Colin’s Column | Are changes to fashion education crippling innovation in the world’s creative capital?

London skyline | Source: Vemma on Flickr

LONDON, United Kingdom — Design is generally about function leading form in a problem-solving exercise that almost always starts with a sense of discontent with what is generally available and a strong determination to make it better and even change radically a template that might have been used for many years. The result, in the hands of the right practitioner, is a completely new solution to the problem, a solution that works for the times, and makes previous thinking irrelevant.

In most design situations there is certainly some looking back and learning from the past — what modern architect would be modern if he didn’t know of the great masters from Palladio to Le Corbusier? But the knowledge is there only to inform new thinking, with no attempt to re-present old ideas as something new in design disciplines.

With the exception of cheap mass housing that works on the principle that deep in our psyches lies a desire to live in something as near to an eighteenth century country cottage as modern technology can create, fashion stands alone in its desire to put form before function and revisit earlier and often quite recent dress eras, in an almost endless series of revivals.

In an increasingly desperate attempt to hide the banality of current fashion thinking, some clueless designers, drafted in to revive old-established labels, actually sell exact copies of the original maestro’s most successful creations from the past, which is about as futile as car kits that clothe a modern machine in a pastiche of a roadster of 70 years ago. Pathetic in car kit sellers; disgraceful in highly paid and ludicrously over-valued fashion stars

Why does all this happen?In order to answer this, I would like to look at what is happening in tertiary education in the United Kingdom as a result of the current government’s financial policies, which have allowed universities and colleges to fix their fees up to the level of £9000 per student per year. Predictably, even colleges charging much less now feel that they must obtain permission to charge the full amount. In fact it has already become part of the never-ending fight between academics in their desire to exalt their status and I have heard it said by just those people that if they do not charge the full amount it will be assumed that their establishment is inferior to others with whom they are in competition.

So it requires no crystal ball to see that within a very brief time all colleges will be charging the full amount for tuition fees — and, I suspect, along with the government quietly phasing out the safeguards such as scholarships and bursaries currently being put in place to sweeten the bitter pill. So education as a right becomes education as a privilege which, like most privilege has to be bought.

How might this affect arts training generally and fashion training specifically?

Any family facing fees of £9000 per year for three or four years must look closely at the benefits such an investment might bring. Initially, at least, these benefits often come from following a path of conformity. But conformity is not where creativity begins. An original eye (and the creative results that might come from it) develops contrapuntally to what is currently accepted as the mood of the moment — and let’s not forget that all great creativity is the result of a divine discontent with the status quo — a discontent that forces a new vision to the fore.

Creators must, by definition, be revolutionaries — and that has been the basis of our liberal art school philosophies for over a hundred years. It has produced David Hockney and Damien Hirst; Ossie Clarke and Alexander McQueen; none of whom came from families who could afford large fees for a college education about which they understood little. But the most important value of state-aided education is that in the past it has produced the politically alien force that drives forward creative change.

True creativity is always political and almost by definition stems from a feeling of alienation that comes from the belief that the creator is excluded from the political mainstream of his time. When Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Stephen Jones were students, their lives were those of outsiders. With no money, few prospects, no homes (like other impecunious students, they mostly lived in squats) and an abiding hatred of a society that had produced Thatcherism, they had everything to fight against. Their social alienation was the grit that made the pearl.

That was twenty-five and more years ago and during that time the world has changed. We have increasingly accepted privilege as a right — and one that should be pursued as much as equality was fought for in the past. And such thinking is echoed in the attitudes of our art schools which are, only to often, equally as compliant and complacent. Not surprising.

Whereas students used to want to smash a system they felt was weighted against them, now the students I meet in colleges have usually taken on the middle class aspirations of their tutors and wish to preserve — and join — the ‘make money and be a success’ system. It may sound simplistic, but this is surely the reason why so many of the graduates and post-graduates of our fashion colleges are so incredibly complaisant and conformist.

They are encouraged to be so by The British Fashion Council which is heavily weighted in the direction of the high street, a perfectly acceptable position to be in, but the thinking of the high street has increasingly affected our educational bodies — and of course their products. That is why, despite the hysterical hype of our young designers, there is barely a handful that is not producing stereotypical clothing that not only reflects what is already available in the high street but is never as well made or competitively priced.

Who is it that advises a young designer whose name is barely known four miles a way from Hoxton to charge well over a thousand pounds for a very ordinary dress? And whose interests are they serving — certainly not the long term prospects of the young designer. And, only too often, they are the same people who accept without a qualm when a few seasons later that talent has disappeared, sacrificed on the get-rich-quick approach that knows that when one log has burnt out rather quickly there is always another waiting to be thrown on the pyre.

To conclude, it is generally accepted that the future of fashion depends upon the future of fashion education, although I have some doubts about that. If that education is allowed to become the privilege of the rich and comfortably middle class then London will never regain its position as the crucible of creativity it only so recently had.

Students who see the pinnacle of their hopes and aspirations as buying the latest Prada handbag or getting a table at the Wolesely are of no use at all to London fashion. And, in case it might be said that I have been unfair to our colleges, I would suggest a reality check. British design education (including fashion education) is good, but it is time we stopped using the old mantra that claims they are the best. Their complaisancy has in many cases been there undoing., and what they had that made them leaders has long gone.

For example, is there any proof at all that they are currently producing any graduates with a ghost of a chance of reaching the level of creativity that, say, Marc Jacobs gives us each season? I think not — because the will to change things has been subsumed in the desire for fame and money, not at the peak of a career but as little as five years in. And with it has gone the desire for outrage. Until that is regenerated, many might think £9000 a year rather too high a price for a fashion education that ends up with the high street.

Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion

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  1. I cannot describe the extent to which I enjoyed this article. In fact; to such an extent, that I do not quite know where to begin in response.

    I agree with a lot of the comments above. Particularly, that The British Fashion Council encourages high street savvy design; which, as we all know, is not savvy at all. I’m sure, like me, there are a lot of individuals who are immersed in the industry that tire wholeheartedly of London Fashion Week for its conformity. And even those pieces which are not conformist, still somehow don’t manage to be innovative and border instead on plain ridiculous. Partner this already lame attitude with the changes in education described here, and we are going to see a city where everyone is a carbon copy of each other.

    That said, one must keep positive. The expensive trends that comprise the high-end maisons are such because, in many cases, they are just simply beautiful. And there is nothing wrong with aspiring to have beautiful things. However, it would be useless to sacrifice ones’ creativity for them because it’s simply hypocritical; a designer should aspire to reach that standard before being overtly commercial. There are many designers in London who do retain their dignity. Let’s just hope that they overwhelm the mass of the ‘daddy, I want to be a fashion designer’ crowd.

    Not that this is the most appropriate place for it; but BoF readers and writers might be interested in issue four of Façonner’s Editorial? Great contributions by Matteo Bianchi (CD of Daruma Design) and Noelle Reno (CD of Z by Zandra Rhodes). Would love you guys’ feedback: Thank you (and sorry for posting here, but I’m a keen reader of BoF and just thought it relevant).

  2. I have to stand up and applaud this article. It really hit home with me; I however I studied fashion in New York City, not London. The idea of universities charging high fees to bolster their image isn’t new here. The founder of PayPal just wrote an excellent article about the “education bubble” and how student loan debt is crushing my generation of graduates in a sour economy (unlike other debt, it is inescapable via bankruptcy).

    The fact that the UK seems to be heading down that path is sad. You’re right: this system does encourage complacency and conservative thinking for all involved. I took a very mass-market design job halfway through college so I could end my degree with no financial obligation. That job completely destroyed any desire of mine to work in the fashion industry, but it did buy me some time to figure things out.

    With every passing day, it seems that those who hold the power in this world are blatantly doing everything possible to create an unbalanced playing field for everyone else. Everyone who is born with passion and inspiration deserves to express it, or the world becomes a place that isn’t worth inhabiting. Frankly, I don’t have even a vague idea about the solution to this dark trend.

  3. Is it possible, or likely, then, that the next creative design talent (if there is going to be any) might come from outside the education framework? If the UK education system becomes the rather prescriptive and privileged route it is starting to look like at the moment, then maybe it will in itself become the oppressive force that real creativity will fight against (and so flourish.) Perhaps the next McQueen will be a bitter, marginalised soul, unable to afford a university experience, squeezed out around the side of the big institutions, unschooled and raw, and made determined by the obstacles he has had to overcome? It is true – Britain doesn’t seem set up right to encourage new talent like it once did – conformity and complacency are setting in like rust. But maybe that means it is the perfect time for a renegade to break through. Perhaps from somewhere unexpected. I’d like to hope so…

  4. An honest point of view on an alarming trend.

    Despite a Science degree, I had considered ditching the comfort of a stable job to embark on a Fashion BA. Reckless as it sounds, I became fed up with the banality of life as I knew it and decided to follow the path I’d repeatedly ignored.

    Now, with neither age nor finances on my side, I wonder about the standards if education becomes the preserve of the wealthy. While wealth and creativity are not mutually exclusive – let’s face it, there will be more people buying their way in and when talent diminishes, surely it goes downhill from there.

    With this, I find myself questioning the sacrifice and looking at the possible benefits of this £9000 a year investment.

    Alex from London, London, United Kingdom
  5. God bless you, Colin, for this honest and accurate portrayal of the current state of fashion institutions, both corporate and educational. I hope England does not end up like the United States, which an increasingly terrible educational gap and a ridiculously young group of Americans jobless and in severe debt. I do have to say that despite my frustration with what is going in my country, I do still believe in higher education and believe it should be a right versus a privilege. There is an ever-growing education gap in my country and I strongly believe that a less educated society is less innovative, creative, passionate, and entrepreneurial. So the real discussion should be how do we ensure that education is more affordable and accessible?

    Obviously the answer is with the ballots. I think the majority of society needs to vote for the those who cherish such ideals and compared to the United States, the English did a damn well of job of fighting their best.

    Sorry for the digression and thanks again Colin for the amazing and informative article.

    E. from Short Hills, NJ, United States
  6. What a fantastic outlook. I wish more people would be as honest about the fashion education system.

  7. Its a stomach turner to think future students are going to be valued by their families wealth rather than their talent. Fashion education has always been tough, for Alexander McQueen, whose genius pushed him through on total merit to Stella McCartney, whose genius had a few doors opened for her, to all those students who work a million miles away from fashion.
    Definition should be pronounced on the universities, what sort of teacher is going to want to teach when they cannot encourage individual originality. You cannot have too many creative guidelines.
    If it does come down to money pushing students away from universities, I hope there creative instincts inspire. Alternative routes should be explored. Be nice if the industry could get a little closer to lower levels of Education. We do need to encourage the alternative.

    Daniel Turner from London, London, United Kingdom
  8. Such a great article…Mr. Colin McDowell always writes beautifully
    I m now studying art history in a university in the u.s. and thinking about going to UK for graduate study…I m from China and I came here for a more “open” environment…although education here is beneficial in many ways but I do agree with the article
    I know that when a lot of my friends in China said that if they heard somebody was a student of Central Saint Martins or Royal Arts they would immediately think that whatever these people had done were out of “the best” talent and creativity……
    Everyone is talking about how China gets wealthier … Regardless the truth may not apply to everywhere in China there are more and more families are saving money for their child to get into some famous universities in the US or UK…and they often say…”no need to get As just get the certificate…”
    As long as you can pay for the college fee………do your projects meet some people……and yes for your “successful” future……
    This is sad…I know a lot of artists in China who could not afford or don’t want to be in any institution…not for the sake of rebellion…just because they never think education in art design or fashion is necessary to them as their making of art design or fashion…
    Thanks for the article:)

    Mel J from New York, NY, United States
  9. Thank you so much for this article. You are not alone in your thinking.

    jeff from Iowa City, IA, United States
  10. Fantastic Article.

    Nitya Vaishnavi Singh from Chennai, Tamil Nādu, India
  11. I think the idea it self is notable… but would this work in the “real world”.

    BTW, I’ve been a big fan of the site for a while – first time posting. I really love the stuff you’ve got on here.

  12. Great article Colin, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I came from a middle class Canadian background, and studied fashion in Paris (Ecoles de la Chambre syndicale), and in London (MA at CSM.) In Paris, I was the poor girl with a job, who didn’t jet off to the Alps or the South of France every weekend. But very few of my classmates managed to make anything of themselves.

    In London, I fell in the middle. There were students who didn’t work, but most of us did. I counted myself lucky that my parents were able to give me enough money during my last three months of the MA so that I didn’t have to work (I believe some re-mortgaging was involved there…) But the talent there far surpassed anything I saw in Paris, and I don’t know of a single classmate who hasn’t had success in some way. Somehow the stress of not knowing if you have bus fare seems to inspire a much greater creativity than the stress of arguing with your plastic surgeon as to whether you desired nose is possible or not.

    The points you make are sad, and I noticed in my final years at St Martins (as a lecturer, not a student) and several other London design schools, that international students (who were paying more) were often given priority over the home students, or allowed to get away with unacceptable behaviour. I fear for the future of some of these great academic institutions, but then, perhaps it is time for a change? Maybe London isn’t destined to be the source of most of the good design talent forever?

  13. Great article and you hit the nail on the head with your comments about the people who are going to be able to attend these courses. There are two issues here for me, as well as the fees perhaps being prohibitive to some, the things people are taught are outdated and ‘standard’

    New times require new thinking not just from the designers but from their facilitators (not teachers) who are just as guilty of not pushing boundaries and kneeling before the high street.

    We are developing a project in the North of England, that will attempt to create a new way of working with creatives (not just fashion) and we believe this new approach could inject some of the ‘dreaming’ back into the industry in this country. We need to do this because some of the things coming from other parts of the world are exactly what we are not at the moment: innovative / daring / attitude / prepared to fail.

  14. Another good article, Colin, though there is a factual error. You say that the UK is applying fees of up £9,000 per student at Universities. Thankfully this does not apply in Scotland where Scots students’ fees are paid by the Government, and a generous loan scheme is in operation. Fees apply in England, which isn’t the whole of the UK, just as New England isn’t the entire United States.
    However, whether courses are charged for or not, there is still the question of the validity and content of the creative courses to consider, and several good points are made. However, I take the view that creativity can be encouraged but not taught.
    In a misplaced drive to foster creativity, discipline in many fashion and design courses in the UK has been abandoned as being a brake on originality. The teaching of science, techniques, history, and practical artistry of clothing and textile design, has been ditched for the more ‘inspiring’ aspects of personal, creative exploration. Regrettably this means that we have graduates who do not have the basic skills to function in a commercial environment, and the imagination and inspiration that we need as an industry has no form on which to grow and develop. As a result much of high street fashion is of the lowest common denominator and couture can be so bizarre as to be unwearable pieces of foolish nonsense.

  15. Loved this article, everything mentioned really touched me and was written beautifully. What I’ve always thought is starting to unfold and it’s nice to hear someone like you, whom I class as very inspirational, talking about it too. It’s just nice to know that I’m not alone thinking like this. Great work Colin :)

    Victoria from Huddersfield, Kirklees, United Kingdom
  16. I went to Central Saint Martins. I wont lie when I admit that I come from a working class background. My parents arent wealthy and I am not stupid enough to pay £9000 a year for 4 years when I could easily invest that money into myslef and learn pattern cutting, at home. It was always the case at CSM where the students coming from higher income families were cheeky enough to pay people to do their work for them. It isn’t about Talent anymore? It is all about how many months your parents can pay for you to work as an intern month after month. I know students who for years worked payment free at design studios because their parents funded them. I couldn’t even begin to think how I would survive 4 weeks let alone 4 months living and working in London for free. Yes it gives them the name on their CV and in essence a better chance of carrying their mediocrity further. Recently I was with a girl at university whose Aunt arranged for her to Have lunch with Franca Sozzani of Italian Vogue. Could any other person do that? Another girl had failed half of her modules for first year so her parents pay for her to spend half her time in New York and Half in Hong Kong at Fashion agencies, which are unpaid, but of course Daddy will foot the bill… It was always the Conservatives plan to outprice students from working backgrounds because of fear that they may show the world how much talent is forefully kept to a standard the rich are pleased with… I in no way want to sound cliche when I say they are doing this to keep the rich richer and the poor poorer. Also Mr McDowell I wanted to ask you, what would you do if you paid £9000 a year for your education? Would you not want to make something commercial and something that will sell than something that is so over the top it isnt even a business to start with in the first place? People want to get their moneys worth. Universities are service industries. We are paying them for a service. People want to succeed, even if it means conformity.

  17. I found this column very interesting, and I agree with the points about the need to make education accessible to all. Yes, consumerism and the desire for early success has infected education (although the latter impulse has always been present). I also believe that you are correct in saying that creativity is often found in outsiders who feel alienated by the world around them.

    But then you end with the example of Marc Jacobs. I like his clothes, but is he really an outsider? Wasn’t he a middle class Jewish kid? True, he’s gay, but in the world of fashion that hardly makes one an outsider. He was a rebel with what cause?

    Perhaps it’s not so simple.

    Reader from New York, NY, United States
  18. Sean J:

    My understanding is that Proenza Schouler’s thesis collection for Parsons (which famously was bought, I think, by Barney’s), was sewn by people they paid. I think it’s bizarre and unfair as well. But it’s the reality, and, explains, as you said, why students are willing to play it safe. That’s even more true in the case of poorer students.

    Of course, there are always exceptions, but I once had a discussion with a Parsons student who said that with the heightened competition students who aren’t perceived as successful (or having the potential to be immediately successful post-graduation) lose the respect of their teachers and their classmates. Despite all the talk of the value of networking, people who don’t succeed get dropped fairly quickly if they land a fancy job or do something else impressive in the first few years of their career. And Parsons is much more expensive than Central Saint Martins.

    Reader from New York, NY, United States
  19. …get dropped fairly quickly if they DON’T land a fancy job …

    Reader from New York, NY, United States
  20. Creativity is a commodity earned by those who strive from difficulty. Ironic that the produce of that creativity is worn by the people with cushioned lives. Perhaps London is truly spent and British fashion will soon originate from a new source, i.e. Manchester? Amazing piece, as always.

  21. Simply brilliant.

    Sanbir from Bicester, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
  22. To those who think that it’s ‘wrong’ to get others to do the work for you, the sad truth is that at the end of the day, most great designers get to where they are because they are ruthless enough to use other people – whether through money or just plain taking advantage of. It’s a question that extends past financial/class issues but to morality as well.
    But also if you think about it – these creative schools in question, CSM for eg, produce designers for the top most rung of the ladder – ie. they will most likely strive to become creative directors of brands if not their own, and are paid for their creative ideas – as these then usually get carried out by a whole team of workers. That’s not to say the designer who graduates from CSM graduates without any technical skill per say – these colleges are not stupid and esp for the MA would assume some basic set of skills at very least.