LONDON, United Kingdom — For most fashion students, graduate shows mark their debut into the industry; they offer opportunities to liaise with editors and impress buyers and potential employers.
But this year, there were no graduate shows, and few opportunities for students to meet with industry insiders. Some aspiring designers weren’t even able to finish their collections in time due to shuttered fabric shops and closed-off studio spaces.
“This is obviously not a typical situation that we're in,” said Laura Edwards, founder of Mentoring Matters, a UK-based global mentoring scheme open to applicants from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds who are interested in a career in fashion. “But many students have just been left in limbo because they don't really know how to navigate the next stage [in their careers].”
Covid-19 has derailed how fashion schools operate. Students enrolling this year face uncomfortable questions about the value of a costly education conducted at a social distance, without many of the benefits of a campus and in-person tuition. Expensive and high-powered fashion schools are also facing mounting scrutiny for their failure to address allegations of systemic racism and classism, raising questions among some students and alumni about their relevance to today’s culture.
The lack of diversity within curricula and among staff at top fashion schools, as well as scarce mental health and financial aid services are an urgent concern, said Anita Israel, UAL’s former education officer. “The sort of hardship that students — especially students from ethnic minority backgrounds — go through in higher education doesn’t add up to me,” she said.
The sort of hardship that students — especially students from ethnic minority backgrounds — go through in higher education doesn’t add up to me.
Then there’s the question over the long-term impact Covid-19 could have on the industry. Current students face a serious risk that they will graduate into a recession, at least within the sector, making employment harder to secure. At the same time, the crisis is forcing changes to the way the industry operates, prompting questions around whether schools can adapt in time to provide students with the tools they need to succeed in a new market.
So is it even worth attending fashion school at all right now?
“There are so many different nuances,” said Olya Kuryshchuk, founder and editor-in-chief of 1 Granary, a global support platform for emerging designers. “Whether fashion school is worth the money needs to be addressed almost case by case by looking at each specific school, where they are based, what they deliver, what type of education they are providing.”
For many students, the first consideration when looking at schools is cost. Annual tuition fees at a British university are priced at around £9,000 ($11,145) a year, or north of £20,000 for international students, while a degree at top American fashion schools can reach $50,000. In addition to university fees, students are often expected to front costs for expensive equipment, fabrics and sets in order to create standout pieces that increase their chances of employment further down the line.
It’s a significant barrier to entry, particularly during times of global economic uncertainty when a return is not guaranteed. On the other hand, a degree from one of fashion’s top universities can significantly smooth the path into an industry that is notoriously difficult to crack.
“We are so traditional as an industry in that we expect somebody to come with a degree — that's still so often on a [job] description,” said Rachel Arthur, co-founder of networking platform FashMash. “I think that doesn’t just go for fashion, but across the board.”
But new avenues into the industry are opening up. Jobs in styling and photography, for example, are less likely to require a degree. On-location assisting can adequately prepare creatives hoping to secure editorial and commercial jobs. And even aspiring fashion designers who traditionally are considered more likely to benefit from the rigorous technical training available at fashion school can now carve out new pathways into the industry.
Social media, for example, has become a powerful tool for aspiring designers to curate a portfolio, market their designs and build a following. For self-taught creatives like streetwear designer Oluwole Olosunde, social media have proven an effective alternative to staging fashion shows and investing in lookbooks when it comes to presenting his designs to consumers. “This whole time I’ve been making, making, making — I have so much product on my Instagram,” Olosunde told BoF.
A growing number of companies and nonprofits are also launching fashion mentorships, internships and apprenticeships with the goal of making the industry more accessible. For example: Mentoring Matters, which launched in June, links aspiring fashion creatives with established professionals like photographer Nadine Ijewere, stylist Cyndia Harvey, and Dazed Editor-in-Chief Isabella Burley through regular one-on-one video calls.
Similarly, Slow Factory Foundation this month announced that it has teamed up with Adidas and Stella McCartney to offer free online educational programmes taught by and for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and minority ethnic people. The scheme will also help those enrolled secure paid apprenticeships at brands including Adidas, Stella McCartney, WWAKE and Collina Strada. Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has also partnered with Kering on Your Friends in New York, a new platform that supports emerging designers through an incubator-inspired programme.
In many cases though, attendance at a big-name school is still often a prerequisite for would-be creatives to get their foot in the door. Fashion internships, a typical first step onto the career ladder, are notoriously competitive. A diploma from an established fashion school can help substantially increase the chances of a successful application, said Amelia Wang, a recent fashion graduate from Edinburgh University. Moreover, skills acquired while studying at fashion school can enrich an in-house training job.
“The problem is that securing an internship is so hard,” said Wang. “If I hadn't done a degree and I went straight into this [internship at a fashion brand], I'd be overwhelmed. For instance, making notes during fittings or listening to pattern cutters talk and all the language that they use, I now understand what they're talking about.”
A good education also comes with clear benefits. In normal times, students gain access to high quality on-site facilities, as well as tools like sewing machines and other necessary technical equipment. They also get face-time with, and the opportunity to learn from, world-class fashion scholars, as well as ample networking opportunities with like-minded peers. “I found university really valuable,” said Wang. “We would have pattern cutting lessons, illustration lessons, have lectures on how to go freelance. It's made me much more competent in moving forwards.”
It can only be a positive thing to open up more doors.
Lockdown measures have put some of that on hold, at least temporarily. But they’ve pushed some fashion schools to become more open to digital-first solutions in a way that enriches elements of the learnings on offer. Fast-moving schools and teachers now encourage and help students familiarise themselves with 3D design programmes like Clo, Optitex and Browzwear, software programmes often overlooked by most curricula, in order to virtually recreate garments and fulfill assignments while at home. This expertise can prove helpful when applying for jobs at companies that expect their employees to be fluent in 3D fashion design, and may become vital if current digital-working trends persist.
“In the future, everything will be shared online. So why not learn how to do that effectively straight away?” said 1 Granary’s Kuryshchuk. “Learning to communicate clearly through [digital presentations] is a very important skill.”
Fashion is evolving, and its schools must too. As the industry opens up and more unconventional career paths evolve, they will need to work harder to attract the top talent. On the other hand, the expertise, community, access and education they provide still offer a deeply enriching experience and entry into the industry for many young creatives.
"I do understand the benefits of the fashion school environment and the support that comes with that, and an inspiring teacher can have a huge impact... But not everyone has the resources to access that environment and not every job requires it,” said Mentoring Matters’ Edwards.
“The more routes into the industry, and support we can create, the better. It can only be a positive thing to open up more doors.”