NEW YORK, United States — While dissertations and final collections strike fear in fashion students, their most challenging assignment is finding a job in their field of study — or even in the industry at all.
“It’s always been a competitive industry, but there’s just so many talents graduating and there’s a limited number of vacancies,” Sara Kozlowski, director of education at the Council of Fashion Designers of America, told BoF. “Even with the much more focused specialisations and degree pathways, my team and I encounter emails so often from great students, great graduates, who are really challenged to find roles.”
Recruitment sites such as US-based Recruiter reports vacancies in fashion design have increased nationwide by nearly 25 percent since 2004, with an average growth of over 4 percent per year. But as social media has broken down the once-opaque industry walls, taking with it the impenetrable reputation fashion previously enforced, interest in working in the industry has also increased and enrolment in fashion schools has inflated. Zoklowski has noted in recent years some institutions experienced "enrolment increases tripling student populations."
The issue is global, with graduates abroad suffering the same employment struggles. Students from all over the world experience an “overwhelming concern” in finding a job, says Karen Harvey, industry recruitment expert and chief executive of her namesake consulting group.
UK-based graduate career services company Prospects reports on its website that over 85 percent of fashion graduates in the UK are employed. However, “just over half [54 percent] of fashion graduates [in the UK] go on to get a career in fashion or design, and then others also go into PR and marketing,” Charlie Ball, head of higher education intelligence at Prospects, told BoF.
Kozlowski sees similarly low employment figures for fashion design graduates and says the CFDA’s last survey of 23 US schools revealed “only ten percent of [fashion design students] were going into design roles.”
Fortunately, fashion degrees don’t just equip graduates to work in one industry. Transferable skills learnt in fashion’s higher education, like the discipline earned dedicating hours in a studio, increases employability in other fields should students choose, or have to, find work elsewhere.
BoF sat down with five fashion graduates carving out careers in adjacent fields and asked how they use their degrees to further their vocations.
Keith Kirkland, co-founder and engineer at Wear Works based in New Jersey, studied Handbag and Shoe Design at Fashion Institute of Technology
“Originally, I was a mechanical engineer. I was born and raised in Camden, New Jersey, which was one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country when I was growing up, so there was a lot of poverty, crime and challenges to the educational system. It took me six years to get my engineering degree and after working for six months, I was laid off. So I thought, I’ve always been good at art and I love engineering, so I applied for the Handbag and Shoe Design course at FIT.
“Fashion gave me a deeply discerning eye. For example, patternmaking forces you to think through the next 100 steps — you play a chess game in your head. I use those skills of envisioning an entire process all the time, even problem-solving around strategy for my company today. Fashion also gave me the ability to understand that design is a very iterative process. Emphasis is placed on the moment you find a solution and not recognising that all the work you do, especially the failures, are contributing to that “ah-hah” moment.
“After I graduated from FIT, I joined Coach as a handbag engineer in 2011. I absolutely loved my job, the artistry and craftsmanship, but we were engineering these bags that last lifetimes, but our business model needs us to sell you a new bag every six months. I thought there has to be another way to use design to help forward humanity.
“I then went to Pratt Institute to get a Masters in Industrial Design before co-founding Wear Works, a company that builds products and experiences that communicate information through touch. Our first product is called Wayband, a wearable haptic navigation device for the blind and visually impaired, which navigates a person’s end destination using only vibrating cues.
“Now, when I explain what I did, with industrial design, technology, fashion and now creating wearable technology to help blind people, it makes perfect sense. But when I was going through it, it was confusing. Hindsight is 20:20 and I would say, follow your joy and know that the path, when you look back, will make sense.”
Rossana Orlandi, gallerist and interior designer based in Milan, studied Fashion Design at Istituto Marangoni
“I always liked being creative through art and design, but I wanted to learn how to explain my creativity. A friend of mine said Istituto Marangoni was an amazing school, so I said why not?
“While I was at fashion school, there was this new energy. Fashion school opens your eyes and your mind to everything, and it makes you learn how to problem-solve quickly. I also learnt to be unexpected and creative. It was great to have a 360 degree education, learning what has happened and what will happen, because fashion works in advance.
“I also fell in love with knitwear at school because I could work by myself and experiment on this small machine. But while I was working in knitwear, I was working two years in advance and I was always late with my collections. It was depressing work.
“I decided to stop working in fashion because it became more business and less emotion. The atmosphere was completely different and it wasn’t my world anymore. I decided to dedicate my career to my hobby instead, which is design, and that’s why I opened my gallery — to share my passion for design. The design world is so beautiful and so interesting — as it was when I started to work in fashion. [It is] full of emotion, creativity and energy.
“It is also a world where you can think because we are not oppressed with timing. We don’t have to produce six collections a year, for example. There’s no one point where everything should be ready. But the new challenge is not to design something that is beautiful but to design something that also respects the world.
“One of the skills that I think the job market wants in students today is sustainable practice. It’s a bit clinical, but since I started working with recycled plastics, I’ve seen huge problems but also huge possibilities. Sustainability is a new way of thinking and a global way to live. Waste is a huge problem and everyone should be taught about the waste of products. For example, what is the waste of my paintings?
“We have to think in a circular way and I think we should totally change our education [system], not only in fashion, but in the ways we live. I think that the main point is to educate not only from a creative point of view but also a way of thinking. We are the solution but we don’t have many years to solve the problem.”
Abigail Rands, self-employed creative director based in Cape Town, studied Fashion Brand Management at Polimoda
“I was interested in the idea on how to create a brand identity through fashion, but it wasn’t really about fashion for me. It was more of a bigger thinking approach — how can I understand more about brands? Florence was also an exciting city for me, with the Renaissance thinking and multidisciplinary approach, and I learnt about storytelling, mythology, and architecture, which really helped me in the work that I do today.
“I run my own eponymous design business and through that I work on a few other businesses that my brother and I own. One is a South African NPZ brand, which is the equivalent of a champagne made in South Africa. We launched that brand about 6 years ago and we’ve taken it from a small, unknown brand to the biggest selling NPZ brand in South Africa.
“I also relaunched a small boutique hotel; I work on a charter boat, which is an extension of the small hotel experience based in the Seychelles; and then there’s a wine distribution company that my father started 30 years ago, which is working with 60 different South African wine farms on their distribution and marketing.
“I was interested in fashion but I always knew that I would be doing a lot of different things. The most important thing for me is my freedom, and I’ve tried to set up my business so that I can be as remote as possible. Then I get to work on all the different projects from wherever I am in the world.
“The course really taught me to take risks and bare my soul more than I ever had before. Polimoda gave me the freedom to make mistakes and I take that to everything that I do. Just feeling the freedom to make mistakes has helped a lot.
“I think, now more than ever, the careers that we know today won’t exist. We have to be very flexible and open to working in new creative ways.”
Masayoshi Anotani, DJ and music producer based in Tokyo, studied Fashion Design at Bunka Fashion College and Coconogacco
“I grew up in Japan and I went to Bunka Fashion College, studying fashion design. But at Bunka, they only taught me how to make clothing, like how to use a sewing machine. They didn’t teach me how to design or how to be a creator or an artist. I wanted to study more artistic things.
“Coconogacco taught me how to create. There, I think it’s about what you make, it’s about who you are and what your original ideas are. They teach their students about originality.
“Despite studying fashion design, I had been thinking about music for five or six years. But you design fashion by doing research and finding some motifs, which is a similar approach to making music and using different materials in your music. For example, every kind of sound has a story. So, if I use a particular sound, that is because it means something.
“Fashion always has some story too and I think the ability to make stories or atmosphere is the same in music and fashion. The two industries are made from many parts of the same story and culture. I use cultural references mixed together, like in fashion and music.
“Today, I am based in Tokyo and I have a daytime job in a music-related company doing graphic and web design, but I am also a DJ and music producer under the name Mars89. I’m always making music for my own production. Coconogacco taught me how to make something in an original way and I think I am making music in their way.”
Ryan Ashley Malarkey, tattoo artist based in New York, studied Fashion Design at Fashion Institute of Technology
“I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and FIT was the first place that I felt safe to be myself. I was around other people that were serious about bettering themselves, so FIT was the perfect nurturing sanctuary for me to develop myself as an artist, a designer, a person.
“I graduated as the Critic Award winner of my class and I took a job at the jewellery house Meryl Diamond Ltd. I started off as a design assistant and left 5 years later as the in-house artist and associate designer. But I didn’t like the industry at all. [Almost] every design house is a well-oiled machine with hundreds of people working on each collection. With tattooing, I get to design for clients, for the human body, and it is more of a one-on-one experience.
“When I first realised tattooing was for me, I thought I’d wasted all these years in the fashion industry. But the time I spent in fashion has given me the best education I could imagine to go into tattooing. For example, when you design blazers, you have to fit the shoulder, chest, back and arms. In tattooing, you need to make something to fully fit that area but as one piece of artwork. You have to drape your stencil onto the body and design it as a drape form, so it’s almost exactly like draping a muslin onto body forms.
“I don’t think there are many tattooers that have the education I do in terms of human anatomy: how the body moves and how it changes when it moves. I’ve been able to pull off tattoos that fit the body like they’re tailored.
“All of the lessons are universal for translating my designing from fashion into tattooing. Fashion is what they’re directed towards but most of the important things I learned at FIT I’ve been able to translate into this next industry. I went to fashion school because I like decorating the human body. That’s my passion. Sometimes it takes a while to narrow down what you’re actually passionate about but if you take the time to really figure yourself out, that’s the way you’ll end up being in a position that fits you.”
Explore our full report on The Best Fashion Schools in the World 2019 here.