Op-Ed | Are We Producing Too Many Fashion Designers?

Though fashion schools produce thousands of design graduates each year, many of whom fail to launch their own labels or find jobs as designers at fashion houses, the fashion business and adjacent industries need graduates with fashion design degrees like never before, argues Professor Frances Corner, head of London College of Fashion.

A designer sketching | Source: Shutterstock

LONDON, United Kingdom — Are we producing too many fashion designers? Those posing the question usually assume that a fashion design education should lead directly to a job as a designer at a fashion brand, probably at one of the famous luxury houses. This is based a number of erroneous assumptions.

First, it supposes that education is about training and preparing “oven-ready chickens” for the industry. No-one expects a history graduate to become an historian automatically. Equally a fashion degree, with one foot in industry and one in education, does not and should not concentrate on training students for the industry to the detriment of developing their creative and entrepreneurial skills.

Second, it posits a narrow definition of the fashion industry. Nowadays, the industry needs graduates with an understanding and experience of design, but not necessarily to work as designers. Fashion drives so many industries and economies: it provides the value-added, design-focused element that makes consumers happy to splash out on something because it is fashionable — that may be a piece of clothing, an accessory, furniture, food or the latest mobile device. Fashion is everywhere.

Add to this, the Internet, the development of digital technologies and the blurring of the traditional boundaries between creative subjects and the lines where fashion ends and film, graphics, media, music, retailing and beauty begin become difficult to define. These industries are crying out for people whose education equips them to understand the role of design in our society and our economy; so the opportunities for well prepared, fashion design graduates, who understand the complexity and spread of these global creative industries are numerous.

As the world’s oldest educational institution focusing entirely on fashion, London College of Fashion provides courses that serve the breadth of the contemporary industry. With accreditation from the Association of Business Schools, we are running the first EMBA in fashion. Our portfolio has grown significantly to meet the requirements of a non-design fashion sector. Over the last 15 years our undergraduate offer has expanded from less than seven courses to just over 40, with 60 percent non-design. Postgraduates now have a choice of 28 courses, with 71 percent non-design.

About three-quarters of our students are in work six months after graduation. In journalism this is 90 percent (with 65 percent in managerial roles) and for our BA management course it’s 85 percent (with 80 percent in a managerial role). What’s more, over half of our second year students looking for accredited work placements want non-design opportunities, be they retail management, marketing, visual merchandising, media and photography — or within sectors including journalism, filmmaking and PR. Indeed, our non-design courses often provide a set of skills which transfer easily into other creative sectors like journalism, photography, media, marketing and management.

As educators, we use the opportunity to challenge the definition of fashion amongst the future generations of the industry and question the very nature of the industry, its values and structure. Students come to understand that fashion is more than the design of clothing and related products. Thus, we encourage them to engage with other areas of equal importance within the industry: the communication of fashion, the science of fashion, the ethics of fashion and the business of fashion.

The future fashion industry needs creative, innovative, visual thinkers and these are abilities often sought in managers and senior leaders in just about every sector, not only fashion. The industry will also need graduates with skills that were never considered before simply to keep abreast of an ever-growing and sophisticated global market that is increasingly digital and technologically focused. The fashion psychologist, the fashion retailer with expertise in the over-60s market, the fashion 3-D printer, the fashion software developer whose focus is the future of e-commerce; these are the sorts of jobs that the fashion industry requires. However, at the heart of all these roles is an education in fashion design.

Professor Frances Corner is head of London College of Fashion.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Head of a Fashion Design school seems aghast when students expect to be trained as employable designers by the time of graduation?

    And yet that is how many of these programs are marketed to prospective students.

    I don’t know about the London College of Fashion, but FIT accepts donations from the industry. Unfortunately, these donations also come with stipulations on which courses students must take.

    The entire Fashion Design program has become so bloated with these required courses that there is very little opportunity for specialization or an academic exploration of fashion design.

    Truly the worst of both worlds.

    Melissa Davies from San Francisco, CA, United States
  2. I feel many fashion schools are primarily businesses marketed around the very ‘sexy’ idea of working in the fashion industry. If their qualifications were presented to employers as ‘creativity’ focused as the writer proposes, they should really be called ‘Schools of Creative, Innovative and Visual Thinking’. Securing employment in any fashion-related field, not just design, is notoriously competitive and many fashion schools simply do not iterate this to potential students because it’s not in their economic interest.

    Fashion curriculums should be framed by exactly what skills the market demands, not an ephemeral idea of ‘If I can’t get work related to my degree at least I’m a creative thinker’. You wouldn’t hire someone with an education in engineering to make a pattern for a garment, though the fields could be seen as related, so why should should it work in reverse for fashion?

    I’m a fashion design school graduate and I’ve been working in the admin side of industry for several years. I’m continually astounded by the number of graduates I see expecting creative jobs to fall in their laps. Yes fashion schools have a responsibility to foster critical and creative thinking in students, but it should also be framed within a real-world context.

    Scout Williams from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  3. We don’t have too many designers. We have too few brands willing to innovate because too many consumers who just want to look the same as every other identikit Top Shop roboton.

    Adrian Jarvis from London, London, United Kingdom
  4. can it be as simple as there (still) being too great a permeation of the dream-factor, that the industry/education still fosters/lures too many designer wannabes where, in the end, the inherent talent factor is not commensurate with the goals? fashion business (industry to retail sales) is as valid a field as anything, but the lure of behind-the-scenes careers is surely a harder sell. lucky are the students who might start in design and veer into better-suited aspects of it.
    my memories of (nyc) design school experiences was that, for every one (and rare) truly gifted classmate (and they were so often the “casual ones”) there was a passel of joyfully self-absorbed, self-promoting dress-up addicts who, though fun and fine as classmates, did simply not have either the gift or ability to render garments that might outshine themselves.
    today, i observe local fashion shows where the effort is there but the artistry/”it” factor is simply not. if fashion schools in their ever-present and logical need to fund use the pipe dreams of the many to exist, it is no different from the basic reality at all universities. “cool” fields of study fill the lecture halls, but the eventual weeding out process happens in all areas when the diversion from dream to practical income generator kicks in.
    kimann schultz, fashion arts society, IMA

    kimann schultz from Indianapolis, IN, United States
  5. Brilliant piece of marketing fashion courses at a fashion university which, by the way, as many universities in UK, is a money-factory through courses.

    It’s charming to talk about other careers in fashion.

    One question: do the university give really the technical skills or the classes are only cheap talk and the students must discover all by themselves without the necessary basis?

    António Frazão from Portugal
  6. Fashion is seen as a fall back or something the spend free customer can do. This is a great dis-service to a demanding occupation that is more than choosing fabrics, color and pretty sketches.
    Just as in any respected craft participants can be produced. Fashion designers are no different. Fashion Designers can be produced, and there never will be a shortage of them made. However, Fashion Designer with something original to say is a rare gem. But this is only possible if the mind is a rare gem.
    Cardell Designer Neckties
    “They speak for themselves and you”

    Chris Cardell from Rego Park, NY, United States
  7. As the owner of a garment factory in Indonesia, I agree with the comments that the issue lies in clientele purchasing in mass from chain stores. Small designers are producing creative garments but they struggle to sell them because people want to buy cheap!

    Lets support the boutiques and stop the globalisation of fashion.


    Nuala Denniss from Indonesia