaries or limitations, and the result often takes the form of disturbing “self portraits” like this that are best kept in a psychologist’s filing cabinet, rather than displayed in public.

As the art critic Roger Scruton once argued, “[contemporary] art is not about beauty but about originality, and originality means putting yourself on display, with the tongue, or some other suitable organ, sticking out.” Conceptual design lets those base impulses run wild.

The artful dogma

Fashion educators’ allegiance to the “fashion is art” dogma is the central source of the problem. While certainly an artistic practice, fashion is not an art form, as much as its doyennes and devotees would have you believe. It can be quite elevated and rarified in its ambitions, of course, but even the most elaborate and striking couture gown is intended to be hung on shoulders.

This makes fashion education’s insistence on conceptual instruction all the more baffling. Young designers continue to strike out on their own, and as small business owners, they certainly will not be wasting time, energy, and money on producing a thematic collections that few customers are likely to buy. The credence of today’s marketplace is consumer-centric [issue 2], and no operation will enjoy long-term success by ignoring their customer in a misguided quest for novelty. Many of today’s bright young talents seem to understand this, yet their institutions don’t seem to (at least not to the same degree).

It speaks volumes, then, as BoF’s survey reveals, that the institutions outside of the fashion echo chamber, Drexel and Stephens, reported the highest satisfaction among their fashion students. Freed from the burden of pointless creative custom, nor hampered by an overly reverential view of the industry, they fulfill their most basic obligation as academic institutions: equipping their students with practical knowledge for future success in their field. With fashion programs, this means striking the proper balance between creative coursework, and a robust business-side curriculum. This is what qualifies as responsible, sensible education.

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  • jackblittle

    “While certainly an artistic practice, fashion is not an art form, as much as its doyennes and devotees would have you believe.” – It seems important to provide some support for this argument other than the fact that fashion is “hung on shoulders”. Many have argued that fashion IS art which is why the Costume Institute exists within the institution of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably one of the most important art museums in the world. Surely there is a better argument here?