It’s Time Fashion Schools Got Down to Business

Thomas Tait’s Sketchbook | Source: Thomas Tait

Thomas Tait’s Sketchbook | Source: Thomas Tait

LONDON, United Kingdom — Each year, more than 4,000 design students graduate from fashion colleges across the UK.  But there are only about 500 new jobs available for them, leaving thousands of young designers to move abroad or start their own labels. The vast majority of these have absolutely no business training whatsoever.

For Thomas Tait — one of the most buzzed-about new graduates from Central Saint Martins, one of the UK’s leading fashion schools and hundreds of other budding designers around the UK, PR and fame are not enough. There are also the practical necessities of developing a viable fashion business: raising funds, setting up a studio, hiring staff, securing production, creating a new collection and, ultimately convincing buyers that they should place an order because the clothes will actually arrive on time, as promised, ready to be sold.

The youngest in his class to complete the M.A. at CSM this year, Mr. Tait, 22, is of French-Canadian and Scottish origins. He grew up modestly in the suburbs of Montréal, where he attended Collège LaSalle and learned the fundamentals of dressmaking. During the M.A., Tait was able to instill deeper meaning in his design aesthetic, to understand how people reacted to his work, and to toile and test out different fabrics.

Image from Thomas Tait Graduate Collection | Source: Thomas Tait

Image from Thomas Tait Graduate Collection | Source: Thomas Tait

For his graduate collection, Tait’s work was largely influenced by his obsession with bone structures — namely, shoulder blades, collarbones and hipbones — which he dramatised throughout his designs. His all black collection possessed a deceptive depth and required one to view the garments in profile in order to catch all his references and protrusions.

But apart from his history as a buyer at Reborn, an avant-garde fashion boutique in Montréal, Tait has little professional work experience. “Up until a few weeks ago, I never even had a business card,” he says.

Last month, he applied to several of the existing fashion funds and initiatives that support young UK designers: Fashion East, NEWGEN, Vauxhall Fashion Scout and Fashion Fringe. These prizes are vital to supporting fresh, new fashion talent, but few come with solid advice on how to build a long-term fashion business, or even how best to spend all of that prize money.

Indeed, Tait is reluctant to quantify the funding he estimates he’ll need to stay afloat for his first season, citing only fabric and studio space as his main costs.

Though his creative spark may set him apart, when it comes to understanding the business side of the industry, like many of his fellow fashion graduates, Tait seems under-equipped. That’s because, at many institutions the world over, fashion design is taught as a creative process only, and not an enterprise.

“Many, if not most, of the great creatives in fashion have been poor at business, from Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent. The solution may not be to teach them business but to help them find the right partner — just as YSL found Pierre Bergé,” says Roger Tredre, an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins. But finding the perfect partner is easier said than done and even with a partner, designers must still respect and understand that fashion is a business, not an art, and this requires an awareness of how the industry works operationally, not just creatively.

To make a creative business tick, there is a “difficult balancing act between craft, creativity, and the right economic incentives and motivations,” adds John Bates, director of the University of the Arts London’s Centre for Creative Business and adjunct professor at London Business School, who has begun a New Creative Ventures course designed to establish a “common language” between the University of the Arts London’s post-graduate students and London Business School’s M.B.A. students.

But Tait, like many students who aren’t afforded the opportunity or time to undertake these supplemental courses, was left to learn about the business side of the industry on his own. “I’m not into this whole world of fast fashion. I don’t want an insane turnover, to make a fast buck or to become yet another celebrity fashion designer,” he insists. But despite his clear talent, he feels he may struggle for quite some time: “You have to give yourself three seasons before you can say that you’ve developed a following, and it’s after six seasons, when you can expect to make a profit and be able to actually live off of the actual pieces, not just the funding.”

No one wants to upset the unique and delicate creative climates that have been carefully constructed at the world’s leading fashion colleges, which have given rise to design talents like Thomas Tait, and scores of high-potential talents that have come before him. But to help these gifted students turn their creative abilities into successful fashion brands, building some basic business training into the core fashion curriculum would be a very good thing indeed.

Elizabeth Peng, an M.A. student in Fashion Journalism at Central St Martins, is an editorial intern at The Business of Fashion.

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18 comments

  1. Currently I’m in my fourth and final yeah of the BA of fashion design at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. For my thesis component of my class I’m looking into the tricky balance of fashion vs business in fashion studies. It seems there are so many opinions on the subject and I’ll be interested to see the response from this article. Business is essential and my course offered a compulsory careers subject that prepared us for applying for a job, writing a resume and discovering just what is available to us. Alongside this we have a business elective that is soon to become compulsory for students. Researching this topic so far I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I’ll come to a conclusion. The fact is there are so many jobs in fashion (not only fashion designer/business owner), it’s hard to create a curriculum that covers them all, or at least gives an introduction to students. That doesn’t mean we should give up, but there needs to be a bigger conversation between industry and education in finding what each requires. Industry needs to understand if we don’t push creativity, our fashion system won’t evolve. From an education perspective I understand if we don’t encourage business we won’t be able to sustain the creativity.
    p.s- BOF is my daily paper, keep up the great content!

    L.S from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  2. *year

    L.S from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  3. I’m in my first year studying fashion design at Nottingham Trent Uni in the UK and we’re already (to my surprise) being taught about the business side of fashion, what would be involved in setting up our own label as well as being told in depth about all the different career paths we might end up going down. I’m really glad we’ve started so early as I think it will help inform our uni work, as well as any work placements we pursue from now on.

    DH from Crawley, West Sussex, United Kingdom
  4. There is no easy answer to this. Some countries have more programs or aid for emerging designers to show, or have studios. Many don’t. The fashion industry has become globalized; manufacturing overseas is now a neccesity, a step to bigger growth, requiring bigger investment. It is now almost impossible for emerging designers to survive making their own collections, or support their own studios, and staff. Students graduating from design schools in the U.S. are finding it hard getting an internships, never mind a paid job. Now, more then ever, I believe it’s most important for graduates to learn how to run a business before starting one’s own business. Every mistake you make costs you money in business, so getting a job, and learning how to do it right, even if the company is not your esthetic, is an education for a design graduate. Read more on the subject of starting a design business at my blog:
    http://thefashiondict8tor.com/

    TFD from New York, NY, United States
  5. Spelling corrected!

    This is a root cause problem – in that many of the schools do not have a faculty experienced in teaching the ‘business of fashion’. Any attempts are relatively weak (old case studies, irrelevant curriculum, teachers who left the industry 10 years ago, or themselves failed designers) and merely scratch the surface.
    Case in point, how many of these schools actually have Phd students studying or graduating in core fashion business subjects like strategy, supply chain or finance? The answer close to zero!
    Moreover, any centre set up to help run fashion businesses seem to be offered to the students after they have graduated and not integrated into the core curriculum. What help is this to them when all their time is being used trying to find a job or make a living?

    What we need is a ‘London Business School’ for Fashion – high quality teaching staff with a mix of academics, practitioners, guest speakers and case studies. Indeed I have intended the New Creative Ventures Course and it is excellent….but still not enough if our creative graduates are to succeed.

    Regards

    Ranjit Thind
    Ex LCF BA Fashion Mgt & MA Strategic Fashion Marketing graduate
    Prince’s Trust Fashion Mentor
    Visiting fashion strategy/marketing lecturer
    10+ years international industry experience

    Ranjit Thind from France
  6. I think the original fallacy is treating fashion as a creative enterprise. This might sound like heresy, since you’re all wedded to the idea of designer as artist – but really, fashion is about selling things. If it doesn’t sell, you might as well be dead. There is no ‘creativity vs commerce’ dichotomy, it’s all commerce.

    It’s very wise for fashion schools to teach design students about the many kinds of jobs in fashion, since the vast majority of them will never work as designers. I think that’s the most pragmatic route.

    St.Valentine from Stanford, CA, United States
  7. I agree with the post as I know the struggles of students who do not end up with fulfilling jobs and then find them selves taking on jobs that do not assist them to create either a career or a brand for themselves. This is due to a lack of support from the industry. I question the fashion programs that are run by fashion schools. They do not make the student industry ready. The students of fashion school apart from having design knowledge need to have communication skills . They do not know how to communicate with a skilled worker who needs to understand how to give form to their illustration.

    They need to understand basic client interaction if they choose to create their own labels..There is need to add entrepreneurial skills along with management skills such as accounting, human behavior and of course goal setting and vision for the label.

    The student has to be armed with enough tools which enable him or her to be on the correct path from day 1!

    Namrata G
    Fashion Designer and Consultant
    Labels namratag and manbynam
    Owner Corpretfox
    Institute for developing leadership and impression management skills
    India

  8. In my opinions, to offer a platform design students can actually work on and socialize with other parts involved in the business [manufacturer, buyer, stockist, fashion editor, brand] makes more sense, than simply put another ‘useful’ unit into the course. An internship to work with indies/brands, preparing for Pure London or LFW will definitely help them to know the real world and build up commercial awareness. Or an introduction to small manufacturers if they would like to set up own business. This kind of program is what students really need.

    Y from Beijing, Beijing, China
  9. i think the best advice for students or anyone wishing to start a label in this over saturated market is to wait a while and work in the industry until they actually understand a niche in the market or themselves as a brand and whether or not they can offer something actually new to consumers…
    i think an article BOF posted sometime back best expresses the ridiculousness of trying to start your own brand

    http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/fashion/article7116036.ece

    if McQueen was still in debt after almost 2 decades and with a major luxury group as a backer, then what makes young unkown designers think they stand a chance at their own thing in this ever growing market

    ARRON from Stockholm, Stockholms Län, Sweden
  10. This is the very reason why I am studying Bachelor of Commerce (Business to other people) even though I am not enjoying it, but I find the skills and knowledge highly valuable, before I plunge into any formal training in fashion design (shoes and leathercraft, to be precise)

    Gracia from Clayton, Victoria, Australia
  11. Quite so, Ive been in Fashion Business for years, and Its a hard Rock if you Don’t Do good Business, I’ve Decided to Go study Business & Marketing, to help me balance my act!!

    Neil from Arima, Arima, Trinidad and Tobago
  12. I am in my first year of a BFA (Fashion) at Queensland University of Technology (Australia) at the Creative Industries faculty. QUT also offers a Business and Fashion double degree, of which some of my peers are studying. They integrate Creative Industries core subjects into all CI degrees, meaning that even if one chooses not to opt for the double degree – you learn from a ‘real world’/business perspective. It has been fantastic so far and I cannot rate the course highly enough to anyone who wishes to study fashion and/or learn to launch a business in this tricky and often unforgiving industry.

    M from Maudsland, Queensland, Australia
  13. Alongside business sense is the collaborative, team-building skills that aren’t nurtured. At college you’re so focused on your designs and work, with very little collaboration or chances to outsource and delegate, that personally i felt like i had to be a one woman show and didn’t really know how to go about creating a decent support team to help launch my work. I didn’t know (and am still trying to figure out) how to find the right business partner, how best to allocate funding, how to create effective PR and how to get people on board while having very little / no money to pay them for their help…. a lot of creative ideas haven’t made it past the design and planning stage because of this lack of knowledge. I think this applies to new grads across creative industries generally

  14. This is one of the reasons for and how I got inspired to study Design Management. It is to help bridge that precise gap for designers (may they be fashion designers). I believe that business courses should be taught as well in any design programs to help ease the first steps in the “big world”. These times absolutely call for government sponsored establishments to assist and advice recent graduates, students and young companies.

    Helga Aradottir from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  15. Your article brings up a really good point — how there are so many aspiring designers, but so few actual job opportunities after graduation. With business casual, people just aren’t dressing up or wearing nice clothes, as sad as it is.

  16. I agree with the opinions coming out of this article. As a mentor and consultant to companies in the fashion industry I regularly encounter start-ups and young designers who are talented, but lack the knowledge and skill set to actually turn their talent into a business.

    I have been fortunate enough to have had several good mentors during my younger years and to subsequently have had the freedom to run several brands internationally in the course of my career.

    I know the value of good advice and guidance. I now try to give as much of that as I can make time for through Startup Loans and similar organisations as well as our own mentoring programmes. Mentoring is a great way of giving back, but especially in the last 18 months it has highlighted how many young designers are getting some serious interest from notable international buyers without having the ability to deliver. The buyers in many emerging and established markets are interested in British design but often do not go forward with purchase orders due to the lack of knowledge and infrastructure around the designers.

    Education certainly has to play a part in this and like the author of this article I would also encourage the fashion educational institutions in this great design nation to start including more business reality into their programmes.

    Their students will have so much more chance succeeding in this fast paced, global industry if they understood how to turn their talent into a business. In the mean time they will need all the help they can get.

    Ben Muis
    Fashion Business Consultant and Mentor
    London

    Ben Muis from London, London, United Kingdom
  17. I could not agree more, I recently had to intern for a relatively new (7 year old) couture studio and the business practices were awful, and as an international business major I saw his design potential but also know that the likelihood that he would reach it was little to none because of his poor business and PR practices.

    Nathaly Del Carmen from London, London, United Kingdom