Friday Column | Business vs. Fashion?

LONDON, United Kingdom I just finished reading the interview with Jane Rapley, the Head of College at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in this month’s Luxury Briefing, and I couldn’t help but think that for a school that prides itself on being progressive, she sounded behind-the-times when it comes to the way the industry works and what her students need to thrive in it.

Take for instance her answer to the question: Is it difficult to teach ‘creatives’ to be business-focused? She says:

“Yes, it’s terribly difficult! And we don’t always try…Product design is very much about the market because the way it works is that you identify a gap, research it, answer a very specific problem and quantify it. It is a more analytical process than being a textile designer. However, we don’t necessarily expect a great engineer or scientist to be a great business person or a musician to know how to run an orchestra, so does a designer need to know about business?”

Um, YES. This is a business. Just because they’re not plugging numbers into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean scientists don’t know the basics of their business. In a previous life when I was working with scientists involved in packaging, I was surprised to find they all knew that without the support of the marketing division, they had no hope of getting their ideas off the drawing board. They were all too aware of costs per unit, of minimum number of sales required, all those business-y things.

Rapley goes on to say:

“Our responsibility is to make them [the design students] understand the areas where they don’t have expertise and surround themselves with people who do. McQueen is a very good example. By chance, or by design, he surrounded himself with some very interesting people who were prepared to buy into his vision and allow him to make it happen. We’re not about trying to develop all of those skills in one person.”

First of all, I think this does a great disservice to McQueen, who has had a series of strong managers by his side. Partnerships like that do not just happen. In order to find a good manager, designers have to stop thinking of managers as people who need to buy into their vision. Instead, they have to respect the job they do and listen to their advice.

Talented managers get a thrill out of building businesses in the same way designers get a thrill out of creating a new silhouette. A potent partnership must be founded on mutual respect. Hussein Chalayan is practically glowing these days, so happy is he to have met a manager with whom he gets along (Puma’s Jochen Zeitz). To say managers are there to back someone else’s vision, goes a long way towards explaining why there’s such a shortage of talented managers willing to work in fashion.

Look at all the trouble this attitude caused Christian Lacroix when he expected the managers at LVMH to bend to his will. They got so fed up with his lack of understanding, his refusal to compromise for the sake of profits, that they sold his brand. The days of designers being able to create whatever their hearts desire and have a hope of staying in business are long gone — if they ever existed.

I think what makes me so upset about this interview, is that I am very frequently asked for help by designers who all want the same things — money and someone to help them “sort out” the business side as if it were an adjunct to their activities. Let’s make this clear: If you’re in fashion, you’re in business. If you want to create things for pure aesthetic joy, then you should be on an art course. If more students at CSM were being taught the basics of their business at college it would give them a huge lift in the future. Even if they never intend to strike out on their own, how much more persuasive could they be in fighting for their ideas if they understood the implications in production costs, margins, overheads, etcetera? It appears that the primary way CSM deals with this is by sending students to do internships and hope they pick it up through osmosis. Jane said:

“We need to provide the students with an awareness of the range of skills that they have to have if they want to go into somebody else’s business and where their creativity fits alongside the accountant, the production engineer, the marketing people, the retail people. Some pick that up post-graduation and have the drive to become very business minded. And there’s nothing like going out into the world and finding that you have nothing to eat at the end of the week to encourage that!”

Internships can certainly be helpful, but it seems these students are being sent out into the world not fully prepared for the reality of business. As a journalism student, I was taught the basics of media law, production, and even ad sales. Of course, magazines and newspapers have other people to do those things on a day-to-day basis, but as the people creating the content that is at the center of the enterprise, it is essential to understand what happens to ones work after it leaves your hands. The students at Central Saint Martins may not like their production class any more than I liked my media law one, but I bet it would be just as helpful to them down the road

She also says:

“British industry doesn’t feel that it gets what it wants out of our education system. For the past 35 years this has been an ongoing battle: industry says it doesn’t get what it wants and fashion educators say that industry doesn’t understand what it is setting out to do. Industry complains that the graduates do not have enough basic skills in some areas and not enough technical focus or production skills.

Is it really so far-flung an idea that students can be highly creative, technically competent and have experience in other areas of their business? Yes, CSM graduates are highly sought after and get great jobs abroad. But how many English designers have I met in Milan and Paris who are dying to come back home? Too many.

Even if they don’t relish the idea, I think the students know they’re missing something. Why else are websites like this one so popular? Students at Saint Martins should be made to work out the cost of the garment, to factor in the shipping, the taxes, the mark-ups and every other part of the process because they are leaving CSM and entering a fiercely competitive business world — a world they’ll need to understand in order to thrive, and survive.

Lauren Goldstein Crowe is co-author of a book on Jimmy Choo to be published by Bloomsbury later this year

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  1. You called it! Season after season I hear and read other’s expectation that have nearly become a cliche, that London will again dish up the most original and radical creativity yet, and our expectations are nearly always rewarded. But before London week has wrapped the murmurs of ‘amazing yes, but know any buyers who can afford to pick it up?’ are everywhere, so much so that this has also become part of my traditional expectation, true or not. The preludes and reviews I read also reveal that most fashion journalists rehearse the same stereotyped idea that the London designer is so exquisitely creative, they must protect their creativity by avoiding the spreadsheets at all cost. Perhaps in defense, many of the labels seem to have positioned themselves in a more unhinged and artisinal way compared to the vibe in NY, Paris and Milan, but this is only my supposition based on why the business questions seem to not be answered. Nice work planting a seed / tossing a molotov. Looking forward to other responses.

    Randall from United States
  2. True.. but on the other hand…certain schools in the USA(like the one I attended)…well are basically producing Product developers(read as fashion designers).. great at knocking off or building on what’s already on the market..but little else…aka no creativity in the program or work.
    Or if they are creative..its more emulating their fav brands…ick. I did, by chance study at a variety of schools including the one mentioned here(though for a different major) before going into fashion. Yes knowing some business is good, but being creative? definitely would help, after all in 2-3 yrs… who would want to wear the same look again.. and again.. and again.
    Yes Business class and knowing customers good.. but throwing a bit of weird ….does a creative mind good.

    Ed from Campbell, CA, United States
  3. Thanks everyone for your comments on Lauren’s article. I think the trick is finding the right balance between the creative side of a fashion education and the business side. One of the absolute strengths of CSM, which has made it arguably the most respected fashion school in the world, is its track record of producing creative geniuses — the list of names is staggering — and this certainly should not be snuffed out, by any means.

    That being said, a little business education doesn’t hurt either – just the basics would be enough so that, as Lauren says, they understand how everything works in an industry which is increasingly complex and global.

    I recently started teaching a course at CSM to do just this, and I think this is a positive first step in bringing a little bit of business reality into the incredibly powerful creative universe that CSM is.

    Imran Amed, Editor from France
  4. As a Business Adviser in the fashion sector my job is to advise, help and mentor new, emerging and established fashion designers and fashion businesses in the UK. I confront the situation every day whereby many new and emerging fashion designers have an abundance of creative skills but no funamental knowledge of a business or running a fashion business.

    This can of course be argued from both sides and Fashion Colleges and arts schools would cleary state that their job is to develop and promote creativity and the creative process- it is not for them to provide business training which can also be argued would encumber fashion students during their time in Art college or is it?
    One could argue that there could be a balance struck whereby Fashion students are at least exposed to the fashion industry from a business viewpoint and how it actually works, as unfortunately being a very good designer is just not enough to make it in the World of Fashion today.
    David Watts
    East London Small Business Centre.

  5. Lauren’s feature is spot on, however the problems raised are sadly not unique to CSM or indeed just to the ‘star’ creative colleges such as CSM.
    Fashion students worldwide are simply unprepared for the world of work, not only in their understanding of how to run a business or day to day business acumen, but more worryingly, the majority of graduates have no idea as to how to even find a job in the first place.

    Having worked as a fashion recruitment consultant and headhunter for many years, I have received CV’s, covering letters and images of work from hopeful graduates on a daily basis, and it is staggering that few of them get it right, in terms of layout, presentation, and the actual application for work. Very few have gained skills on their courses as to how to approach the job search, how to work with agencies, how to put together an application and so on.

    It seems that they are left to fend for themselves following graduation (while some colleges, such as LCF, CSM and RCA have specialist fashion careers advice available to alumni, this service seems to be limited to the London based colleges, where funding is more substantial).

    I have recently launched an independent careers service, specifically for designers and graduates who are seeking guidance and support in their job search, and we also run lectures at universities in order to prepare final year students for life after graduation. There seems to be a great need for this type of service, having received positive feedback from the course leaders and tutors I have spoken to recently. However it is a great shame that the universities benefiting from our services are only those who have received adequate government funding to support the costs involved of bringing in external lecturers and speakers.

    To give credit to course leaders and tutors such as Jane Rapley, they are often trying to do a good job under extreme pressure, fighting an ever increasing load of paperwork, trying to cope with more students than should be on the courses in the first place, and dealing with this ever growing problem of lack of funding.

    David’s comment that being a good designer is not enough to make it in the world of fashion is certainly true. But until we see changes in the education of new designers, and the ways in which the fashion industry and education is financially supported by the government, the problem will continue to grow.

    Stephanie Finnan
    The Fashion Careers Clinic

  6. Excellent! Students however are as responsible for what they learn as teachers and head-masters. Unfortunately most of them live in a dream world where they will exit CSM and enter Ballenciaga straight away. They don’t realize it takes a lot more than creative talent to break through. CSM knows that, and keeps feeding them that which keeps them asleep: hope.


  7. Perfect! I’m Brazilian and here the fashion schools think the same way, so when the student is out, he/she doesn’t know anything about the business. In my conception, being a fashion designer is much more than create beautiful/suitable clothes or acessories and you can’t rely on someone to run your business, and just let it go.
    I’ve been to Fashion and Journalism schools and run a website. Even as an editor I have to know some management skills, otherwise I couldn’t run any business.

    Businessoffashion is my everyday breakfast!!! Love it!

  8. The article is definitely spot on, however I would like to pose a question. I understand that tutors and universities are responsible for guiding the students to the best of their ability so they can be prepared for the upcoming work force that will be ahead of them once they graduate.

    However, as much as it is the institution’s responsibility, where is the responsibility that also falls on the student? As we all know, fashion is something that ultimately falls on the merit of the designer to know (with assistance of course) where to take the label. As a graduate of Parsons, I witnessed far too many students get lazy thinking that the name is all you need to get where you want to go. Business classes were optional and they were not even taken ( and sadly, taught) seriously. Since we all know that we’re all alone once we leave university, why don’t students take that common knowledge and use common sense?

    Miss Sosa from United States
  9. There are courses on fashion business at the University of the Arts which CSM belongs to. There are Foundation/BA/MA/MBA programmes at London College of Fashion on Fashion Management, Marketing, Promotion, Merchandising, Retail – you name it! All of these are specifically designed for fashion students who want to set up their own clothing/apparel business or just be more qualified for a fashion company. I wonder why Mrs Jane Rapley didn’t mention it knowing that the 65 Davies street building which is the head office of UAL also accomodates fashion management classes. Tim Jackson and Bill Webb are experts on luxury retail business and many of their current students have a designer background.

    LCF Fashion Management student from London, London, United Kingdom
  10. That is something I’d expect to hear from a director of a community college with it’s own up to the minute Home Sewing degree program.
    She’s under the misconception that because her students hail from her hallowed halls, life for them will be a candy shop. The fastest rise and fall is the designer who hasn’t a clue that fashion is a business , nand being a designer is not a persona. She should wake up and smell the lousy coffee stench permeating the unemployment lines.

  11. Fashion is a business and like any business compromises a collective of skilled working parts. BUT thats not to say that every part of a business must have skill and knowledge across every discipline. An understanding yes.

    What every other country that has a successful fashion industry succeeds at is the colloboration of creative workers and commercial workers. It is this unity that needs to be fostered and developed in the UK.

    Every year St Martins produces a class of talented designers and creatives who fail to find an equally skilled commercial partner. Those that do though evolve and find great success…look at many of the Creative Directors of major houses.

    Ed from United States
  12. I agree with Miss Sosa, it’s the students responsibility. You don’t see this multitude of support financed by the government for other courses nationwide in sciences, technology & engineering. No matter what industry your in, there’s an element of business acumen which is essential (it’s an economic paradigm we all operate within). Fundamentally, it doesn’t really matter if students who ‘go-it-alone-’ understand the business behind their line, as the market will dictate what it needs or wants. There’s an inevitable saturation point & right now we’re beyond that threshold. Structurally with London, change is coming from the bottom upward, as opposed from the top down. How can you re-educate a designer, that’s given financial support to put on a fashion catwalk show, when there is no viable market for the line being shown; price, aesthetically, the entire package doesn’t work, which is why every season LFW is put on at the expense of various investors, to produce shows by designers, who’ve been showing relentlessly for some 4/5 seasons in some cases, acquiring zero accounts. Ironically, the lines that do sell, mainly to the middle-east, are the least creative & sell simply due to the London label sewn on. Concerning the business aspect, it’s difficult to dump business specific modules into a design course. Compatibility is of major concern, a Business degree by itself encapsulates a variance of topics, regarding operations, HRM, marketing, accountancy, information technologies…then you have legislation, politics, policy, regulation, sustainability, environmental factors, innovations, cultures, enterprise & so on. I mean seriously, if a designer doesn’t understand the basic principals of adhering to purchasing, production & distributional margins, then they’re just remedials that should go & apply for another design course.

    me from Dorchester, Dorset, United Kingdom
  13. My university is no where near the level that CSM is at, but just wanted to give my input about other schools around the world.

    I attend a university in Hawai’i and see a lack of creativity, drive AND business skills from the students getting a fashion design degree. A lot of people complain that being in such an isolated location, in terms of geography, puts us at a disadvantage because we always seem to catch on to things after they’ve been handed down from other places… but then there are sites like this and thousands of other blogs that can give them the information they need to know to succeed… it’s all about digging for that information if know one else is handing it to you!

    I am part of the program (though not majoring in design) and I also feel no passion coming from my teachers, with very few exceptions. The lifestyle here is so laidback that our teachers aren’t properly preparing us for the industry because they go so easy on us! I really also wish teachers would tell other students that they should get more than one internship and not wait till their last semester in school! I even did a mini presentation on this site to my class and my teacher had never heard of it before, nor had any of my peers!

    What I’m trying to get at is that the INTERNET (definitely including BoF!) is a huge resource for students, and is my main resource since I don’t get much help from my school.

  14. This cynical nurturing of students as stars is criminal and the casualties innumerable. I recently met up with a friend who graduated from CSM a couple years ago and asked how his fellow graduates had fared. Despite landing a well-paid corporate design job himself (and admittedly not being entirely comfortable with that fact) he confessed with some chagrin that his colleagues had for the most part unravelled into excess and despond so busy had they been pursuing the ‘terrible’ of ‘enfant terrible’. Its not rocket science to understand the basic principles of a) a business plan b) a spreadsheet c) accounting, but if you have to understand these elements after the fact rather than while still in the relative comfort of student life the effects can be both financially and psychologically devastating. Sending these lambs out with little more than an inflated ego and a sense of creative entitlement is both unkind to their youth and inconsiderate of their future.
    Ultimately creativity and commercial dexterity have the same goal: Identity. The business of fashion is an obscenely costly one and to continue to treat these two elements as mutually exclusive is to risk long term international industry parity for short term local admiration.

    Anon from Colchester, Essex, United Kingdom
  15. I attended the thesis collections presentations at Parsons, New York, last year. Coming from a London fashion background, it surprised me immensely the way those young graduates were presenting their collection: price points, customer profile, potential retailers. It was very focused, and of course the technical side of the garments was perfect, but I didn’t find it poor from a creative side. It was very interesting to hear where the inspirations came from: books, the human anatomy, brutalist architecture, colour theory..These designers managed to capture the essence of very abstract ideas into perfectly constructed clothes ready to hit the shop floor.

    Attending Graduate Fashion Week in London a few months later, it all looked like a bit of a mess: the collections didn’t seem to have a focus, and I bet not many in the audience would have felt like buying these clothes from a boutique with a four-figure price tag. The winning collection itself was said to have been born out of a confusion of textiles and with an unclear goal (it was a womeswear collection just a few weeks before being presented on the catwalk as a very rigidly designed collection of suits, for men). I don’t think London students are ready for the industry at all, and I say it as a potential consumer and budding journalist. If I see their inadequacy, I can imagine the industry feeling the same, or worse about them and their work.

  16. Ok, having just seen images from the most recent London and NY fashion weeks (not in person) I’m feeling a bit of ‘commenters remorse’ and feel I’d definitely tone down my response were I to react today. NY had two interesting shows, or maybe just one. All of the rest seemed dreary and. a few days later, basically are already marching into my forgettable dept. To be honest, the majority of these simply wimpered onto a catwalk with what is in retrospect the predictable NY fraternity of monoculturalistic sameness, that organic zeitgeist of sameness that’s sort of the sixth sense of the fashion world. Hit the snooze button if you missed it. By contrast, the biggest and boldest brands seemed to show a literal reheated serving of the past, presenting everything from Max Headroom’s danceteria to the Beetlejuice dinner party to the cast and crew of the old Sherman Oaks High School Salad Bar. The most escapist retro, exaggerated almost not at all. Clomp for clomp, London this season just seemed to have a higher percentage of relevant shows which to me is something I envision you determine by tabulating the amount of authentic design proposals, new variations or more clever and timely reworkings or subversions of tradition, and that beautiful rush that comes from seeing the birth of what’s next not just what’s reheated, refried and retried. Since more London shows resonated on a greater variety of chords with me, be they major, minor, sharp or flat, that feels like the first step in a fashion business plan to me. For fun (and to see again where my tastes and predictions differ/dovetail with the market) I’m thinking of making my own subjective spreadsheets and pie graphs, based on my own cool-o-meter ramblings and inclinations just to see if my favorites sell through (something I’ve done for a few years at work anyway actually) but I’d be interested to see the results of what sells from each brand that showed at NYFW and LFW, then if the factories (god bless them) can deliver on time and what’s the final sell through. Etc etc. Fun stuff for fashion geeks and garmentos, maybe not so fun for fashionistas.

    Randall from Santa Clara, CA, United States
  17. this article is spot on! Thanks for writing this. I’m a fashion designer – trained at both Parsons and Central Saint Martins and I managed to squeeze in ONE bussines fashion course in my time at school. It was terribly helpful, but I can’t agree with you more that fashion is no different from any other business. We designers can’t get caught up in the art/design aspects to have a viable business. It is all so self-depricating to say we NEED to find a partner to do the business side of thing – we should learn to do it all and partner with people who want to work hard for the company, not pick-up the pieces where we fall short. There’s nothing more amazing that seeing a creation come to fruition, but I know so many friends who try and try again to create their own line with little financial success. This article should be read by every fashion freshman or anyone wanting to go into business for themselves!

    Jules from Seattle, WA, United States
  18. You are so right. The courses in the fashion design schools are not thorough at all. It’s a shame.

    Emma from Beccles, Suffolk, United Kingdom
  19. Hi there, spot on!

    I studied fine art as a BA, in terms of a creative profession it is no less inferior to fashion as a subject area.
    my particular experience may have just been unlucky, but I think on average its not that dissimilar from anyone elses’ experience.
    In the first term I asked a tutor at the end of his talk on conceptual sculpture- and knocking any form of ‘commercial art’, how he survives as an artist/ and that I was quite worried I will be doing this course for the next three years. His answer was that if I wanted to make money from it I shouldn’t be on the course, and he was quite insulted I should have asked – the tutors all felt the same as him, and they said quite openly they did not enjoy teaching.

    Like the tutor mentioned in the article the general school of thought is that tutors are there to do a critique of work but also took great delight in knocking or rubbishing both strong and weak work to such a degree that students either left, or don’t paint for years after they finish.

    the BA fine art degree is a damaging experience in that the whole conceptual process means you justify your work to such a degree you can’t feel you can paint just for the hell of it – artists paint because that is what they did before they went on the course.
    Everyone has their own view point or way of reading something so all forms of criticism are benefitial, in terms of the way something reads, but at college even feedback of what could be considered a strong piece of work ‘that is sh**t’ is not condusive to improvement.
    The plus side of it is you can produce work with no emotional attachment.

    Regardless of my own personal standard of work (not blowing own trumpet, but very high standard and varied) it is daylight robbery that people are expected to pay vast sums of money for an opportunity to pursue self-led research, as I did in my fine art degree – alonside visiting lecturers talking about their exhibitions, or on the interior design course that consisted of producing paper scale models and drawings.

    I have been waitressing since I graduated in 2006, I did an interior design course since, and I have been continually applying for jobs in graphic design/publishing companies since graduating. Still in hotels.

    Cristie from Torquay, Torbay, United Kingdom
  20. PS. – was considering taking an MA in fashion marketting/ business, hope I can get a job with it

    Cristie from Torquay, Torbay, United Kingdom
  21. When I was studying at Uni the staff in the careers service were friendly and tried to be helpful, but the prospects website that they referred to most, had nothing in the way of art and design related work. Even asking about thinking about a career direction and they couldnt help me, because they didn’t know anything about art and design. Each time I went in, they gave me flyers talking about jobs that I had no experience or qualifications in, nursing or accounting were a couple of them.

    I find it very strange that the Graphics course held in the same school involved work experience and regular external projects, yet art had nothing.

    Cristie from Torquay, Torbay, United Kingdom
  22. Central Saint Martins is first and foremost an Art college. It teaches thought and development of ideas above all else, it would fail its students as artist if its focus was not this. Saint Martin students, being the cream of the crop of the creative industry, learn quickly what paths need to be taken upon graduation in order to allow their dreams to flourish. And with drive and determination thier fantasties raise the creative bar at which the rest of the industrial fashion world builds its industry on. Many times this reality is short lived but then again any moment of pure beauty and orignality is….

    ARRON from Stockholm, Stockholms Län, Sweden
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